A protester shouts slogans during the right-wing AfD Alternative for Germany political party demonstration Carsten Koall/Getty Images

Long Reads

Germany’s Populism Amid Prosperity

Even though Germany has gone from being the “sick man of Europe” to its strongest economy in just a generation, the country has not been immune to right-wing populism. To understand why chauvinist forces are resurgent, one must turn not to political science or economics, but to history.

MUNICH – Populism is associated in many people’s minds with job displacement, import competition, and other byproducts of globalization. So how does one account for Germany’s remarkable economic performance and the simultaneous rise of populism there? At first glance, these two phenomena seem incompatible. But the past – and not necessarily the recent past – holds clues to understanding how populism and prosperity can exist side by side.

In the 1990s, Germany was widely regarded as “the sick man of Europe.” After the fall of the Soviet Union and the reunification of East and West Germany, the German economy seemed to be in the doldrums. It was as if the sclerosis of the former communist state had spread to the wider German economy.

Two decades later, Germany is Europe’s economic powerhouse once again. Unemployment fell from nearly 13% to 6.1% between 2005 and 2016, and the country is now one of the world’s leading exporters – accounting for around 8% of total global exports.

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