The Platform

Old city hall, Bamberg, Bavaria, Germany, ca. 1895.

Liberalism in Germany is a complex and multifaceted concept.

The 20th century witnessed a continuous struggle of ideologies, among which liberalism emerged as a surviving force. However, the prominence of liberalism, once envisioned by Francis Fukuyama, has diminished, at least in the Atlantic world. The era of the social democratic century, with its socialist leanings, appears to be fading away.

While some retreats on the left can be observed, there seems to be a vague, liberal consensus. The principles of the rule of law, market economy, human rights, and civil rights are universally recognized as democratic guidelines. Liberal ideas have permeated society in various forms, making it difficult to pinpoint a singular “pure doctrine.”

The word “liberal” itself carries contradictory connotations, reflecting its inherent polemical nature. Economic liberalism and opposition to social welfare measures are frequently criticized as being detached from social concerns. The ideology of neoliberal capitalism, justifying new constraints in the face of globalization, attracts allegations of being socially indifferent. Conversely, a liberalization of society is often seen as a means of modernization and emancipation from traditional constraints, prioritizing freedom and countering the negative perception of liberalism as an ideology that disregards the socially disadvantaged.

This list of colloquial customs and contradictions could go on, highlighting the challenges of defining a political theory based on liberalism. However, when it comes to the Federal Republic of Germany, the problem persists that despite efforts to appreciate the merits of social and political liberalization, few individuals feel compelled to engage in a substantive discussion of liberalism. In German intellectual history, explicit declarations of political liberalism are rare, and even the Free Democratic Party (FDP), as a self-proclaimed liberal party, has struggled to establish a coherent intellectual framework or rationale for its political program.

Constructing a pantheon of liberal thinkers has proven even more challenging due to the absence of influential figures who embody the historical representation of liberalism. Friedrich Naumann, the namesake of the FDP’s foundation, falls short as a personal replacement. Max Weber, an eminent contemporary of Naumann and a towering figure in political and social science, also proves difficult to fully capture within the realm of liberalism.

Despite Germany’s unique historical trajectory following the Second World War, which necessitated a significant reevaluation and consolidation of liberal values, the location of liberalism within the Federal Republic remains elusive. The formative years of the country can indeed be characterized as a process of assimilating Western liberal traditions, as Jürgen Habermas argued. Democracy, pluralism, parliamentarianism, and critical public debate—essentially, the guiding principles of the liberal constitutional state—had to be reaffirmed and solidified in their relevance. While this common foundation allows for various democratic perspectives, it does not generate a unified concept of liberalism.
Germany’s specific history of liberalism has been shaped by its failures since 1848.

The liberal goals of unity and freedom were not realized, and the country did not experience a bourgeois revolution. The influence of national liberalism, which became dominant in politics since the founding of the German Reich through its accommodation with the monarchical authorities, posed a significant constraint. The predicament of nominal liberalism in Germany is evident in the German State Party’s support for the Enabling Act, betraying liberal principles in favor of assumed power responsibility. Consequently, German liberalism faced compromise on two fronts after 1945: on one hand, it had sacrificed its ideals for “realpolitik” considerations, as exemplified by Ludwig von Rochau’s observations, and on the other hand, it hindered the development of an active civic social policy necessary for promoting a democratic political culture.

It is not a new observation that Germany’s affinity for the idea of freedom is limited. When in doubt, the preference often leans towards the comforting embrace of an all-encompassing welfare state, which greets newcomers with bureaucratic procedures and responds to every challenge, no matter how simple, with a multitude of new laws. The lack of trust in citizens’ ability to provide for their own well-being or make responsible choices leads to excessive reliance on state intervention.

In contrast, the concept of liberalism is commonly associated with capital markets or seen as self-serving. In essence, freedom in Germany is often equated with free beer and trivial entitlements, without sufficiently recognizing that freedom and responsibility go hand in hand. The belief that the state should take care of everything, resulting in the reluctance to acknowledge parental responsibility, is detrimental. The German tendency to address problems by imposing bans or throwing money at them exemplifies the two prevailing approaches. For instance, the Christian Democratic Union’s proposal to implement an alcohol ban at certain train stations due to a sexual assault involving a drunk individual is as misguided as any other knee-jerk reaction. This behavior reflects a classical German inclination to regulate, even though children of terrorists are treated like terrorists themselves, while conveniently disregarding the fact that such measures do not address the root causes effectively.

The same pattern emerges in debates around issues like violent video games, where conservatives, in particular, advocate for prohibition rather than addressing underlying concerns. Similarly, discussions surrounding financial investments highlight the pervasive focus on money across all political parties in Germany. Any mention that real poverty is not prevalent is seen as political suicide. Criticizing the state’s provision of a relatively good life for the children of the unemployed, ensuring they have food and shelter, is considered social agitation or dismissing the reality of poverty. Superfluous aspects like vacations or cultural events are readily discussed, despite their non-vital nature. Political parties advocate for free education, while teachers’ salaries and school supplies remain the responsibility of individuals—an inconsistency concealed from the public despite being funded by taxpayers.

It is evident that intervention is necessary when parents abuse their children, a problem prevalent in every country. However, solving such issues cannot be achieved solely through monetary means. Citizens often express surprise when the state, despite its best intentions, intervenes in every aspect of their lives, conflicting with their self-interest. Personal responsibility is an integral part of freedom, but it remains a foreign concept in Germany. It is ironic that Germany perceives itself to have a significant problem with child poverty. Given the country’s low birth rate of 1.4 children per woman, which poses a substantial demographic challenge, the focus should be on this aspect instead of artificially inflating concerns.

Liberalism in Germany is a complex and multifaceted concept. The prevalence of liberal ideas in the country remains obscured, with liberalism often superficially portrayed. While German citizens tend to elect representatives from a wide range of parties, they are equally wary of excessive political interference in their lives. Germany’s relationship with liberalism can be characterized as cautiously neutral, with a tendency to prioritize moral concerns.

Eva Kneifel is studying Politics and History at FernUniversität Campus Hagen.