In Depth

Angela Merkel warns against populism and anti-Semitism

Speaking to CNN in the aftermath of the EU elections, the 'leader of the free world' addressed intolerance abroad, and racism at home

Angela Merkel has acknowledged the rise of the “dark forces” of nationalism, populism, and anti-Semitism in the wake of the European elections, amid an escalation of anti-Semitic attacks in Germany.

“Germany can’t and will not uncouple itself from developments we see all over the world,” she said, speaking to Christiane Amanpour on CNN, in an interview that was released on Tuesday. “We see this in Germany as well, but in Germany, obviously, we see it in a certain context - the context of our past”.

This “means we have to be that much more vigilant than others”, she said, “we must face up to the spectres of our past.”

The swell in support for nativist parties in last week’s European elections was well forecast, and did not extend as far as some polls predicted. Particularly in Germany, far-right party Alternative fur Deutschland’s (AfD) 11% share of the vote was contained to older, rural voters, leading some pundits to declare the movement has peaked.

Nevertheless, the country has been plagued in recent times by an increase in anti-Semitic attacks. A December 2018 EU survey of European Jews found that reported anti-Semitic crimes in Germany increased nearly 20% last year to 1,799, of which 69 were violent - an increase of 86%.

At least 85% of respondents characterised anti-Semitism as a “very big” or “fairly big” issue, while 89% said the problem has worsened in the last five years.

“I cannot advise Jews to wear the kippah everywhere, all the time, in Germany,” said Felix Klein, Germany’s government commissioner on anti-Semitism, in an interview published on Saturday. His warning caused consternation, with Isreali president Benjamin Netanyahu calling the remarks a “capitulation”.

Merkel confronted the issue in her interview with Amanpour, saying Germans have “always had a certain number of anti-Semites among us. Unfortunately, there is to this day not a single synagogue, not a single daycare centre for Jewish children, not a single school for Jewish children, that does not need to be guarded by German policemen”.

Klein cited the “lifting of inhibitions and the uncouthness which is on the rise in society” as factors behind the rise of anti-Semitic violence. “The internet and social media have largely contributed to this, but so have constant attacks against our culture of remembrance,” he said.

Merkel echoed this sentiment in her CNN interview: “We have to tell our young people what history has brought over us and others.”

The Washington Post concurs: the fallout of Klein’s “remarks may have proved how sensitive Germany’s relationship to Jewish life remains, but there appeared to be growing consensus by this week on at least one aspect: Authorities alone might not be able to solve this problem”.

On 17 April last year, Merkel met with party members in the Reichstag. It was a meeting about the EU and its future, but as Der Spiegel reports, she chose to lead with a history lesson.

“She spoke about the bloody confessional wars that followed the Reformation and only came to an end with the Peace of Augsburg in 1555,” writes Rene Pfister. “‘The generation that had experienced all the misery before religious peace died,’ Merkel said. ‘They were gone. A new generation came that said: We don't want to make so many compromises. This is all too difficult for us.’ What followed was the catastrophe of the Thirty Years' War.”

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