The word you hear most often in association with Jens Spahn is “ambitious.” Making the rounds of Berlin’s political correspondents earlier this year, this is how they all describe Germany’s 38-year-old health minister and potential chancellor-in-waiting. “To show ambition is un-German, particularly in the Christian Democratic Union,” says Robin Alexander, who covers Chancellor Angela Merkel for Die Welt. Melanie Amann, a political correspondent for Der Spiegel, told me that Spahn has shown a “certain ruthlessness” in his political career, which has been relatively long considering that he entered the Bundestag at the tender age of 22. “No one has dared to stand up to Merkel.”
In Washington, D.C., a city overrun with high school class presidents, using such an adjective to describe a politician is unremarkable. But in rule-abiding, authority-respecting Germany, where people look at you strangely if you cross the street while the signal is red, not knowing your place is generally frowned upon. This is especially the case in politics, where Germans prize consensus and predictability. And doing something so rash as criticizing your own chancellor—even one who, like Merkel, has ruled the country for 13 years—is practically unheard of in a party as tradition-bound and hierarchical as the ruling CDU.
The CDU has never openly rebelled against its own leader. Unlike its major rival, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), often mocked as “a discussion club,” the CDU was “founded to gain power, not to discuss,” says Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung political writer Peter Carstens. At the CDU’s biennial congresses, Merkel’s share of the vote for party leader has resembled the ballot hauls of third-world dictators: 97.9 percent, 96.7 percent, and, in a particularly tough vote following the 2015-2016 migrant crisis, 89.5 percent. The closest the CDU has ever come to publicly repudiating Merkel was three months ago, when Bundestag members rejected her preferred parliamentary floor leader in favor of a backbencher.
Since the end of World War II, Germans have put a premium on political consensus, which makes perfect sense when you consider the events that led to that catastrophe. When Merkel campaigned for her fourth term as chancellor last year, the CDU’s slogan was simply, Die Mitte, the Middle.
Boring, perhaps. But it works. The logic of Merkel’s highly successful politics has been to occupy the center so steadfastly that it leaves no room for any sort of challenger. This has, effectively, meant moving the CDU to the left on a host of issues, like abolishing conscription, enacting a minimum wage, and abandoning nuclear energy. Merkel—who was first elected chancellor in September 2005—practices a canny ideological imperialism that routinely borrows and steals popular policies from rival parties. Possessing a no-frills competence and sensitivity to public opinion, she dominated German politics for exactly a decade. The beginning of her political end commenced in September of 2015, when she agreed to open Germany’s borders to an unlimited number of Syrian refugees. The practicalities of this humanitarian gesture were difficult to manage and, ultimately, over 1 million people (mostly Muslim, mostly male, and many not refugees but rather economic migrants from all over the world) entered the country.
At first, the overwhelming majority of Germans—basking in a global outpouring of admiration to which they were entirely unaccustomed and had long craved—enthusiastically accepted Merkel’s admonishment, Wir schaffen das, “We can manage.” Crowds of people waited at the Munich central train station to applaud the arriving migrants, and millions of Germans volunteered their time, clothes, and money in what became a great national initiative. But as a series of high-profile criminal incidents and terrorist attacks committed by migrants made headlines, and the long-term difficulties of integrating so many people from such drastically different cultures began to sink in, Merkel’s popularity waned. When it first made a run for the Bundestag in 2013 as an upstart political party founded by euroskeptic economists, the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) did not earn enough votes to clear the 5 percent parliamentary threshold. Yet in the wake of the migrant crisis, it racked up seats in all of Germany’s 16 provincial parliaments and is the country’s third-largest party in the Bundestag, where, as a result of the CDU-SPD “grand coalition” government, it is also the official opposition.
It was in the wake of this political upheaval that Spahn earned his reputation as Merkel’s loudest critic within the CDU. But his reputation as a right-wing rabble-rouser speaks more to Germans’ penchant for conformity that it does Spahn’s alleged immoderation. Under Merkel’s leadership, Spahn said in 2016, the CDU had “perhaps put too much emphasis on the humanitarian approach.” Mostly, his criticisms have been directed not at Merkel but rather the migrants themselves, namely, those who refuse to integrate. Spahn received a fair bit of media attention when he declared himself a “burkaphobe,” less noticed was that he was doing so in support of the chancellor’s own call for a ban on Islamic facial coverings. In an interview with the London Observer, he said that “The German people want to help refugees, but they want to help in an orderly way.” What could be more German than that?
Adding a layer of complexity to Spahn’s political profile is that he is openly gay, a rare thing in a party which has long stood against equal rights for homosexuals. Spahn has not let this inhibit his vocal support for gay marriage and adoption rights, and his homosexuality is a recognizable part of his public and political identity in a way that it wasn’t for Germany’s highest profile gay politician, the late liberal foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle. A prominent element of his skepticism toward Muslim immigration is the deeply ingrained homophobia of the Islamic world.
In October, following a string of disappointing provincial election results for the CDU, Merkel announced that she would not seek reelection as party leader but remain as chancellor until the end of her term in 2021. For years, Spahn had been preparing to represent the disillusioned conservative faction of the party against Merkel’s hand-picked successor, CDU Secretary-General Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, known by the acronym AKK. But his hopes were dashed once Friedrich Merz, a former member of the Bundestag whose political rise was squashed when Merkel stripped him of a parliamentary leadership role in 2002, announced his own candidacy. Merz, who is returning to politics after years spent working as a corporate lawyer, is also campaigning on a pledge to return the party to its conservative roots. He has made a specific pledge that, under his leadership, support for the AfD will be cut in half as former CDU voters upset by Merkel’s migrant policy return to the fold.
At their party convention this week, CDU voters will not choose Jens Spahn as Angela Merkel’s successor. But this young conservative politician is not going anywhere. And the issues he’s raising are fundamental to understanding the future of Europe’s most important power.
“I said already three years ago we are importing anti-Semitism and then the answer was, ‘Oh, there was anti-Semitism [in Germany] before,’” Spahn recalled on an October morning in Washington, speaking with me in his room at the stately Hay-Adams hotel. “And I say, ‘Yes, it’s true but that does not make this new one better.’ ”
The day before, he had met with John Bolton directly across the street at the White House. The appointment raised eyebrows; European health ministers don’t usually confer with American national security advisers. The official story was that the two were discussing bioterrorism, but this being the era of Donald Trump, some suspected something more nefarious.
It’s no secret that President Trump does not get along with Merkel. After his ambassador to Germany, Ric Grenell, gave an ill-advised interview to Breitbart.com last summer in which he spoke of wishing to “empower … conservatives throughout Europe,” a herd of commentators on both sides of the Atlantic frenziedly claimed that the American plenipotentiary was plotting to unseat the democratically elected leader of a NATO ally and replace her with the “neo-Nazis” of the AfD. This was a ludicrous accusation to lob in any case, but particularly against Grenell, who had just two months earlier helped engineer the deportation of an actual Nazi living in Queens to Germany.
But because Grenell is also gay, friends with Spahn and his husband, and worked as Bolton’s spokesman when the mustachioed diplomat was ambassador to the United Nations—and because we are living at a time when any half-baked conspiracy theory can be floated on Twitter and, provided it serves an anti-Trump narrative, instantly receive validation from mainstream journalists, fellows at respectable think-tanks and countless #Resistance charlatans on social media—speculation quickly spread that a 30-minute, unplanned meeting at the White House was part of an ongoing plot to overthrow the German chancellor.
When I met with Spahn in Washington, it was still a month before Merkel announced her plans to depart politics. And he was in no mood to talk domestic German politics, preferring to answer questions about the subject upon which he has made waves: immigration. He explained that the difference between what he calls “this new, imported anti-Semitism” and the old-fashioned kind long-existent in Germany, is how the former is present in the “everyday life” of many Muslim immigrants, not just at the mosque. “When they have lunch, and there’s family talk, it’s just another part of it. And on TV, on the Arabic TV stations. So it’s an anti-Semitism that’s actually a normal part of everyday life while the anti-Semitism in [German] society as a whole is actually … stigmatized.”
Spahn mentioned a story, which rightly shamed many Germans when it was reported earlier this year, about the grandson of a Holocaust survivor whose parents were forced to remove him from school after the anti-Semitic abuse he was regularly receiving from his Muslim immigrant classmates became intolerable. “And the only thing that was done actually was to take [the Jewish student] out of the school and to take him to another school instead of discussing how the hell could this happen—that there is a school, and not just one but many schools, where anti-Semitism influenced by this Arabic culture is actually a part of everyday life.”
When I asked Spahn about Germany’s experience integrating Muslim immigrants, he began by saying that “we have millions, millions, millions of successful stories … but still we have too many failed integration stories.”
Last summer, the day after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a referendum giving himself near-dictatorial powers, I had met with Ulf Poschardt, the editor of Die Welt, at the newspaper’s gleaming, remodeled office complex on a street that once abutted the Berlin Wall. “Fifty meters from here,” he said, gesturing toward the heavily Turkish Kreuzberg neighborhood, “two-thirds of Turks are voting for Erdogan. If we are not able to integrate people who came here from Kemalist Turkey … what does that say about our way of handling integration?” he asked. “If you say yes to migration, you have to say yes to other things as well.”
It is frustration with some of those “other things” to which Spahn attributed the rise of the AfD. German social cohesion, he said, is “under threat from the reactionary conservative Islam and … this awakening of the far right which is a reaction to the other one.” To arrest this dangerous cycle, the country needs to restore a sense of “cultural security” for its citizens, a term I had not heard used before but which could apply to any part of the world in which rapid technological change, mass immigration, and economic uncertainty have spurred the growth of populist political forces. “People might feel left behind but not in a social, or socio-economic way but in a cultural way,” Spahn said. “Cultural security means to me that people don’t want … their environment, their home, their village to change too rapidly.”
Many analysts have argued that the populist wave sweeping the West has materialist origins, that it is the direct fallout from the 2008 financial crisis and growing economic inequality. They say that a raft of generous social democratic economic policies—Medicare for all, free college tuition, universal basic income—will sap the appeal of populist leaders. Plumping for a rise in pensions and a more generous social safety net, Germany’s Social Democratic finance minister recently said that such outlays are necessary to “avoid a German Trump.” But Spahn does not agree “that social benefits would help to get the AfD down.” Germany, after all, has been booming economically.
Insisting that citizens in Western democracies be afforded a level of “cultural security” is bound to be derided as exclusionary, racist or worse. Anyone who dares suggest that people who voted for Brexit, Trump or other populist causes may have legitimate beefs can expect to be written off as a sympathizer with “white nationalism” or “fascism.” Just look at the mauling Hillary Clinton received from progressives simply for pointing out the connection between the influx of migrants into Europe and the rise of far-right parties across the continent.
In a recent report on the CDU leadership race, Der Spiegel characterized the campaign of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer as presenting voters with a stark choice: Did they want Germany to be “A conservative, Islamophobic, economically liberal power, as embodied by Spahn and Merz? Or the humanitarian, centrist party that unites rather than polarizes?” It apparently did not strike the devisers of this formulation that such a contrast is itself highly polarizing, casting as it does a wide swath of the country as anti-“humanitarian” Islamophobes.
Spahn does not advertise his brand of liberal-conservatism as constituting a rightward shift; his support for marriage equality is as “left” as his call for reducing migration is “right.” For years, he led an informal group of young CDU Bundestag members that met regularly with their counterparts in Greens; he could easily see the CDU one day forming a coalition with the ecological party on the national level. “The times of the reflexive left-right scheme are over,” he wrote in a newspaper opinion piece announcing his candidacy, published shortly after Merkel announced she would not run for re-election. Rather, he says, the CDU must be clearer about what it believes. If the party is losing voters to both the Greens and the AfD, he wrote, “then this is mainly because our own position is not clear.”
Spahn pointed to neighboring Austria as an example of what happens when grand coalition governments “go on for too long.” There, such arrangements between the Christian and Social Democrats have been the norm. After a prolonged period of time, “people don’t see any difference anymore between the big blocks,” he said. “And if the big blocks don’t make a difference, distinguish anymore, then people search for the extreme difference.”
That partly explains the popularity of the far-right, anti-immigrant Freedom Party, which is today part of a coalition government with the ruling, center-right People’s Party, led by Europe’s youngest chancellor, 32-year-old Sebastian Kurz. Though Spahn and Kurz are friendly, Spahn answered “no” before I could even finish asking him if such a coalition with the far right is a model Germany could follow. Though Spahn blamed his own CDU for the rise of the AfD (“If we’re honest with ourselves, we’re the ones who made it possible for them to enter 16 state legislatures,” he said at a recent party leadership debate) he drew a line at any sort of cooperation with the nationalists.
When Alexander Gauland, an AfD leader who has minimized the Holocaust, said that he could work with a CDU led by either Spahn or Merz, Spahn replied brusquely on Twitter: “There can be no cooperation with parties that are anti-American, idolize Russian autocrats without criticism, who want to reverse European integration and tolerate anti-Semitism in their ranks. Neither left nor right.”
In a speech last month commemorating Kristallnacht, Merkel declared that the German government must “undertake firm action when hatred of Jews or hatred of Israel is expressed verbally or nonverbally by people living in our country who have a different religious or cultural background,” a clear reference to Muslim immigrants. “I don’t think any previous Bundeskanzler has connected past and present and specifically defended Israel as emphatically,” said the historian of modern Germany Jeffrey Herf. “Merkel finally did what Obama and Bush refused to do—she denounced anti-Semitism when its sources came from Muslims and did so without fanning hatred of Muslims in general.”
These are indeed welcome words from the outgoing chancellor. Yet across the continent, the poisonous political dynamic described by Jens Spahn, wherein a “reactionary conservative Islam” foments an “awakening of the far right,” is accelerating.
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James Kirchick, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a columnist at Tablet magazine and the author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age. He is writing a history of gay Washington, D.C. His Twitter feed is @jkirchick.