Germany: Scandal, pornography, and naked truths

Gossip and scandal are part of politics; the German media is currently overflowing with these commodities. Both a leading feminist and the man in charge of spending on theaters and museums in Berlin were caught stashing their fortunes illegally (and untaxed) outside Germany; the latter case briefly threatened to cost Mayor Wowereit his job, since he had hush-hushed the matter for a year.

Then, a raid in Toronto found that an up-and-coming Social Democratic deputy in the German Bundestag had collected Internet photos of nude boys. Last fall, just when the major parties were forming their “grand coalition,” a cabinet minister from Merkel’s sister party in Bavaria (the CSU) tipped off the top Social Democrat, Sigmar Gabriel, warning him not to give the man an important job. Gabriel denies it, but someone seems to have passed the info on, the man was warned, and his hard disks were smashed just before a police raid. The CSU man, taking the blame, resigned as Minister of Agriculture, but he and the Social Democrats are all blaming each other while the three coalition leaders are trying to plaster over the first crack in a coalition that is only two months old.

This second item is no gossip; it may be a scandal, however. On Feb. 12, Martin Schulz, still president of the European Parliament with its 28 member-nations (and himself a Social Democrat), made what was expected to be just another friendly speech to the Israeli Knesset. After apologizing for speaking German and recalling past German guilt he said the usual words supporting Israel’s basic positions. Then, unexpectedly, he turned a wee bit critical, urging that the blockade of Gaza be eased, since it increased Palestinian frustration and thus made Israelis less secure. He then dared to break another taboo – and quoted a young Palestinian who had asked him: “How can it be that Israelis are allowed to use 70 liters of water per day and Palestinians only 17?”

This resulted in pandemonium! A few deputies stormed out, Minister Naftali Bennett demanded an apology for “two lies” that the Palestinians “fed him.” He said, “I will not accept false moralizing against the people of Israel, in Israel’s Knesset. Certainly not in German.” Netanyahu indignantly challenged the statistics – but not their basic nature. So there were new cracks in a once untroubled relationship between Germany, much of Europe and Netanyahu. The episode has since been smoothed over – and I have heard no new charges that Schulz, too, is an anti-Semite!

But back to the German government. Aside from a little scandal or two, the big parties are getting along fine. They rejected objections by the minority Left Party and Greens and enacted a 10 percent salary increase for Bundestag deputies, while Economics Minister Gabriel warned labor unions against overly high wage demands when bargaining with their bosses. Yes, he’s the leading Social Democrat in the government; that’s the party still backed by most union leaders.

The leaders were also in agreement on a matter of far greater significance, almost a tectonic drift in European and world political geography. According to President Joachim Gauck, German reticence on the world stage is out-of-date. At the recent 50th Security Conference in Munich, choosing his words with care, he stated, “We should not use our troops too quickly, but we must not let reservations based on Germany’s past history stop us, together with the European Union, NATO, and the UN, from sending them in whenever necessary to maintain a world order which permits Germany to coordinate its interests with its basic values.”

In GDR days his church, like most dissidents, demanded disarmament. This has since been forgotten, or discarded. In 2012, soon after becoming president, he proudly told German officers, “Germany has taken this road since reunification … step by step changing from a beneficiary to a guarantor of international security and order … In the Balkans, along the Hindu Kush Mountains and the Horn of Africa, the Bundeswehr is engaged in confronting terror and pirates. Who would have thought that possible twenty years ago?”

In 2010, Horst Koehler had to abdicate as president after spilling the beans on German use of its troops to secure international order and guard transport routes. Now, with a caveat or two, a successor announced just that in a loud voice. Those plates have been moving!

The new Defense Minister, Ursula von der Leyen, echoed his words: “In recent years and decades, the fall of the Berlin Wall, digitalization and the integration of the financial markets have illustrated the dramatic consequences of the world growing closer together. Now we have to realize that globalization also includes completely new challenges for defense and security policy. Europe must speak with a single voice in the future when it comes to security policy. But that only works if the responsibilities and risks are divided fairly among the partner countries… Europe will not make progress in the global power game if one country always daintily stays away from military operations while another country storms forward without consulting others. We have a curious situation at the moment: Germany is currently engaged in a dozen missions around the world, demanding an enormous military and financial effort. But our allies continue to remember our reluctance, the product of our restraint.”

Of course, both stressed that Germany should move only with her allies, especially within the European Union. When asked whether her goal was a joint European army, she answered: “There are many interim steps to be taken before getting to that point… But I believe that joint armed forces would be a logical consequence of an increasingly close military cooperation in Europe.”

What they glossed over: The dominant country within the European Union is far and away Germany, which would whistle the loudest in any such decisions.

To illustrate her projects, von der Leyen inspected German troops now in Mali, expressed interest in humanitarian aid (in uniform) for the Central African Republic, and paid a surprise visit to Senegal – as yet unblessed by German troops. She made clear that Germany was increasingly interested in that region, so close to Europe. Primarily for humanitarian reasons, of course. But why leave such a  vast and rich continent entirely to the French, Americans, Chinese or anyone else? Send our guys in!

Her possible soprano in this growing chorus found happy harmony in the deeper voice of Frank-Walter Steinmeier, now foreign minister – and a Social Democrat. At the Munich conference he explained: “Germany is really too large to restrict contributing to world politics only to the sidelines … As a good partner it should get involved earlier, more decisively and more substantially …and if necessary, as a last resort, military deployment must be possible.”

Yes, there were always those restrictive little “last resort” clauses. Somehow they recalled the words, so common in recent years: “All options are on the table.” To recall the metaphor with the tectonic underground thrust – one might worry about tectonic thrusts often result geologically in unexpected earthquakes or volcanic outbursts.  

Aside from expansion into Afghanistan and Africa, it was difficult to forget that manned German Patriot missiles, like those of the U.S., stand oiled and ready on the Turkish border to Syria. Or to forget that in the terrible turmoil in Ukrainian Kiev, German politicians have played a key role. Despite the slightly obscene jab at the European Union by assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland, who was angered by European trespassing on presumed U.S. turf, that tough, tall boxer-hero of Kiev, Vitali Klitschko, was built up and supported all the way by the Adenauer-Stiftung in Germany, an adjunct of  Merkel’s party. She just welcomed him in Berlin for photo-ops and strategy talk – along with an ally from Kiev’s city square. The third ally was evidently not invited, perhaps for being so blatantly anti-Semitic, with his Svoboda Party too close to its pro-Hitler antecedents. Maybe it was his gang which started up the most recent bloody renewal of hostilities.  

The Greens are not in the government. Sadly, they demonstrate little of their one-time anti-war fervor. Marieluise Beck, their “East Europe expert,” also visited Kiev, then aroused any sleepers in the Bundestag with her bombastic tones: “There, where we have awakened hopes and assumed responsibilities, we must also be ready to fulfill our obligations. This also means making no secret concessions to the Kremlin.” In a different connection, but just as alarmingly, the Greens’ foreign policy spokesman jumped on the bandwagon with the same meaningless qualification; military deployment of the Bundeswehr maybe, but of course only as “a last resort.”

Thus, in the Bundestag it was only the Left Party which recalled constitutional restrictions on using the Bundeswehr for anything but self-defense. It was also alone in noting that well over half the German population want no more military deployment anywhere. Its Co-Chairperson Berndt Riexinger said: “Gauck does not speak for everyone. He is not our president.” Katja Kipping, the other chairperson, added: “The culture of military restraint is part of the basic consensus of the Federal Republic. Whoever attacks it wants a different republic.”

How much could or should this Left Party principle be maintained? At its Hamburg Congress this past weekend – to work out a program and a list of candidates for elections to the European Union on May 25 – the often hard lines between the two main wings of the party were painfully visible. In part they involved the view of the EU, its role and how much it deserved support or condemnation. A compromise was worked out on this issue. Then came the choice of candidates. Since a previous bonus in voting weight granted the smaller party organizations in West Germany no longer applies, the largely East German “reformers,” with much larger membership numbers, now have a louder voice, although their five states have hardly a quarter the population of the western states.

One eastern reformer expressed their differences: The others “see resistance as their only political concept” whereas we “believe in the possibility, by cooperation and joining in government, of changing basic structures.” This latter view might require compromises required for joining a coalition government – possibly including an acceptance of military deployment of the Bundeswehr in other countries. This is viewed as a crucial issue – and danger – by the non-reformers. Since some Social Democrats now flirt with the idea of finally accepting the Left as partners – if they agree to such compromises – this issue is burning hot.

Yet at this Hamburg congress the candidates chosen for the May election were fairly even in their distribution, male-female, East-West, reform-anti-reform. There was no split, and all sides resolved to work hard to win at least 10 percent at the May election. And then see how the earth moves.

Photo: German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the lookout for scandals and tectonic movements, at the chancellery in Berlin. (AP/Markus Schreiber)



Victor Grossman
Victor Grossman

Victor Grossman is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He fled his U.S. Army post in the 1950s in danger of reprisals for his left-wing activities at Harvard and in Buffalo, New York. He landed in the former German Democratic Republic (Socialist East Germany), studied journalism, founded a Paul Robeson Archive, and became a freelance journalist and author. His latest book,  A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee, is about his life in the German Democratic Republic from 1949 – 1990, the tremendous improvements for the people under socialism, the reasons for the fall of socialism, and the importance of today's struggles.