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Tuesday, October 01, 2002


The Winds of Politics: Germany 2002

Midway through this past summer, the winds of German politics, in so far as they could be measured from the banks of the Neckar River in Heidelberg, seemed to be blowing stoutly in the direction of Edmund Stoiber’s CDU-CSU (Christian Democratic Union-Christian Social Union) coalition. Now, only about two months later, the opposing Red-Green faction, marshaled by the Social Democrats’ Gerhard Schröder (and the Green party’s Joschka Fischer), has reasserted its hold on the German parliament. What caused the German voter to tack so hastily?

Stoiber’s midsummer lead very largely resulted from Germany’s sputtering economy. In particular, unemployment, which Schröder had pledged to leash, proved painfully recalcitrant (indeed, it still hovers at something like 10 percent). Thus, the conservative minister president of still-flush Bavaria could bludgeon his opponent with a fiscal club. But then, Munich’s media mogul, Leo Kirch, failed spectacularly (an ill-fated foray into pay-per-view television was the straw that ultimately broke this camel’s back), adding to a number of other pecuniary woes that had beset the wealthy seat of Stoiber’s power. As a result, many began to wonder whether the south’s quondam financial wizardry really could, or would, save the ailing north and east. In short, the economic future under Stoiber began for many to seem nearly as questionable as Schröder’s fiscal present.

August then brought extreme flooding in many parts of the country, and Schröder responded impressively – indeed, impressively enough to begin winning back some voter confidence. More important, however, was the unsettling talk from Washington, which now started to feel like another flood. George Bush’s America was beginning to sound alarmingly bellicose. Nor was the verbiage aimed at the latest, and still surviving, enemy: Al Qaeda, and its allies in the Taliban. Instead, an old foe was suddenly resurrected: Saddam Hussein. Gerhard Schröder’s reaction to this surprising turn of events resembled his response to the unexpected rains: it was resolute and relentless. The Bundeskanzler simply and flatly refused to be cowed; and from the moment he adopted that stance against President Bush’s Iraq initiative, the political weather began to change.

Why, however, did the majority of German voters react as it did to what has seemed to many, both in the United States and Germany, a bald and petulant campaign farce? The answer, I think, is that very many Germans, of many political persuasions, have not taken the substance (at least) of Schröder’s reaction to be at all farcical. Nor do they find it especially petulant. Rather, seen from the Eastern side of the Atlantic, the German Kanzler’s stance can easily appear reasoned, reasonable, and, perhaps most important, responsible. Schröder even appeared to have taken up, in the estimations of many a German, a mantle that he’s always seemed to shun, namely, that of the courageous statesman. Some context is now in order.

First and foremost, it is necessary to remember that the Germans are, on the whole, a painstakingly thorough bunch. A person need only watch, for example, one of the constantly televised (even during prime time!) hour- or two-hour-long political debates to realize that only those arguments supported by hard and cogently presented evidence are likely to carry the day with a German audience. President Bush’s potted prattle about axes of evil, a quasi-Satanic dictator, and the like simply could not play well to an audience that generally demands truly substantive argumentation. Consequently, when Schröder groused that Washington was delivering no compelling rationale for immediate, first-strike, military action against Saddam, there was little or nothing (of substance) that could be (or was) said against it. Equally unsettling was the seemingly utter lack of any concept of, or concern about, what might transpire after an eventual removal of Saddam and his regime. Again, many a German – with Schröder in the forefront – wanted some plan, some idea, as to how things could be expected to proceed, and to become better, in the sequel. Nothing of the sort was forthcoming.

In such a situation, Edmund Stoiber could argue that it was rash to alienate the United States. He had real trouble, however, countering Schröder’s retort: When one partner in a friendship embarks on a seemingly unwise course of action, it is in fact the duty of the other partner, or partners, to point out the folly, and to try to call the wayward party back to rationality. This is how friends, if indeed they are truly friends, behave with one another, Schröder argued.

The result of the debate was a kind of role reversal. Stoiber, who had all along staked out what looked like a more statesmanlike position, and who had painfully sought to eschew the appearance of political pandering, suddenly found himself crawling into the political bed of an unfortunately embarrassing partner. For, whereas Schröder’s position was seductive in its argument, Bush’s (with which Stoiber found himself perforce entwined) was woefully lacking in logical appeal. Conversely, Schröder, who all along had seemed nothing if not a political opportunist, could now in some circles be perceived as a man of real principle and backbone – at least on this one (highly important) issue. In short, faced with two potential liars, Germans opted for the logically persuasive prevaricator. They sensed a war without a sufficient cause, and said loudly and clearly that they preferred the man who would steadfastly demand such a cause before ever consenting to commit his country to an irreversible course of potentially disastrous action.

There is more in recent German-American relations that probably lies behind Germany’s swing to Schröder’s camp on the Iraq issue, and thus accounts for the CDU-CSU coalition’s defeat. Many Germans have the sense that, in recent times and in various ways, the United States has acted aggressively, unilaterally, and with significantly less than good faith. According to them, their country immediately pledged its allegiance to, and support of, the United States after September 11; subsequently, it behaved as only the best of allies do during the fighting in Afghanistan. Moreover, over a decade earlier, Germany had supported Desert Storm, extensively and in many ways. Yet now, as storm clouds began once again to accumulate over Iraq, it felt very much as if Washington were treating a longstanding and staunch friend as a pawn – one, furthermore, that could be moved carelessly and thoughtlessly into harm’s way. It was precisely the kind of impression that gained strength from the Bush administration’s recent behavior with regard to several environmental issues.

Two further factors ought also be mentioned. First, ever since the Second World War, Germans have been loath to fight any war, much less an aggressive one in which they strike first – no matter what the provocation. Beyond this, and despite the sympathetic position of Germans generally since the Second World War, the current situation in Israel has begun to raise questions about that country’s policies regarding the Palestinians. More relevant to the Iraq debate is the fact that interdiction of terrorism in Israel has obviously not worked. Could it work on the larger world stage? Or does the real cause of terrorism, the real threat to the United States (and others in the world), lie elsewhere?

In short, it can plausibly be argued that the German elections were tipped by the Bush administration’s ill-considered arrogance and infidelity on various fronts. A volatile – and disconcerting – mix of messages from Washington finally worked to turn the German voters’ chief worries from economics and immigration to war with Iraq. On the one hand, there was a cloying demand for pity and support after September 11, while, on the other hand, they experienced a cavalierly iron-heeled attitude on various matters, but finally, and most important, with respect to Saddam Hussein.

It may well be that Gerhard Schröder played his own political game with Washington. We will probably never know with certainty what his motives were, whether he used George Bush as a lever with which to hoist himself back into power, or whether he really did believe in what he said. In the end, however, it makes no difference. What German voters said stands out with some clarity. Namely, that expressing a loud vote of no-confidence in Washington’s war plans took precedence over their own economic woes. And nolens volens, Gerhard Schröder has now cast himself directly into the role of the seemingly stalwart statesman. We shall soon see how he plays the part.

Michael Peachin is professor of classics at New York University, specializing in the Roman imperial age. He recently returned from Heidelberg, where he spent a sabbatical year.
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