Who Leads the West and Why: Trump or Merkel? Constitutional Cultures in the United States and Germany

The following paper was presented at the conference “After the End of Revolution: Constitutional Order amid the Crisis of Democracy,” co-organized by the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute and the National Research University Higher School of Economics, September 1–2, 2017, Moscow. For additional details about the conference as well as other upcoming events, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

Theodor Fontane, the master of German realist fiction, published his first novel, Before the Storm, in 1876. Set during the winter of 1812–13, in and around Berlin, it explores the decisive historical moment when Prussia changed sides—breaking out of its forced alliance with France in order to side with Russia in the anti-Napoleonic war. Yet the dialectic of the moment was such that Germans could join in the rout of the French while nonetheless embracing aspects of the French revolutionary legacy. Thus near the conclusion of the novel, the Prussian General von Bamme, commenting on social changes around him, a reduction in traditional structures of hierarchy, speculates, “And where does all this come from? From over yonder, borne on the west wind. I can make nothing of these windbags of Frenchmen, but in all the rubbish they talk there is none the less a pinch of wisdom. Nothing much is going to come of their Fraternity, nor of their Liberty: but there is something to be said for what they have put between them. For what, after all, does it mean but: a man is a man.” Mensch ist mensch.

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A New Special Path for Germany

As far as the willingness to accept refugees is concerned, Germany is the lonely leader in Europe. No other European country is behaving similarly, nor does the United States. Evidently there is a new special path for Germany. How can this be explained? First of all: Germany is prosperous; we’re doing quite well. If we had southern European unemployment rates or the scarcity of East European countries, we would be less hospitable. Furthermore, influential industrial associations early on argued for the generous reception of refugees and continued to oppose the reestablishment of national border controls, on the basis of economic interests. Human rights activists and capitalists are promoting the same policy, and not for the first time. The left-wing critique of capitalism generally overlooked this affinity, but right-wing capitalism critics understand this very well: for them capitalism is not sufficiently national—it is too universalist.

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