Will Trump shock drive Germany back into arms of Merkel?
Hitler anniversary sees US president walk similar line between leadership, seduction, entrapment
An outspoken head of state from 1994 to 1999, Roman Herzog is best remembered for warning in 1997: “Germany needs a jolt”. Above, German Chancellor Angela Merkel pays her respects at his state funeral this week. Photograph: Max Menning-Pool/Getty Images
Just three letters separate the German verbs to lead – führen – and verführen, to seduce or entrap. Every year at this time, Germany remembers the political consequences of confusing the two.
In January 1933 Adolf Hitler, the self-anointed “Führer”, took power after charming the German electorate and terrorising his opponents. A dozen disastrous years later, with Europe a shattered ruin, Hitler’s vow to make Germany great again – on the backs of Jews, homosexuals, Sinti and Roma, communists, and millions of European people – went up in smoke, along with his smouldering corpse.
This is also the month when, 75 years ago, senior Nazi officials and bureaucrats gathered for an infamous meeting on Berlin’s Wannsee lake, and the wheels on an industrialised murder machine began to turn.
January 27th, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1945, has been International Holocaust Remembrance Day since 2006. A decade previously, Germany initiated January 27th as its own national day of remembrance for Nazi victims.
This week Germany bid farewell to the man who initiated that anniversary, former president Roman Herzog. An outspoken head of state from 1994 to 1999, Mr Herzog is best remembered for warning in 1997: “Germany needs a jolt”. It was a statesmanlike way of warning a sclerotic, reform-shy, angst-ridden republic that it needed a kick up the backside.
It worked. A year later, Helmut Kohl was gone and his successor Gerhard Schröder overhauled – eventually – Germany’s economy, labour market and welfare system.
Speaking at the state funeral on Tuesday, European Council president Donald Tusk said he saw worrying similarities between 1997 Germany and 2017 Europe.
“It’s not the ideas we lack, but the determination to implement them,” he said. “Europe, too, needs a jolt.”
But who will administer it? All eyes are on one woman, Chancellor Angela Merkel. She faces re-election in September and, in an indication of how the last years have reweighted European politics, this German federal poll has never had such far-reaching consequences for the rest of us.
But after 12 years at the helm, Angela Merkel’s grip on power has never been less firm thanks to the refugee crisis, and related security concerns. A new Social Democrat challenger, Martin Schulz, will turn up the pressure on what he views as the social cost of Merkel austerity. And the far-right Alternative für Deutschland are aiming for near 20 per cent support by targeting Merkel and Schulz as discredited figureheads of two failed political elites, in Berlin and Brussels.
Crisis of reasoning
A serious attack – Islamist, cyber or both – could only help the AfD. So, for the next eight months, Angela Merkel is driving by sight: eyes open, mouth shut.
But, perhaps to position herself as anti-Trump, she couldn’t resist sending a series of subtle messages in the direction of the Oval Office
It was Angela Merkel who, hours after Mr Trump’s electoral victory, offered him a conditional co-operation “on the basis of our shared values”.
As President Trump took office, hammering out policy in 140 Twitter characters or less, Dr Merkel noted – somewhat maliciously – how the late President Herzog, himself a provocative orator, also had a gift for “knowing when to remain silent”.
When the Trump White House opened for business on a cloud of “alternative facts”, Dr Merkel warned against “granting nebulous claims more credence than scientific facts”.
Voters, she said this week, could only be won over in the long term “with facts instead of fakes”.
“We all know the word post-factual . . . thinking of a topic more in emotional terms,” added Dr Merkel, a scientist-turned-politician. “But when the mood counts more than the facts, then . . . we are facing a crisis of reasoning.”
Aware that the mood is hardening towards her at home, and that the new US president views her refugee policy as “catastrophic”, Angela Merkel is facing her most challenging year yet.
She has dismissed as “grotesque” the idea that, as German chancellor, she is now the leader of the liberal free world. It’s an understandable allergy given the burdened historical record of previous leadership attempts from here, from Hitler back to the Prussian kings and German emperors entombed beneath her feet in the crypt of Berlin cathedral.
But as she and other leaders gathered there this week for the funeral of Roman Herzog, departing president Joachim Gauck spoke for many when he described the occasion as the “final farewell” to the old, post-war Germany.
The beginning of the end came two decades ago when President Herzog delivered his “jolt” speech at the opening of the rebuilt, five-star Adlon Hotel. Located opposite the Brandenburg Gate, it is one of many symbolic buildings that marked the return of Berlin to the world’s political map.
Some 20 years after his “jolt”, few remember the rest of Mr Herzog’s far-sighted, prophetic address. In it, he predicted that this new Germany – and, with it, the new Europe – would succeed or fail in its new “Berlin laboratory”.
“In Berlin the future is being shaped,” he said. “In times of existential challenges, the only winners will be those who are prepared to lead.”
As the new US president takes office, Germans look on in alarm at a man they see walking the fine line between leadership, seduction and entrapment. Like no one else, Germans know the catastrophic cost of crossing that line. This year we will find out whether Germans’ fear of Trump trumps their fear of leadership.
Derek Scally is Berlin Correspondent