The Outsider Part IV: ‘The Blonde Guillotine (2000-2002)’

In 1999, the Federal Republic of Germany turned 50. It was reunited, it was the most populous state in Europe, and it was a leading member of the EU. Still, like any self-respecting 50-year-old, the country had a proper mid-life crisis. The party spirit of 1989/90 had gone and German politics had a Kater (literally: a male cat; colloquially: a massive hangover). The reunification had turned out more difficult than its political cheerleaders had anticipated and the economy had tanked. Germany had swapped places with Britain as ‘the sick man of Europe’.

Unemployment, in particular, was high, up to a whopping 11-12%. Since the 1980s, under Chancellor Kohl, the (West) German post-war economic model, the soziale Marktwirtschaft (social capitalism), had already shown considerable strain. Mass unemployment, largely forgotten during the post-war economic miracle, became a feature of German life again. And not just that, the country was also witnessing sclerotic long-term unemployment predominantly among older workers and lower-qualified ones.   

There were several reasons for this malaise. Like the UK and many other western industrialised countries, Germany, since the late 1970s, experienced a decline in the traditional heavy industries that had provided mass employment opportunities post-WW II

The former East also suffered economically. Many of its formerly state-owned industries were not competitive. The activities of the Treuhand, the organisation charged with the privatisation of state-held assets in the East, were, to put it mildly, suspect to many East Germans. Reunification had not just generated winners; it also generated the Wendeverlierer (those who lost out as a result of reunification).

More generally, the 1990s, of course, were the decade of globalisation, so brilliantly theorised by the late David Held, Anthony Giddens, and David Hirst in the UK, and Ulrich Beck in Germany. The entry of China into the world economy under Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s was beginning to bear fruit. The outsourcing of industrial and other types of production to China and other countries in Asia where labour costs were considerably cheaper reduced the bargaining power of Western workers in Germany and elsewhere. That being said, globalisation also presented opportunities for Germany, namely, to strengthen its export-oriented economic strategy. The world was keen on Made in Germany. And Mrs Merkel would continue to capitalise on this as chancellor.  

But not surprisingly, Germany’s economic crisis at home was at the top of the new Social Democratic – Green Party (Rot-Gruen) coalition government under Gerhard Schroeder and Joschka Fischer. However, while the state of the economy occupied the minds of many Germans, Rot-Gruen encountered an utterly unprecedented and unforeseen challenge.

In 1999, barely one year in office, Rot-Gruen had to decide on authorising Germany’s participation in NATO’s Kosovo War against Serbia. The 1990s were not only the decade of globalisation; they were also the decade of brutal ethnic conflict and what was then referred to as humanitarian interventions. In 1999, German Tornado fighter jets flew bombing missions in the skies over ex-Yugoslavia, alongside British, French, and American aircraft. The uproar and unease in Germany were enormous.

Gerhard Schroeder later admitted that he mostly survived on camomile tea and bananas during the campaign. His resignation speech had been drafted in case a German Tornado was shot down over Serbia. This was, after all, Germany’s first participation in armed conflict since 1945, and the Kosovo War was neither a war of (collective) self-defence nor authorised by the United Nations Security Council. Schroeder did not sleep much.  

This blog series is not primarily about German foreign policy. Nevertheless, the Kosovo War is interesting, for two reasons. First, it marks German’s first participation in a foreign military mission (Auslandseinsaetz) since the end of World War II. True, Germany has eschewed combat missions, most notably in the second Iraq War (more about this later) and NATO’s Libya Intervention in 2011. But since Kosovo, the Bundeswehr has participated in peacebuilding and peacekeeping missions, most notably in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It continued to do so during Mrs Merkel’s reign as chancellor. Here, we see some continuity between Rot-Gruen and Merkel’s governments. 

Second, Kosovo, in my view, marks the beginning of the Green Party as a serious party of (national) government. The Greens had emerged in the 1970s as a result of the 1968 student movement in West Germany. Reckoning with Germany’s Nazi past, many Greens were committed pacifists. Pacifism and (soft) ecologism were baked into the party’s DNA– just like long hair and knitted jumpers. Kosovo presented a test. Fischer managed to pull off the impossible at a party conference in the West German city of Bielefeld in 1999. He persuaded the Greens to back him over Kosovo. The more pragmatic wing of the party interested in governing, also known as the Realos (realists), prevailed over the more left-leaning eco-pacifist wing, colloquially known as the Fundis (fundamentalists). Rot-Gruen was no fluke. The Greens could and would make hard choices if necessary.

What, you may wonder, does all of this have to do with Mrs Merkel? Ultimately, the above sets out the context in which she would finally become chancellor. As opposition leader at the time, though, I would argue that Merkel was mostly undistinguished, which may be explained by lack of support from within her own party and the circumstances under which she became party leader. Essentially, the main argument of Germany’s centre right was that Rot-Gruen’s economic and welfare reforms were too slow and not far-reaching enough. The German economy needed further de-regulation and liberalisation. The welfare state had become too expensive and stifled individual ambition. The notoriously complex German tax code had to be simplified.

That was the plan. But was the German centre-right ready for a female chancellor to deliver it? Of course not. Merkel was not properly in the saddle. She was seen by many male colleagues as a transitional figure until the smoke of the Parteispendenskandal had cleared. The CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), decided to put the Bavarian state premier Edmund Stoiber (CSU) forward as their candidate for the national election, the Bundestagswahl, of 2002. (It is one of the idiosyncrasies of German politics that Bavaria has its own conservative party, the CSU. The CDU does not field candidates in Bavaria.)

Stoiber fit the typical centre-right profile: male, middle aged, Southern German, Catholic, and a lawyer by training. (Indeed, Stoiber proudly referred to himself as an Einserjurist – as someone who had achieved the highest possible grade in the German bar exam.) In the microcosm of Bavarian Laender politics, he was nicknamed das blonde Fallbeil (the blonde guillotine) because of his ruthlessness in advancing his career (and ending that of others).

Yet, as a candidate for chancellor, ‘the blonde guillotine’ was a disaster. Stoiber was gaffe prone and most West, North, and East Germans weren’t too keen to be lectured on the greatness of Bavaria, and its function as a role model for Laender experiencing economic difficulty. Stoiber’s mantra of laptops and Lederhosen – a metaphor for combining economic success with respect for tradition – did not travel well beyond Bavaria.

But Schroeder was clearly wounded and unpopular. The decisive difference was made by bad flooding in parts of Germany shortly before the election – a true natural disaster (the resemblance to this summer’s flood catastrophe is uncanny). The German army had to be deployed to help with the disaster relief effort. Schroeder spotted an opportunity, put on his wellies, and presented himself as a competent and hands-on crisis manager. Stoiber floundered. Schroeder won and Rot-Gruen continued.

The German centre-right was licking its wounds again. But after two failed male candidates (Kohl in 1998 and Stoiber in 2002), were there any reasons to deny the female party leader a shot at the Kanzleramt (the chancellor’s official residence in Berlin)? The ‘crown princes’ in the CDU and CSU had bottled it once more. And the opportunity for Mrs Merkel to shine arrived earlier than expected.