2019 begins with German students joining their counterparts in other European countries to participate in the now global “Fridays for Future” environmental movement originally inspired by Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg. Young Germans take up Greta’s call to go on strike every Friday, skipping school to take to the streets to demand action on climate change. The media initially frames the phenomenon from the perspective of concerned parents, but before long the implications of the so-called Freitagsdemonstrationen with regard to the role of youth activism in society become clear as climate scientists and the majority of Germans back the protests. By the end of the summer, the striking students are regularly joined by other civil society organizations, including unions and soccer clubs, and education expert Klaus Hurrelman already speaks of a “populist” “Generation Greta” in Germany.
In March, the debate around the concept of Heimat and its social and political significance continues with the publication of a volume of essays compiled by journalist Hengameh Yaghoobifarah and author Fatma Aydemir. In 2014, the German Interior Ministry was renamed the Ministry of Heimat. The anthology Eure Heimat ist unser Albtraum (“Your Heimat is Our Nightmare”) contains perspectives from 14 authors and advocates with a so-called background of migration, and engages critically with contemporary manifestations of the violence of the ethnic community underlying German national identity. As the editors ask in the preface: “Do I want to live in a society oriented around ethnic [völkisch] ideals as well as racist, anti-Semitic, sexist, heteronormative, and transphobic structures?”
In the same month Left Party leader Sahra Wagenknecht announces she will be stepping down from her positions as floor leader for the Left in the Bundestag as well as head of Aufstehen (“Stand Up”), the “extra-parliamentary coalition” she founded in 2017. The nascent movement’s rightward pivot on immigration and refugee policy has earned it the reputation among left-wing critics both within and outside of the Left Party as xenophobic and a concession to the agenda of the Alternative for Germany (AfD).
In April, Christian Schilcher of the far-right Freedom Party steps down as deputy mayor of the Austrian city of Braunau — incidentally, the birthplace of Hitler — and issues an apology after publishing an anti-immigrant poem entitled “The City Rats” and laden with racist, recognizably anti-Semitic tropes (e.g., “rodents with a sewer background”, a play on the politically correct German expression “people with a background of migration”). Before resigning, Schilcher received a torrent of criticism in the media, bringing 32-year-old Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) is in a governing coalition with the FPÖ, to publicly distance himself from the so-called Rattengedicht.
Nevertheless, the Austrian coalition collapses in May as Vice Chancellor Hans-Christian Strache of the FPÖ is implicated in a corruption scandal centered around the so-called Ibiza-Gate video, recorded on a hidden camera two years earlier. Reporters with the Süddeutsche Zeitung and Der Spiegel reveal that Strache actively attempted to trade government infrastructure contracts for the financial backing to facilitate a far-right takeover of Austrian media. Strache’s plan included an overhaul of Austria’s public broadcaster and editorial control over the influential Krone newspaper, putting both in the service of the Freedom Party’s election efforts. Strache resigns as Vice Chancellor on May 17, but Ibiza-Gate has a minimal effect on the FPÖ’s efforts in the European Parliament elections May 23-26, with some polling suggesting the affair even helped to consolidate their support. The scandal nonetheless ends in the breakdown of the governing coalition as the FPÖ comes together with opposition Social Democrats to oust Kurz as chancellor in a vote of no confidence.
Conservatives cause a stir around the European election in Germany as well, as CDU chair and anointed Merkel successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer reacts strongly to a video from YouTuber Rezo entitled “The Destruction of the CDU,” in which he calls on young Germans to boycott the “old parties” (the CDU and SPD, currently governing in a so-called “grand coalition”) as well as the AfD primarily on account of their climate policies. Following party committee meetings in Berlin on May 27, Kramp-Karrenbauer accuses Rezo of “Meinungsmache“ (roughly “manufacturing of public opinion”) and then defends herself on Twitter: “It is absurd to ascribe to me the intent to regulate expression of opinion,” she posts, although she claims in the following tweet that fundamental criticism of the “parties of the center” threatens to undermine the entire democratic order.
On the other hand, the greatest beneficiaries of the youth climate movement’s momentum are the Greens, who are particularly successful in the European elections with a record vote share of 20.5%. For the first time, they are in second place — maybe even the strongest force in German politics, according to some polls — and much is written about the possibility of a political future in which the primary political rival and (when necessary to keep the AfD out of power) coalition partner of the CDU at the national level is no longer the SPD, but the Greens.
There is, in any case, parliamentary consensus outside of the Left Party for a resolution to condemn the international BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) for Palestinian liberation and rights as anti-Semitic and to forbid, for the first time at the federal level, the funding of projects or institutions that call for boycotting Israel. The Bundestag resolution, in turn, receives criticism that continues into the summer, taking the form of, among other initiatives, a statement from 240 Israeli and Jewish academics, including well-known ant-Semitism and Holocaust experts in Israel and the United States.
World-renowned Chinese artist and political dissident Ai Weiwei, who had lived in self-imposed exile in Berlin since 2015, announces his intention to move to the United Kingdom, citing an overall shift in German attitudes towards immigrants. “Germany is not an open society,” Weiwei laments, although he will keep his studio in Berlin while his 10-year-old son will attend school in Cambridge.
Two people are murdered by an armed man in an anti-Semitic terrorist attack against a synagogue on Humboldt Street in Halle in the eastern state of Sachsen-Anhalt. The 27-year-old far-right perpetrator Stephen Balliet, who livestreams the entire assault on Twitch with this helmet camera, initially attempts to kill everyone in the synagogue, but his plan is frustrated by its locked door. He then shoots and kills a passerby and a customer in a nearby kebab shop, and is sometime later apprehended by police.