Over the weekend much of Germany went temporarily berserk when one of its own, little black-haired high school senior Lena, performing in Oslo, won the Grand Prix in the huge annual Eurovision song contest. It was Germany’s first win since 1982, when another young lady won out with her plaintive call for “A Little Peace.” This time the winning song was about Love, and a million German flags waved to mark the victory for a musical rendition of that emotion by someone from Hanover.
Yet before the euphoria could settle down a sudden announcement rocked souls in a far more sober manner. On the first such occasion in German history, President Horst Koehler, 67, only a year into his second term, told a sudden, awed press conference that he was immediately resigning. A very melancholy Koehler permitted no questions. Although presidents are largely ceremonial figures, with the chancellor — now Angela Merkel — the political leader, Koehler’s friendly nature had made him quite popular, not so much with politicians but with the population at large. Total surprise was almost universal.
What was the immediate cause of his resignation? He had spilled the beans!
In a radio statement on May 22nd after a surprise visit to German troops in Afghanistan, Koehler stated, in his complicated style:
However, in my estimation, we are coming closer by and large to an understanding by broad sections of our society that a country of our size, with its foreign trade orientation, hence its dependence on exports, must realize that in cases of doubt, in cases of emergency, it is also necessary to use military deployment so as to defend our interests, free trade routes for example, or, for example, to prevent regional instability which would surely react negatively on our chances in trade, jobs, and income.
Cut down to simpler wording, this means: in order to support our economic interests, we are ready to send in the military and “keep the natives in line.”
Actually this was nothing new. A White Book published by the Bundeswehr (armed forces) in 2006 stated sharp and clear: “. . . disturbances in international commerce and disturbances in the flow of raw materials and commodities . . . must be met with diplomatic, economic, developmental policy, police and military means, including armed intervention.”
But that statement was not so widely known. More important, Koehler had broadcast this open secret at a time when over seventy percent of the country opposed using troops in Afghanistan but the ruling government of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats had pushed through another “surge” anyway, with almost complete support by the Social Democrats and abstention votes by most of the Greens, the two parties who had sent troops there in the first place. Only The Left was in full opposition, but support for the war within the other parties was troubled, especially after the death of over 100 Afghan civilians in an air raid last September. Now Koehler’s perhaps unreflected words revealed the truth behind high-flown phrases about democracy or women’s rights used to justify a growing numbers of German troops.
A leader of the Social Democratic caucus in the Bundestag said almost whiningly: “Köhler is damaging acceptance of the Bundeswehr’s foreign missions.” And Juergen Trittin, head of the Greens in the Bundestag, tried to offer Koehler an escape route: “We can hope, in his favor, that he just galloped off in the wrong direction. . . .” Otherwise, he warned, he would not be on constitutional grounds. Koehler tried to back down to counter the wave of worried attacks by claiming he had been misunderstood; he had not been thinking of Afghanistan at all but of ships fighting Somali pirates.
But Klaus Ernst, the recently-elected co-chairperson of The Left, pulled no punches: “Koehler said something openly which cannot be denied. Soldiers of the Bundeswehr are risking life and limb for the export interests of giant corporations.”
In his brief words of resignation, Koehler voiced his regret that none of the political leaders had come to his defense. He missed the proper respect due the country’s president. He was obviously hitting at Chancellor Merkel and Foreign Minister Westerwelle, whom he had brusquely informed of his decision by telephone two hours before his press conference, astounding both of them. There was soon no lack of conjecture that it was by no means only his taboo-buster in the Afghanistan debate which caused the affair. Though a conservative, once a leading banker and former head of the International Monetary Fund, Koehler had occasionally dared to express non-orthodox views on a variety of issues, some on hardships now threatening on the domestic economic scene, some on surveillance methods. He had also supported a less selfish policy toward African countries, and generally been more independent than was expected — like the British queen — of a symbolic president.
German politics is now in turmoil anyway. The coalition between Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats, even further to the right, is visibly falling apart with disputes about taxing, health care, and other economic and personal matters. Both parties have dropped severely in opinion polls. In North Rhine-Westphalia, where Merkel supporters hoped to keep a Christian Democrat as government head, the Free Democrats are again considering a coalition with the Social Democrats and Greens, after their rejection of The Left as a partner. Since each party has a color symbol in Germany, this would be a “traffic light coalition,” with red (SPD), yellow (FDP), and green. It could mean burying not only many of the voters’ hopes but also those of the Merkel party. It is still undecided.
Some may not miss the sometimes awkward Koehler. Now a national body made up of all legislators must choose a new president by June 30, and the field is still wide open.
All this pushed another event into the background: the seizure of the Gaza support flotilla in the Mediterranean. In truth, despite the suspense and drama which should have gained it front page coverage, it had long been downplayed suspiciously by almost the entire media. Now it could no longer be totally ignored, however. Among the passengers were eleven Germans, five of whom have been released: two women are members of The Left party in the Bundestag, one man is a former member and legal expert, the fourth represents a peace organization of medical doctors, the fifth is a Palestinian resident of Germany.
This very bloody event put the German government into a difficult position. It was hard to maintain the support of the Netanyahu government which had only recently begun to show minor signs of weakening. Germany’s position on Gaza and Palestine was of key importance in the European Union. The Springer newspapers, far to the right but with a huge readership for their boulevard newspaper Bild, surprised no one by parroting the official Israeli line: the invading commandos had been lynched and had killed and wounded the passengers in self defense. But many other media commentaries, while very cautious about taking sides, could not support a policy which some dared to call “piracy on the high seas.”
Would the German government support an international investigation, which might also question its own policy as second largest provider of armaments to Israel, including potentially atomic-armed submarines stationed in the Persian Gulf close to the coast of Iran?
For most Germans, however, the next front page headlines were only days away: the world soccer championship in South Africa. The flag dealers were happily stocking up for a new rush in sales.
Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).