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A lesson from Germany in dealing with right-wing populism

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This city — where Allied bombing in 1945 created a 1,000-degree, hurricane-force firestorm that melted glass and skin — symbolizes the principle: Things could be worse.

A tragic sense of life, along with cynical humor and a bit of a persecution complex, is typical of Saxony, a German state as culturally distant from Berlin as Kentucky is from New York City. When J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” was translated into German, Saxon readers recognized something of themselves. After German reunification in 1989, about 80 percent of people in this portion of former East Germany had to find new ways of making a living. For most, freedom also meant starting over from nothing. About 20 percent of the population — mainly younger people — moved away. While cities such as Dresden and Leipzig are now doing well, rural areas and small towns are aging, economically stagnant and demoralized.

This backwater is now at the center of German politics. Saxony is an electoral stronghold of the Alternative for Germany (AFD) — an extreme, right-wing populist party in a country where extreme, right-wing populism has frightening historical associations. In the most recent national election, the AFD received about a quarter of votes in Saxony — double its national share.

Anti-establishment resentment has been building here at least since the European debt crisis. But it was the 2015 refugee crisis that catalyzed discontent. Chancellor Angela Merkel, in an act of exemplary moral leadership and tremendous political risk, opened the German border to about 1 million migrants, most fleeing the Syrian conflict. The backlash both aided the rise of the anti-immigrant AFD and provoked dissention within Merkel’s own party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Merkel is now at the riskiest political moment of her career. If the CDU loses ground in next year’s regional election here in Saxony, it will be interpreted as a repudiation of Merkel’s refugee policy and could lead to her resignation as head of the party. It would certainty cause open revolt by the conservative wing of the CDU.

Many in the party now publicly admit that the initial implementation of Merkel’s refugee policy was chaotic, contributing to a general sense of lost control. But the real focus of populists — here, as elsewhere — is not on efficiency but on identity. They fear


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