German Millennials, Their Weltanschauung, and the Transatlantic Relationship

Patricia Albermann

Sciences Po Paris

Patricia Albermann is a graduate student at Sciences Po Paris, pursuing a master’s degree in European Affairs with a specialization in EU External Relations. For the course of her graduate studies, she was awarded a scholarship from the Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes. Ms. Albermann received her BA in International Studies with a regional focus on North America from Leiden University in 2018, where she participated in a study abroad program with Université Laval in Canada. In between her BA and MA, Ms. Albermann completed several internships in Berlin, Washington, DC, and Brussels, at the Federal Foreign Office and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, among others. Prior to her studies, Ms. Albermann spent a gap year in Cleveland, Ohio.

Germany’s millennials are a growing force in politics, as the “Fridays for Future” protests demonstrate. Climate activist Carla Reemtsma called the September 2019 demonstrations “the biggest protest, at least since reunification, probably ever since demonstrations in Germany have been documented.” The interest of German millennials, those born between the mid-1980s and the late 1990s, in politics and political participation has steadily increased since the early 2000s. It is a generation that “wields its political power” and “speaks up,” as demonstrated in the latest Shell Youth Study. While it is a familiar phenomenon for younger generations to rebel against their elders, in the German case the rebellion is here to stay. What is the character of this younger generation, whose members will soon hold crucial positions in politics and business? How do German millennials see Germany’s role in the world and especially, how do they view the transatlantic relationship? With President Donald Trump marking the beginning of a new, more isolationist U.S. foreign policy, and a German generation that grew up without the experience of U.S. leadership during the Cold War, do German millennials still value the transatlantic bond?

What has recently become clear is that younger Germans want a more ambitious foreign policy. So with regard to the upcoming federal elections next year, German politicians may want to keep an eye on the millennials. While this age cohort does not constitute the biggest voting bloc, investing in the political support of young voters pays off, and not only because young leaders will soon enter the halls of government and business. According to Pew Research, how young people vote in their first elections can have a lasting impact on their political habits, which barely change during the course of their lives.

Children of Peace, Unity, and Prosperity

German millennials grew up during peaceful, stable, and prosperous times. When the Germans were joyfully celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, millennials were either too young to remember or not even born. They grew up with the free movement of people within the Schengen zone and perceive the euro as self-evident. In 2020, 70 percent of German millennials, 18 percent more than the overall German average, agreed that globalization has been good for them personally. While the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the subsequent war in Iraq, and the economic crisis of 2008 constitute significant events that this generation experienced (and took some to the streets), the number of demonstrators in those early days were relatively small, especially when compared to Greta Thunberg’s recent “Fridays for Future” demonstrations. The economic crisis also had a minor impact on German youth, as Germany had the lowest youth unemployment rates of all EU member states. This prompted millennials to generally have an optimistic outlook on their private and professional futures—not exactly stirring up rebellious political sentiments. Thus, it is no surprise that previous Shell Youth Studies have termed this generation “pragmatic and not ideological,” which, in fact, is in line with the overall German mentality and attitude summed up by former chancellor Helmut Schmidt who said “people with visions should go see a doctor.”

In 2020, 70 percent of German millennials, 18 percent more than the overall German average, agreed that globalization has been good for them personally.

This early satisfaction with the status quo also expressed itself in the nascent voting behavior of young Germans. Many millennials used to cast their first votes for the Volksparteien such as the Christian or Social Democrats, although they lack a firm conviction for the ideas the parties stand for. Since Germany under Merkel has been very well-off economically, especially in comparison to the situation of millennials in other EU countries, this satisfaction often resulted in a vote for the CDU/CSU (which won 25 percent of the millennial vote in the 2017 Bundestag election)—even if these voters began to feel that the interests of their generation were actually better represented by the Greens.

The recent Green movement has tapped into this gap between voting behavior and real conviction, making the two converge. In the European elections last year, almost 30 percent of Germans younger than 30 voted for the Greens; Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats still came in second, but lagged far behind with only 13 percent. Climate change has become the determining factor for this generation, or put differently, “it’s the climate, stupid”.When asked about the biggest challenges for German foreign policy, German millennials rank “environment/climate/energy” as by far the most important challenge. It must be stressed that the majority of Germans believe in the importance of climate protection, and the coalition government of Christian and Social Democrats has addressed it in its policies, as opposed to the U.S., where climate change remains a partisan issue. Nevertheless, for Germans 65 years and older this issue is only the fourth of six most important challenges to them. Even in times of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change remains by far the most pressing global issue for young Germans at 37 percent, followed by global health crises coming in second at 27 percent.

When asked about the biggest challenges for German foreign policy, German millennials rank “environment/climate/energy” as by far the most important challenge.

In the fall 2021 Bundestag elections, this growing trend in millennial views that differ from their parents will have an impact, but the magnitude is hard to discern. The handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly increased the approval ratings of the CDU/CSU, and if elections were held today, the chancellor would come from the CDU/CSU. It would have two options to form a coalition: either continue the Grand Coalition with the SPD or form a coalition with the Greens, which have lost the most during the pandemic (6 percent) but still come in second. The latter would be an unprecedented constellation on the national level. Eighteen months is a long time in politics, and a lot can change. For instance, part of the high approval ratings for the CDU/CSU can be ascribed to Merkel, who will not be running again next year. Furthermore, it is not clear how long the CDU/CSU’s pandemic “bump” will last. The importance to voters of environmental issues, along with the Greens’ record as part of the 1998-2005 federal coalition, and their experience governing in many states may make them a credible option for a larger portion of the population than ever before.

Trending Away from Transatlantic?

The youth is the hope of our future—at least this is how the saying goes. But does this apply to the future of the transatlantic relationship as well? In 2019, half of all German millennials rated the current relationship between Germany and the U.S. as “somewhat bad.” Moreover, and this will come as no surprise, 46 percent of Germans aged 18 to 34 believe, more than any other age cohort, that the re-election of Donald Trump in November 2020 will be “very bad” for the U.S.-German relationship. While closer cooperation with the current U.S. administration on climate change is difficult, what do millennials think of the security and defense collaboration that has constituted the bedrock of the transatlantic relationship? And what implications are there for the German parties?

NATO has been the institutional foundation of the transatlantic relationship for the past seventy years. Without the American military contribution through its troops in Germany there would be neither nuclear deterrence nor an ensured military defense of Europe in the case of an attack. Due to the legacy of the Cold War, particularly the older generations in Germany are well aware of the importance of the U.S. military bases and American nuclear deterrence for Germany’s national security. Sixty-one percent of Germans over 50 consider U.S. bases important or very important. The difference with German millennials is striking: Only 33 percent think they are important or very important, while 62 percent believe they are “less important” or “not important at all.”

Trump’s plan to withdraw 9,500 U.S. troops from Germany comes against the backdrop of a renewed German debate on the future of the alliance. In 2018, 59 percent of Germans affiliated with the Green Party and 51 percent of Germans 34 and younger said that their view of NATO was “somewhat positive.” In Germany, the president’s withdrawal plans have so far only received significant support from the Left Party. Prior to Trump’s announcement, however, the parliamentary leader of the Social Democrats had called for the end of German participation in NATO “nuclear sharing” and for the withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Germany. Having a debate in Germany about defense issues is welcomed, given that such discussions are rare. Millennials are the least supportive of Germany’s being under the U.S. nuclear umbrella; the debate about nuclear policy will be an attempt to win over millennials to a significant degree.

Regarding the future of the U.S. nuclear umbrella, only 15 percent of young Germans would like to see their country continue to rely on the U.S. nuclear guarantee, compared to 28 percent of the 50 to 64-year-olds.Moreover, almost half of the millennials that participated in the survey would be willing to double Germany’s defense spending in order to achieve greater independence from the U.S. The desire to become more independent from the U.S. is due partially to the negative image of the U.S. president in Germany. According to data by Forschungsruppe Wahlen (April 2019) and a report by Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), only 14.4 percent of Germans under 30 would want Germany to increase its involvement in conflict resolution, including militarily. At the same time, however, younger millennials no longer steadfastly refuse the use of military force and are more open to it if it serves an explicitly defined goal, such as the fight against terrorism.

In 2019, 60 percent of German millennials believed that Germany should become more strongly involved in international crises.

Nevertheless, in more general terms, it seems that the pacifist values are still dear to German millennials, albeit with a growing demand for a more active German foreign policy. For some years many officials and politicians have been advocating for taking “more international responsibility”—but it is only now that this seems to actually resonate, especially with the younger public. In 2019, 60 percent of German millennials believed that Germany should become more strongly involved in international crises, as opposed to among Germans 50 years and older. The report by GPPi showed that this aspiration applies to all young voters regardless of what political party they are affiliated with, except for the supporters of the SPD. For instance, 65 percent of the Germans under 30 who vote for the Greens want Germany to take on more responsibility and only 29 percent say Germany is already doing enough. This signifies that in the next federal elections, parties could appeal to young voters with a platform calling for a more active foreign policy.

The attitude toward China of young Germans is another interesting datapoint to examine in the context of the upcoming federal election and the future of the transatlantic relationship. Presidential candidate Joe Biden has recently suggested building “a united front of U.S. allies” vis-à-vis China. Indeed, a stronger U.S.-Europe alliance could generate much more pressure on the Middle Kingdom, particularly regarding Chinese investments in strategic sectors of the European economy and finding a Western answer to deploying Chinese 5G equipment in Europe. While the cooperation Biden suggests could bring new impetus to the transatlantic partnership, it is unclear how feasible it would be with the German public. When asked about what is more important for Germany, either having close relations with the U.S. or close relations with China, the German public as a whole is rather split, with 37 percent prioritizing the former and 36 percent favoring the latter. Among German millennials the picture is clearer—at a disadvantage to the U.S.: 46 percent of Germans aged 18 to 34 think that a close relationship with China is more important as opposed to 35 percent who advocate closer relations with the U.S. What could hamper the idea of a “united front” as well is the fact that half of German millennials reject the idea that Germany and Europe should adopt a tougher trade policy toward China like the U.S. has done. Although, when specifically reminded of the Chinese authoritarian government, including its strong restrictions on human rights, 53 percent of German millennials consider the Chinese model of state capitalism “very bad,” 50 percent see the growing Chinese global influence as “neutral.” These contradicting results suggest that young Germans have yet to make up their minds on where they stand on China and can possibly be influenced by one side or the other.

Politicians of all parties should not assume the rising generation of German voters will vote like their parents or grandparents.

Politicians of all parties should not assume the rising generation of German voters will vote like their parents or grandparents. As the federal elections get closer one thing is clear: German millennials have become increasingly more passionate and vocal about their political standpoints. Their drive to draw attention to the perils of climate change has caused a “green wave” in the European elections in 2019 and as of now, it looks as if this trend will manifest itself in the German federal elections in 2021. For a couple of years many German politicians have been advocating for taking more international responsibility. Now this is beginning to increasingly resonate with the German public and its millennials, in particular. While they remain skeptical of military intervention in general, millennials are more open to it if it serves an explicitly defined goal. Therefore, running on an ambitious foreign policy platform, with the entire spectrum of foreign policy tools, could greatly resonate with this generation. Unsurprisingly, with regard to the transatlantic relationship, the times have certainly changed. Although NATO is generally seen as something positive, the importance of U.S. military presence in Germany for German and European security is not clear to most young Germans at all. This could easily play into the hands of parties on both ends of the political spectrum.The parties have a lot of work to do between now and the federal elections if they want to win over a new generation that does not see the world the way their parents did.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.