Contemporary Germany may be the European leader, but the Berlin Wall still casts a long shadow over the country’s economic, political and spiritual landscape.


“Germany’s neighbours have nothing to fear from its new-found strength. Berlin does not want to dominate Europe, but to exercise leadership … something that will be essential in a post-Brexit world.”

Josef Janning and Almut Möller (European Council on Foreign Affairs) 

German strength today is built on its size, economic performance, and political stability. More than 80 million people live in Germany, making it the largest nation in Europe. While the figures for both total GDP, and GDP-per-capita vary between different calculating bodies, there is unanimity in their reporting that Germany is the economic leader within the EU. Several of the world’s richest and most well known corporations are German, such as Volkswagen, Allianz, Siemens, Deutche Bank, BASF, ThyssenKrupp and many more. In 2017, the German economy has exhibited strong growth, in exports, industrial production, manufacturing, and factory orders, and is now outperforming other advanced economies in the global recovery.


Internally, however, economists continue to observe that despite federal spending to stimulate the states which once formed the GDR, the old ‘East Germany’ still lags behind the West. While state economic stimuli continues to flow eastwards, internal migration moves in the opposite direction, especially of the young and the entrepreneurial. The ‘West’ outperforms the ‘East’ in wealth, health, life expectancy, productivity and consumption. Perhaps only in education do the states of the former GDR lead the way.


It was the implosion of the Soviet system which led to the reunification of Germany in 1990. Since then, it has been a stable federation of 16 states (“Länder”) of significantly varying sizes – there are over 18 million Bavarians, but only just over 1 million found in Saarland. The Federal Government, with its chancellor and bi-cameral legislature, has some parallels with the US Constitution, and controls all matters of defence, foreign policy and currency. Virtually all other powers are retained by the Länder, including most tax-raising responsibilities.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), suffered a drop in popularity during the migrant crisis, running into 2016. Pundits at one stage even suggested that she might not even seek re-election in the autumn 2017 poll, however successes in “this year’s three regional elections have restored Mrs Merkel to pole position in German politics”[1].


On the international stage, Merkel’s European leadership has been consolidated by: (i) the defeat of Le Pen in the French elections ensuring a solid Franco-German relationship; (ii) Brexit; and (iii) the arrival of a more provocative and eccentric incumbent in the White House. There is now the widespread expectation that Merkel can win in September, extending her chancellorship at home and maintaining her influence as the “alternative leader of the free world”.[2] Precisely what her anticipated victory will mean at home depends on the make-up of any post-election coalition, which is the norm in German elections.


Migration has been the most divisive and politically sensitive issue of Chancellor Merkel’s current term in office. She has pointedly made Germany a welcoming place for vast numbers of refugees. For her, this seems to have been a matter of conscience and conviction. German politics is inevitably conducted against the collective memory of the 1930s, and Merkel has actively promoted a racially and culturally diverse, welcoming Germany, in contrast to the horrors of the past. The ensuing cultural friction from the high levels of immigration is something the far right has sought to inflame and use to further its political agenda.


Immigration peaked in 2015-16, with Germany receiving the most asylum seekers of any European nation. So significant was Germany’s share of the influx into the EU, that its historic trend of population decline was actually reversed that year. About 200 city mayors from Westphalia wrote to Chancellor Merkel saying that they were “overwhelmed” with migrants and “seriously concerned for our country”. Pressure on Merkel has since eased with a sizeable reduction in immigration rates, coupled with the development of a significant emigration trend.


The tensions around immigration centre on two issues: crime, and the influence of Islam. In both cases, journalists and politicians who are resistant to immigration promote figures which are far higher than those from Liberal sources. Right-wing writers claim that, “10 per cent of young German males are Muslim”[3], while liberals say, “the [total] number of Muslims in Germany is way lower than people think” – only around 5 per cent of the total population.[4]


Crimes involving immigrants in Germany have made headlines repeatedly over the last few years. The sexual assaults on women, committed by immigrant men, have been well reported, as was the jihadist attack on the Berlin Christmas market in December 2016, which killed 12 people. Less heavily reported have been the attacks upon immigrants. Official figures suggest as many as 3500 such attacks occurred in 2016.[5]


Government responses have included both strong denunciation of such assaults, and prosecutions. Coupled to this have been legislative attempts to limit the wearing of the Burqa by civil servants at work, along with a 10-point plan to define “national identity”.[6] The fact that a large majority of Turkish citizens living in Germany voted to endorse President Erdogan’s curtailment of Turkish democracy highlights the significant cultural differences between most Germans and many of the recent arrivals. This continues to cause concern across the country.


Germany today treads a wise and careful line in terms of handling its history. The crimes of the 1930s and 40s are not ignored, downplayed, justified, or excused. The impressive Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (pictured), in the heart of Berlin epitomises the way the country deals with its past.


Culturally, Germany today is a highly secularised society. One poll suggested that Germany is the third most atheist nation in Western Europe.[7] The loss of the traditional values associated with Christianity is also seen in the decline of the churches, widespread acceptance of abortion, and the largest “gay/LGBTI community in Europe”.


Research over the last decade has revealed that the health of the churches continues to be far worse in the former East Germany than in the West. The East continues to exhibit far higher rates of those calling themselves Vollatheisten, “full” or “committed atheists”. If the former East Germany was counted as separate country, it would be one of the most secular states in the world, where public declaration of Christian faith can still receive a hostile reception. The fact that the massive church decline which began under the eye of the Stasi, continues amongst the youngest sections of ‘East German’ society today, is of great concern to the churches.


Elsewhere, state persecution is sometimes blithely seen as a cure-all for churches, as in Tertullian’s noted formula: “The Blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” The GDR demonstrates that Christians should not naively assume that such a loss of religious liberties in their context will automatically reverse their numerical decline and restore their vitality. In the GDR, such harassment did not dynamise the church, but decimated it, with few signs of recovery decades later.


Oliver Ahlfeld, of the Evangelischer Gnadauer Gemeinschaftsverband, reports that the German churches have yet to fully adjust to their minority status in society, and need to overcome their divisions in order to preserve their witness in their culturally resistant context. He believes that most German Christians are “too busy, too rich, and too secure in their everyday lives” to impact Germany with the Christian gospel. “I am praying that this will change, and I do not expect the changes to be quick; but maybe the next decade will contain some surprises,” he adds.


Contemporary Germany may be the European leader, but the Berlin Wall still casts a long shadow over the country’s economic, political and spiritual landscape.


[1]  Washington Post  |  Meet Martin Schulz, the Europhile populist shaking up Germany’s elections  |  Election LATEST: New German poll shows Angela Merkel’s reign as Chancellor is under threat

The Guardian  |  Sep 2016  |  Angela Merkel’s party beaten by rightwing populists in German elections

The Guardian  |  May 2017  |  The Guardian view on the German elections: Angela Merkel keeps winning

Euronews  |  German state elections ruffle feathers  |  Strong win in state poll boosts Merkel’s party ahead of national vote

[2]  |  Angela Merkel is now the leader of the free world, not Donald Trump

[3]  FrontpageMag  |  Those 800,000 “Refugees” will make Muslims 10% of Germany’s young male population

[4]  |  How the number of Muslims in Germany is way lower than people think

[5]  Evangelical Focus  |  Afghan Christian in Germany presumably killed because of her faith

Evangelical Focus  | Hundreds injured in attacks against migrants and refugees in Germany

Euronews  |  Germany: Migrants on trial for fire attack on homeless man

[6]  |  ‘We are not burqa’: German government sets out 10-point plan to define national identity

[7] Washington Post  |  Map: These are the world’s least religious countries

[8]  |  Germany Has a Larger LGBT Population Than Any Country In Europe