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Germany’s Gathering Clouds of Discontent

An anti-immigration demonstration in Dresden, Germany. CreditFabrizio Bensch/Reuters


Hamburg, Germany — IT’S getting darker and colder here in Germany, and it’s not just because winter is coming.

The collective summertime optimism generated by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy for refugees has soured. Ominous street protests, outfitted with mock guillotines, are now almost daily occurrences. In Dresden, during a gathering of several thousand citizens who purport to defend Western civilization against the influx of barbaric Muslims, a man held up a homemade gallows with a dangling sign reading, “Reserved for Angela Merkel.”

And they’re angry about more than just refugees. Around the same time, in Berlin, protesters rallying against the proposed trans-Atlantic free trade agreement carried a guillotine. Its bloodstained blade carried a warning to Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel of the Social Democrats: “Watch out, Sigmar!”

Of course, every cause can attract idiots of one kind or another. What’s worrying is that these fantasies of violence are the extreme expression of a sentiment that, in milder gradations, is taking hold of ever-larger parts of German society.

While only a minority of the protesters would be likely to agree that Ms. Merkel and Mr. Gabriel are traitors and need to be punished accordingly, most would probably agree with the larger point, that Ms. Merkel’s government has gone too far on the things that, until now, were modern Germany’s leading attributes: free trade and open borders.

What we see on the rise, in other words, is not the anger of a classic loony fringe, but rather mainstream people striking out at elites who they believe have lost touch with reality and common sense. To many here, the refugee crisis, the euro crisis, the Ukraine crisis and the threats seen in an unleashed global capitalism have converged in a fundamental question: Do the mighty still know what they are doing?

This is a question that touches upon the core connection between people and government. And it is why Ms. Merkel has more to lose than a couple of popularity points in opinion polls. Once citizens get the impression that those in charge are losing control, the general acceptance of democratic representatives will give way to loathing.

Indeed, it would be generous to say that Ms. Merkel knows what she is doing. On the big questions of our time, she is merely hedging her bets and hoping for a good outcome.

In the euro crisis, she has put a wager of 72 billion euros of German taxpayers’ money on the bet that the Greek state and economy will recover. In the Ukraine crisis, she has placed the livelihood of many German export companies on the bet that Russia will back down in the face of European sanctions.

And now, as up to 10,000 refugees enter Germany every day, she has placed a third bet. “We will manage this” was the chancellor’s central message when asked why she temporarily suspended immigration controls.

This last bet is the riskiest of all. First, it is not only about money, it’s about identity. “We don’t want to manage this at all!” replied a leading politician of the anti-establishment party Alternative für Deutschland to Ms. Merkel. Before 8,000 cheering followers, he invoked the dangers of ethnic dissolution and loss of the “Heimat,” or homeland. In response, the crowd chanted “We are the people,” emphasis on the “we.”

Ms. Merkel’s second refugee risk: Her “we can manage this” promise is up against the clock and the approaching winter. As the public services struggle with the refugees already here, it is unclear if they can find decent accommodation should the rush continue. That raises the prospect of a winter of discontent, with angry Germans facing off against irate immigrants.

The third risk is that Ms. Merkel may have a better sense for global than for local challenges, hearing but not understanding the strain placed on municipalities by the influx. In a recent Facebook post, Boris Palmer, the mayor of the prosperous university town of Tübingen, warned: “We can’t manage this.”

As a prominent member of the liberal Green Party, Mr. Palmer is the last person to stir up xenophobia. Yet even he has warned that the refugee crisis means that “the social peace in this country is at stake.”

The roulette wheel of Ms. Merkel’s refugee gamble is still turning, but it has already changed Germany’s political landscape. The frustration felt among Germany’s traditional center-left and center-right voters has dislodged them from their traditional parties. To them, the fringe parties — Alternative für Deutschland on the right, Die Linke on the left — offer quick and easy certainties: no to refugees, no to free trade.

Both populist parties will get their big chance next year, when Germany holds elections in three federal states. Sadly, it is likely that in their rage to punish the establishment, many Germans will fall for the seduction of the populists, pushing the country into the illiberal, reactionary direction it has so long struggled to avoid.

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