German Democracy: Fair-Weather Friend or Blood-brother?

Brooke Ellis

December 1, 1997

David P. Conradt, author of The German Polity, states that Germany has proven “that a nation can overcome or change its political culture within a relatively short time. Democratic political stability does not necessarily require the centuries-long evolution characteristic of democracies such as Great Britain and the United States” (288). While very successful, rapid change poses the risk of instability. On the surface, Germany appears to be developing into a liberal democracy. However, the question remains if Germany can sustain a lasting, stable democracy, and if so, what form its final product will be.

Is Germany’s past a mirror of its true character? Germany currently appears to be stable, but it has been historically plagued by a political pendulum that has swung constantly between anarchy and authoritarianism. For instance, Bonn was a republic with republicans. And, if the culture is truly republican in nature, a republican government will not only take root but will flourish. However, the previous Weimar republic failed because it was a “republic without republicans. The formal structures of political democracy . . . were present, but the political attitudes and values of many Germans were not supportive of these structures” (77). In other words, systemic loyalty was not part of the people’s political culture. Such a condition is problematic, for if democracy is not truly rooted in a culture, the permanence of democratic government is questionable. One might argue that their democratic regime was “originally legitimated by Allied occupation” (84). This wo
uld infer that democracy was in fact not rooted in the culture, but rather the effect of exterior influence. The Weimar republic also failed because of the destruction of the middle class. The lack of a middle class left the country vulnerable to the influence of polarizing parties such as the Nazis.

The Nazi party was able to gain power because the country was struggling economically and desperately needed a leader, someone who could impose order from the top down. The middle class, which normally provides a stabilizing feature to the country because of its unwillingness to lose their property, was nonexistent. Without this group, there was no strong body to fight against the Nazis. As a result of the Nazi rule, Germany bestows democratic rights to its citizens carefully. The constitution guarantees that all people have the right to liberty, free expression, property, assembly etc., except the Nazis. After living under Nazi rule, the Germans wanted to assure that they would never lose their liberties to a similar regime again. This suggests that democracy is not rooted in the culture; it is rather a learned behavior. The question remains, how much have the Germans really learned? It seems that they have become accustomed to democracy, but it may not be a permanent fixture. Mu
ch like the American constitution, the German constitution attempts to maintain stability by restricting democracy and freedom from those who wish to suppress it. However, America was founded on the principle of democracy; Germany adopted it later in its life as a backlash of Nazi rule.

Although rid of war and Nazi rule, Germany still remained divided as two polarized entities; the consequences of which currently overshadow any chances for democratic stability. Both former states believed in socialism. But, East Germany had developed deep socialist institutions while its Western counterpart had transformed into a more capitalistic society. Thus, in the reunified Germany, many have become dependant on “cradle to grave security” (282). Former East Germans were guaranteed not only complete medical benefits and cheap housing, but lifelong employment. Obviously, the fusion of these two cultures brought about astronomical effects. Unification was really a “friendly buy out by W. Germany” (278). W. Germany offered to exchange E. German marks for their own in order to stabilize the economy. Because of the burdensome unification costs that they alone were forced to carry, W. Germans became very resentful of their E. German brothers, and many began to do
ubt the true benefits of unification.

Despite its status as a political triumph in the East, one might argue that it was also a great risk. Even though the physical wall has faded from memory, the psychological wall remains. The countries, although united in word, are not completely united in thought or heart. It may take the Germans in the east a long time to cut the umbilical cord of their social dependence in order to participate in a capitalistic society. Both societies have developed a different “awe” feeling which makes them more like separate nations and further complicates the reunification process. The act of uniting two separate nations is much different from reuniting one that is divided. As a result of the war, Germans have lost a great deal of their nationalism. Germans feared nationalism and its effects. Thus, in an effort to curb this, they went to the opposite end of the spectrum. Many Germans have now focused their support on their newfound membership in the European Union. Germany has become
very tolerant of refugees from other countries and is even allowing “foreign residents to vote in local elections” which shows their commitment to the European Union as a whole (99). On the surface this seems to be a good thing, for people believe it will serve to confine and restrain Germany; however, democracy requires some nationalism in order to survive. If people are unattached not only to their country but their democratic form of government, they will be unwilling to fight for it in times of need.

In light of the past, the current system now seems more stable, for “none of the economic recessions of the past twenty-five years produced any noticeable increases in anti-system sentiment or movement” (110). Nevertheless, the length to which this will continue is uncertain. It is possible that given a larger economic catastrophe anti-systemic sentiments would surface. “Germans at elite and general public levels are becoming more interested in politics,” and are now involved in citizen initiative groups, political debates, and elections which produces increased stability in the democracy (110). Some might argue that this could be attributed to improved economic conditions. With the rise of the middle class, people are involved now simply because they have the time and the money to participate, something lacking priorly. Furthermore, the government has become more accepting of pluralism. Many of the parties are moving to the middle and “the extremist, regi
onal, and small special interest parties, which made stable coalition governments so difficult during the Weimar Republic, either did not reappear . . . or were absorbed by the major parties . . .” (115). Interest groups too have become pluralistic in the sense that they are “less attached to and dependent on specific parties and now tend to concentrate on policy goals directly related to their major area of concern” (148). The presence of Germany’s stable and informative media has further contributed to the strength of the developing democracy. Germans are now “among the most politically informed people in the world” (68). In the past, the German system was fundamentally anti-conflict. They “sought to eliminate the causes of conflict by searching for absolute solutions to social and political problems” (85). This dislike for conflict not only helped the Nazis gain power, but it is fundamentally anti-democratic. Although historically “unable to
accept the need for opposition parties or extensive bargaining within and between parties,” elements which are essential to democracy, Germany has become increasingly more accepting of the need for debate (85).

As can be seen, even though stability is questionable, Germany is on its way to becoming a democracy of some type. Currently, Germany has a strong welfare state. It is slow to make privitizations, makes few budget cutbacks, and pays subsidy payments to poorer states. It also has numerous semi-public institutions, which are influenced if not controlled by the government. Germans have also retained their extensive health care system and pay large amounts of their incomes in taxes to support this system. If the current welfare state continues, a middle class cannot survive. Although both parties claim to support the middle class, neither has programs that can accomplish this aim. Without this middle class, democracy is very hard to achieve. Nevertheless, the German people do not seem to want democracy unless it incorporates some type of a welfare state. The welfare state seems to threaten the very existence of democracy; however, without it, the existence of democracy in Germany is do
ubtful. Both the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SDP) are addressing this issue. The CDU is likely to support the existing social system but disagree with expansion. It wishes to bring governmental spending and costs for the program under control, which is likely to mean a cut in subsidies and a rise in taxes. If taxes were raised, investment would drop which would cause drastic unemployment and eventually disintegration of the middle class. The SDP wishes to expand the current system with changes in education. This would head their system in the direction of US public high schools by becoming more opportunistic. The SPD would use distributive policies to even out the concentration of wealth. Nonetheless, this would hurt the middle class because it would lose their economic advantage over the poor by being forced to contribute their money to even the scales. This would make the Germans even more dependent on the government than they now are. Furthermore, no one wou
ld have any incentive to work because the wealth would be distributed evenly notwithstanding. This practice would eventually destroy the vital middle class. However, since change in Germany “tends to be gradual and incremental, and rarely will have a redistribute effect,” it may be awhile before the world can clearly see what Germany will one day become (277). Truly, whether Germany becomes more socialistic in nature or whether it continues to adopt liberal ideals will depend on the political party in power; for, the size of the welfare state will be a result of the controlling political party.

Brooke Ellis is a junior from Marion, Ohio double-majoring in International Studies and Spanish.