Germany's first post-War generation had cause for optimism. But their descendants have a different, darker outlook, poll numbers suggest.
BERLIN — Is belief in a better world the exception? Do we expect humans to destroy the world rather than make it better? The Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion Research found in a recent survey for the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that belief in progress has once again fallen.
In fact, the numbers are now the lowest since the survey began, 50 years ago — especially among youth. That could be a danger signal.
The survey results are also, at first glance, not really surprising. For the two generations that now occupy the leading positions in politics and the media, the most impressive element of their youth was not the successful reconstruction of the country but the consequences of seemingly misguided, rash, blind investments in the future.
The cornerstones of their coming age were not Sputnik, the moon landing, the availability of antibiotics, color TV or the Interrail Youth Ticket, but the finite nature of resources and the dangers of technology. This generation's scariest moment wasn't the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It was the 1986 reactor accident in Chernobyl.
And so, for this generation, saying "no" was the natural attitude: No to forests dying, no to the ozone hole and to acid rain, no to atomic energy, no to missile upgrading. An underlying fear of overpopulation kicked in. Ecological and political claustrophobia were constantly part of the debate.
For such a generation, 1989 was therefore not necessarily the miracle year in which Europe became united again. For them, the end of the German Democratic Republic was perhaps the collapse of a state, of a whole order, more than return to normality. Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union followed suit in the collapse.
The Greens marked this feeling with their slogan for the general election campaign in 1990: Everyone talks about Germany, we talk about the weather. This generation's latent expectation of a downfall became stronger 20 years later with the financial crisis, Fukushima and constant climate warnings. Tucked in between was 9/11. And then came the revelations of Edward Snowden on the possibilities of daily digital surveillance. With the wave of migration, the generation that feared collapse got louder even on the right.
The aftereffect of the greatest collapse of German history in 1945 prevents all this from turning into mass hysteria. Nobody forgets that the Nazis used, and abused, a specific fear of the future during the Great Depression. But the big No as a basic democratic principle has dug deep into the consciousness.
Standstill is a keyword. A second momentum is needed for latent fear of the future to turn into widespread pessimism. The concrete political situation must be unclear and indefinably dangerous in order to make fears more prevalent.
Back in 1993, the Allensbach Institute registered another spike in pessimism. At that time, the unification euphoria had turned into fear that East Germany would become so poor it would drag the West down with it. At the same time, Yugoslavia fell into a civil war. German politics suddenly seemed to have run out of ideas.
The concrete political situation must be unclear and indefinably dangerous
Today things looks similar. Internet euphoria has turned into fear of surveillance. The euphoria over a united Europe is giving way to fears of collapse. The once-clear values scale is being replaced by Trump's unpredictability, Erdogan's polemics, Brexit and the rise of China. The political success of the global agreement to limit temperature rise by two degrees Celcius comes with the admission that this goal will not be achieved.
In the meantime, German domestic policy seems to be in a rut again, with no goal, no clear priority, no clear leadership.
Youth say no to a climate policy that is taking its time, and Angela Merkel says no to being chairman of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and no to staying on as chancellor but without resigning. Everything is in limbo, nothing is decided, and it is hard to recognize who could decide. The Greens and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party collect the voices of the impatient and the clueless. Together, they reach around 30-35% of the votes in the polls. They unite the third of Germans who want to see the Gordian knot cut and feel change.
Twelve years ago, on April 26, 1997, then Federal President Roman Herzog said, upon returning from a trip to Asia, that "a bold vision of the future" would be designed and implemented there. "What do I see in Germany? Here, predominantly despair. A sense of paralysis lays over our society." Germany, he said, had to "get a grip."
Herzog added: "And yet I believe in young people." Of course, he knew that polls said that "parts of the youth are starting to doubt our system's ability to survive and reform." But he told them, "If you no longer trust the "system," then at least trust yourself!" They are doing that right now.
Then change came. Politics moved to Berlin and a new government took over. Pessimism disappeared as fast as it had come. In 1999, the number of optimists in the annual Allensbach survey was higher than in 1989. When politics gets going again, pessimism of the future shrinks back to its normal level.