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 23, 2005

Kanzlerin Angela Merkel, Daughter of the Revolution

Things move quickly, and today Germany's freshly inaugurated Chancellor is in Paris, where she had her hand kissed by President Chirac before offering the wily old fox some advice She'll be back in Berlin tonight, after a quick pit-stop in Brussels, where she'll meet with leaders of the European Union and NATO. Tomorrow, she's off again, this time to 10 Downing Street. But while these first days are characterized by these traditional visits to friendly neighbors, yesterday was steeped in ground-breaking symbolism...the kind that counts. (photo: Patrick Kovarik/AFP)

On November 22, 2005 the German federal parliament, Bundestag, elected Angela Merkel as the Republic's 8th Chancellor (and the first Kanzlerin, the German feminine version of Kanzler.) She received 397 votes out of the 600 cast, and among these was the outgoing Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's, who had not been as generous on election night two months ago. On that occasion, with the outcome of the close election in doubt, he had publicly tried to humiliate her. During a roundtable discussion on TV, the Chancellor - high on adrenaline, testosterone and sleep deprivation - ridiculed the notion that she would ever be Chancellor. Trust me, if you saw it you'd never forget it.

She smiled wryly, and took it on the chin. That should come as no surprise to anyone with a little insight into her life. It’s only been 15 years since her native East Germany reunited with the West, since she became a citizen of the Federal Republic. And a mere year before that she lived behind the Iron Curtain, working as a physicist. Somehow, out of nowhere really, she began climbing the ladder in a way that is almost impossible for a person with a similar background in the West.

Angela Merkel chairing her first Cabinet meeting, November 22, 2005.
Kai Pfaffenbach, Reuters

If you can imagine a female academic or scientist from West Germany, who suddenly joined the political fray, reached the upper echelons of crusty German party politics and became head of the government within some ten years, you have the imagination many folks desire. In all seriousness, this is basically unthinkable.

Yes, Angela Merkel's gender IS an issue, but only because it is made one here. Some people cannot believe this has happened. But it's not her gender that distinguishes her and those who are snow-blinded by this are in dire straits. Horst Seehofer, a former nemesis and now her Minister of Agriculture, presciently uttered that “those who underestimate Angela Merkel have already lost.” In the gallery of 'losers,' one finds not just Schröder but also internal party rivals like Edmund Stoiber (who pushed Merkel out last time and then narrowly lost the 2002 elections) - who now to everyone´s surprise, including his own, finds himself back in Bavaria rather than wielding power in Berlin.

So of course it's not her gender, but then what is it? This is hardly the place for pop psychology, but if we set aside her family and professional life - i.e. being daughter of a priest (her parents were in the Bundestag yesterday) and working as a scientist – we wind up looking at the society she grew up in and the revolution that swept it away. In other words, pop history.

If there is one thing from East Germany that was definitely worth incorporating (and there were more things, whose trashing bred resentment that still simmers,) it was a measure of equality between the sexes. Women worked, albeit in state-run monoliths and bureaucratic behemoths, and there was an all-day educational system that cared for the children. In the West, and now in Germany as a whole, this was simply not the case. This is not about forcing anyone to work or stay at home, but to provide options for individual families. Options that to this day do not really exist if you grow up in Bavaria or the Rhineland.

Merkel was a product of that system and is empowered because of it. But she saw with all clarity that the rest of the People’s Democracy was an authoritarian nightmare. It has been said science provided refuge in a society where deception and paranoia were the norms, and there’s surely some truth to this. When the revolution happened - and as the word implies it came from within, from the desire of people like her - she was prepared to make the most of it. (The new chairman of Social Democrats, herr Matthias Platzeck, has exactly the same background; so that both big parties are now led by 51 year-old Easterners.) Many in the East have not fared so well, but rather than just say she got lucky or marks some exception, one might look for a way forward. She knows she beat the odds, and probably that she is uniquely talented, but she also knows that her fellow Easterners have dreams.

This is why she got into politics, she knew the situation on the ground in East Germany and she knew it had to change. But she could not have known much about West Germany. This must have been to her advantage. In a free society, she was the freest. Rather than conforming, or paying much due to the prejudice and chauvinism she encountered, she ploughed ahead, cut corners and sped past the grumpy old men of her party. She carried no grudges, displayed no prejudice and was not overtly ideological. If others felt it necessary to pigeonhole her as the Eastern conservative female scientist, she shrugged. When former Chancellor Kohl - her own mentor post-1989, and Germany's father figure for nearly two decades - became embroiled in a corruption scandal, Angela Merkel was the only one brave enough to make him step down. But above all, and unlike her Western counterparts, she not only understood what the revolution meant, but that there was much work left to be done. And that it would actually require real change.

In a recent comment, former U.S. Secretary of State Dr. Kissinger offered the following insight (in particular it illustrates why today's visit to NATO was so important) :

“The Merkel government marks the advent of a third postwar generation: less in thrall to the emotional pro-Americanism of the 1950s and 60s, but also not shaped by the passions of the so-called '68 generation. Merkel lived under Communist rule during the controversies of the Cold War. To many in Eastern Europe, the internal Western debates over security seemed like self-indulgence compared with the challenges of life under Communist rule. In Eastern Europe, on the whole, the Atlantic alliance represented hope, not controversy. Similarly, European integration was significant as a vision for a better future rather than as a device to loosen ties with the United States. In the early days of unification, I asked her what she considered the great psychological challenge for an East German view of foreign policy. She replied: ‘To learn on vacation to feel as comfortable in France as they now do in Bulgaria.’”

As Chancellor she now has the opportunity to show the way, but this will not easy. She leads a Grand Coalition between the Christian Democrats (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD) that will gravitate towards the lowest common denominator, and as I wrote a couple of days after the election, this risks being a little too low:

Back in the days of Weimar, Grand Coalitions only fueled the extremists on the left and right. More recently, the Austrian experience has shown worrying signs of the same phenomenon. In this election, experts claim that voters defected to the Liberals and Leftists because they do not want such a coalition. That may be so, but mark my word, there are much more worrying tendencies on display already. The Liberals are mainstream, but they traditionally have a nationalist wing that may be strengthened if they grow in size, incorporating disgruntled Christian Democrats or Social Democrats. Even uglier would be gains for the extreme right, who TRIPLED their national share of the votes this time and are nearing the 5% hurdle in several Eastern areas. And then there's the left who made major inroads, picking up votes from non-voters to Social Democrat loyalists. (They are now larger than the Greens.) There's more where these voters came from and a grand coalition would allow them to be mobilized by the demagogues on both fringes…Besides this bleak scenario – and yes, Germany is a mature and great democracy - there are other reasons to oppose such a coalition. In the US and UK, progressive new thinking has to come out of the main parties...I mean, where else in the political system is it supposed to come from? In Europe, the two big parties are stale and reactionary cesspools of status quo lovers. In Germany, this kind of coalition would comfortably rest on the sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, statist foundations it would be built on. Those in both parties that now want this are these kind of people...the few open minds prefer constellations with the more free thinking parties, i.e. the Liberals and the Greens.

I would have to add - based on my reasoning above - that such a government led by Merkel is the best in these circumstances, and certainly better than having new elections in the early spring as many CDU and SPD politicians (especially Merkel's old guard detractors in the CDU) wanted.

Handover at the Chancellery: Angie with the Shadow
Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters

To conclude, a few words on the now former government are warranted. I’ll say it up front; Germany needed this government for its own good. It affected long overdue social changes: e.g. the !1913! citizenship law was liberalized, immigration began to be seen as something potentially positive, gay rights were strengthened and the environment received more attention. These were seismic shifts, mostly pushed by the Greens, and in some cases like the environment I believe they went too far, while the immigration law disappointed many with its timidity. But these are details on issues that the Kohl government barely saw as legitimate concerns.

In international affairs, the Schroder government’s actions also broke taboos, especially with the participation in the Kosovo and Afghanistan missions. The former was the first military engagement abroad for German troops since 1945. A reorientation towards Russia and China was also noticeable. In addition, assertiveness within the European Union, usually in tandem with France, became more common. Finally, we have the deterioration in the relationships with both neighboring Poland and the U.S. Here, there is much hope that Merkel will be able to restore the common sense of mutual interests.

Economic reforms aimed at restructuring the labor market and bringing down unemployment were started. Merkel herself was part of these decisions that had to pass through the Upper House, Bundesrat, where the opposition, now the government, held sway. So carrying on here, and perhaps being a tad more 'rad' is definitely the order of the day.

The Schröder government also featured the darling of German politics, Joschka Fischer, whose rhetoric was always entertaining and who himself became an acclaimed Foreign Minister. While Fischer was both popular and effective, it was Schröder who pushed many of the aforementioned polices. He was Foreign Minister, not the man behind it all and often disagreed with his boss, e.g. Schröder's one man attempt to lift the arms embargo on China. The Bundestag ultimately shot that down. The former taxi driver Fischer (click here for a critical but fair look at his life) is a somewhat pompous man, but he did not take himself too seriously. When he first plomped himself down in the Vice-Chancellor’s leather armchair at the Chancellery, he is rumored to have said, “This has to be the best (housing) squat yet.”

Fischer is gone now and so is Schröder (both will no longer sit in the Bundestag, having resigned their mandates.) Last weekend, the still Chancellor made the rounds and bid his farewells. Most significantly, he was given the military honor called a ´tattoo´ (Grosser Zapfenstreich in German.) The procession, laden with tradition, was a moving affair, especially when the band played the three songs chosen by his wife Doris. In succession, they played orchestral versions of `Summertime, ´ ´Mack the Knife´ and of course ´My Way.´

Gerhard Schröder during the rendition of 'Mack the Knife'
(ARD Television capture)

A well-known journalist, Heribert Prantl, wrote a mean but poignant afterthought on the charismatic phenomenon called Schröder:

“What a face. The immense efforts exerted during the final push of the election campaign and the following weeks have left deep, visible traces. What imprints will power leave on Angela Merkel? In the pale light, Schröder now looks like Dracula following the expulsion from Transylvania…(yet) Schröder represented Germany in all its contradictions, in his desire and inability, in his lethargy and energy, in his swagger, sensitivity and brutality…he was the post-War child just like his predecessor Kohl was the War child…he was Germany and with him, instead of a military march, there was Mack the Knife...” (my translation)

The outgoing Chancellor was serenaded into the sunset with a song of freedom from the Weimar Republic - and if you think I'm being flippant here, please reread your history. His work was done and he handed over the keys to the struggling but free Republic. Germany and the rest of Europe - mostly still in the grip of fossilized fogeys - should prepare for change. All this came to mind as I saw her taking the oath of office. Angela Merkel had come from afar, but feels no need to rest. There really can no reason to underestimate her, this daughter of the revolution.

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