Neal Ascherson turns his gaze toward German chancellor Angela Merkel, her opponent Peer Steinbrück, the former East German ghosts that haunt Germany, and the Hartz IV labor reforms that also haunt it, in a superb essay for the London Review of Books that’s probably the best thing you’ve read so far this year on Germany, its politics, the importance of regional governance in an increasingly federal Europe and the north-south (and west-east) European divide.
On Berlin, Ascherson captures in one paragraph the idiosyncratic nature of Berlin, which is really unlike any other city in Europe, which he argues ‘will never be a real capital again':
When people talk about ‘Berlin’, they usually don’t mean the government of the most powerful nation in Europe. They mean Klaus Wowereit, the gay mayor, or the film festival, or a new café on the Oranienburgerstrasse, or the botched plan for yet another unnecessary airport. There is no centre. Even Bonn, in the years when the federal government was there, seemed more in command than Berlin is now.
Ascherson uses reunification as an analogical point — it’s the moment the West German social welfare model fell apart, for better and for worse:
And when the West Germans won that war and annexed East Germany (the best word for it), the aftermath was uncannily like Reconstruction after the American Civil War. Here was repeated the economic collapse, the inrush of greedy carpetbaggers from the victorious West, the purging of an entire elite from management, teaching and social leadership, the abolition of institutions and, of course, the liberation of the slaves – this time, into mass unemployment.
And as for Merkel herself, Ascherson nails it:
As for Merkel, sometimes she looks placid, sometimes she looks cross and disappointed, sometimes she smiles politely at foreigners over coffee and cakes. So she reminds people of Mum, and those who want to keep holding her hand think they know what she wants. Others, in despair, confess they have no idea what she wants. These days, she seems to have no policy of her own. Instead, after a suitable delay, she takes on opposition policies in a diluted form. Intellectual critics complain that she has no ‘idea’, no ‘concept’. And to describe what she does, or rather doesn’t, they have coined a frightful new German word: Entinhaltlichung. ‘It means what it says,’ a Berlin friend tells me: ‘Decontentification.’
Spiegel journalist Dirk Kurbjuweit summarized Merkel’s Entinhaltlichung earlier this month by comparing it to the Biedermeier era — the sleepy, happy period between 1815’s Congress of Vienna and the return of revolutionary spirit in 1848:
At the federal level, though, Merkel’s Germany is by and large somnolent, in part because of the government’s failure to present new ideas and plans. The chancellor gets by without them, and even the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), the junior partner in the ruling coalition, can’t seem to muster up much of an alternative, happy to avoid any danger of becoming a target of hostility…
By and large, things are calm in Merkel’s republic — and that really is something new…. as chancellor, she quickly became “mommy,” a nickname that seemed silly at first but has since proved apt, in the sense that a “mommy” is someone who takes care of the home, makes life pleasant and keeps worries at bay.
Ascherson’s essay strikes many parallel notes, even its title: ‘Hanging on to Mutti,’ a reference to an informal term for the German word for mother, Mutter, and both Kurbjuweit and Ascherson wrangle with the fundamental question of why Merkel herself remains so apparently popular despite leading a government that’s neither incredibly remarkable or popular.
What’s been clear for some time, at least since late last year when it became clear than the rather wooden Steinbrück would be the chancellor candidate of the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party), is that the September federal election is going to be all about Angela.
The photo above is Merkel in 1973, one of several remarkable photos from Speigel, in connection with a piece on a new book whose authors suggest Merkel may have had a cozier relationship with the communist German Democratic Republic in the days before its fall in 1990. It’s stunning that, eight years after leading the world’s fifth largest economy, authors could wrangle up new details about Merkel’s early days, though it’s far from clear how anyone, especially Germans, should approach those details.
Poll after poll shows Merkel and her governing Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Party) leading the SPD by double digits, and I can’t find a single poll since the last election in 2009 that shows the SPD leading the CDU. Even though Merkel may not be able to continue her preferred coalition with the Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democratic Party), and the SPD’s allies, the Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (the Greens), are ascendant, no one thinks that if the CDU wins by double digits, Merkel won’t wind up somehow as chancellor for a third term, in some form of coalition, grand or otherwise.
And yet there’s something incredibly fundamental about the upcoming election. Maybe it’s because that, at no time since the end of World War II, will a German leader play such a critical role on the political, economic, cultural and social conditions of nearly every other country in Europe. Just think about how decision-making on everything from fiscal policy to monetary policy to the next step of the Greek bailout to negotiations over a new treaty have all slowed to a crawl until the German election — and how different that’s become since the last election. François Hollande’s election as France’s new president in May 2012 was important, but the French election hardly the kind of event upon which EU policymaking would halt. It’s all the more remarkable when you consider that, as far as Europe goes and as far as economic policy goes, there’s not much difference between Merkel and Steinbrück, who served as Merkel’s finance minister in the ‘grand coalition’ government from 2005 to 2009. That’s true even as between Merkel and her predecessor Gerhard Schröder, whose Hartz IV reforms liberalized labor markets to reduce unemployment benefits and make it easier to hire and fire workers.
Germany, like France, has always been at the heart of the European project, but in September 2009, few Europeans were paying nearly as much attention to the implications of Merkel’s victory over Frank-Walter Steinmeier as they will in September 2013 to her likely victory over Steinbrück.