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All Quiet on the Western Front:
A Report on the Elections in Germany

09.28.2002 | POLITICS

Heated accusations from the White House, word of a "poisoned" diplomatic relationship and angry public debate surfaced in the run up to the German elections on September 22 and continued in the wake of the Red-Green government's reelection. Obscured by the cloud of recrimination and hostility, however, is a much more remarkable (though hardly remarked upon) message sent by the German electorate.

The recent German elections have certainly raised a lot of interest in the United States, perhaps more than any other since 1949. Unfortunately, that has less to do with present politics than with the name of the one former German politician that all Americans can identify: Adolf Hitler.

In the closing days of the campaign, Justice Minister Herta Däubler-Gmelin was quoted as saying that President George W. Bush is using the issue of a new Iraq war to distract voters from domestic political and economic woes. Noting that Britain's Margaret Thatcher had done the same in the Falklands, she went on to suggest that Germans should be familiar with the tactic as well: after all, Hitler had used it. A local reporter printed an account of her remarks and the bonfire was lit. This was, to be sure, an ill-advised comment, but a lot of exculpatory information never quite made it into the papers. The fact that Däubler-Gmelin thought she was having an off-the-record conversation, that she claims she immediately and repeatedly denied any equivalence between the two leaders, and that her comments were, in any case, something less than a direct "comparison" of Bush and Hitler, seemed to matter little in the subsequent storm.

"The Hitler Affair" became the top issue in the German yellow press, which is perhaps unsurprising since the tabloid Bild is fond of running Hitler-themed stories, sometimes speculating on his sexuality (and, indeed, his sex). What was surprising was the life the story had elsewhere. One would have hoped that in more serious quarters the cooler heads would have prevailed. In the US, however, the Justice Minister's ill-timed (and historically flawed) comments unleashed a wave of self-righteous anger, stoked by such provocative headlines as "German Leader: Bush like Hitler" (the Washington Times). What should have been a quickly forgotten sideshow became a trans-Atlantic diplomatic crisis: the White House descended into a petulant sulk, and, reading from the same script, Condoleeza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld described the US-German relationship as "poisoned." The right-wing media went into full Saving Private Ryan mode, though it remains to be seen whether all the Dubya Dubya Two talk will amount to much more than a tempest in a beer stein.

The controversy is unfortunate, not only because it is overblown but also because it conceals the far more interesting results of the election, which are significant both for Germany and for European politics as a whole. For all the "indecision" attributed to the ballot, some clear winners and losers emerged. Taking pride of place in the first category are the Greens, who had the best electoral performance in their history (8.6 percent) and saved Gerhard Schröder's coalition government. Not bad for a party that twenty years ago was written off by some as a bunch of granola-grazing ex-hippies. Now they are an established political force and an indispensable governing partner. As for Schröder himself, he and his social democrats (the SPD) have less to smile about, having dropped a few points from their 1998 results. Thanks to the Greens, however, they were able to stay in power.

Then there are the losers. The PDS--the reformed former Communist party that has been a fixture in the "new" states of the former East Germany--had a disastrous election night, and failed to meet the five-percent hurdle for forming a parliamentary block. Part of this can be attributed to a minor scandal around their best known political leader, Gregor Gysi, and his subsequent resignation. More decisive was the apparent decision of many eastern voters to cast their ballots strategically for the SPD, so as to defeat the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU). This strategy seemed to work. Despite improving on their 1998 results, the conservatives lost too, failing in their attempt to bring down the Red-Green coalition and--despite early signs of triumph on election night--falling short of their goal to become the largest party in parliament. Finally, the liberal FDP ("liberal" in the European sense of favoring strident free-market reforms) had probably the worst expectation-to-performance ratio. Having cast themselves as the youthful, entrepreneurial and "fun" party, they picked up a few percentage points among the yuppie set, but alienated many of their traditional supporters, who perhaps remember a time when the party was more than a publicity stunt. Not helping was a string of acrimonious leadership disputes, and a drawn-out series of allegations about anti-Semitism. They built their campaign around gaining 18 percent of the vote--in the hope of forming a coalition with the conservatives--but received a mere 7.4.

Schröder's comeback is a remarkable story, but one with identifiable causes. Despite widespread grumbling over his government's performance, the Chancellor held four key advantages. First, he demonstrated quick--and thus-far effective--handling of the August floods that devastated wide swathes along the Elbe and Danube: the resulting wave of national "solidarity" worked to his advantage. Second, he was able to tap into a deep-seated German opposition to taking part in the upcoming war in Iraq. Third, his coalition government includes the most popular politician in Germany, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer (of the Greens), who campaigned tirelessly for him. His fourth, and perhaps most important advantage: he is not Edmund Stoiber, the conservative chancellor candidate and minister-president of Bavaria, a southern federal state which, somewhat like Texas, is adamant about its "difference" (and which, also like Texas, has plagued its country with funny clothes and accents).

The question of whether or not a Bavarian could become chancellor of Germany had been hotly debated in the weeks before the election. For now, at least, we know the answer. Despite concerted efforts to play down the Lederhosen factor, Stoiber was unable to appeal to voters outside of traditional CDU/CSU strongholds in the south, and his personal popularity remained at appallingly low levels. Unable to bridge a formidable charisma gap (and suffering from Bush-like verbal handicaps), Stoiber campaigned on the issues of unemployment, economic growth and immigration. This worked, in the beginning. By mid-summer his "It's the Economy, Dummkopf" strategy seemed to have paid off, and his march from Munich to Berlin seemed a foregone conclusion.

Then came the floods and an increasingly hawkish US policy in the Middle East. Schröder and Fischer declared that Germany would not support the American "adventure," and their poll numbers slowly rose. This was followed by Stoiber's lackluster appearances in televised campaign debates (Germany's first, incidentally) and the conservative was suddenly on the ropes. In response, he flailed to the right, promising to expel an alleged 4,000 "violence-ready" Muslims (the source for this figure and characterization remain vague), stoking fears of a collapse in law-and-order, and calling for stricter immigration quotas. Watching Stoiber's increasingly hysterical public performance in the last days of the election, I began to think it possible that the Red-Green coalition just might stay around another four years. The day before the poll, the media was reporting variations on the theme of a Kopf an Kopf (head to head) election.

Although Germany has a complex proportional representation system in which people actually have two votes (one directly for a candidate from their district--these representatives make up about half of the Bundestag--and a second that fills out the remainder on a proportional basis) there were no stories of confused voters, mis-marked ballot sheets, recount requests and "pregnant chads." Having spent years voting by pulling levers and poking holes in punch-cards, I was astonished when I accompanied my wife to the polling station and saw that she was handed a slip of paper and pencil. I hear that other districts voted electronically, but apparently such Vorsprung durch Technik wasn't necessary in one of the closest elections in the history of the Federal Republic. Despite all the talk about the 'Americanization' of German electoral politics, there is at least one thing that sets them apart: the Germans can count.

After the polls closed at 6pm, the media went into a tizzy, with the results seesawing among the five parties (and among the various television channels). Late into the night, the CDU/CSU was ahead by a fraction of a percent, but a slim Red-Green majority remained possible; the television commentators (at least those in the public stations) generally avoided calling the vote. Such reticence was, unfortunately, not shared by Stoiber, who triumphantly announced that the conservatives, as the single largest party, had "won." By the next morning, however, the final count showed the SPD and CDU/CSU with the same 38.5 percent. The Schadenfreude generated by Stoiber's premature jubilation was palpable, and with the Greens' strong showing the coalition survived.

With the vote over, the analysis has begun, and the assumed "weakness" of the "new-old government" seemed an instant consensus, especially in regard to the "painful reforms" necessary to get Germany back in business. Particularly in the Anglo-American press, the talk is already turning over the question "Is Germany Japan?" That such reforms, which center on nebulous concepts like "labor market flexibility," may not be the magic formula for success is little questioned, nor is the "flexible" idea that unemployment is best solved by making it easier to fire people. Nonetheless, the government is already getting to work: Schröder has made employment a top second-term priority (he intends to implement a plan generated in a commission headed by Volkswagen CEO Peter Hartz) and the Greens want to build on the policies that have helped make Germany the most environmentally conscious nation in Europe. Both parties also seem committed to taking at least the first steps toward turning Germany (with its shrinking and aging population) into an immigration country.

Foreign policy, of course, remains in the foreground. That Däubler-Gmelin won't be serving in the new cabinet has failed to placate the White House. Washington clearly intends to make life difficult for Schröder, by stoking up enough moral outrage to at best soften his position on Iraq or at worst shut up him about it. But events may be flowing in the other direction. The French have begun making statements with wording similar to Schröder's, and the Bush Administration may be seeing the first symptoms of a wider outbreak of European backbone regarding Gulf War II. Schröder's position on Iraq is popular in Germany, and while the Hitler reference was both inaccurate and excessive, the Germans hold no monopoly on reckless speech. If there is any one person who should be blamed for "poisoning" diplomatic relations, he is sitting in Washington, not Berlin.

Finally, the "Hitler Affair" has overshadowed something else. After Jean-Marie Le Pen's surprising surge in the French presidential elections in May, there was much concern (and, in the US, scorn) expressed about the new march of far-right politics across Europe. That tide--if it in fact exists--seems to have stopped at the German border. Voter turnout of about 80 percent, while considered low by German standards, showed a strong commitment to mainstream democracy. The conservative CDU/CSU are right-centrists whose policies would probably make them Democrats in the United States. Meanwhile, the ultra-nationalist NPD (platform: "Germany for the Germans" and pledges to scrap the Euro) garnered less than one percent of the votes cast, putting them in roughly the same category as the Party of Bible-Observing Christians. The FDP, too, seems to have been punished for the flirtation by at least one of their leaders with populist anti-Semitism. At the same time, but for different reasons, the far left has little to celebrate.

Germany's successful maintenance of a stable political culture won't make screaming headlines in the US, and it may be too much to ask that it helps lay to rest the automatic association between Germany and fascism. This middle-of-the-road election may have lacked thrills, but with the French disaster in mind, the Germans seem prepared to do without that kind of excitement.

About the Author
J. Carter Wood recently completed a Ph.D. in British history at the University of Maryland, College Park and lives in Germany. When not writing about the history of violence, he struggles to come to terms with the German subjunctive mood.
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