In recent weeks, the debate on identity politics has flared up in Germany. The former vice-president of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Wolfgang Thierse, published a contribution in the widely circulated Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) in late February, entitled “How Much Identity Can a Society Withstand?” in which he criticized the increasingly entrenched nature of identity politics. Identity, Thierse argues, has superseded religion and ideology, as the main marker of collective and political action: “issues of ethnic, gender and sexual identity are dominating; debates about racism, postcolonialism and gender have become more heated and aggressive” (source).

Image: Ansgar Scheffold

A former president of the Bundestag, having served during the Schröder administration, and now 77 of age, Thierse’s concern is that the focus on identity tends to obliterate the central social democratic principle of distributive justice. He notes that “issues of cultural belonging now seem to agitate and divide our Western societies more than issues of distributive justice” (source). At a time where the SPD approval ratings continue to hover at all-time lows, and in the midst of an election year where the party is expect to dominate the struggling Christian Democrat Party, Thierse’ s article has been negatively received : Saskia Esken, the current co-leader of the SPD, has distanced herself – and, by extension, the party – from Thierse’s position. 

Along with Kevin Kühnert, the deputy leader of the SPD [and former head of the Working Group of Young Socialists in the SPD (Jusos)], Esken declared that some in the party were ashamed by Thierse and his “backward-looking image of the SPD” (source). In response to Thierse’s demand to clarify whether (for him) “remaining in the joint party is still desirable or rather harmful” (source), Esken quickly adopted a more conciliatory position by saying to Thierse: “we do not seek to distance ourselves from you, and we are not ashamed of you” (source) while presenting Thierse as a “commendable comrade” and “part of my community of solidarity, the SPD” (source).

Public bickering aside – which was commented upon by Neue Zürcher Zeitung journalists Christoph Prantner and Alexander Kissler as the SPD merely shaming itself (source) – the issue raised by Thierse remains. While he sees “debates about racism, post-colonialism and gender (…) as inevitable confrontations in a society that is becoming more pluralistic” (source), he also addresses particular issues associated with identity politics such as victimhood, stating that the “absolutism of one’s own being affected, the idea that I feel like a victim, therefore I am right, is murderous for a democratic culture of discussion. Because there are other people who are affected and others could say: I am also a victim, I mean the exact opposite” (source).

The theologian Richard Schröder* entered the debate and publicly backed Thierse’s position by declaring, “victims are absolutely to be heard, but they are not right per se” (source). He also publicly expressed his “outrage” about the way Esken and Kühnert dealt with Thierse. Further support for Thierse’s position was offered by Ralf Stegner, from the left wing of the party, who also criticized the manner in which the debate around identity politics was being conducted. He claimed, “rigidity and suspicion do not help in this debate” (source).

According to Thierse much of the political debate in Germany has shifted away from political collective issues towards concerns of individual affiliation: “I think the shift toward identity politics is problematic. For example, the gender pay gap is more important than language change, since Germany has the greater wage inequality between men and women than any other country in Europe” (source). Thierse, trained in German philology, is referring to what he perceives as an over-emphasis of gender-sensitive language, which he has claimed does not necessarily contribute to a type of communication that fosters community-building (source).

Image: Mika Baumeister

The underlying issue, for Thierse, however, is the erosion of his party’s voter base, which in his view is aggravated by the identity politics. Voters of Turkish origin have usually been a significant component of the SPD political basis. Thierse has expressed concerns that “The SPD is losing most of its voters of Turkish origin to the CDU and we have already lost part of the working class. That must concern us as a party!” (source). In an election year when the SPD has declared the motif of its election campaign ‘respect’, its goal is to regain voters from both the CDU and the Greens who have positioned themselves as the new voice of the German Left. Beyond the internal rift of the SPD, the identity versus ideology debate is revelatory of the political challenges ahead.

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*Richard Schröder, like Wolfgang Thierse, was born in 1943, grew in the GDR and joined the Social Democratic Party of the GDR in the year of German reunification, 1990. He served as a pastor from 1973 to 1977 and was professor for Evangelical theology at the Humboldt University in Berlin where he served a brief tenure as dean in 1993 and 1994. As a member of the SPD, he was a representative in the Bundestag and a member of the SPD’s commission for core values.