The German Elections: Outrage and Perspective

When examining an event such as the German elections, in which a far-right, anti-Semitic party won seats in the Bundestag for the first time since Hitler, there are two basic approaches: outrage and perspective.

Not that it’s an either/or choice. There is always a need to keep perspective, even regarding the most odious and frightening events.

But horror, outrage, denunciation there must be. It is not a choice, but a natural response to the flesh-and-blood specter of neo-Nazis leaving the abhorred fringe of German society and packing their bags for the chambers of parliament, where national policy is decided, where laws are made and the voice of the people is heard with respect.

As has been noted, for the first time since WWII, “real Nazis” will be seated in the Bundestag. Marine Le Pen’s National Front is practically centrist compared to the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

Now the voice of those who repudiate German guilt for the Holocaust and praise the “brave soldiers” who fought in World War II will be heard. Their voices will be heard “going after” Chancellor Angela Merkel to hound her out of office, as they have vowed to do. Their voices will be heard as they seek to make good on their pledge to “take Germany back.”

As elected members of parliament, they can no longer be dismissed or shunned as powerless fanatics, as social outcasts, as insane ghosts who cling to Nazism as a source of demented national pride. They will have “MP” before their names. They will have parliamentary staff and budget allocations to help them make their voices heard.

Now the thing is there; there is no escaping it. As assiduous as official Germany has been in ridding itself of Nazism, outlawing Holocaust denial, prosecuting war criminals and supporting Israel and defending its right to exist, it is now evident that the masses of Germany are not entirely with them. To be sure, there is room for criticism of German failings in the courts, the educational system, and elsewhere in dealing with the remnants of Nazism; but the chasm between Merkel, who has said only recently that Israel’s security is “non-negotiable,” and the AfD, whose 76-page party program has absolutely nothing to say about combating anti-Semitism or supporting Israel, is profound. That moderate German leaders have failed to expunge the vilest impulses of humanity from its midst could not be clearer after Sunday’s elections.

The British Economist argued on Monday that there is more reason for optimism than pessimism. It suggested that in the long run it will be good for German democracy and that the AfD, in any case a “chaotic and infighting-ridden” group, will crumble in the face of united opposition and the glare of public scrutiny.

If, for observers outside Germany, the electoral outcome was a shock, in Germany, as much as it may have been dreaded, it was not so surprising. Pre-election polls forecast a strong showing by the AfD, coming in third place with around 11 percent of the vote. Within the party itself, they were predicting 15.

In the end, they received 12.6 percent of the total vote. The problem was very much there, festering under the surface. Now that it’s out in the open, there is reason to be hopeful the vast majority of Germans will support the leadership in responding in a rational and effective manner to rid itself once and for all of this unspeakable blight.

And, after all, it was Angela Merkel and her centrist party, not the far right, that won the election. Whatever difficulties she will face in forming a coalition and holding the country to its moderate, pro-Israel policy, the central fact of the election is that the German electorate returned her to power for a fourth consecutive time. Nor was there any doubt that that would be the outcome before Sunday’s voting.

But the question is one of balance: How much outrage versus how much perspective? How much weight to give to mitigating factors? How much credence to give to the allies of optimism?

Clearly, this is a case of outrage outweighing perspective. Whatever the mitigating factors, the fact that the AfD took 12 percent of the vote — that it took even 1 percent of the vote! — is cause for outrage. That, too, is a perspective.