Bismarck is reputed to have said that when the end of the world came, he would move to Mecklenburg, as everything happened 50 years later there. Today even in Berlin, events can move very slowly, and enormous effort is devoted to the avoidance of difficult questions.
But the Germans now have to contemplate how they are going to manage without Angela Merkel. For her failure, in the eight weeks since her party’s disappointing election result, to put together a coalition with the Greens and the Free Democrats – a failure dramatised by the latter’s walk-out from talks just before midnight on Sunday – indicates that she has entered the twilight of her long rule.
She has served as Chancellor for 12 years, and leader of the Christian Democrats for 17, after having the wit and courage to overthrow her predecessor and mentor, Helmut Kohl. He was Chancellor for 16 years, and leader of the party for 25, by using every kind of method, reputable and disreputable, to build and maintain a consensus in the political class.
After German reunification in 1990, he went full steam ahead for the euro, a policy in which his opponents, the Social Democrats, believed more than his own Christian Democrats. But Kohl’s own followers had nowhere else to go, and the German political class voted en masse to get rid of the national currency.
When the euro went wrong, Merkel stepped in to save it. Her abilities as a crisis manager were second to none. Through the long agony of Greece, she held the single currency together.
And like Kohl, she stole her opponents’ clothes. After the Fukushima disaster in 2011, she suddenly decided to get her country out of nuclear power, even though, as a scientist, she knew the programme had not become in the slightest bit less safe, for tidal waves do not generally occur on the coast of Germany.
In 2015, when the European refugee crisis reached its height, she likewise decided to do what her opponents, rather than her own Christian Democrats, considered the right thing. She opened Germany’s borders, announcing over and over again, “Wir schaffen das” – “We can do it”.
But many Germans were not at all sure they wanted to do it. The question had become a divisive one. It is one reason why the coalition talks have broken down, with the Greens saying any Syrian who has reached Germany should be able to bring his family into the country, while the Free Democrats say illegal immigrants should be sent back.
Kohl’s and Merkel’s reigns lasted a long time because they were power politicians of exceptional ability, who knew there was nowhere else for conservatives to go: no party to the right of the Christian Democrats and their Bavarian allies, the Christian Social Union.
So their opponents could be dismissed as cranks, extremists and nationalists, who were betraying the upright post-war West (and then united) Germany, and yearned to return to the bad old days of the Nazi period.
This was good politics. It was also in a sense democratic, for although it suppressed dissent, it created consensus, which was what many Germans wanted. That, after all, is how German industry is run, and one cannot say, when one looks at the prosperity of so many German firms, that the method of securing the consent of all concerned has been a total failure.
It is also how the European Union is run. Life in Brussels is a permanent negotiation, with powerful forces grappling beneath the surface, and the possibility of failure never admitted, however bad things look.
In Germany, this was a way of avoiding the national question. The political class was not ready to discuss that question, let alone answer it. Even as it reunified Germany, it insisted on its belief in Europe and the euro.
Alternative for Germany (AfD), set up by some learned professors, accepted the first part of this – Europe – but disputed the viability of the second part – the euro. Quite soon their party was taken over by rougher elements, who are less inclined to make that distinction, are very hostile to immigration, and eight weeks ago won almost 13 per cent of the vote.
So there is now a party to the right of the Christian Democrats. And the Free Democrats, led by Christian Lindner, who took almost 11 per cent of the vote, are clearly profiling themselves as the reputable opposition to the right of the Christian Democrats: the party which offers a home to learned professors, civilised business people, and ordinary, law-abiding Germans who think their country’s ability to absorb refugees is not unlimited.
Put these two opposition parties together, and one finds that almost a quarter of the German people have rejected Merkel on what one might call right-wing grounds (much though I dislike the term).
Meanwhile the Social Democrats, though much diminished, still account for just over 20 per cent of the vote, and the Left and the Greens for about nine per cent each.
Merkel has just under 33 per cent, down from over 41 per cent at the last election in 2013, and a third of the vote is not enough for her to dominate everyone else. The great consensus builder can no longer build consensus, so she is doomed.
What does this mean for Brexit? Germany is in a state of paralysis. There will probably be new elections, but it is far from certain that these will produce a more decisive result.
So Germany will remain for a time on autopilot. The Government will be run by officials, who have no mandate to change course, nor any idea that a change of course might be desirable. Europe, the default setting since the 1950s, will continue to prevail.
From the British point of view, this is distinctly inconvenient. For Brussels also is on autopilot. There too the course set in the 1950s continues to command unthinking assent from functionaries and politicians who have invested their entire careers in the system.
There is in fact no one with whom we can negotiate in Berlin, and no one in Brussels. Merkel’s downfall and replacement will probably come too late to have any bearing on the Brexit talks.
Her predicament is a sign that the present state of affairs is unsustainable, but also that neither Germany nor the EU has accepted this. Should Theresa May side with the old order, or try, perhaps sooner than is feasible, to create a new one?
A tricky judgment, and the option of sitting things out in Mecklenburg for the next 50 years does not exist.