Editor’s Note: Matt Qvortrup is author of “Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader.” The opinions in this article belong to the author.
Sahra Wagenknecht, the leader of Germany’s far-left Die Linke party, has launched a new movement. It is called Aufstehen (literally translated, “stand up”). This in itself is not exceptional. Many other countries in Western Europe have left-wing parties of varying extremes.
Just think of the Dutch LinksGroen, the Danish Enhedslisten and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the United Kingdom. But there is a difference between the movement proposed by Frau Wagenknecht. While the other leftist parties are composed of remnants of the 1968 generation and progressive millennials, with a healthy skepticism toward authoritarianism, Aufstehen is something altogether different. The movement is unashamedly populist – and hostile toward immigration and other liberal causes.
Not surprisingly, such views have received praise from the far-right Alternative für Deutschland.
Wagenknecht is not – as some have said – seeking to build a movement like Momentum in Britain (the left-wing grassroots movement that brought Corbyn to power) or Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s equivalent La France Insoumise.
Her ambition is to create a realignment; to found a movement that appeals to disgruntled working-class voters who feel betrayed by big business, globalism and the low wages in the gig economy.
Her message is not one founded upon hope and solidarity. It is based on an ill-disguised opposition to foreigners. Her analysis is that a message of resentment chimes with low-wage workers.
That has been seen before. It is trite to cite examples of the darker chapters of Europe’s history. Suffice it to say that both Benito Mussolini in Italy and Oswald Moseley in the UK started their respective careers on the political left with a similar message. And further afield Juan Perón, used a combination of social justice and far-right attitudes to seize power in Argentina. Germany is unlikely to go the same way. But the precedents are not to be ignored.
Wagenknecht’s analysis is not entirely unique. In Denmark, the nominally center-left Social Democrats have rebranded themselves as a party that defends the welfare state, while it has lurched to the right on immigration issues.
But unlike the Danes, Wagenknecht has fused opposition to immigration with populist economics. That is a dangerous mix.
She cannot be accused of naïveté. Like Angela Merkel, she grew up in Communist East Germany. But unlike the current Chancellor of Germany, the far-left firebrand is unapologetic about her membership of the Communist Youth Movement FDJ.
She has described the East German communist dictatorship as “the most peaceful and most philanthropic polity that the Germans created in all of their previous history.”
Just for the record, the regime killed 327 people who tried to escape.
The private lives of politicians are not usually of political importance. Wagenknecht is an exception. She is married to Oscar Lafontaine – a former social democrat finance minister – who defected from Gerhard Schröder’s coalition Socialist-Green government and later founded Die Linke, with the members of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the successor to the East German Communist Party.
Her husband – 25 years her senior and now retired from politics – always stood for a more socially inclusive form of socialism. He even wrote a book titled “The Heart Beats on the Left.”
His wife does not subscribe to softer sentiments in politics. Her decision to establish Aufstehen should be viewed with concern across the whole of Europe.