21 April 2019
Being the largest and second most populous state in Germany, Bavaria has long been the economic powerhouse of the country. Photo: Geocurrents
Being the largest and second most populous state in Germany, Bavaria has long been the economic powerhouse of the country. Photo: Geocurrents

Is Bavaria likely to break off from Germany?

While separatist sentiments have been sweeping across Europe in recent years, Germany appears to be immune to this rising tide, with Chancellor Angela Merkel often being hailed as the symbol of European unity.

However, the truth is, things in Germany are not what they seem. The country is actually facing an undercurrent of looming separatism, which is the rise of nationalism in the state of Bavaria in recent years.

Nationalist sentiments in Bavaria date back a very long time. And like Prussia in the 19th century, Bavaria was a mighty German state in its own right that had a unique sense of cultural and national identity of its own.

Moreover, even though Bavarians are also Germanic people, unlike the vast majority of other Germans, most of the indigenous people in Bavaria are staunch Roman Catholics.

As such, religiously and culturally speaking, Bavaria actually identifies more with Austria and France than with the rest of Germany. And for centuries, Bavaria has remained fiercely against Protestantism embraced by Prussia and other German states.

During the creation of the German Empire between 1866 and 1871, Bavaria was annexed by Prussia and became part of the Second Reich.

However, even after the German unification, Bavaria remained defiant in the face of the absolute authority of the central government in Berlin, insisting on adopting “one country, two systems” and refusing to assimilate into the rest of the reich.

The disintegration of the Second Reich after World War I was a huge shot in the arm for Bavarian nationalists. Yet, they were seriously split over what form of government they were going to adopt for an independent Bavaria: while some favored monarchy, others preferred a republic or suggested merging with Austria.

In the meantime, some Bavarian nationalists aligned themselves with the communists and established the very short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic.

Yet, the independence movement of Bavaria was quickly put down by the Allied powers. After that, the southeastern German state became part of the Weimar Republic.

Although Bavaria’s bid for independence had failed, nationalist sentiments remained strong in the state, thereby giving rise to the Bavarian People’s Party (BVP). At one point, the BVP had become so popular and powerful that it made an attempt to seize power and declare independence during the inter-war years.

On the other hand, the Nazis also managed to gain foothold in Munich, the state capital and largest city of Bavaria, and went on to sweep to power by playing upon the nationalist sentiments among Bavarians.

After Germany was defeated in 1945, the Bavarians made another attempt at independence, only to be struck down once again by the Allied Powers. And then in the post-war years that followed, nationalist sentiments in Bavaria began to subside.

However, in recent years, nationalism has begun to regain momentum in Bavaria. Yet, unlike in previous cases, what gave rise to the resurrection of nationalism in the German state this time was no longer cultural or religious factors but rather economic concerns.

Being the largest and second most populous state in Germany, Bavaria has long been the economic powerhouse of the country and home to some of the most famous German manufacturers such as BMW and Audi, thanks to its successful transformation from an agricultural economy into an industrial economy in the post-war years.

In fact, given Bavaria’s economic strength and its significant lead over other German states in terms of GDP, as a separate country, it would be among the 20 biggest economies in the world.

In the eyes of many Bavarian nationalists, they don’t see any reason why they should continue to share their wealth with other poorer German states.

Besides, while Germany is a welfare state, the federal government in Berlin relies heavily on corporate tax to pay for its enormous expenditures on social welfare.

As Bavaria is among the states that give the most to the German federal government, many Bavarians are getting increasingly fed up with playing “giver” in the federation and subsidizing other “takers”.

However, even though the idea of seeking independence is gaining ground again in Bavaria, technically speaking, it is not going to work at least for now, because the current German constitution forbids unilateral secession of any state from the federation.

Today the Bavaria Party (BP) is spearheading the nationalist movement in Bavaria.

Despite the fact that the party only took 2 percent of the vote in the local elections in 2013, there is still a lot of potential for the BP to expand its political influence in the days ahead, which could become a headache for Merkel.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 2

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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