JOHN KORNBLUM, A former American ambassador to Berlin, reckons that post-war German history has moved broadly in cycles of 20 to 30 years. The first started with the birth of West Germany’s federal republic in 1949. The second began with the “1968 generation” of young progressives who asked difficult questions about the country’s past and took on its conservative establishment. The third commenced with reunification in 1990 and continued with the election of the Social Democrat-Green government in 1998. With the end of Angela Merkel’s era on the horizon (she is not expected to run again in 2021), that third period is now drawing to a close.

Her legacy may turn out to be the completion of the “red-green” project. Gerhard Schröder, her SPD predecessor, pushed through painful economic reforms and initiated a relaxation of social mores after the stuffy years of Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Mr Schröder’s government opened citizenship to immigrants without German roots. It also broke a pacifist taboo with Germany’s first military engagement since the second world war, in Kosovo. Its slogan was “for a modern Germany”. That required persuasion and argument. Joschka Fischer, Mr Schröder’s foreign minister, a Green, made the case for the Kosovo intervention to heckling at his party’s conference in 1999.

It fell to Mrs Merkel to steer the country through that period of modernisation. She has largely avoided fights. Instead her calm presence—inoffensive, stable, unpolitical even—has allowed the radical changes introduced by her predecessor to settle in, giving the cautious German public time to digest them. Her election campaign last summer epitomised the style with talk about “a country in which we live well and happily”. Even her uncharacteristically bold stance during the refugee crisis came with the soothing mantra: “We’ll manage it.”

In “Germany and the Germans”, a book about Helmut Kohl’s Germany in the mid-1990s, John Ardagh, a British writer, tells the story of a German friend who was tempted to buy a pair of outré earrings in Lyon, but decided against them because “I knew I could never wear them here…people would have been genuinely shocked.” The country described by Herfried and Marina Münkler in “The New Germans” is more open, informal and increasingly diverse, but also more fragmented and anxious. It is integrated into a roller-coaster global economy as never before, and is slowly taking on new responsibilities in the world.

Its ability to adapt is greater than many give it credit for. In 1999, as the economic costs of reunification were weighing it down, this newspaper branded it “the sick man of the euro”. But it reformed, and if anything its economy is now too strong for everyone else’s good; its giant trade surplus is in danger of destabilising the world economy. For anyone who travels through Germany today (perhaps on one of its excellent high-speed trains), its success and its stability are evident. For all its recent social and economic fragmentation, it has no French-style banlieues or American-style ghettos. A study published last year by the Bertelsmann Foundation, a think-tank, found that 80% of Germans considered themselves politically centrist, compared with only 51% of French people, even though the country had recently taken in many hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim and overwhelmingly poor immigrants.

The new Germans are more plural, more confrontational, more divided

But perhaps Germany has been spoilt. In recent years it has enjoyed “relatively low oil prices, low interest rates, a relatively moderate exchange rate”, notes Dieter Kempf, who heads the Association of German Industry (BDI). The country’s baby-boomers are only now starting to retire. New competitors such as China are not yet as good as Germany at making high-value items like luxury cars. “Germany has had it too good,” jokes Clemens Fuest, president of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research.

And it may not be doing enough to prepare for a rougher future. One example is its slow and unreliable internet. Ranked by average speed, the country dropped to 42nd place in the world last year, partly because it failed to invest enough, partly because of a tangle of red tape at federal, state and local level. And even where high-speed internet is available, the cautious Germans are slow to take it up, just as they are slow to take up other technological innovations, ranging from credit cards to social media.

Another example is the service sector, which is ludicrously over-regulated. A prohibition on chains of chemists’ shops has roots in guild laws dating from the Middle Ages. And the country’s infrastructure, though impressive, is deteriorating, partly thanks to a short-sighted debt brake limiting spending. Regional newspapers are full of stories about leaky school roofs, creaky bridges and potholed roads. The armed forces are threadbare. Tackling such challenges in the next phase of Germany post-war history will require more dynamism than the soothing Mrs Merkel has provided.

Make a noise

That starts with politics. For the past four years, when the opposition has consisted of only two small parties, political dialogue has been almost inaudible. “There was no recent debate on the opening up of society; that needs to happen now,” says Michael Bröning of the Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung, pointing to Mrs Merkel’s pro-immigration policies and the broader relaxation of social norms. An open letter published by Die Zeit, a weekly, caught the mood of last summer’s over-quiet election campaign. In it Jana Hensel, a writer, described taking her son to an election rally in Finsterwalde, a depressed town in the former east, where Mrs Merkel was giving a speech. The chancellor was interrupted by anti-immigrant protesters but ignored them and plodded on. Ms Hensel was dismayed. “One, two, three sentences would have done the job,” she wrote. “You are so powerful and you were standing on a large stage. Everyone was waiting for you to say something.”

That crowd exemplifies the new Germans: more plural, more confrontational, more divided. And just as Mrs Merkel should have taken on the hecklers in Finsterwalde, she and her political successors should “Just Do Politics At Last!”, the title of a book by Christian Ude, a former mayor of Munich, published last year. Mrs Merkel’s calm style was broadly right for the period of settling Germany in after the reforms of the early 2000s, but it would be wrong for the next phase. As the Münklers write: “The greater the ethnic and religious variety of a society, the more it needs a guiding narrative.” They imagine Germany’s more open future as one of “permanent negotiation”. The meaning of being German, the difference between the sustainable and the unsustainable parts of the country’s economic model, the hard work needed to heal divides in society, the new expectations of Germany on the international stage—all this requires explanation and argument.

The early signs are encouraging. The new coalition deal at least calls for “enlivening public debates, making differences open and thus strengthening democracy”. After the SPD’s long internal battle over whether to join the coalition, the party feels a greater need to differentiate itself. Struggles within Mrs Merkel’s CDU about its future are just beginning. And the arrival of the AfD in the Bundestag has forced mainstream politicians to take on its ideas. Mr Bröning thinks it is “good for democracy” for those who feel left out to be represented.

In February Cem Özdemir, the outgoing leader of the Greens, addressed an electrifying speech at the AfD’s MPs to cheers in the Bundestag: “You despise everything for which this country is respected throughout the world.” What made him proud to be German, he went on to say, was the country’s diversity and its culture of remembrance. The son of Turkish guest workers was sketching out a whole new vision of Germany: multiethnic, sensitive to its past and confident about its future. The battle to which he was challenging the right-wingers will define Germany’s next historical cycle.