Germans have enjoyed a long holiday from history, but it looks like their vacation is over. That was the impression I got while traveling through Germany last month before the federal election. I was struck by how abnormally normal the country seemed: prosperous, democratic and tolerant. While other European societies are torn apart by anxiety and anger, in Germany a vast majority of citizens are satisfied with their economic situation. The government has more euros to spend than ever before, unemployment is almost nonexistent, and the tone of the electoral campaign differed from the last American election in the way a family drama differs from a horror movie.
But beneath this abnormal normality is something disturbing. While most Germans would agree that their country is enjoying a time of plenty, very few would claim that tomorrow will be better than, or even as good as, today. One senses, instead, an anxiety very close to the surface.
The German elections exemplified that of all the crises that have hit the European Union in the past decade — the eurozone, Brexit, the war in Ukraine — the refugee crisis will have the most profound impact on the European Union’s future. This time, it is not the economy, stupid. The influx of refugees and the cultural and demographic panic it has stirred, more than anything else, explains the disquiet of Europe’s political mainstream. That crisis has, in its way, become Europe’s Sept. 11 in that it has fundamentally altered how citizens look at the world.
The German elections also revealed that East-West divide is not simply between Germany and its post-Communist neighbors, but at times within the West itself. In Germany’s eastern states, those areas of the former Communist republic, where there are far fewer settled refugees than in other parts of the country, the far-right Alternative for Germany achieved its best results. And while on the surface the East-West divide may be about migration, in reality the refugee crisis has made visible the growing resentment among former East Germans over the legacy of the fall of Communism.
A local politician in eastern Germany put it to me poignantly: “The government wants us to integrate the refugees, but why they don’t integrate us first?” More than 25 years after Germany’s reunification, many former East Germans still feel they are second-class citizens whose salaries and pensions are lower than those in the western part of the country.
It is a perverse irony that the far-right Alternative for Germany, rather than the post-Communist Left party, has successfully mobilized the resentment of reunification’s losers. The German Democratic Republic always portrayed itself as the embodiment of German anti-fascism. Today, nostalgia for the G.D.R., or at least the resentment of how Germany has treated its legacy, makes it possible for a fascist-friendly party to become a force in the Parliament.
The crisis of the political center brought on by the backlash against the German government’s pro-refugee policies could make it easier to come up with common policies on migration in Europe. There is now consensus in Europe that borders should be closed or at least be opened only carefully.
But at the same time, the East-West convergence on migration has only deepened the mistrust between Europe’s East and West. The expected coalition that will rule Germany — made up of Christian Democrats, Liberals and Greens — will most likely be more critical of East European governments than the outgoing coalition. The new German government is probably ready to adopt some of the anti-migration policies favored by the East Europeans, but it will also put much more pressure on the governments that first advocated these policies.
While the fear of foreigners seems to be at the heart of the conflict between Europe’s East and West, the East’s alienation from the European project could be better understood elsewhere. It is rooted in the trauma of those who have left. Think of it as a delayed reaction of the consequences of millions of East Europeans emigrating to the West in the past 25 years.
In the period between 1990 and 2015 the former G.D.R. lost 15 percent of its population. The mass migration from post-Communist Europe to the West not only impaired economic competitiveness and political dynamism, but also made those who decided to stay home feel like real losers. Those with roots have grown resentful of those with legs. It is the people in the depopulated areas in Europe who most enthusiastically voted for populists.
And while political anger has erupted both in the east and in the west of Germany and in the east and the west of Europe, there’s a clear pattern: When dissatisfied with the status quo, Westerners largely seek alternatives in or around the political mainstream — many of those disappointed with Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats in western Germany voted for the Liberals — while in the east, voters seek alternatives in political extremes.
Germany’s central role for the future of Europe is defined not only by its economic and political power but also by the fact that Germany like no other European country experiences the East-West divide not as a clash between member states but as a split in its own society.