Just two years have passed since Europe’s centrist Mutti, Angela Merkel, left the stage she had dominated since 2005. Now another formidable woman aims to smash the Merkel mould forever.
Like the former German chancellor, Sahra Wagenknecht was a loyal communist until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the East German state promptly collapsed. Otherwise, she and Mrs Merkel are polar opposites.
After decades as the poster girl of the hard Left, she is setting up a new party, modestly named the “Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance” (BSW). Only in Germany, where “normal” politicians aspire to be dull in order to avoid Hitlerian comparisons, would an anti-establishment party based on the charisma of its leader stand a chance.
The BSW will appeal to voters who have abandoned mainstream politics in favour of the far-Right populist Alternative for Germany (AFD).
Her argument is simple: “Germans don’t vote for the AFD because they’re Right-wing. They vote for [it] because they’re angry.”
Like many former communists, Ms Wagenknecht, 54, is a social conservative and an anti-globalist. She is against mass immigration and multiculturalism; she refused to be vaccinated during the pandemic; she is hostile to costly green policies; and she is fiercely anti-woke.
Perhaps the most problematic aspects of Ms Wagenknecht’s brand of “Left conservatism” are her implacable opposition to Nato and her passionate support for Putin’s Russia.
Since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, she has demanded an end to sanctions and a “peace” that would legitimise Russian occupation.
In common with both Kremlin propagandists and the hard Right in Germany, Ms Wagenknecht tells working-class families that they are being held to ransom by Anglo-American monopoly capitalists who are driving up energy prices and prolonging the war for their own gain.
Indeed, a part of the Wagenknecht base consists of conspiracy theorists who are convinced that Germany is only a sham democracy. She also exploits Ostalgie (nostalgia for East Germany) by claiming that the Federal Republic is “no more democratic” than the old communist regime.
The grain of truth in her claims is the fact that the German political system does make it hard for voters to kick out unpopular governments.
The present “traffic-light” coalition of centre-Left Social Democrats (SPD), liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and Greens has slumped in the polls. Yet Merkel stayed in office for 16 years by changing coalition partners.
Admittedly, the present Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, is far more despised than Mrs Merkel ever was. The German economy has teetered on the brink of recession since the war began, winter is coming and the outlook is bleak.
The crisis in Israel and Gaza has inflamed the German migration debate – already reignited by more than a million Ukrainian refugees. The Wagenknecht solution is crude but effective: “There shouldn’t be any neighbourhoods where natives are in the minority.”
Ever since the Merkel government opened the door to millions of refugees from the Middle East eight years ago, simmering resentment against the failure to police the borders has periodically boiled over into protests.
Last month, an anti-Israel rally in the diverse Neukölln district of Berlin left 65 police officers injured, while the resurgence of anti-Semitism has shaken a nation more accustomed to parading its anti-Nazi credentials than to questioning their validity.
Thanks to her Iranian father, Ms Wagenknecht has no hang-ups about demanding much tougher policies, both on the integration of German Muslims (now numbering some six million) and on border security.
The Wagenknecht phenomenon is already putting pressure on Berlin. Germany is one of several EU members now exploring Rwanda-style policies to deal with asylum-seekers off-shore.
Any resemblance between Sahra Wagenknecht and Suella Braverman is, however, superficial; many of Ms Wagenknecht’s views are closer to Jeremy Corbyn’s. Not only is she for a ceasefire in Gaza and against sending arms to Israel or Ukraine, but she advocates the dismantling of Nato. In Moscow, where she is seen as one of Germany’s Putinversteher (“Putin understanders”), they call her a “National Bolshevik”.
For British Remainers who still idealise Europe, the forces represented by Ms Wagenknecht are the stuff of nightmares. The EU is increasingly dominated by politicians who could, like her, be described as national conservatives (such as Italy’s Giorgia Meloni) or national socialists (Slovakia’s Robert Fico).
A Left-wing Eurosceptic, she has been consistently critical of the euro, open borders and many other aspects of the EU. Even after Brexit, she defended the British decision to hold a referendum – in a country that has a constitutional ban on plebiscites.
But will the Wagenknecht experiment work? She has taken nine other MPs from the old Left to launch her new platform in January. Polls suggest that she might gain anything from 12 to 20 per cent of the German vote, and up to 30 per cent in the East – enough to form a sizeable parliamentary bloc.
Wagenknecht is an unabashed demagogue in a land of machine politicians. However attractive the dark horse from Jena may seem to politically homeless conservatives, they will sooner or later wake up to an unpalatable truth.
She is hardly the first German leader to combine nationalism, socialism and populism. And at heart, Wagenknecht remains an unreconstructed Stalinist.