Monday, March 7, 2011

Hope Sinks In Germany

Imagine that in 2006, Barack Obama, the attractive, eloquent, inspiring politician of the future, had suddenly been felled, driven out of the Senate, by a scandalous personal failure. That gives an idea of what has just happened in Germany with Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg stepping down two weeks into a scandal that erupted when it was revealed that he had plagiarized parts of his PhD thesis. In a quirk of bad timing, the charge put him in the company of the son of Muammar Qaddafi, who was less than original in his own PhD work at the London School of Economics.

Zu Guttenberg was the shooting star of German politics, dashing, popular, (seen as) principled. Fairly unknown two years ago, he was soon the most popular politician in Germany. Descended from nobility but comfortable among the voters and personable, with a glamorous wife descended from Otto von Bismarck, zu Guttenberg served in the Bundestag from the age of 30. He became secretary general of the Christian Socialist Union - the Bavaria-only sister party of Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union - in November 2008. In February 2009 he took over as Federal Minister for the Economy and Technology when his predecessor resigned. When he publicly favored bankruptcy for GM's European branch Opel - in opposition to the rest of the Cabinet - it boosted his popularity. For a year and a half, in Merkel's second government, he has been the highly visible defense secretary, planning a major reform of the Bundeswehr, ending conscription. He visited the troops in Afghanistan nine times.

Zu Guttenberg's crimes are not from the last two years of eye-catching, voter's hearts-winning service to his country, but from his quiet years in the Bundestag. When the plagiarism revelations came out, he temporarily renounced his PhD title. But soon his university permanently stripped him of it. Though Merkel defended him, having hired him "as a minister, not a research assistant," the academics of Germany demanded his resignation, the opposition would not let up, protesters shook their shoes at him. Zu Guttenberg "reached the limits" of his strength, as he announced last Tuesday. He might have survived, retaining a strong well of popularity and the chancellor's support. Other politicians in Germany and elsewhere have had their shares of past misdeeds. Unlike some of these men (in Europe, Silvio Berlusconi, for everything, and Gerhard Schroeder, for his post-chancellery business practices, come to mind, in the US David Vitter, Charlie Rangel and a host of others), the young baron apparently retains an old-fashioned sense of shame.

His face was splashed all over the weekly papers and magazines as I visited Cologne this weekend for Karnival. Zu Guttenberg leaves a "divided country" and will occupy us for a long time, Die Zeit wrote.

Let's go back to that Obama comparison. Actually, it shouldn't work. Barack Obama is an African-American whose middle name is Hussein and who spent several years of his childhood in Indonesia, a faraway, Muslim-majority country of which Americans know little. His father herded goats in Kenya in his youth and Barry grew up in an unusual but firmly middle class environment. Obama's wealth came after his 2004 political breakthrough, when his books became bestsellers. Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg is a noble who did not need to work and could easily afford to have a career in politics rather than in a more personally lucrative field. Obama was the great hope of the left - in a time of conservative domination of American politics - not only were his supporters ashamed of the Bush Administration, many of them also did not like the triangulating moderate policies of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Zu Guttenberg was the great hope of the right - when the right had already been in power for several years, and the left looked weak. Obama made an audacious run for the presidency after two years in the Senate. But for those two years, in 2005 and 2006, he actually kept about as low a profile as someone receiving that kind of media interest could. In his two years as a federal minister, zu Guttenberg has been as attention grabbing a Cabinet member as I can think of in any country. Of course Obama wanted the presidency, and zu Guttenberg wanted the chancellery. Obama's great chance came earlier than he planned, but he took it. Zu Guttenberg's path to the top would be blocked for some time longer by Merkel, who is still going strong in her own peculiar fashion. But he outshone everyone else on the stage. He would have become chancellor in time. A political comeback for the 39-year-old can't be ruled out, but as the first bit of post-resignation commentary I read last week concluded, he will not become chancellor now.

The zu Guttenberg phenomenon begs some hard thinking. Why did so many Germans see this man as a hero? Are there positive lessons to learn from his strengths for other German politicians? What happens now? The right remains ascendant in Europe, due to economic uncertainty and issues around immigration and Islam. I fear post-zu-Guttenberg disenchantment will add to a mix already brewing - Thilo Sarrazin's little red book, the examples of nationalist parties in the Netherlands, France, Denmark, even now Sweden - which is likely to result in the emergence of some political force to the right of the CDU in the next few years - not that it will take over the country or even get into the Bundestag in the next election, but the rise of the nationalist right in Germany obviously dredges up ghosts. And as Jean Marie Le Pen, Geert Wilders and others have shown, you do not have to take formal power in order to have influence.

After zu Guttenberg, the CDU looks weakened, likely to lose more state governments later this month. The Social Democrats and Green Party have reason to cheer, in the short run at least - they have lost a formidable opponent. But Germany has lost something big here. Merkel has lost her most outstanding lieutenant. The country's voters have lost a politician who actually inspired them - and when was the last time they really had one of those? (I'm not sure - Willy Brandt? Who also had to step down due to a bad error in judgment, although his moral standing remains far above zu Guttenberg's).

Even when I am just visiting Germany briefly, and for fun, I try to take the pulse of the country. It is the most important in the European Union, something quite obvious by now. Its performance in the euro crisis - essentially self-interested and halting - has troubled its European partners. They are not sure where the country is headed. Nor does Germany know itself.

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