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Germany’s Modern Angst
By Helmut K. Anheier

Like many wealthy Western countries, Germany seems to be caught in a constant state of unease, despite all it has going for it. For that reason, the post-Merkel era is as likely to bring disruption as it is to preserve continuity with the recent past.

Germany’s new coalition government – its first in 16 years without Angela Merkel as chancellor – is its first ever comprising the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the Free Democrats. Given Germany’s status as the European Union’s largest member country (economically and demographically), this changing of the guard has understandably spurred global interest in the state of German politics and the country’s economy.

What holds together this country of some 83 million people (one in five of whom is a first- or second-generation immigrant), a nation-state that has essentially open borders with all nine of its neighbors and one of the world’s most open economies?

Being rich doesn’t hurt. Germany’s per capita income is well above the EU average (though its levels of poverty and income inequality have been slowly rising). As Merkel’s successful 2017 campaign slogan put it, Germany is “a country in which we live well and happily.” German political life so far has been spared from the ravages of Brexit-style magical thinking or American-style polarization.

But there is an abiding sense of unease in German society – a suspicion that things are changing, and not for the better. That is the common thread running through the four books under review, even though they start from different places and arrive at starkly different conclusions. All fit well within the country’s long tradition of social analysis, extending from Max Weber and Georg Simmel to Ralf Dahrendorf and Jürgen Habermas. Whereas France has its philosophes, and Britain its economists, Germany relies on its sociologists to make sense of the big picture.


What can this crop of leading German thinkers tell us about the state and future of their society? For Steffen Mau, a sociologist at Humboldt University, Germany occupies a central and highly privileged position in a complex global system of borders. Moreover, that system has become even more entrenched in recent decades. According to Mau, the world has erected more walls and fortified borders in the last 20 years than in the five decades before. In 1990, there were 12 border walls worldwide; today, there are more than 70. In the 1990s, 5% of all international borders were fortified; today, about 20% are.

In an age of globalization, these facts may come as a surprise. Wasn’t the fall of the Berlin Wall 32 years ago supposed to signal a new openness, especially in terms of human mobility? Mau argues that while there was greater freedom of movement for the few, there were much greater constraints for the many. Globalization has proceeded in a context of rigid selection processes and tight controls on mobility, and Germany has been on the front lines of these developments.

Since the 1990s, the function of borders has changed. Whereas borders used to represent a hard separation between countries, now they play a more complicated role. They are a mechanism by which countries decide who is trustworthy (EU nationals, United States citizens), economically useful (information-technology specialists from India), or politically salient (Turkish dissidents, Afghan refugees). Modern borders thus are the “sorting machines” in the title of Mau’s book.

This machinery exists at many levels. First, there are macro territories like the EU’s Schengen area, where borders have indeed become less visible for those legally inside, even as they continue to exist for everyone else (even those who have been let in). At the same time, the outer borders of the macro territory have become increasingly fortified with the latest technologies. Here, people who try to enter are sorted with apps, biometrics, and even artificial intelligence.

At a second level, there is the visa sorting machine that controls who is even allowed to approach the macro territory in the first place. This brings us to the third level: holding facilities for illegal migrants, most of which are concentrated in Turkey and other peripheral countries, where they are paid for by the EU. Finally, the sorting process continues inside Germany’s borders, where a complex system of status hierarchies for non-citizens either grants or denies various privileges – such as the permission to stay or work. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this sorting regime has been extended to citizens and legal residents to identify the vaccinated and the unvaccinated.

Germany may be an exponent of globalization; but open it is not. A combination of smart technologies, data analytics, and security protocols enables it to manage migration through control and selection on its own terms, and much to its own benefit. Germans can visit 190 countries without a visa, whereas citizens of Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria can visit fewer than 30. Thus does the sorting machinery maintain global inequality. The passport (electronic, bionic, or as a printed document) assumes an importance that reminds Mau of this passage from Bertolt Brecht:

“The passport is the most noble part of a person. It does not come into being in such a simple way as a human. A human can be created anywhere, in the most reckless way and without any proper reason, but never a passport. For a passport is always recognized when it is good, while a person, however so good, may not be recognized.”


While Mau focuses on the often-overlooked trend toward strengthening international borders to manage potential internal divisions, the other three books are concerned with more general phenomena characteristic of late- or postmodern societies. For Armin Nassehi, a sociologist at the University of Munich, German society seems increasingly incapacitated, having moved from one crisis to the next. After the 2008-09 global financial crisis came the 2011 nuclear accident in Japan, prompting the German government to phase out the country’s nuclear power plants. Then came the 2015 refugee and migration crisis, which was followed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Looking ahead, the even larger climate crisis looms.

Nassehi paints a picture of a society that is restless, overwhelmed, and seemingly out of breath. People feel a sense of creeping discomfort, even though German society continues to function rather well. This paradox puzzles Nassehi, who asks how a society that gets most things more or less right nonetheless manages to generate such discomfort within its people.

A partial explanation is that Germany, like any Western society today, is highly complex, made of distinct “systems” like the economy, law, medicine, social security, religion, the arts, and, critically, politics. Each follows its own logic and seeks as much autonomy as possible. And, because all of them create ever-greater expectations over time, modern citizens feel entitled to constantly rising living standards, better health care, improved infrastructure, higher pensions, and a cleaner environment.

But these outcomes remain possible only if the relevant systems are coordinated, which is the central task of politics. With primarily self-interested systems – a tendency reinforced by NIMBYism and the professional status-consciousness of lawyers, managers, physicians, and others – expectations are easily frustrated. And when politicians respond to public discontent by offering grand solutions, they raise expectations even higher. But, caught between selfish systems that each want different things, they ultimately fail to deliver, generating still more frustration.

What can be done? Nassehi recommends that politicians and reformers seek to adjust expectations while systematically celebrating the small victories. They should avoid big promises and instill steady doses of realism into the various systems. This implies an emphasis on incremental innovations – governance aimed not at some big reform but at creating the conditions for a thousand flowers to bloom.

Let people empower themselves and celebrate their own achievements, he suggests. The liberal economist Deirdre Nansen McCloskey calls this approach “trade-tested embitterment.” An open process of trial and error will, over time, lead to proven innovations that can be scaled up. Bicycle lanes, for example, have evolved into urban bicycle traffic systems, gaining widespread acceptance and fostering healthier, less carbon-intensive lifestyles in many European cities. We need more successes like that, Nassehi argues.

The implication, then, is that German society should be less ambitious, focusing instead on the smaller things that will add up to a better whole. Grand social-democratic reform efforts are a thing of the past. Germans should now embrace a latter-day notion of liberalism and bottom-up empowerment. Politicians should operate as non-ideological stewards in search of positive-sum outcomes.

It sounds nice, but is this vision not as romantic and naive as the one it would replace? Nassehi might concede as much before asking us to offer a better answer to the question of how contemporary German society can escape the expectations trap.


Andreas Reckwitz of Humboldt University and Hartmut Rosa of Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena also see an overburdened society whose members are beset by discomfort and burnout. Their book, Late Modernity in Crisis, is in fact three books in one. In the first part, Reckwitz offers a historical analysis of the practice of modernity, asking what that concept means for the functioning of a society like Germany. Then, Rosa, borrowing from the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, presents what he calls a “best account” analysis of the here and now. And in the third section, the two authors are interviewed by the philosopher and journalist Martin Bauer.

Reckwitz sees three sources of tension at work in late-modern societies like Germany. These reflect the opposition between social openness and closure or exclusion; between formal rationality and peoples’ value- and affect-based notions of cultural belonging; and between the primacy of the new and the loss of heritage, which has deepened the hybridity of people’s identities. These dynamics have created a society where institutions and people tend to fall behind their times, demanding ever-more elaborate coping strategies, even if they have shown remarkable resilience and adaptability in the past.

This notion of unchained social and economic forces is also a major trope in Rosa’s section of the book. Like Reckwitz and Nassehi, he attributes individual feelings of distress to late-modernity’s reliance on dynamic stability: the idea that any sense of control requires constant growth and expansion. This relentless drive can be seen in the widespread system of organizational and individual performance criteria used in German business, public administration, and civil society. Everything is expected to accelerate and improve, while underlying economic and social forces are to remain the same. But this endless bureaucratization and systems-building ultimately produces burnout and estrangement.

Whereas Nassehi proposes a gradual bottom-up renewal, warning against reforms from above, Reckwitz remains largely silent on what to do, other than to propose a universal minimum income to mitigate the downward spiral facing the economically precarious. Rosa advocates a general deceleration to allow for more reflection, and to empower individuals to find themselves in their immediate surroundings. The aim should be to experience “resonance,” a feeling of self-affirmation that comes from open, reciprocal engagement with one’s local or professional community, friendship circle, and family. It is a curious and ultimately disappointing suggestion given the book’s otherwise insightful analysis of the sociology of late modernity.


For more robust proposals, we can turn to Wolfgang Streeck, a former director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne. In a scathing critique, he describes neoliberalism as a bankrupt ideology, the EU as a failing super-state, and global governance as a technocratic utopian fantasy. His book is the most policy-oriented of the four, and it does not shy away from controversial issues.

For Streeck, Germany is stuck between the nation-state and globalism. More specifically, it is caught between a social democracy that wants to tame capitalism and a liberal democracy that wants to focus on values and morals rather than class. The latter is favored by the new stratum of highly educated professionals who have benefited from globalization and who seem to be winning a culture war against social democracy, with its advocacy of national sovereignty and an economy with social protections, greater equity, and roots in local communities.

The EU, in Streeck’s view, is an undemocratic leviathan in waiting. Its core logic is toward greater centralization, loss of rootedness, and inequality. More Europe means less real democracy. For Streeck, the only path forward is “down,” toward a more democratic, decentralized, and equitable society that is nationally and regionally grounded. The project of integration and centralization that is being pursued in Brussels, Berlin, and Paris – over the heads of European societies – is an anachronistic holdover from the last decades of the twentieth century. According to Streeck, it is now doing more harm than good.

This is strong coffee, to be sure. Streeck has offered a vision that wins him applause from Germany’s far left (Die Linke), but also from its far right (whose support he would not welcome). Indeed, it is safe to assume that any hardline Brexiteer or Polexiteer would delight in his Euroskeptic polemics. He is calling for a full-on revival of the nation-state, arguing that smaller political units are better at promoting social cohesion, citizen participation, social justice, and peace. His refurbished nation-states would be modernized social democracies with small militaries (so that no country could dominate its neighbor). His new Europe thus would be a confederation of sovereign nation-states coordinated by some sort of smaller, less powerful, and certainly less ambitious EU.

Though Streeck’s analysis and central proposal are polemical, one cannot simply reject his book as a purblind fantasy. In his view, the process of clipping the EU’s wings has already begun. As he put it in a recent interview with the Frankfurter Rundschau:

“…a disintegration of the EU is indeed on the horizon, and because of too much, not too little, integration. Less deep encroachments on the sovereignty of the member states could stop the collapse; as a regional system of nation-states cooperating with each other on an equal footing and voluntarily (‘small states’), the EU could still be saved.”

What is one to make of these four books and their diagnoses? For Mau, Germans are cocooned by a web of visible and invisible borders that both shield them and hold them in place politically. For Nassehi, German society is chronically overwhelmed by demands born of great expectations. For Reckwitz and Rosa, the restless acceleration implicit in dynamic stabilization has created the sense of an endless churn. And for Streeck, Germany’s best-possible future lies in a return to the sovereign nation-state within a more loosely structured European confederation.

The crises of collective and individual identity that these books address, each in its own way, are those of contemporary Germany, but they are not unique to it. Many non-Germans would identify with these authors’ analyses, if not with their prescriptions. For that reason, the post-Merkel era is as likely to bring disruption as it is to preserve continuity with the recent past.

(Steffen Mau, Sortiermaschinen: Die Neuerfindung der Grenze im 21. Jahrhundert (Sorting Machines: The Reinvention of the Border in the Twenty-First Century), Edition Mercator C.H. Beck, 2021. Armin Nassehi, Unbehagen: Theorie der überforderten Gesellschaft (Discomfort: Theory of the Overwhelmed Society), C.H. Beck, 2021. Andreas Reckwitz and Hartmut Rosa, Spätmoderne in der Krise: Was leistet die Gesellschaftstheorie? (Late Modernity in Crisis: What Does Social Theory Achieve?), Suhrkamp, 2021 and Wolfgang Streeck, Zwischen Globalismus und Demokratie: Politische Ökonomie im ausgehenden Neoliberalismus (Between Globalism and Democracy: Political Economy in the Waning of Neoliberalism), Suhrkamp, 2021.)

Helmut K. Anheier, Adjunct Professor of Social Welfare at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, is Professor of Sociology at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.
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