Sahra Wagenknecht Divides the German Left

Sahra Wagenknecht Divides the German Left

The former Die Linke politician’s new party embraces a model that has found purchase among sections of the left across the Global North: left-wing economics paired with a variety of political positions pulled from the right.

Sahra Wagenknecht speaks at a press conference announcing the formation of her new party on December 12, 2023. (Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance via Getty Images)

When the German MP Sahra Wagenknecht took the microphone at a press conference in October to explain why she was leaving Die Linke (the Left), she said she had to launch a new party because without dramatic change, “in ten years we will no longer recognize our country.” Her new party, the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance—For Reason and Justice, aims to resolve Germany’s existential crisis.

In a country that designed its electoral system to disincentivize the politics of charisma, naming a party after yourself is a controversial move. Just as notable was Wagenknecht’s decision to forgo the label “left”—a term she claimed is now more associated with issues like pronouns and racism than a commitment to reducing social inequality, and therefore does more to alienate voters than to attract them. By taking nine other Die Linke MPs with her, Wagenknecht ensured that her former party would no longer be large enough to count as a full fraction in parliament, losing not just federal funding but also the right to give full-length speeches.

Wagenknecht had been part of Die Linke and its predecessor parties since 1989, and she was undoubtedly its most prominent politician. She is a regular guest on talk shows, a bestselling author, and a savvy user of social media, with over 650,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel. In more recent years, she has built her reputation on her dissent from what she sees as shibboleths of the German left on gender, race, climate, and more. She has burnished an image of herself as a champion of a German working class that has been abandoned by mainstream politicians. The Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance, which early opinion polls suggest could capture up to 20 percent of the vote in national elections, embraces a model that has found purchase among sections of the left across the Global North: left-wing economics paired with a variety of political positions pulled from the right.

Wagenknecht’s rise to political prominence follows the winding path of the German left since the end of the Cold War. She joined the governing Socialist Unity Party in East Germany at the age of nineteen. After the fall of that state, the Socialist Unity Party refashioned itself as the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS). As a university student, Wagenknecht was elected to the PDS’s national committee and joined its Marxist-Leninist faction, the Communist Platform. Upon discovering that her communist commitments were now out of fashion in a university system that purged humanities faculty from the dissolved East, she made use of her new freedom of movement to enroll at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, where she wrote a master’s thesis on Marx’s interpretation of Hegel.

At the same time, her former country was undergoing a harsh economic transition. West German politicians from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU/CSU) had promised that a rapid unification under capitalist auspices would lead to “blossoming landscapes,” but the state agency created to privatize the East German economy found itself saddled with an impossible task. Unified Germany had to privatize nearly 8,000 enterprises that employed over 4 million people, at a time when many of its neighbors were doing the same. Although politicians had predicted that privatization would create profits of 600 billion deutschmarks, the state ran up a debt of 250 billion deutschmarks while laying off 2.5 million workers.

The brutal incorporation of the East into the capitalist economy created a double shock that bounced back to the West. By 1997 unified Germany had 11.7 percent unemployment—a figure that was unevenly distributed across the country, with 9.9 percent of the former West and 19.2 percent of the former East unemployed. Despite the center right running campaigns against allowing the “red socks” of the Socialist Unity Party back into politics, the PDS gained 5.1 percent of the national vote in 1998, nearly all of it in the former East. The center-left Social Democrats (SPD) capitalized on the frustration throughout the country and won the election.

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder partnered with Tony Blair to exhort Europe to take “the third way” through the challenges of globalization: slashing taxes, freeing companies from regulations, encouraging entrepreneurship, and introducing welfare-to-work programs. Yet despite the neoliberal turn of the SPD, the PDS struggled to present itself as a viable alternative because of the long shadow of the East German dictatorship.

In 2001, the PDS tried to get ahead of one of the most divisive issues around this legacy when it issued a statement condemning the murders that took place at the Berlin Wall. “No state should force its citizens to live in it, when they do not want to,” the statement read. “Everyone has only one life and must be able to decide on their own, where he or she wants to spend that life.” Wagenknecht dissented—the only member of the party’s governing committee to do so—and thus cemented her reputation as a firebrand. The statement couldn’t rescue the PDS, however; next year it fell below the 5 percent vote threshold required to secure its presence in parliament.

Welfare reform arrived soon after. The Hartz IV plan, with the slogan “Support and Demand,” required welfare recipients to prove they were actively seeking work by regularly meeting with a Job Center advisor. These advisors were able to withhold benefits from recipients who refused to take jobs. The new policy seemed like a betrayal of principle to many members of the SPD, and some of them responded by leaving the party and allying with the remnants of the PDS. That new alliance gained 8.7 percent of the vote in 2005 and later decided to formally merge into a new party. Die Linke benefitted from a wave of discontent after the global financial crisis and gained over 11 percent of the vote in 2009—the year that Wagenknecht vaulted from party leadership into parliament. Die Linke stayed comfortably over the 5 percent threshold for the next two federal elections, although it remained more popular in the former East than the former West.

Wagenknecht served in parliament while earning her PhD in economics for a thesis on household spending patterns in the United States and Germany and writing her first bestseller, Freedom Instead of Capitalism (2012). In the book, she argued that the Federal Republic had lost its way since the midcentury days of ordoliberalism, when the state was more willing to intervene in the economy and to destroy monopolies in the name of fair competition. She criticized Germany’s response to the euro crisis, seeing it as proof that a new form of oligarchic capitalism in thrall to financial markets had distorted the market mechanism—leading to thwarted innovation, income inequality, the growth of precarious employment, and the disappearance of the middle class.

One of the heroes of Freedom Instead of Capitalism is Ludwig Erhard, who served as minister of economic affairs from 1949 to 1963. In the book, Wagenknecht focuses on his strong regulation of monopolies and financial institutions, but her account of his politics is incomplete. Notably, she leaves out his positions on migration. She does not refer, for example, to the fact that in 1955, Erhard persuaded Chancellor Konrad Adenauer that recruiting workers abroad was a better solution to Germany’s tight labor market than encouraging married women to enter the workforce—or that he oversaw an expanding “guest worker” program as chancellor in the mid-1960s.

Like most German politicians of her generation, Wagenknecht didn’t have much to say about migration until the summer of 2015, when Chancellor Angela Merkel suspended the Dublin Regulation (which obligates asylum seekers to apply for asylum in the first EU state they reach). Over 1 million asylum seekers subsequently arrived in Germany.

Since that time, migration has become an unavoidable flashpoint of German politics. The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), founded as a Euroskeptic party, sharply criticized Merkel’s migration policies and reaped electoral rewards. Its greatest successes came in former East Germany, where the share of Die Linke’s vote sank over the next few elections as the share of the AfD vote grew.

Wagenknecht was an early critic of Merkel’s migration policies, arguing that the former chancellor had welcomed asylum seekers without providing the financial resources needed to accommodate them on the local level. This argument brought Wagenknecht into growing conflict with her own party, as did her response to the COVID-19 pandemic: she boasted that she had not been vaccinated and agitated against vaccine and mask mandates.

The conflicts between Wagenknecht and much of the rest of Die Linke were on full display by the time she released her latest book, The Self-Righteous, in 2021. In it, she accuses the party leadership of disregarding working-class voters in favor of pandering to an “academic clientele” who promote “gender-conscious language and pricey organic products.” She finds climate activists particularly insufferable, especially the “climate gluers” (Klimakleber) who attach themselves to highways and runways in headline-grabbing protests. She similarly argues that the “Fridays for Future” school strikers receive too much attention from the media. Her contempt for climate activism has aligned her with the far right, which argues that burning fossil fuels on the Autobahn is a German birthright.

Elsewhere in The Self-Righteous, Wagenknecht goes to great pains to explain working-class anger over migration. She argues that it is only natural that voters refuse to raise welfare benefits when the majority of those who receive them have a “migrant background,” in the state’s preferred parlance. She doesn’t grapple with the fact that the most hated aspects of the workfare reforms were introduced primarily as a response to unemployment in former East Germany, not as a response to migration. The state is perfectly capable of inflicting economic pain on the native-born.

Wagenknecht spends more time blaming college graduates with vegan diets for working-class hardship than she does on issues like the “black zero” clause of the German Constitution, added in 2009, which commits the state to a balanced budget. The state decided to suspend the clause in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, but it has subsequently been reinstated to devastating effect. Because The Self-Righteous only mentions the clause on one page, the primary obstacle to building more affordable housing, raising the country’s €12-an-hour minimum wage, and creating a more robust and less punitive welfare state fades into the background.

The Self-Righteous was published just before the 2021 federal election—the first since Merkel’s retirement after sixteen years in power. It was a moment when the political future appeared radically open, especially once the CDU/CSU and the SPD pledged that they would not enter another grand coalition.

In the wake of Wagenknecht’s public dissent, Die Linke gained a paltry 4.9 percent of the vote in 2021, and it only remained in parliament because it won three local constituencies outright. The Social Democrats earned the largest vote share—25.7 percent—and with it the right to name the new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, who has modeled himself on Merkel to such an extent that he often mimics her most famous hand gesture, the “Merkel Diamond.”

Scholz went on to negotiate a “traffic light coalition” with the “yellow” Free Democrats—a business-friendly party that served as the kingmaker for the first forty-odd years of the Federal Republic’s existence—and the Greens—who entered electoral politics in the 1980s as a party focused on anti-nuclear and peace activism but have since expanded their remit to a general center-leftism.

The traffic light coalition began with ambitious plans, among them revising the hated Hartz IV reforms. The coalition was able to pass a proposal that renamed the welfare system “citizens’ money” (Bürgergeld)—the previous name having become a cruel slur against the working class—raised the benefit floor, and slightly softened the work requirements that made the first iteration so punitive. But the coalition’s broader plans have been upended by recent events, especially the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which exacerbated every pre-existing fault line in German politics.

The war led Wagenknecht to take a set of positions that have further split the left. She argues that Germany should continue to buy gas from Russia and that participating in economic sanctions against Russia represents “an unprecedented economic war.” She believes Germany should stop weapons deliveries and negotiate with Russia, and that  NATO should be dissolved. And she has stated that Germany should impose a cap on the number of migrants it will accept from war zones, and be ready to send them back the second the bombs stop. On the one-year anniversary of the invasion, she organized a “peace rally” in Berlin where she argued that giving Ukraine fighter jets was bringing Germany closer to the risk of a nuclear war.

Wagenknecht’s arguments about Russian gas led two members of Die Linke to resign in protest. By the summer of 2023, some members of the party were referring to her as “She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.” Die Linke sent a pointed message when it announced Carola Rackete as its candidate for the 2024 European elections; Rackete is best known for her work with Sea-Watch, an NGO that sails rescue ships in the Mediterranean to save migrants from drowning.

After a string of encouraging polling suggesting that up to 20 percent of Germans might consider voting for her party, Wagenknecht finally announced the end of her relationship with Die Linke last October. She believes that her form of native-born ordoliberalism could attract voters who like the AfD’s policies on migration (less) and Russian gas imports (more), but who feel uncomfortable joining a party that has repeatedly displayed a soft spot for goonish violence, barely dissembled neo-Nazism, and calls to legalize Holocaust denial. She may also be able to pull voters from the AfD with her economic policy. While both parties are welfare chauvinists, they have different visions of how to raise funds. Ralph Suikat, treasurer of Wagenknecht’s party, is an entrepreneur best known for his advocacy for higher taxes on the wealthy, while the AfD has called for eliminating the inheritance tax and reducing taxes on the wealthy. She has launched the party at an opportune moment to test her electoral theory; the next four elections on the calendar include the vote for the European parliament, which is usually a low-turnout election where people cast protest votes, as well as three elections in states from former East Germany.

By the time Wagenknecht announced the new party, one dimension of her singular appeal had faded: last fall, politicians from every party rushed to present themselves as tough on migration. The vice-chairman of the Free Democratic Party even floated the idea of bringing back quotas on the number of foreigners within a given city neighborhood.

Meanwhile, plans to reform the citizenship law to allow more people to acquire dual citizenship—a measure that would help many migrants—have been delayed as politicians from the CDU/CSU have pushed to make naturalization dependent on an applicant’s commitment to Israel’s right to exist. They have argued that their law is a response to an increase in antisemitism, even though the state’s own figures suggest that over 80 percent of antisemitic attacks in Germany are committed by far-right activists, not migrants.

Chancellor Scholz, for his part, told Der Spiegel, “We must deport again—and in grand style.” He has passed a new law to accomplish just that. He used a state visit to Nigeria to try to secure an agreement to deport over 10,000 Nigerians and has revived the idea of third-country processing centers.

While Wagenknecht’s sharp condemnation of migration no longer distinguishes her, she won’t have trouble finding other ways to draw attention. She supports a number of economic policies that diverge from the politics of the traffic light coalition, including taxes on millionaires to fund social spending. Her popularity reflects a genuine and justified discontent with the status quo. Former West Germany has become what sociologist Oliver Nachtwey dubs a “downward escalator” society, where social mobility runs in reverse. The state’s climate policy has focused on individualized solutions that place the cost for the transition on consumers rather than producers. And no party has figured out how to talk about migration without tying itself in knots.

European liberals are being forced to wrestle with a contradiction in their approach to human mobility—by what principle can they condemn states that kill people for trying to leave while maintaining the world’s deadliest border for those trying to enter? Wagenknecht is the rare figure whose public statements are consistent on this point. Having once defended the shoot-to-kill order at the Berlin Wall, she is equally comfortable with the leave-to-drown reality in the Mediterranean Sea.

Because Wagenknecht insistently thinks of the German working class as native-born, rather than as workers, she never seriously grapples with the fact that over one in four residents of Germany has a migrant background. But her criticisms have landed in part because Die Linke has been off-balance and defensive about migration.

There is still room for a more robust appeal to both self-interest and solidarity: migrants are a vulnerable sector of the workforce whose exploitation puts downward pressure on everyone’s wages.

In the press conference announcing her new party, Wagenknecht denounced the fact that the revamped “citizens’ money” welfare program still sets the rate of subsistence so low that people who receive it often work under-the-table to pay the bills. The German welfare system, in other words, has created punishing rules that people try to escape by doing precisely what the welfare system doesn’t want them to do.

A similar logic underlies decades of attempts to design an asylum system that will only attract people who are “leaving for the right reasons”—individualized persecution from their country of origin—while excluding those who are “coming for the wrong reasons”—desire to access the German welfare state and labor market. The governing coalition under Scholz is currently trying to pass a package of laws that would allow asylum seekers to work while waiting for their applications to be processed. But to gain enough votes to pass, the inducement to work will almost certainly be designed to the benefit of employers—for example, by requiring asylum seekers to work for no money at all, or by paying asylum seekers on debit cards that only allow them to shop at specific locations, so that they cannot turn their money into remittances.

It’s not the asylum seekers who hurt the German worker. It’s the state and the employers who obtain their labor for less than its market value by exploiting their uncertain juridical status. Efforts to scapegoat migrants and erode their dignity can only intensify this trend. What remains of Die Linke has a real chance to set itself apart from the pack—and perhaps to reenter parliament—by finding an effective way to talk about migration as a working-class issue.

With the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance on the ballot during the next set of elections, we will have a chance to see how her brand of economic nationalism works as an electoral strategy. If her wager is right, and her party does well enough to enter a coalition in one of the East German states, we will have a chance to see how it works as a governing program.

Then we’ll have an answer to another question: does Wagenknecht have a viable plan for remedying social inequality in Germany, or does she simply possess an impressive ability to generate a list of scapegoats? If Scholz carries out his promise to “deport in grand style,” Wagenknecht may find she misses the migrants when they’re gone.

Lauren Stokes is Associate Professor of History at Northwestern University and the author of Fear of the Family: Guest Workers and Family Migration in the Federal Republic of Germany (Oxford, 2022).

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