Taking a break from Germany’s rather boring election campaign, I dropped in to the fine new museums that have recently been opened in Bonn. Right at the beginning of the permanent exhibition in the splendid new Museum of the History of the Federal Republic I found a strange black pavilion with, inside, pictures from the Nazi extermination camps. A young German guide was just explaining to a group of visitors that there had been a vigorous debate about whether to show these horrifying pictures. The conclusion, he said, was that “a German museum could not afford not to show these pictures.”
At the towering new exhibition hall just down the road there was a fine show of the central and east European avant-garde in the twentieth century. One section was entitled “The Presence of Jewry.” Here another young German guide stood before Chagall’s 1914 picture The Feast Day, showing a rabbi with a miniature rabbi on his head, pointing in the opposite direction. Trying to explain the figure of the miniature rabbi, the guide, a woman in her early twenties, said: “I myself have no direct experience with Jewish people, so I can’t really judge, but from what I’ve read, this spirit of contradiction, this capacity to make fun of yourself, is characteristic of Jewry.”
Yes, the past—that past—is still here. Whenever you come to Germany you are sure to stumble across it, one way or another. It won’t pass away. Yet as the naive comments of the young German guides suggest, it is almost astronomically remote from the life experience of younger Germans today. Painful innocence, not guilt or even repressed guilt, speaks from those comments.
For me, these flashbacks to a hell made in Germany serve above all as a reminder of the fantastic distance that Germany has traveled over the last half-century: the distance to civility, legality, modernity, democracy. The very fact that, after four years of traumatic change in an only painfully uniting Germany, the election campaign can be boring is itself a measure of that progress. The village pub where I go for lunch with friends turns out also to be a polling station. As we chew our schnitzels, we can watch the civil, genial, utterly matter-of-fact business of voting. In the evening, the “election parties” in the headquarters of the main political parties are even more hot and crowded than at previous elections, with everyone trying to judge everyone else’s Stimmung as the beer (SPD) and wine (CDU) flow.
An element of drama is given by the closeness of the result, with estimates of the current coalition’s new parliamentary majority sinking to as low as a single seat during the evening, before rising again in the small hours to the eventual ten. But the whole nation is hardly biting its nails in suspense. On another television channel there is a comedy show, with a comedian from Paderborn giving a wonderful imitation of the petit-bourgeois Hauswart type, obsessed with cleanliness and order. The audience loves it. Who says the Germans can’t laugh at themselves? On a third channel, there is a light entertainment program, with viewers invited to contribute by telephone to a charity for cancer victims. Viewers’ names are flashed across the screen, with their contributions: 20 DM, 30 DM, 4,000 DM, 40,000 DM. Just before I flick back to the election coverage, the compere announces the latest total. It is 5 million DM ($3.36 million).
Germany—from the banality of evil to the banality of good.
Of course there are still serious matters to be worried about in Germany—even in the results of this election. But the first thing is to keep those matters in proportion.
I have been traveling to Germany for more than twenty years now. For as long as I can remember, I have heard apocalyptic warnings—and none more apocalyptic than those issued by Germans themselves. The Ölpreisschock! The terrorists! Berufsverbot!1 Franz Josef Strauss! Eurosclerosis! The Greens! The peace movement! Nationalist-neutralism! Rapallo! Anschluss (of East Germany)! German-dominated Mitteleuropa! Neo-Nazis! For as long as I can remember, the Federal Republic has gone on its quiet, successful, bourgeois way, proving one warning after the other wrong, as it has got steadily richer, stronger, and now bigger.
This election, the thirteenth to a German Bundestag but only the second to an all-German Bundestag, is taken so seriously both because of the pre-1945 past—the ghosts in the museum—and because of the post-1995 future, with Germany as the key power in the center of Europe. And how very seriously it is taken. It is not just the little sermon on television from the Bundestag presidentess (Präsidentin), Frau Professor Dr. Rita Süssmuth, telling people how important it is to turn out to vote, in the dulcet yet pious tones of the “Queen’s Speech” broadcast on British television on Christmas Day. It is not just the three or four highly professional polling organizations, producing unbelievably detailed information on every aspect of the voting.
It is also the teams of political scientists and observers from all over the world, flown in to diagnose in minute detail the condition of German Democracy. They (or rather: we) remind me of nothing so much as the huge medical teams assigned to check the health of the President or the Pope. Is there a slight irregularity in his pulse?
In the last few years there has been much speculation about a fragmentation of the country’s political representation. As a result both of unification and of widespread dissatisfaction with the political elites of the established parties—seen as remote, bureaucratic, and unduly interested in lining their own pockets—local and state elections have seen votes flowing away not just to the Greens in the west and the post-Communist PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism) in the east, but also to new groupings such as the Hamburg-based Stattpartei. The name means roughly “the instead party”: instead, that is, of the worn-out old established parties.
“Bonn is not Weimar,” went the old saying: the Bonn Republic was not going to fall victim to the political fragmentation which helped to doom the Weimar Republic. But perhaps, we all somberly wisecracked, “Berlin could be Weimar.” Well, the republic hasn’t quite got to Berlin, yet—indeed, the government will probably still be in Bonn at the next federal election, due in 1998. (Nineteen hundred and ninety-nine is the target date for the move to be completed.) So there is still time for the somber fears to be realized. There are still real concerns about the reputation and future of the political parties.
Yet this election showed a clear swing in the other direction: back to the established parties. With a 79 percent turnout, about 85 percent of the votes cast went to the parties of the old Federal Republic: the wedded Christian Democratic Union and Bavarian Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU), the Social Democrats (SPD), and the Free Democrats (FDP). A further 7.3 percent of the vote went to the combined list of the Greens, who by now must almost count as an “established” party of the Federal Republic, and the Bündnis 90 (Alliance 90), the heirs to the alliance of civil rights and opposition groups formed to fight the elections of 1990.2
According to the opinion pollsters, voters were more or less evenly divided about which combination of these parties they wanted to see in power: the present coalition of CDU/CSU and FDP, a “Grand-Coalition” of CDU/CSU and SPD, or “red-green” (SPD-Greens/Alliance 90). (Each of these combinations can already be found in local or state governments.) But that they wanted some combination of these four or, inas-much as the Bavarian CSU still has a separate identity, five established parties was very clear.
The two main extremist outsiders, the east German post-Communist PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism) and the largely west German, indeed mainly Bavarian, far-right Republikaner, fared differently. Most reassuringly, the Republikaner—or “Reps”—got only 1.9 percent. In Bavaria they have been completely outplayed by the CSU, which has mopped up their votes by a tough line on the issues of law and order and immigration, together with firmly expressed skepticism about further steps of European integration, while, at the same time, avoiding the Reps’ extreme nationalist or racist tones. (Arbeit für Deutsche! said one of the Reps’ election posters.)
At the same time, the Reps have been crippled by internal feuding. A few weeks before the election the leadership (Parteivorstand) voted to sack their chairman and founding father, Franz Schönhuber, a former SS man and gifted rabble-rouser, because he had met with the leader of an older-established far-right party, Gerhard Frey of the so-called Deutsche Volksunion. But just three days before the election a Berlin court issued an order suspending Schönhuber’s dismissal on the grounds that the proper procedures had not been followed.
p class=”initial”>Thinking that I would try to attend all the election parties in Bonn, I inadvertently chose the day of the court hearing to telephone the Reps’ office in Bonn to ask if they were having a party. “Well,” said a slightly confused lady at the end of the line, “we have the food and drink here, but we’re waiting for instructions as to whether we have a party.” On the election day, I rang again. Yes, I was told, the party was on. At about 8:15 PM, abandoning the packed, excited scrum in the CDU’s Konrad-Adenauer-Haus, I took a taxi down to the Reps’ headquarters in Bad Godesberg.
We had a little difficulty finding it. No flags or posters hung outside the villa at number 91 Plittersdorferstrasse. The shutters were down on the windows—but a chink of light shone through them. As I advanced to the front door, automatic security spotlights flashed on. A muscular character opened the door. Was the party still on? I asked. Yes, he said, but “most of them have gone.” Inside, there was a large room with a buffet and drinks. It contained eight people. Two of them turned out to be journalists.
The journalists then interviewed the party’s spokesman and deputy chairman, a Herr Hausmann. He spent most of the interview denouncing his temporarily reinstated chairman. However, he said, they would not disappoint the confidence which had been placed in them by their voters, by the Angestellte (white-collar workers) and Beamte (officials); yes, by the Polizeibeamte—the police officers.
His reference to the police was a reminder that the Reps cannot simply be dismissed out of hand. There has been worrying evidence of far-right sympathies among the police. And the Reps still got a total of some 875,000 votes—the population of a medium-size city. The xenophobic, authoritarian, and anti-Maastricht views of these voters will be reflected, not directly but indirectly, especially in the rhetoric of the CSU. Nonetheless, for the time being at least the result puts the Reps themselves right back on the outer margins of German politics.
p class=”initial”>Not so the post-Communist PDS, which will have thirty members of the new parliament. Indeed, in a curious twist the proceedings of the thirteenth Bundestag will actually be opened by a speech from a PDS member. The foxy old East German writer Stefan Heym, elected on the PDS ticket, is automatically granted this right as the oldest member of the house.
To understand why the PDS is in parliament one must dwell for a moment on the peculiarity of Germany’s electoral law. According to this law, each citizen has two votes. The “first vote” goes to an individual candidate, the “second vote” goes to a party. It is the second vote that mainly determines the total number of seats each party has in the house. Incidentally, it is not only to foreign readers that this peculiarity needs explaining. Surveys and interviews regularly show that many German voters don’t understand it either. They think their “first vote” is as important as or even, as its name suggests, more important than the “second vote.”
The so-called “5 percent hurdle” provides that only the parties getting more than 5 percent of the second votes will enter the Bundestag. This provision was introduced to prevent a recurrence of the fragmented party politics of the Weimar Republic—the nightmare of “Bonn becoming Weimar.”
So how come the PDS has got into parliament with less than 5 percent of the second votes? Because the law also provides that if the party gets three or more direct candidates elected—by the “first votes,” that is—then it should have the full number of seats to which it would be entitled by its percentage of the second votes. And the PDS got not just three but four direct candidates elected—all of them in what used to be East Berlin.3
Through this super-scrupulous loop-hole in the election law, their Noah’s ark sails into parliament, disgorging, besides Stefan Heym, such diverse creatures as the lawyer, wit, and gifted demagogue Gregor Gysi; the former East German economics minister Christa Luft; a great-grandson of Bismarck, Count Heinrich von Einsiedel; a former East German Olympic champion, Ruth Fuchs; and, most repulsively, two people who were almost certainly regular Stasi informers, one Rolf Kutzmutz and the curiously named Kerstin Kaiser-Nicht. What a bunch!
The PDS is, without doubt, the most interesting phenomenon in these elections. It is overwhelmingly an east German party, picking up a little over 300,000 votes in the west, but more than 1.7 million in the east. In what used to be East Berlin, it got a good third of the vote and four of the five constituencies. Since most of the old West Berlin went to the CDU, the capital is now dramatically divided—almost, one is tempted to say, like the division between the white and black parts of Washington, DC.
The vote for the PDS is, in part, a familiar post-Communist phenomenon, as seen in Poland and Hungary: a diverse vote comprising old comrades and functionaries, the losers from the traumatic process of economic transformation, those who yearn for the good old days of social security when “we pretended to work and they pretended to pay us,” and some younger protest voters. In the East German case the familiar mix of post-Communist grievances has been ameliorated by the economic transfers from the west, in the order of $100 billion a year; but then it has been exacerbated again by two elements.
First, nowhere in post-Communist Europe has the change in every single aspect of life been so sudden and total as in east Germany. Not just the political, economic, and legal system but the street signs, the banks, the post offices, the health insurance, the cars, the products in the shops, why even the bread has changed. Small wonder there is much dislocation and even nostalgia. Second, nowhere else has one had the strange experience of colonialism in one country. Many west Germans have displayed monstrous condescension, and sheer incomprehension, to their poorer compatriots in the east. At the same time, the east Germans continue to be paid less and bureaucratically discriminated against in countless aspects of everyday life. This is felt most acutely in Berlin, where an easterner working on the next block from his western colleague is paid only 70 or 80 percent of his salary. And the PDS, not the heirs of the opposition in Alliance 90, has become the vehicle of this resentment: the party of eastern protest.
Moreover, the PDS is reveling in the luxury of dissidence, without the risk of persecution (whereas the true dissidents in the GDR were fiercely persecuted by the ruling Communist party—or SED—from which the PDS was born). It is the gamekeeper turned poacher. Its leaders gather all the available arguments against all the established parties, without worrying unduly about internal coherence or a serious program for government. The past master of this kind of left-wing populism is Gregor Gysi. The diminutive, fast-talking Jewish lawyer, son of a high-ranking official in the old SED, is a Mephistophelean figure. Evidence continues to emerge of how, as a lawyer in Communist East Germany, he cooperated closely with the Stasi. But as a speaker, this miniature Mephisto is terrific—and I would guess almost single-handedly responsible for attracting the party’s younger voters. (Almost a quarter of PDS voters are under thirty.)
I saw Gysi in action at the PDS’s last election rally in Berlin. As I arrived, a warm-up band was singing “Komm schlaf mit mir” (Come, sleep with me), which seemed appropriate. “Once a whore, always a whore,” as Orwell remarked in a similar context. A bookstall displayed, among other wares, some of Stalin’s works, at 10 DM a volume. I asked the booksellers whether he had many takers. “Oh yes, people buy them out of historical interest. You see, they weren’t available in East Germany for a long time.”
After speeches by Stefan Heym and two others, it was Gysi’s turn. Speaking like a rapid-fire machine gun, Gysi presented the PDS as the only real party of opposition in Germany. He protested against a “one-sided view” of the history of the GDR. Of course “real socialism” had failed because of its own deficiencies, he said, but the alternative was not Herr Kohl but a truly democratic socialism. The east, he said, was being used as a laboratory for the dismantling of the welfare state.
Then there was foreign policy. Of course the Federal Republic had greater responsibilities, but what hypocrisy to call for German participation in peace-making missions when Germany is the third largest arms exporter in the world!
Then there was the growth of rightwing extremism, racism, and anti-Semitism. How about changing the country’s völkisch electoral law? How absurd that a Turkish citizen living here for years (he was talking in Kreuzberg, where many Turks live) cannot vote, whereas a German from Argentina can come here for three months, vote for Helmut Kohl, and then go back to Argentina, leaving us with Kohl…
Then there was the dismantling of higher education. This must be stopped. Not that he was arguing for endless study. Helmut Kohl had taken sixteen semesters to get his doctorate. In the GDR, he, Gysi, was only allowed eight. “The difference is clearly visible, but I try to make up for it by life experience.” At this remark even the policemen standing next to me were laughing.
Then there was the environment. Why didn’t they keep up the GDR’s system of recycling basic raw materials? Of course the GDR had done it for economic rather than ecological reasons. But it was still sensible. (No mention of the huge environmental damage under the GDR regime.)
Then there was the bureaucracy. “I thought the GDR was the most bureaucratic country in the world. What a mistake!” The west German bureaucracy is much worse. (This is a complaint you hear from east Germans in every walk of life.)
And so on. A catalog of well-made individual points, appealing to the particular experience of particular groups, above all in the east. And the whole spiced with acid wit. It doesn’t add up to a policy. But in expressing radical populist opposition it is very effective.
Later I talk with one of the most distinguished of the former east German opposition leaders, the biochemist Jens Reich, about the PDS phenomenon. Like me, he finds it utterly repulsive that these former functionaries, hacks, and Stasi narks are rearing their heads again, even behaving with some of the old arrogance. On the other hand, looking at it coolly, he feels there is an argument that it is better to have these people integrated into the democratic system than to have them working outside and against it. Better to have them inside the tent pissing out rather than outside pissing in, as President Lyndon Baines Johnson once so elegantly observed.
After all, so the argument continues, that’s what the Federal Republic did with the old Nazis after 1949: integrate them. Ah yes, comes the answer, but at least the old Nazis were working in newly constituted democratic parties, not in a direct successor to the Nazi party, the NSDAP. Imagine, says a conservative politician, if the NSDAP had just renamed itself the PDSAN—and been voted back into parliament.
In practice, the PDS has so far only affected one major decision in national politics. It was the votes of the PDS members of the Bundestag that, in 1991, gave the narrow majority for the decision to move the capital to Berlin. Whether they can establish themselves as a more permanent feature of the political landscape will clearly depend above all on the progress of reconstruction and “internal unification” in the east in general, and the former East Berlin in particular. But for the period of the thirteenth Bundestag they will be a colorful, raucous, disturbing presence in Bonn, a presence indeed recalling—in a figure like Gysi—the radical left-wing politics of the Weimar Republic, but also seen by many as “the voice of the east.”
So much for the small but interesting margins. What of the large but boring center? “He’s done it again” is, of course, the first thing to be said of Helmut Kohl, written off by many commentators at the beginning of the year, just as he was being written off by many, even in his own party, in early 1989. Five years ago, it was the way in which he seized the opportunity of unification that brought him back. This year it was three things.
First, it was his personal authority, conviction, and energy. The Christian Democrats fought a presidential election campaign around Helmut Kohl: the colossus of Oggersheim, the “chancellor of unity,” the “Bismarck in a cardigan.” His face alone stared down from the posters. For the first time ever, polls showed that he was more popular than his party. Indeed, some well-informed sources wonder what exactly will be left of his party when he is gone. By contrast, the Social Democrats had, rather late in the campaign, to bring in two other politicians—their last candidate for chancellor, Oskar Lafontaine, and the man who many think should be their next one, Gerhard schröder—to stand beside the lackluster Rudolf scharping in a so-called leadership “troika.”
Second, the economic upturn in west Germany and the signs of lasting economic recovery in east Germany came just in time to save Kohl’s bacon. Napoleon famously asked about one of his generals the single, all-important question: “Is he lucky?” Helmut Kohl is lucky. In the west, he benefited from the familiar “feel-good factor” at this point in the economic cycle. In the east, it was something more dramatic. Here he had been first adored and then reviled for his famous promise of 1990 to create “flowering landscapes” within a few years. In fact, the transformation has been much slower and more painful than he predicted. Some 14 percent of the east German labor force is still unemployed, and another 4 percent hold artificial, government-subsidized jobs.
Nonetheless, if you travel through east Germany today it is one big building site. In a bold move, Helmut Kohl went back to every place where he had campaigned in the elections of 1990 and said, in effect, “I told you so.” And enough people felt their own lives had in fact improved. So in the east, the CDU got the most votes—more than 38 percent to the SPD’s 32 percent. Altogether, any claim or perception that the PDS is the “voice of the east” must be qualified by the plain fact that 80 percent of the east German vote went to the established parties and Alliance 90/Greens.
The third reason Helmut Kohl won is that he managed ever so slightly to tar the Social Democrats with the Communist brush. They foolishly gave, him the opportunity to do so, by forming a minority government in one of the east German states, Sachsen-Anhalt, in coalition with the Alliance 90/Greens but depending on the votes (or abstention) of the PDS for its continuance in office. Aha, said Kohl, here is a fundamental break with the continuity of the democratic politics of the Federal Republic: a Social Democratic government that is there only on sufferance from the PDS. And adapting a phrase of the early postwar Social Democratic leader Kurt Schumacher, he described the PDS as “red-painted fascists.” This, Kohl said to the voters, is what you might get if you vote for the SPD. It was a tactical, some might even say a cynical argument, and it is difficult to judge its precise effect. Perhaps in east Germany it even won the PDS a few more protest votes. But I think Kohl knew exactly what he was doing.
With this single argument he artfully polarized a contest in which, up to that point, the differences between the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats had been very blurred—so much so, in fact, that wits had combined the two leading candidates for chancellor into an imaginary “Chancellor Kohlping.” At the same time, by summoning up the ghost of “red-painted fascists” in a popular front with the SPD, he activated some deep-seated cold war reactions and fears, reinforcing the feeling that it was safer to stick with the devil you know. Keine Experimente! (No Experiments!) to quote a famous Christian Democratic slogan from earlier in the history of the Federal Republic.
Yet it was still a close-run thing. In fact, the coalition only got its working majority of ten thanks to another peculiarity of the German electoral system. I said earlier—choosing my words carefully—that the percentage of second votes won by a party “mainly determines” the number of seats it has in parliament. However, if a party gets more direct candidates elected in a particular state (Land) than it would be entitled to from its proportion of the “second votes” in that state, then those extra members enter the Bundestag as so-called “overhang mandates.” The CDU/CSU got twelve “overhang mandates” against the SPD’s four, thus significantly increasing its majority.
Kohl himself immediately pointed out that Helmut Schmidt had governed for four years after 1976 with a majority of ten, and that Willy Brandt had come to power in 1969 with a majority of twelve. Yet Kohl knows as well as anyone that Brandt’s majority was then pared down to almost nothing by defections in protest at his Ostpolitik. Narrow majorities sit uneasily with bold policies. And Kohl’s position now is significantly weaker than Brandt’s or Schmidt’s was then. As this article goes to press, there is even speculation that Kohl might not get the absolute majority of votes in the Bundestag needed to elect him chancellor first time round (although the constitution also provides for a second round, in which a chancellor can be elected by a qualified majority). Yet if we assume he is returned, after what are sure to be difficult coalition negotiations, he still faces major new constraints.
For a start, there is the sickness of the Free Democrats. The FDP is a small party that has been in government for all but eight of the forty-five years of the Federal Republic. In the Museum of the History of the Federal Republic you can see one of its earliest election posters, describing it as “the golden center” between red and black, left and right. Over the years, it has become accustomed to being the effective arbiter of German politics. Helmut Kohl originally came to power in 1982 because the FDP switched coalition partners in mid-term, from Helmut Schmidt’s embattled SPD to the CDU. A Federal Republic without the FDP would be “a different republic,” the party’s current leader, Klaus Kinkel, declared in his last pre-election speech: a bold claim for any party leader to make, yet with a grain of truth.
Even under Hans-Dietrich Genscher, foreign minister between 1974 and 1992, the FDP had constantly to struggle to establish its separate identity, and to keep above the 5 percent hurdle in federal and state elections. Genscher quite deliberately organized the switch of coalition partners back in 1982, because in voters’ eyes the FDP seemed to be becoming indistinguishable from the SPD, which itself was in trouble. Now the FDP has the opposite problem; but even more so. It has only got back into the Bundestag because more than half a million CDU voters gave their second votes tactically to the FDP, in order to bring back Helmut Kohl as leader of the present center-right coalition. Indeed, by the end of the campaign the FDP was openly pleading for such tactical voting. One poster showed a picture of the retired but still very popular Genscher playing chess. Underneath was the message: “A clever chess-move, second vote for the FDP!”
According to one remarkable poll, 63 percent of those who voted for the FDP named the CDU as their preferred party. According to another poll, just 17 percent of those asked saw the FDP as an independent party, while 72 percent saw it only as a partner of the CDU/CSU. Kinkel has not established himself as a credible successor to Hans-Dietrich Genscher in the role of foreign minister. Their economics minister, Günter Rexrodt, is not the powerful personification of hard-nosed “Manchester liberal” economics that the former party leader Otto Count Lambsdorff was, appealing to the entrepreneurial middle class which has been a vital part of the FDP’s traditional constituency. At the same time, the party has failed to strengthen its other wing, identified with more left-liberal positions on law and order, immigration, or education. Most serious of all, this loss of identity, credibility, and leadership has resulted in the party losing its place in most state parliaments. On the day of the Bundestag election it failed to get back into another three state parliaments.
This deep crisis of the FDP does not just mean that the party will be riven with recriminations and worry about its own future. (The internal squabbling started on the very night of the elections.) It also means that some in the FDP will start to think that the party can be saved only by once again changing coalition partners in mid-term. The option here would be a so-called “traffic-light coalition,” consisting of SPD, FDP, and Alliance 90/Greens (red-yellow-green). Some great “issues of principle” could surely be found for abandoning the FDP’s current partner, just as Genscher found them in 1982. Whether this would again save the turncoat party, or finally condemn it to extinction, is a very open question—but the possibility will haunt the coalition Kohl is now trying to reconstitute.
Meanwhile, the Social Democrats have emerged not only strengthened in the Bundestag but also with a clear majority in the federal upper house, the Bundesrat, whose political balance is determined by the composition of state governments. This means that now more than ever the government will need to negotiate its legislative proposals in advance with the SPD, in order to get them through the upper house. Many talk in this connection of a “de facto Grand Coalition”—a reference to the “Grand Coalition” of Christian and Social Democrats, without the FDP, which ruled the Federal Republic between 1966 and 1969. The strengthening of the SPD increases the temptation for the FDP to play its old game of switching sides. On the other hand, the threat of the new constellation also strengthens the temptation for the Christian Democrats to preempt the FDP defection by themselves going for a Grand Coalition with the SPD.
To add to the uncertainty, there is the question of the succession to Helmut Kohl. Kohl himself has announced that this will be his last term as chancellor. But if he is to give his “crown prince,” Wolfgang schäuble, or anyone else, a chance to establish their authority before the next Bundestag election, in four years’ time, then he will presumably have to step down in 1997, at the latest. So irrespective of the political uncertainties, this is “the beginning of the end of the Kohl era”—because Kohl himself has proclaimed it so.
To describe Kohl as already a “lame duck” would, however, be once again to underestimate a man who has made a habit of being underestimated throughout his extraordinarily successful political career. Helmut Kohl is still the most formidable politician—and statesman—in Europe. He will not lightly be deflected from pursuing the last great task that he has set himself: to bind united Germany into a united Europe. In his view, the Maastricht treaty was a crucial step in that direction. The EU’s intergovernmental review conference, scheduled to begin in 1996, and already popularly billed as “Maastricht 2,” should be another one. Indeed, I should not be altogether surprised if somewhere at the back of his mind he does not cherish the idea of stepping down after completing “Maastricht 2,” having made the integration of Germany into something called the European Union “irreversible”—as he fondly hopes.
Nothing decisive will happen until the French presidential elections next spring, although there will be an intensive half-year of preparation and “policy planning” in the chancellor’s office, where German European policy is really made, and in the other chancelleries of Europe. But if he then has the right partner in Paris—and ironically enough the Socialist candidate Jacques Delors must be the favorite for the chancellor who is the scourge of socialism in Germany—then I suspect we will see some very challenging Franco-German initiatives for a further “deepening” of the EU.
These may recall, in substance if not in name, the CDU/CSU parliamentary party’s proposals for a “hard core” of the EU, consisting of France, Germany, and the Benelux countries. But the affronted reaction to those proposals, in Britain, in Italy, and elsewhere in Europe, is nothing compared to the furious row that will arise if that really seems to be French and German government policy, in the run-up to the intergovernmental conference. This alone would make it very difficult for Chancellor Kohl to realize his goal in the few years still available to him. Moreover, given the virtual collapse of the European Monetary System and the continued disparities between the economies of even the front-runners for European monetary union, the Maastricht timetable for monetary union looks increasingly unrealistic.
Within Germany itself, the business and banking community is, on the whole, notably unenthusiastic about European monetary union. Altogether, there is much more skepticism in Germany about a further deepening of the existing EU than there was before German unification—a skepticism notably articulated by the Bavarian prime minister Edmund Stoiber. Public opinion is increasingly indignant at Germany’s outsize net contribution to the EU’s budget, especially at a time when domestic budgets are being cut (although their leaders still try quietly to explain that this contribution is a small price to pay for keeping open Germany’s main export market). With Poland just five minutes’ flying time from Berlin, and German business already deeply committed to the Czech Republic, enlarging the EU to the east is also widely felt to be a higher priority for Germany.
Nonetheless, on the issue of “Europe” the political leadership of the Social Democrats is by and large on Kohl’s side. So while he may ultimately fail to realize his particular vision of “Europe,” because other European countries are not ready for it, or have other visions of their own, Germany’s politics, as they appear after the election, will probably not stop him trying—and trying very forcefully.
However, the goal most important to Chancellor Kohl personally is not the top priority of most of his compatriots. A poll result published on election night showed “foreign policy” at the very bottom of the list of issues that concerned the respondents. At the very top was job creation, then issues such as the restructuring of the welfare state, health care, and the environment. Despite its strong economic recovery, Germany has daunting domestic problems. It clearly has to cut budgets in order to reduce the public debt, which has soared to 2 trillion DM as a result of the costs of unification. It has to try to restore Germany’s competitive edge in world export markets, which probably involves doing some of the things that Britain and America did already in the 1980s—privatization, deregulation, reducing employment costs and the tax disincentives to enterprise. It has to work out what to do about long-term, structural unemployment: a problem common to all of Western Europe, but particularly sensitive because of the disproportionately larger number of long-term unemployed to be found in east Germany. Yet it is not only in east Germany that Gysi’s polemic against a “dismantling of the welfare state” will fall on fallow ground. And it is not only in west Germany that the Greens’ ecological and feminist concerns will further complicate the process.
With the results of the elections it is clear that, within the present political system, these issues can only be addressed by negotiation between all the established parties. In other words, this is the greatest test so far of what has long been the Federal Republic’s greatest strength: its ability to achieve change through consensus. If the attempt fails, then next time round we may yet see a more significant flight of disillusioned voters from the boring center to the interesting margins. Then, indeed, the Berlin republic might after all begin to look like Weimar.
But there we go again: worrying and warning, because of the ghosts in the museum. The Federal Republic has proved the Cassandras wrong so many times before. Let’s hope it can do so again. In any case, it’s worth remembering that when looking at Germany most people from most of the world, even from quite prosperous countries in the West, will exclaim: “If only we had your problems….”
—November 3, 1994
Berufsverbot—roughly “job-ban”—was a term coined by critics of government vetting procedures introduced in the 1970s to combat supposed far-left infiltration, and which resulted in a number of public-sector employees losing their jobs. This was criticized as an infringement of civil liberties. ↩
See my “East Germany: The Solution,” The New York Review, April 26, 1990. ↩
I say “what used to be East Berlin,” because East Berlin actually included the city center—Berlin-Mitte—which is now part of Stefan Heym’s constituency. ↩