Germany's time of choice

About the author
Tilman Spengler is a writer, essayist, journalist and filmmaker. Since 1990 he has been the co-publisher of the literary journal Kursbuch. His novel Lenins Hirn (1991) has been translated into more than twenty languages.

They order this election matter differently in Germany. As it enters its final week before voting on 18 September, the event is retaining its capacity to surprise.

Ever since Gerhard Schröder had the Bundestag (lower house of parliament) dissolved, both the bigger and the smaller political parties have started to talk not just about elections but about a Richtungswahlkampf - a word as ugly to look at as to hear it pronounced.

A Richtungswahlkampf is not just a battle over different political strategies, between charismatic (or not-so-charismatic) MPs, or for or against higher taxation: it announces nothing less than a clash of political civilisations.

Angela Merkel and other leading members of the Christian Democratic Party (CDU), as well as a surprisingly high number of liberals from the Free Democratic Party (FDP), declare that the end of the Social Democratic Party (SDP)-Green coalition will mark a new turn in the country’s post-war history, paralleled only by the very early years of the federal republic after its foundation in 1949.

The social democrats are as keen on a Richtungswahlkampf as their opponents. “We will not allow the wheel of time to be turned backwards”, they respond.

In the midst of an election rough-and-tumble, when pronouncements are seldom tuned to the more sophisticated ear, these fierce declarations represent new and fairly heavy stuff. What they also indicate is a deep uncertainty about the position of Germany in a vastly transformed political and economical context.

Also on the German election in openDemocracy:

Michael Naumann’s election blog

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Europe’s biggest swot

It was of course not all calm sailing for the Federal Republic of Germany (“West Germany”) during the cold war, yet the basic structures of the country’s position in the world were solidly fixed for more than four decades after 1945: a lot of Nato instead of a foreign policy; a lot of flirting with France; a lot of financial support in lieu of an independent European policy. In a land always tightly (and not always benignly) held by the country’s western allies, the Ostpolitik of the post-1966 foreign minister (and later chancellor), Willy Brandt was the only great, daring deed.

In short, the federal republic functioned well as western Europe’s pre-eminent swot. The benefits were felt not just in the realm of foreign affairs but in Germany‘s economic performance, her labour relations, the beginnings of her ecological programmes, and – last but not least – in her huge capacity (and overall willingness) to compensate historical guilt with material benefits as far as possible.

Thus emerged Das Modell Deutschland, where Germany – at least its western part – functioned as a smoothly working socio-cultural construct: highly efficient, parochial to a degree, greatly self-assured but seldom mutinous – and never, in its short existence, confronted with a truly severe crisis.

All this changed drastically with the fall of the Berlin wall in November 1989 – though at first nobody took too much notice, not even Helmut Kohl, the chancellor who presided over reunification. He regarded the process primarily as an economic task, involving investments to be made, currencies to be adjusted, obligations to be honoured (or sometimes not). The suggestion was of a small and friendly takeover, which may produce a very few losers amid the majority of winners, who are deserving and, up to a point, even feudally grateful.

This illusion very soon came to wane – as did the social democrats’ hope of regaining a political base in some of their historic heartlands. Hadn’t Saxony been a socialist stronghold before the Nazis came to power? And what about Thuringia, the other famous cradle of the German workers‘ movement?

The misconceptions on all sides were legion. If the East Germans, citizens of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), would not become socialists after forty years of rule in the ideology’s name, they also stubbornly refused to become capitalists, even in the subdued fashion practised in Germany’s west. So they voted overwhelmingly for the CDU, but very many craved shelter from a strong state machine.

It became apparent that economic factors could not explain German realities. It seems that no one had found time to analyse the social and cultural implications of reunification. Anyone in Bonn (and later in Berlin) who thought “it’s the economy, stupid!” and expected that serious investments would produce the instant China-fixation of a society reared for decades under lacklustre socialism, had made a grave blunder.

Indeed, “shelter” became the key social and economic term after reunification, in the west – which had to shoulder its financial burden – as well as the east. It soon became obvious that the strong pillars of the social security and health systems needed new foundations, that mass unemployment was here to stay for much longer than anticipated, and that the state would be less and less in a position to foot the bill.

A search for a new role

Shelter, or rather its absence, also became one of the key notions in foreign affairs. Since the cold war began, (West) Germany had looked west and only west. The United States had been the strong, constant elder brother. But when Washington begins to act and react differently now that it has become the only global player, what should Germany do about energy resources, about defining and defending its security, about intervention (Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq)? Wouldn’t it be safer for Germany to rely on a number of partners rather than on one?

Tilman Spengler is a writer, essayist, journalist and filmmaker. Since 1990 he has been the co-publisher of the literary journal Kursbuch. His novel Lenins Hirn (1991) has been translated into more than twenty languages.

The motto of his autobiographical Meine Gesellschaft. Kursbuch eines Unfertigen (2001) is: "certain facts are true, because one can only tell them like that and not differently."

These are some of the elements composing the election Richtungswahlkampf. When the CDU’s Angela Merkel declares that the early post-war period in Germany (here of course she refers only to the federal republic, not the GDR where she was raised) best fulfilled the political as well as the socio-economic ideals to which she aspires, she is not just invoking the “classical” German virtues of industriousness, modesty and ingenuity; she is also expressing a preference for a “weaker” state, including weaker trade unions and weaker rules regulating business enterprise.

A firmer political alliance with the United States is naturally included in Frau Merkel’s basket. Members of her party remember fondly how in the early days of the Iraq war, she led a delegation to Washington assuring President Bush of her unfailing support.

Gerhard Schröder – who had been cast (only partly to his dismay) in the role of “bosses’ chancellor” once assigned to Helmut Kohl – has seen his chance. He now adopts a multiple new guise: the poor man’s doctor, applying purgative cures (“yes, this will hurt for a moment, but in the end you’ll be thankful”), the sole German politician who stands above parties disputes, and the potential Nobel Peace Laureate.

Schröder’s position in domestic politics long seemed distinguishable from that of his adversaries only by his merciful eye, but it has now clearly shifted to a form of procreative socialism, somewhere between compassion and enlightenment. Not the class warfare espoused by the new Linkspartei, but still a remarkably clear ideological benchmark, especially when it had been declared permanently barren by friend and foe alike.

Five days to go, and Merkel and Schröder are waging a Richtungswahlkampf – a contest over the shape of Germany’s political future.

Meanwhile, just how the German people will order this election come Sunday, an unprecedented number of Germans are still frightfully undecided about. After all, this may be a good sign. Perhaps they too have become weary of being Europe’s pre-eminent swot, and – like their leaders – are thinking about Germany in the night.