“This is a historic moment,” a stalwart German Christian Democrat whispered to me as the familiar giant figure of Helmut Kohl mounted the stage at party headquarters in Bonn, shortly before seven o’clock on the evening of Sunday, September 27, 1998. As if it needed saying! Given the scale of the Christian Democrats’ electoral defeat, we all guessed that, after a staggering sixteen years in power, the chancellor of German and European unification would be stepping down. When the cries of “Helmut! Helmut!” had finally abated, he gave a dignified short speech. He congratulated the Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder on his victory and wished him “a happy hand for our land.” As for himself, he would now also retire as party leader. It felt as if the Alps had suddenly announced their departure.
As the twentieth century draws to a close, we can safely say that Helmut Kohl is its last great European statesman. Watching him leave the stage, I thought of a memorable conversation we had a few years ago. At one moment he took my breath away. “Do you realize,” he said, “that you are sitting opposite the direct successor to Adolf Hitler?” The point of this startling, even shocking, remark was that he—the first chancellor of a united Germany since Hitler—was going to do everything quite differently. Whereas Hitler had tried to put a German roof over Europe, he was determined to put a European roof over Germany. This amazing sally encapsulated several ingredients of Kohl’s greatness: his acute instinct for power, his historical vision, and the bold simplicity of his strategic thinking. Add tactical adroitness, tireless attention to party-political details, and vast physical presence and stamina—the result is a provincial politician who changed the world.
The election of Sunday, September 27, was not just the end of the “Kohl era.” It marked several other ends—and new beginnings. This is the last federal election in which the parties’ election expenses will be calculated in Deutschmarks. Next time round, in 2002, the Deutschmark, that totem of postwar West German prosperity, stability, and identity, will be no more. Everything will be done in euros. It was also the last election for which we will go to Bonn. Next year, parliament and government move to Berlin. As Christopher Isherwood didn’t write: “Goodbye to Bonn.”
Walking up the modest highway which is the spine of that dank Rhineland city, with cheerful crowds thronging the pavements, their attention soon turning back from the election to a rock band, beer, and the Formula One championships just up the road, I felt a pang of regret. Bonn is a dull place, but what came to be known as “the Bonn republic” has been a good Germany, perhaps the best we have ever had. In this election, it proved the maturity of its carefully constructed, quiet, civil democracy. Although the country has four million unemployed, German voters once again rejected the extremes of left and right. The old saying “Bonn is not Weimar”—that is, its democracy will not be torn apart by a flight to antidemocratic extremes, as in the Weimar republic—can now be adapted to a definitive, final form: “Bonn was not Weimar.”
We knew we were saying goodbye to Bonn and the Deutschmark. We thought we would be saying goodbye to Kohl. What we didn’t expect was a landslide that changes the whole political face of Germany. All the public opinion pollsters except one showed Kohl closing the gap on Schröder. Electoral arithmetic based on these polls suggested the likelihood of a “grand coalition” in which Schröder’s Social Democrats would govern together with the Christian Democrats, the latter under a new leader. This seemed about right for the Bonn republic’s style of gradual, consensual change. It is a remarkable fact that in the entire previous history of the Federal Republic, the government has never completely changed as a direct result of the popular vote. The governing coalition has either changed between elections or, in the rare event of its changing at an election, one previous coalition partner has remained in power.
This time the voters decided otherwise. As if to show that, after half a century, German democracy has fully come of age, they produced a result which means that (unless the coalition negotiations, which are not finished at this writing, go disastrously wrong) the Social Democrats replace the Christian Democrats as the senior partner, and the environmentalist Greens replace the Free Democrats as the junior partner. In this so-called “red-green coalition,” all the faces will be new.
Why was the vote so decisive? I saw three main reasons. First, and most important, after sixteen years people simply felt it was “time for a change.” That was the answer that came again and again in my own conversations and those reported elsewhere. The old man and his team had run out of energy and ideas. Voters were plain bored with those same old faces. Boredom is an underrated factor in politics.
This was exactly what happened in Britain last year, after eighteen years of Conservative rule. A Conservative candidate in that election told me that when people asked him “Isn’t it time for a change?” he simply had no answer. In his heart of hearts, he thought it was too. So also here. Contrary to some predictions, the crises in Russia and Asia did not make voters feel that it was better to stick with the experienced statesman.
Second, the “Clintonblair” Schröder was a smooth, telegenic, attractive candidate, with an unusually well-disciplined Social Democratic Party behind him, led by his colleague and rival Oskar Lafontaine. Post-election research shows that the main component of the swing was straightforward: people who voted Christian Democrat last time voted Social Democrat this time. Among them were many pensioners, whose pensions Kohl had trimmed and Schröder promises to restore.
Third, there was the east. Back in the historic spring of 1990, Helmut Kohl won a crucial election in what was still East Germany by promising to create “blooming landscapes” out of the post-communist wasteland. That vote meant East Germany became just east Germany: the eastern part of a larger Federal Republic.1 By the time of the last federal election, in 1994, with old communist factories rusting all around, and their workers on the dole, “blooming landscapes” had become a bitter joke. I saw people holding up placards at Kohl’s election rallies asking “Where are the blooming landscapes?” or exclaiming simply “Blooming landscapes!” But enough people still had enough confidence in Kohl to give the CDU the largest share of the vote.2
This time, I spent much of the pre-election week in the east. In the city of Schwerin, I watched disillusioned youngsters, many of them unemployed, heckle the chancellor as he spoke glowingly of growth and jobs. They held up a satirical banner proclaiming “Helmut: You are the Way, the Truth and the Light.” Then, on the hustings at a village on the outskirts of east Berlin, I was amazed to see a poster proclaiming “Vote for Blooming Landscapes—CDU.” The left-wing cartoonist Klaus Staeck was not amused. “That was my joke,” he protested. And a joke in the end it proved to be, since the CDU vote in the east plummeted from more than 38 percent in 1994 to just over 27 percent in 1998. In the west it fell less than half as much, from just over 33 percent to just under 28. It was the east that turned a defeat into a rout.
There’s a deep irony here. For Kohl has been voted away at a time when large parts of that eastern landscape actually are beginning to “bloom.” Traveling around, I still found large patches of desolation, rust, unemployment, and the accompanying mixture of apathy among the old and often xenophobic anger among the young. But I also found impressive areas of large-scale construction, new jobs, enterprise, and hope.
Nowhere else in post-communist Europe does one see such vistas of shining new steel, glass, and concrete. Hardly surprising, given that west Germany has pumped more than DM 1,000,000,000,000 ($600 billion) into the east over the last eight years. And there is huge private investment too. The mayor of one community in the so-called “bacon belt” of prosperous commuter villages around Berlin showed me the new streets and fire station, the freshly renovated school, and a whole neighborhood of detached, private houses, built by local people on savings and building loans. The old kingdom of Saxony in the south is booming under the Christian Democrat Kurt Biedenkopf, who presides like a new king in Leipzig and Dresden. Even in the poor northern province of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, which has more than 17 percent unemployment, every village I drove through had some new building projects.
Still more important is the mental architecture. The picture you get from the British or American press is one of almost universal resignation and resentment. Yet I found people hungrily participating in a democracy that is still new to them. This was the liveliest campaign in the east since the vote for unification back in 1990. Walls were plastered with posters. Meetings were packed. More than 80 percent of those eligible turned out to vote, compared with 72 percent four years ago. And it’s not only at election time. The mayor of that “bacon belt” village tells me she is deluged with petitions and “citizens’ initiatives.” Many are dedicated to protecting the selfish interests of the new middle class. For example, the residents of that new private housing estate protest about being asked to contribute to the cost of a local bicycle path. This is “civil society” emerging, but civil society less as the central European dissidents dreamed of it than as Karl Marx analyzed it—the self-defense of the bourgeoisie!
A comparison is sometimes made between the German East after unification and the American South after the Civil War. But this is quite misleading. East Germany was always an artificial unit, the Soviet Zone of Occupation turned into a state. The flourishing southern provinces of Thuringia and Saxony now feel themselves closer to Bavaria than to Mecklenburg. East and west Berlin are slowly but surely getting mixed up together. The arrogance, condescension, and incomprehension that many west Germans display toward their eastern compatriots is still a big problem. It was rightly said after 1990 that while Germany had been united, the Germans had not. But even that is beginning to happen. In the early 1990s there continued to be a mass emigration of east Germans to the west. Last year, for the first time, almost as many west Germans came to live in the east.
All just as Kohl promised—though a lot more slowly, painfully, and expensively. Yet those ungrateful easterners have bitten the hand that fed them. So now Helmut Kohl will retire to his modest house in the small western town of Oggersheim, while Gerhard Schröder will move into the grand new Chancellery in the big, raw, eastern city of Berlin. A half-century of the Bonn republic has suddenly and decisively ended.
New government, new capital, new currency. As New Britain’s Tony Blair likes to say, everything is new, new, new. But what can we say, or guess, about this New Germany?
It is already being called “the Berlin republic.” Some German federalists object to the term. The Federal Republic, they argue, will still be a decentralized state. The business weekly Wirtschaftswoche ran a major article in election week arguing that Frankfurt, which narrowly failed to become the federal capital in 1949, and was again a candidate after unification, will remain the undisputed economic capital of Germany. Major newspapers are still in Hamburg, the Constitutional Court still in Karlsruhe. For all that, I think it will be “the Berlin republic,” because I think the move to Berlin will have a profound psychological impact on the politicians and hence the politics of Germany.
Berlin is a city full of ghosts—Prussian militarist, Wilhelmine, Nazi, and Communist, as well as the more attractive ghosts of Prussian intellectual life, Weimar culture, and anti-Nazi resistance. Amid these ghosts, vast, impressive new government buildings are springing up. These buildings do not speak of a nation that is proposing to surrender its sovereignty—only just recovered—to a European superstate. Berlin is a metropolis, with many foreigners living there. Berlin is in the middle of east Germany, close to all the problems of the transition from communism. Berlin is just forty minutes’ drive from the Polish frontier.
The Berlin republic, it is suggested, will be not only more eastern but perhaps also more Protestant than a Bonn republic shaped by the Catholic Rhineland tradition from which both Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl came. Even in a highly secularized society, this matters. The Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri has observed that a Jewish atheist and a Christian atheist are not the same thing: they disbelieve in a different God. The same may be said of Catholic atheists and Protestant atheists.
Into this new setting moves a new generation of politicians, most in their fifties, some in their forties. Many of them, including Gerhard Schröder and the likely foreign minister, the Green Joschka Fischer, are classic “68ers,” shaped by that distinctive moment of student protest across the Western world. Others were formed by the protest movements of the 1970s and 1980s: feminist, ecological, opposed to both nuclear weapons and nuclear power. As always in German politics, another formative influence is their diverse experience of policy-making in coalition governments in the federal states. Meanwhile, years of schooling themselves for power at the national level have made them adepts of the sound bite.
In theory, this red-green coalition will be able to stamp its mark on the new republic. Not only does it have a clear majority in the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament. It also has a majority in the Bundesrat, the upper house composed of representatives of the federal states. Next year the coalition will be able to propose its candidate for federal president, and to start nominating judges to the Constitutional Court. By the year 2000, all the key institutions of the republic might therefore be colored red-green. They could even appoint the president of the Bundesbank, although that is to be supplanted by the European Central Bank.
In opposition, the Christian Democrats, like the British Conservatives, will take some time to pull themselves together again, in alliance with the Bavarian Christian Social Union. Their new leader is to be Wolfgang Schäuble. When I spoke to the wheelchair-bound Schäuble, one of the most thoughtful and impressive figures in German politics, he was clearly looking forward to the task of regenerating a broadly based party—what in German is called a Volkspartei—that would, among other things, prevent disgruntled voters from breaking away to the nationalist right. Yet German Christian Democracy will have to redefine itself in circumstances where its three traditional unifying forces have either disappeared or faded: anti-communism, Christianity, and a shared commitment to further steps of European integration. The last-mentioned is most plainly challenged by the popular and successful Bavarian premier, Edmund Stoiber, sometimes jokingly called Edmund Thatcher.
Meanwhile, in opposition from the left there is the ex-communist Party of Democratic Socialism, which just scraped over the 5 percent hurdle to get its full complement of members of parliament. While its electorate is still overwhelmingly in the east, it is now setting out to establish itself as a party of the “socialist left” in the whole Federal Republic.
For the time being, however, the coalition’s main problems will not be with the opposition, but within its own ranks. For this will be a coalition of coalitions. Schröder may be chancellor, but Oskar Lafontaine is the Social Democrats’ party leader. They appeared together at virtually all the post-election meetings. Some even say “Lafontaine makes policy and Schröder sells it.” Lafontaine, who seems likely to occupy the crucial post of finance minister, is an opportunist, but an opportunist with close ties to the old left. And that old left is much more strongly represented among the Social Democrats than it is in Tony Blair’s purged New Labour. Meanwhile, the Greens remain the most diverse and even chaotic of parties, with a strong pacifist wing, feminists demanding a 10 PM curfew for men, and so on.
What of Schröder himself? Though his rugged features are sharply cut, they are the sharpest thing about him. Except, perhaps, his suits. He looks very good on television. Indeed, he seems slightly more real on television than when you meet him in person. He is the epitome of the smooth, flexible, professional, fiftysomething politician. But someone who knows him quite well told me that, unlike Clinton or Blair, he does not have any religious attachments (albeit, in the case of Clinton, honored in the breach), or even perceptible commitments to any clear set of values. So he’s a sort of Clinton without the principles.
He has never, this colleague pointed out, taken a courageous independent stand on any issue. In the past, he has embraced left-wing positions—opposing the deployment in West Germany of NATO’s Cruise and Pershing missiles in the early 1980s, for example—and positions more associated with the right: for instance, last year he was suggesting the postponement of European monetary union. In each case, he has blown with the wind. In public opinion polls, when asked who would be a competent chancellor, more people chose Schröder than Kohl. But my private opinion polls suggest that a lot of people, including some Social Democrats, share the doubts expressed on a recent Economist cover: “Would you buy a used car from Gerhard Schröder?” The polite word is “pragmatist.”
The elementary point of this catalog of observations is that the Berlin republic begins with a whole series of unknowns. And a combination of unknowns is a larger unknown. In fact, the Germans have got more than they bargained for. They voted for a change, yes. But there was little of the popular enthusiasm for a whole new beginning that accompanied Willy Brandt’s appointment as chancellor in 1969, with his famous slogan “Risk more democracy.” Instead, Schröder echoed the conservative Konrad Adenauer’s motto “No experiments.” An experiment is what Germany has got, all the same.
This being so, all predictions are more than usually risky. But let me venture three guesses. My first guess is an optimistic one. It has do with so-called “foreigners” living in Germany. The only disturbing element in this campaign was the popular hostility to these “foreigners” that it revealed. This was particularly true in east Germany, where one in five young men say they could imagine voting for a party of the far right. On the streets of Berlin the posters of one of these parties proclaimed “Criminal Foreigners Out!” The hostility extends not only to blacks or Turks but also to the Poles they call Pollacken. And it reaches well into the Christian Democrat electorate. I saw Christian Democratic politicians receiving tumultuous applause whenever they said that foreigners “should not abuse our hospitality” or “must respect our laws and ways.”
This is a problem that Germany has made for itself, since it has been very liberal in taking people in but very restrictive in granting German citizenship. The result is that a staggering 7 million people, out of a total population of 80 million, live there as “foreigners.” Until quite recently, the main qualification for citizenship was to have German blood. Kohl’s last government changed the law to make it possible to gain citizenship after ten years’ residence. But Christian Democrats held out firmly against dual citizenship for longtime Turkish residents, although they are quite happy for Germany to grant dual citizenship to ethnic Germans living in Poland. With a red-green government this should change, giving the country a normal, liberal citizenship law, more comparable to that in Britain and America. Altogether, it should encourage a more welcoming attitude to immigrants, and to the whole idea of Germans of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. (Cynics point out that the newly enfranchised immigrants are also likely to vote for the Social Democrats or Greens rather than for the Christian Democrats.)
My second guess is more pessimistic—for Germany, though perhaps not for its competitors. Helmut Kohl probably did larger things for his country than Margaret Thatcher did for hers. (To be fair, larger things needed doing. The United Kingdom did not need to be reunited.) But Kohl failed to do precisely those big things that Thatcher did: reduce the power of the trade unions, privatize and deregulate industry, lower direct taxation, cut public spending, and so on. In Britain, this is the foundation that Tony Blair can build on. Now Gerhard Schröder fought a campaign of Blair-like discipline and razzmatazz. But to be a Blair in office, it helps to have had your Thatcher.
Virtually all German business leaders argue that if Germany is to remain competitive and to create new jobs, it needs some of that medicine. It needs Thatcherism with a human face. But can this new government deliver it? Schröder says economic and social reform is his top priority. He is famously close to business leaders, and was on the board of Volkswagen. He understands some of what needs to be done. On the other hand, he was recently involved in a spectacular state bailout of a failing steelworks. The state of which he has been premier, Lower Saxony, has run up large debts. He has promises to keep: that promise to restore pensions, for example. He also promised to defend the welfare state, promote “social justice,” and finance job creation schemes.
His own party, under Oskar Lafontaine, will surely try to keep him to that. Indeed, the Social Democrats actually favor a higher top income tax rate than the Greens do: 49 percent, against the Greens’ proposed 45 percent. But the Greens have their own pet scheme: a rapidly increasing tax on gasoline. German industry does not think that will help its competitiveness. In sum, Schröder’s track record and promises, his coalition of coalitions, the strength of the trade unions, and the whole postwar German tradition of change by consensus, do not add up to a recipe for rapid implementation of the reforms that German business leaders think essential.
Finally, a guess about foreign policy, in which Schröder has promised “continuity.” This promise is credible, but I suspect the character of that continuity will be the “the same, only less so.” The Greens and the Social Democratic left have a record of anti-NATO protest. A Green foreign minister may be bad for NATO military actions “out of area”—in such places as Kosovo or the Gulf—since, whatever his personal convictions, he will have to pay some attention to his own party’s pacifists. The retiring defense minister, Volker Rühe, an outspoken advocate of both NATO enlargement and NATO intervention in Kosovo, told me he fears that the close partnerships for effective action that he has built up, especially with the United States, may be imperiled.
In the European Union, Schröder tried to suggest continuity by making his first foreign trip to Paris. Despite his past reservations about European monetary union, he’ll go through with it and try to make it work. But, like most of his generation, he will, I believe, be cooler and more hard-nosed about any further steps of European integration than was the postwar generation of Euroenthusiasts, such as Helmut Kohl. Even if the inaugural speeches contain the usual visionary Eurorhetoric, he won’t in fact be pursuing any personal vision of ever closer union.
This will make him a more congenial partner for Britain. He has talked in the past of turning the Franco-German axis into a Franco-German-British triangle. On the other hand, there is at least one mighty argument ahead: about Germany’s desire to reduce its outsize contribution to the EU budget. And cost will also be a problem when it comes to detailed negotiations about eastward enlargement of the Union. Sitting in Berlin, the new government will see more clearly the necessity but also the difficulties of bringing in the neighbors just up the road. In this regard, too, we may expect more cool pragmatism, with close attention to both national interest and public mood.
There are my three guesses. But they are just guesses. What has been most extraordinary about Germany in the 1990s has been the great continuity of its policies, despite the fact that the country’s shape, size, internal composition, and geopolitical position have all changed with unification. This remarkable continuity was due to Helmut Kohl, the Deutschmark, and the Bonn republic. Now it’s goodbye to all that. Like it or not, the Berlin republic may be more interesting.
—October 8, 1998
See my "East Germany: The Solution," The New York Review, April 26, 1990.↩
See my "Kohl's Germany: The Beginning of the End?" The New York Review, December 1, 1994.↩