Pirate MP’s suicide in Berlin kills dream of digital politics

Gerwald Claus-Brunner and his party had promised to overthrow traditional politics


Gerwald Claus-Brunner was the most exotic thing Berlin politics had seen in a long time. In September 2011, the bisexual computer engineer arrived in the city-state parliament dressed in his trademark uniform – neon dungarees and Palestinian headscarf – and hoisted a pirate flag.

He was one of a new breed – the Pirate Party – who promised to deliver politics for the digital revolution. But hopes that the Pirates were a Green Party for digital natives soon segued into five years of political intrigues and infighting. In state elections on Sunday, Berlin voters forced the Pirates to walk the parliamentary plank.

On Monday morning, the now ex-MP Gerwald Claus-Brunner was found dead in his apartment after taking his own life. His death has shaken those who remember the 44-year-old’s last speech to parliament in June, as the Pirates’ political end neared.

“On September 18th you’ll regret that the parliamentary party I belong to no longer exists,” he said, “and you will have to stand up at the start of some sitting and hold a minute’s silence for me.”

With him dies the dream of the Pirate Party that, five years ago, captured German hearts, minds – and votes – in Berlin with its promise to throw overboard traditional politics. Its transparent “liquid democracy” model appealed to younger voters, as did its content: yes to online privacy, no to traditional copyright models.

But once in power in Berlin, the party’s many young progressive MPs were worn down by another Pirate camp resembling a gang of bad-tempered computer nerds: unable to communicate with others and prone to emotional, personalised outbursts.

Many put Mr Claus-Brunner in the latter camp, undermining his reputation for tireless constituency work with his gung-ho style, such as his 2012 description of a gender quota for companies as a “tit bonus”.

The Pirate politician dismissed critics of his online manners, telling a national television audience: “Some imbibe a few glasses of red wine, others suck up crystal meth – I hammer out a happy rant on Twitter. It’s my way of dealing with stress.”

That summed up for many the tragedy of the Pirate Party: the futility of pushing progressive politics in a party that attracted people with social skills that might kindly be described as adolescent.

And the political legacy of the dungaree-loving Mr Claus-Brunner? A quip from from 2011: “Serious politics comes from serious politicians, not politicians who dress seriously.”