R.M. Vaughan is a Canadian writer and video artist based in Berlin.
The day after the far-right, German-nationalist Alternative fur Deutschland party (AfD) went from an obscure entity with no seats to nearly 100 seats in the parliament (Bundestag), the Western media went into autopilot explaining the AfD's sudden rise to power.
The AfD is the result, pundits wrote, of Chancellor Angela Merkel's generous response to the refugee crisis (too generous, many noted). This is what happens, analysts said, when poor and under-educated white Europeans feel dismissed, overlooked. Germans, it was concluded, are fed up with the status quo and voted to give the middle finger to their own political class. Standard, boiler-plate responses to a far more complex problem.
Germans, no one wants to say, are psychologically stunted when it comes to issues of power, responsibility and the practical questions regarding what constitutes leadership. Germans have a toxic relationship with power's necessary twin, vulnerability, and that creates a mental block that plays out in daily life and political choices – a block that is very easily gamed by the likes of the AfD.
Germans hold vulnerability in great contempt. When people move to Germany, as I did several years ago, they first think that Germans are rude and uncommunicative, even hostile. This is a misreading it takes forever to unpack. Germans are so afraid of being vulnerable, indeed consider vulnerability a despicable mix of sick-making weakness and, worse yet, lurid over-familiarity, that they will do anything to avoid opening up to new people.
For foreigners, the immediate results can be hilarious and/or off-putting. You do not make pleasant chit-chat with sales clerks. You do not pet a stranger's dog, even if it is sniffing your privates. You do not say "excuse me" when you bump into people. And if you must make eye contact with a stranger, you stare back, hard, play a game of staring chicken, until you have established that you are the dominant one and the other person looks away. And whatever you do, do not smile at your waiter, as they will think you are mentally ill.
What drives these non-exchanges is a never-ceasing, clanging fear of contact that lives inside every German born and raised in Germany. If, the thinking goes, I smile back at that stranger, let them pet my dog or chat about the weather in the check-out line, then I am opening myself up, have made myself vulnerable and thus have become the lesser agent in the situation. From that moment on, only further engagement, or, horror!, mutual assessment and regard can follow. Contact equals surrender.
Where such thinking comes from is a whole other essay, but the shorthand is as follows: Germany was united in the 1870s under Prussian rule, and Prussians were obsessed with hierarchy and strict order. Blend that heritage with the lingering, mutated traumas of the Second World War and the Soviet occupation, and the result is a population absolutely terrified of being less than vigilant. To embrace the new, one must be open. But for Germans, being open means being fragile, even cowardly.
The AfD played German fears brilliantly. Their advertising campaigns stressed "strong leadership" and a "Germany for Germans" policy, the psychological messaging being, "you will never feel challenged by newness again."
Germans who were already triggered by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of newcomers, people they would have to get to know and thus be open to, people who might make them vulnerable to disappointment (or joy, the problem being the act of opening oneself up at all), swarmed in panic to the AfD's reassuring message of same-old/same-old. The AfD promises to put a stop to all this multicultural nonsense, as they put it, to nip the parti-coloured bud of Germany's national experiment in hopeful vulnerability.
Now that they've had their fearful tantrum, it is up to German voters to do the real work of figuring out what makes them so afraid to be human.