Understanding the pulse of Germany by listening to its women

Women campaigning for European integration win prize

 A man reaches for another participant as they dance in front of a giant European flag during the monthly pro-EU rally titled “Pulse of Europe” in Berlin. The citizens’ initiative was founded to encourage EU citizens to promote a “pan-European” identity. Photograph: Felipe Trueba/EPA

A man reaches for another participant as they dance in front of a giant European flag during the monthly pro-EU rally titled “Pulse of Europe” in Berlin. The citizens’ initiative was founded to encourage EU citizens to promote a “pan-European” identity. Photograph: Felipe Trueba/EPA

 

If you want to take the pulse of Germany, forget the men and listen to the women.

That was the lesson from Hamburg’s state theatre on Sunday morning, when leading German news weekly Die Zeit awarded its annual prizes in memory of its former publisher Countess Marion Dönhoff.

Born into an aristocratic family in East Prussia, now in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, Dönhoff was drawn into the wartime resistance but survived the Nazi purge after the failed plot against Hitler in 1944.

A year later she fled East Prussia and the advancing Red Army on horseback, riding seven weeks to Hamburg where she began a new life as a founding staff member of Die Zeit.

An early proponent of reconciliation with Germany’s eastern neighbours, known to all as “The Countess”, she remained Zeit co-publisher until her death in 2002 aged 92.

The main prize winner on Sunday, for its stalwart defence of liberal democratic values in the Trump era, was the New York Times. Though the prize was collected by its two male bosses – publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger jnr and editor-in-chief Dean Baquet, German president Frank Walter Steinmeier noted their newspaper was nicknamed the “Grey Lady”. Worth noting, too: for years the Grey Lady’s Berlin bureau has been headed by two far-from-grey women correspondents.

Anti-EU mood

The second prize was awarded to two women organisers of the civil society campaign group “Pulse of Europe” (PoE). Exactly a year ago, frustrated by the growing anti-EU mood, it held its first pro-EU demonstration in Frankfurt. Since then the movement has spread across Europe, from Galway to Greece, bringing on to the streets tens of thousands of people who want their politicians to embrace deeper, daring European integration.

Onstage in Hamburg, PoE founders warned Angela Merkel that the future of Europe depends on a generous – and timely – reaction from Berlin to EU reform proposals of French president Emmanuel Macron.

“The last thing that Europe needs now is a governmental vacuum here in Germany,” said PoE co-founder Sabine Röder. She added, to enthusiastic applause: “For years we’ve been waiting for France, now France is here but we’re not.”

Awarding the PoE prize was Saarland state premier Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. Normally a governor of the tiny southwestern state is of little national interest. But in recent weeks her name has begun to circulate as Angela Merkel’s favoured choice to succeed her as head of their Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

France and Germany

For party strategists, the 55-year-old ticks many of the right boxes: Catholic, married with three children, centre-left on welfare policy and conservative on social policy.

Loyal to Merkel, in particular during the difficult days of the 2015-16 refugee crisis, Kramp-Karrenbauer likes to stress Saarland’s history and location as a bridge between the EU’s two crucial members, France and Germany.

In Hamburg, teased about her destiny for higher things, the Saarland leader sent out the first smoke signal of political ambitions in Berlin.

“The world – and Europe – don’t have that much time,” she said. In a nod to French reform proposals, stalled by Berlin’s endless coalition poker, she warned the time had come “for us Germans to find answers to initiatives on developments in Europe”.

If Merkel is looking for orientation for her likely final term, she would do well to read a prophetic 1996 speech from Countess Dönhoff.

Long before the banking and euro crises, she stepped back from her life-long liberal views to concede that democracy was in danger from untrammelled market capitalism.

“It is very possessive, absorbs a person whole and tolerates no other gods beside it,” she wrote. “Everything spiritual and cultural is pushed to the fringes and is increasingly forgotten.”

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