Why Germany’s red scare is real

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BERLIN — The commies are coming! 

At least that’s what Angela Merkel would have Germans believe. 

With the clock ticking down on the German election campaign and her center-right Christian Democrats sliding into also-ran territory, Merkel used what might be her final appearance in parliament as chancellor to issue an impassioned plea for voters to back her party’s candidate to succeed her, Armin Laschet. 

Voters face a stark choice between “a government consisting of the SPD and the Greens, who accept support through the Left or at least don’t rule it out … or a government led by CDU and CSU under a Chancellor Armin Laschet, a government that leads our country into the future with moderation,” Merkel declared, referencing the opposition party known as the Left. 

Merkel’s intervention was notable not only in that it marked the soon-to-be-former chancellor’s sudden emergence from political hibernation (she has been all but absent from the campaign trail), but also because by raising the specter of a leftist alliance, she relied on a tactic more familiar from 1981 than 2021.   

“I’m only telling the truth,” Merkel insisted as howls of protest echoed across the Bundestag chamber. 

The targets of Merkel’s warning accused her of red-baiting. But even if the usual caveats should be affixed to Merkel’s remarks, that doesn’t mean she’s wrong about the prospects of a leftist government.

If the SPD wins the election, it would have two viable options: a coalition with the Greens and the Free Democrats (FDP), a conservative party known for its pro-business leanings; or an alliance with the Greens and the Left (after eight years, the SPD has effectively ruled out renewing its current partnership with the Christian Democrats). 

The Left party, a motley collection of starry-eyed leftist ideologues from western Germany and the remnants of the former East German communist party, is polling at about 7 percent, about where it has been for the past several years. But that’s just about the margin the Social Democrats and Greens would need to form a coalition without having to rely on the more ideologically distant FDP.  

Ready for R2G?

Most analysts have poo-pooed the chances of a so-called “R2G” (red, red, green) coalition, arguing that the Left’s views on NATO (it wants to leave the alliance) and military interventions (it opposes them) — not to mention its ideological heritage in the communist East Germany — would make it unpalatable to either the SPD or the Greens.

As election day approaches, however, that view is looking increasingly tenuous. For one, the SPD’s lead in the polls is widening, not narrowing, while the Christian Democrats are losing ground. If that trend holds, the SPD would have a clear mandate to form the government of its choice.

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And though Olaf Scholz, the SPD’s chancellor candidate, is a centrist in the Merkel mold, the rank and file of his party has veered left in recent years. That, for example, is why the party faithful rejected Scholz’s bid for the chairmanship in 2019 in favor of a leftist duo, Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans.

It’s also worth remembering that the SPD’s 400,000 members will have to approve any coalition agreement. 

Why SPD members should favor a tie-up with the FDP, a party whose views on issues ranging from taxation to labor market reform to European integration stand in opposition to their own, isn’t immediately clear. 

While the Left might be doctrinaire in its resistance to foreign military interventions and arms exports, the reality is that many Social Democrats agree with them. What’s more, the Left includes many former SPD supporters who abandoned the party, frustrated with its centrist course. In fact, both the Greens, which grew out of leftist movements in Germany in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Left share much DNA with the SPD.   

Those parallels were apparent in Tuesday’s Bundestag debate, the last before the election. 

“People are completely irrelevant to ‘the market,’” Annalena Baerbock, the Green chancellor candidate, thundered at one stage, mocking her conservative rivals’ view that free-market forces should be harnessed to solve problems such as climate change. The remark could have been ripped straight out of the Left’s party program. 

FDP leader Christian Lindner, on the other hand, is what one might call the market’s best friend. His party wants to cut taxes for high earners and corporations and pare back regulation across the board. What’s more, Lindner has made it clear that his price for entering any coalition would be the finance ministry, the most powerful portfolio in any cabinet with oversight of the budget and tax policy. 

“The question is simple: Left or Lindner,” Dietmar Bartsch, the co-leader of the Left party’s parliamentary group, said in parliament on Tuesday.

Would the SPD really embrace Lindner in order to avoid a coalition with the Left, a party whose core social agenda is in sync with its own? Especially, if together with the Greens, the SPD could unite Germany’s left for the first time in more than a generation?

“It’s certainly a dark scenario,” said Hugo Müller-Vogg, a conservative German writer and thinker. “But in the SPD, the Greens and the Left, it’s what many have been dreaming about.” 

Müller-Vogg said that while a leftist coalition wouldn’t amount to “GDR 2.0” — that is a modernized version of communist East Germany — it would fundamentally change the country’s approach to the economy, the welfare state and foreign policy in ways he fears would make Europe’s biggest economy less competitive. 

Pragmatic pitch

In recent days prominent Left politicians have been signaling their openness to a tie-up, stressing their pragmatic side on issues like their longstanding opposition to NATO. 

“That’s a vision,” Gregor Gysi, a prominent Left MP, told German public radio on Tuesday. “That has nothing to do with the coalition.” 

The Left’s pro-Russia stance and its desire to engage with China aren’t that different from the SPD’s own positions, though they do clash with those of the Greens. 

But the biggest obstacle towards a leftist coalition in Germany is neither a policy issue nor the Left’s communist history, but rather the alliance’s potential to polarize German society. 

While Germany’s government — the so-called grand coalition between the Christian Democrats and the SPD — is so consensus-oriented that it makes substantial reform all but impossible, it has also muted the extremes. 

In contrast, a leftist coalition could trigger the extreme political polarization countries such as the U.S. and the U.K. have undergone in recent years.  

Scholz, a moderate, is well aware of this, which is one reason he favors a so-called “stoplight” coalition with the Greens and the FDP, should the SPD manage to maintain its lead and win the election.

Whether he can convince his party of that course is an altogether different question.

Merkel and her party face a similar dilemma. More than three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, breathless warnings about the “red peril” have lost their potency, even when they come from Merkel. An entire generation has come of age with no living memory of the communist period. 

As Friedrich Engels once observed: “All that is real in human history becomes irrational in the process of time.” 



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