The Legend of Wooley Swamp

What ever happened to nuance? Jabberwocky is being spewed up by the left and right as they try to drag us into their Wonderlands. This blog charts a path out of this swamp of simple truths and false certainties. And from time to time, it'll be a place for more light-hearted musings.

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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Angela Merkel, a Worthy Heiress to Willy Brandt

It was her first speech (here and here) to the Bundestag, and Chancellor Angela Merkel is setting a new tone in German politics. The overarching theme of the Government Declaration, Regierungserklärung, was 'Freiheit.' Freedom. Liberty.

In an emotional opening, she appealed for the immediate release of the German archaeologist and her Iraqi colleague who were kidnapped in Iraq last Friday, and she told the criminals that Germany 'will not be blackmailed.' Then she added a very personal touch, saying that while it may be surprising to be the first female Chancellor and that it may surprising to be part of a coalition with the Social Democrats, but none of this compares with the biggest surprise of her life:

For me the greatest surprise was the gift of liberty before I reached retirement. From behind a Wall that ran just a couple of meters from this plenum, I had hoped but never expected to taste freedom. So I hope you´ll forgive me if I insist that this was the biggest and most welcome surprise of all.”

Words that resonated among a certain segment of the population, words that many of the others members of parliament needed to hear. Can one exaggerate the perspective that these thoughts offer? That she speaks from personal experience, when she refers to how East Germans secured freedom in a peaceful revolution? Her speech was dotted with references to the East, references that actually mean something to the population.

Paraphrasing a famous quote by former Chancellor Willy Brandt “dare (to embrace) more democracy,” Merkel asked everyone “dare (to embrace) more freedom.” Brandt was a political refugee during the entire Nazi dictatorship, having fled in 1933 at the age of 20. Upon his return from exile, he did more than any other politician to normalize democracy in Germany. He had the life story to breathe it, and the credibility to carry this out with dignity. And unlike too many in Europe, he also understood the essence of freedom, see here (it's long but well worth the read.) He was the Mayor of West Berlin in 1961 and woke up one morning to find his city surrounded by an Orwellian Wall. I am sure he would proud, especially as the Father of Ostpolitik (opening up to the DDR,) that this daughter of the revolution realized the true meaning of his words.

The Power of Symbolism: Warsaw, 1970.
Chancellor Brandt kneels in front of the Memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Brandt the ex-émigré would also have appreciated her words on minorities, immigration and integration. When Merkel spoke of Germany’s strengths, she listed the usual suspects but rounded it off with lauding the country’s “wonderful diversity.” She is clearly building on the work in this field (i.e. the citizenship law, the immigration law) by the former government. Furthermore, the Chancellor’s decision to move the Federal Commissioner for these issues to a the Chancellery (and elevate the position to just below cabinet level) was a surprise to many, and certainly symbolic. As I like to say, this kind of symbolism is important, far more so than some pipe-dream integration scheme that gets bogged down in details and never wins any acceptance. Furthermore, it is part of a relatively positive trend in the global politics of immigration, a trend I shall return to later in the week.

A few words on German foreign policy, many have here expected not just continuity, but also a return to tradition. And there are not insignificant indications of just that. The transatlantic partnership with the United States of America was praised in effusive terms. Merkel reminded the sometimes forgetful German public and parliamentarians that the common values of freedom, democracy and adherence to human rights are paramount. And while she will of course raise concerns with the United States, this friendly dialogue should never be allowed to remove the spotlight from the corners of the world where the freedom too often taken for granted in Germany and the U.S. is not enjoyed.

Thus, business dealings need not imply acceptance of authoritarianism, i.e. vis-à-vis Russia, China et. al. On the Iranian nuclear situation, she issued a clear warning to the theocrats to not shun the international community and that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threats to Israel are unacceptable. Her declaration of support for Israel was as stalwart as it always is Germany, but I would add that she placed particular emphasis on it this time. And in the next breath, she emphasized the unalienable rights of the Palestinian people to statehood.

As I sign off, the unofficial leader of the loyal opposition – as opposed to the Anglo-American model where this role is official – Guido Westerwelle is speaking. His words are crucial at a time when the government dominates parliament to such an extent. He rises to the occasion, reminds the Social Democrats that his party, the Free Democrats, has just as many votes in the Upper House, Bundesrat, as they do. And he challenges the Chancellor to remain true to her ideals of freedom and to try to go beyond the constraints of this ‘coalition of the lowest common denominator.’ By humbly walking in the footsteps of a giant, Frau Merkel is planning to do just that. Somewhere, Willy Brandt is surely smiling.


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