TCS Daily

A German Way

By Joseph Tom Goeller - March 11, 2003 12:00 AM

Realpolitik is a German word. It is defined as policy based on practicalities and power rather than on doctrine or ethical or moral objectives. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is riding high - on the opposite of this definition. Although he has no objective reason to be proud of his politics, the nation rallies behind him in a way this young democracy has not experienced before. Where is the opposition?

Germany is economically depressed in a way that recalls the early 1930s, with the number of unemployed moving rapidly toward the 5 million mark and absolutely no prospect of any recovery. Although the unemployed this time don't line up in the streets - they are not visible, just a number - the Germans in general know something is going wrong. They suffer psychologically - but when in history did they not?

The romantic suffering of Germany or of the world itself - the Germans call this mood Weltschmerz -was a common theme of German poets like Heinrich Heine, Friedrich Rückert and many others in the 19th century.

Strangely enough this mood has resurfaced. The reason is obvious. Germans have looked deeply into the causes of unemployment and the struggling of their once mighty and successful industry. And they don't like what they've seen. German industry cannot compete the way it once did, because of irrationally high labor costs and outrageous tax rates of 48 to 50 percent. German politicians of all parties know that the expensive public health care system, the luxurious dole even for longtime unemployed labor, and the whole inflated social security net are not affordable anymore. Already at the time of German unification, in 1990, this was the case. Things have only gotten worse since then as West Germany has shifted 25 to 37 billion euros to the poor East. Experts predict that this burden will last another ten years.

So, even though all policymakers in Germany are well aware of this problem, and even though all economists know that the current generation is spending the money of future ones, no one dares to speak the truth to the pampered nation. This is because, simply, no one who would do so would be re-elected.

This attitude, and not any overestimated level of "anti-Americanism", is the real reason why Chancellor Schröder has gotten away with his poor performance of the past four years. He did not address the unwelcome economic problems but simply found another topic on which he could campaign.

In U.S. President George W. Bush and his strong stand for Iraq's disarmament Schröder found his scapegoat, his trump to win re-election - with just 6,500 votes more than the candidate of the opposition.

One would presume this situation now makes the opposition feel strong. Schröder's coalition government with the Greens rules by a margin of only 9 seats in the German Bundestag. But so far there is no hint of a substantial effort by the conservative CDU/CSU to effect regime change. Right after the election the opposition ducked. The conservatives seem to think that Schröder's Iraq stance is too popular. Although the SPD lost substantially in two recent state elections, on the national level 70 to 80 percent of the Germans still endorse the course of Schröder.

But Schröder's politics have been reduced to simple opposition to the U.S. At least for now. And that is what makes the vast majority of Germans feel so good about it. Knowing subconsciously about the weakness within Germany's own system, Schröder offered people a way out of the dilemma, a way to feel good again. Most Germans are deeply convinced that they are on "right side".

"We have learned our lessons" is a phrase often heard these days. Germans feel their society and government has become superior, if not economically then morally. The German definition of "right and wrong" is - after their experience with two devastating World Wars - to be for peace. Always. Unconditionally.

"Whatever the UN decides," as Schröder said. Even the chairman of the opposition party, Angela Merkel, made clear on a recent visit to Washington that "everybody in Germany is for peace" and criticized Bush for not signing the Kyoto protocol. Some opposition.

As irrational as Germans lining up behind their leader appears, irrationality is one of the typical mysteries of the German soul. After decades of suppression in the aftermath of World War II, we surprisingly experience this nightmare again. This is a powerful collective memory in a nation of 80 million people that dominates Central Europe.

Yes, one would think that national stereotypes or having a "national soul" no longer fits into our modern view about nations and how we analyze the public opinion of states. Unfortunately the ghosts of the 19th and 20th century are returning. And I am not the only one who sees them coming. Emphatically, two members of Schröder's Sozial-Democratic Party (SPD), the former MP Volkmar Schulz and the MP and Chairman of the German American Parliamentary Group Hans-Ulrich Klose, recently admitted publicly in Washington, DC, that they feel uneasy about "re-nationalization in Germany". Referring to a remark by Schröder during his election campaign last summer, Klose literally shivered when he, in a low and pensive voice, rhetorically asked the audience: "Could you ever have imagined to hear that sentence again: 'German politics are decided in Berlin'? Or speaking of a 'German way', meaning: go it alone?" He added: "German ways in history are much more dangerous than any intervention in Iraq!"

Hear! Hear! Here's the real opposition to Schröder's presumptuous "own way". If only the conservative party would use him and some other renegades in the parliament, to overthrow Schröder by a vote of no confidence, they could alter the course. But they don't have the guts. They suffer from weltschmerz themselves, unable to think or act in terms of realpolitik.

Joseph T. Goeller is a German writer living in Washington, DC.

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