“Guttenberg trotz Ansehensverlust beliebtester Politiker” [Guttenberg, Germany’s Most Popular Politician, Despite Scandals] (AFP, 28 January 2011).
The German man of the hour is Baron Karl-Theodor von und zu Guttenberg. Actually he has eight other given names, which modestly prohibits him from using, but the title shows that his family traces back to 1158. He is currently less often in his ancient castle (built 1482) than in Berlin where he is Minister of Defense. This handsome politician, only 40 years old, seemed to be gradually squeezing far less colorful Angela Merkel, in no way noble, out of her chance to remain Germany’s first woman chancellor, one with a humble East German background at that. In popularity polls, the casual but always well-dressed, well-groomed, suave politician from Bavaria was already leading the race. He is probably even further to the right than she is.
But suddenly the fan got hit, and not just once! A series of scandals scratched the shining image of this scion of conservative Bavarian circles. First of all, in mid-December, he paid an unscheduled visit to the fighting German troops in Afghanistan. What was intended as grand publicity in a heroic setting suddenly looked far less heroic when it turned out that Guttenberg not only took his attractive but irrelevant wife along (also from an ancient noble family) but also a special TV team. That was just a bit too obvious.
Soon afterwards it was discovered that mail from those same German troops in Afghanistan, in full defiance of German legal rules, had been opened en route, delayed, and in some cases never delivered to the soldiers’ families. This had been going on for three months. The culprits have not yet been found — but are not difficult to guess at.
Just as Guttenberg — to abbreviate his long name — promised to look into this, it was learned that one more German soldier in Afghanistan had been killed, but not by a road bomb or Afghan snipers, what most media call “insurgents” or “terrorists,” but in a relatively safe base camp. And while it was first announced that this had occurred while the man was cleaning his weapon it was later reluctantly admitted that he had been shot by a fellow soldier. Was it an accident or the result of some stupid game, like Russian Roulette? Or worse? Guttenberg promised to look into this as well, but only after it had become impossible to hush up any further.
The next scandal soon followed. On the “Gorch Fock,” the handsome three-masted sailing vessel used to train navy officers, which had rounded Cape Horn and was in Brazilian waters, the 25-year-old woman trainee Sarah Lena Seele, was ordered to climb high up into the rigging although she was both too short to meet the requirements for this job and allegedly exhausted after a very long flight to reach the ship. She fell and died. To make matters worse, rumors circulated that the captain had dismissed her death as just another accident, like a car crash, and even permitted a carnival celebration in South American waters two days later. Other reports called him a little dictator and it was said that some of the officers’ candidates were involved in a protest “mutiny.” Another woman had died in a similar incident a few years earlier. Rumors of sex abuse were also rife.
This brought no bounty! When the scandal broke, despite hush-hush attempts, the biggest and dirtiest newspaper in Germany demanded that the captain be removed, and Guttenberg, far more flustered than usual, quickly obliged. This brought him attacks both from old marine officers, who said he should have waited for a proper hearing, and from opposition parties in the Bundestag, which rejoiced at any chance to slam government parties and their flashiest up-and-coming leader. It remains to be seen whether such unexpected storms will prove tougher politically for the baron than rounding Cape Horn in the old sailing days.
Bundeswehr Out of Afghanistan!
These stories provided exciting headlines. But some saw them as a distraction from a related, far more important matter. On Friday, January 28th, the Bundestag once again defied German majority opinion and voted to continue the use of troops in that troublesome war in Afghanistan. Although both political and military leaders admit that it is a hopeless mess and a NATO victory a very bloody illusion, and although even the former German president admitted that economic objectives were the main concern (a confession which cost him his job), the ruling coalition put one more annual extension to the vote, which meant about 5,000 troops and four fighter planes killing more Afghans and occasionally getting killed themselves. Since nearly two thirds of the population opposed sending troops and wanted them out, it was politically necessary to get the opposition parties on board if at all possible. To tempt them, or give them an alibi, the government spokespeople proclaimed that they would start withdrawing troops by the end of 2011, though only if the situation warranted, it was hastily added, while a possible final deadline of 2014 was hazily hinted at.
Although this was basically a blank check, the Social Democratic Party, which had been involved in sending troops there in the first place, decided to support a government which it is now otherwise opposing vigorously, at least in words. 105 Social Democrats voted Ja, 8 courageous ones voted Nein, while 8 abstained.
The Greens are also an opposition party, at least officially. Their grassroots, once adamantly anti-war, have not been completely tamed, so, like last year, their deputies split; 9 were in favor, 22 opposed, while 34 took the wishy-washy path of abstention. There were a few brave No votes from the Christian corner, 4 to be exact, while the 86 right-wing Free Democrats all voted to keep the troops on their risky positions along the Hindu Kusch mountains.
As always, it was the Left Party, all 70 of those present (6 were unable to attend), who unanimously demanded an end to German participation. Again they were attacked by all the others, including some Green leaders. The final count was 419 for keeping the soldiers in the war, 116 opposed, 43 abstaining, and 44 absent. This was ten votes less for the war than in 2010 and five more No votes, no great change.
And now it’s time for business as usual, with the government parties arguing how best to cut social services without really seeming to, the Social Democrats and Greens trying to look as if they were really opposing cuts which they helped put in place while they were in power, but not really putting up a fight. The Left, while taking proper decisions in Parliament, is still having a tough time breaking away from inner-party problems and getting on with tough, rough 2011 election campaigns in seven of Germany’s 16 states; the other four parties are all assailing the Left from all directions in the eastern states where it is strong while trying to ignore its presence in the western states where it is young and not very strong. The first test will be in the city state of Hamburg on February 20, when the Social Democrats hope to recapture leadership and the Greens hope to join them, after sharing power until now with the Christian Democrats. The last vote of the busy state election will be in the city state of Berlin in late September. All are of great importance, especially for the Left. Will it be able to round the next perilous cape ahead and find its way to where it ought to be?
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).