The German election campaign is cranking up to as close to a throbbing wave of intensity as you are likely to find in modern Germany. Very soon, Chancellor Gerhard Schrï¿½der is going to take on the CDU’s Angela Merkel in a televised debate. Merkel has always had to do it tough in the CDU, as I’ve remarked on before, because she isn’t really the kind of person who fits the traditional shape of the post-war German conservative movement. Last time around, she was party leader but was ditched as Spitzenkandidat (a German term which compromises between a quasi-US presidential candidacy and the reality of a Westminster-style constitution) in favour of the hard-right Bavarian, Edmund Stoiber. This time, though, the polls are running heavily in her favour, after she spent the intervening period selectively eliminating the men (and they were) who did her in the first time around.
This is where it gets interesting. Last week, she was moved to give a speech in which she said a very remarkable thing. Apparently, Germany needs to retrieve the spirit of the Grï¿½nderzeit. This word is usually translated into English as the Founders’ Generation, which doesn’t sound terribly interesting or controversial. The point is, though, which generation, and what did they found? When you speak of the Grï¿½nderzeit in Germany, or Austria, you mean the 1870s and the foundation of united Germany. For some reason the Austrians use it too, perhaps stretching the definition to include the 1867 Austro-Hungarian Compromise or Ausgleich. It’s not an especially controversial word, but then, that is in part because it’s most often used to describe architecture.
Outside Germany, though, you might be forgiven for thinking this pretty eyebrow-raising. In the Anglosphere, it is fairly conventional wisdom to hold that the Wilhelmine empire was a fatal aberration in Germany’s historic development, the point at which the Germans swung off the Whiggish tracks into the future onto that infamous Sonderweg that in the end led to world war, Weimar, Hitler, more war, Auschwitz, and partition. And that foundation, after all, took place by means of conquering northern France. The proclamation of the empire took place at Versailles.
(So far, so clichï¿½d.)
The Left would never in a million years have said such a thing. Grï¿½nderzeit? The time of Bismarck’s Antisocialist Laws? The foundation of the three-class voting system? Surely the injustices that began the SPD’s historic struggle. Why she did, though, is part of a very important point about identity, history and German politics.
Alone among the parties, the SPD claims an unbroken chain of descent from the workers’ struggle of the 19th century, indeed the original socialists themselves, the 1919 revolution and the first democratic Germany, their (at least in their own view) lone defence of the republic against Nazism, exile, the return and the Godesberg Program, Willy Brandt’s reconciliation with the east (in all senses) and Helmut Schmidt’s reassertation of (West) Germany as a major European state.
Nobody else can claim this, except the PDS, who have the small problem of the period 1949-1989 to deal with. The Greens are a new phenomenon still, drawing their myths from the 1968ers and the 80s peace movement plus what little is left of the Bï¿½ndnis 90/New Left strand of East German dissidence. The CDU and CSU’s mythic past is the postwar era, Konrad Adenauer and Ludwig Erhard. If the CDU did claim a longer past, who would it be? The Konservativen of Wilhelmine Germany? Certainly not! The DNVP of Hugenberg and von Papen? Still worse! Gustav Stresemann’s DVP? The liberals in the FDP have already got him. Pity! The roots, such as they are, go back to the Weimar Centre Party, the representatives of political Catholicism.
Which is a serious problem. The ZP was always limited in its ambitions in an undivided Germany by the fact that it was a Catholic confessional party in a half-Protestant country. It could play a bigger role than it warranted for two reasons – one, if the Socialists would go into coalition with it, and two, if the Right refused to deal with the Socialists. Adenauer, an old Centrist, no longer had to worry about this due to the presence of the Red Army in the bits of Germany that were very unlikely to vote for him. Without the east, the CDU-CSU southwestern heartland made up a far bigger chunk of the Germany that was left. This is a strategy that will no longer fly, but as always, ideas are often held more strongly after their time has passed.
That was why the southern Catholic buffers of the CDU and CSU couldn’t stomach Angela Merkel as a quasi-presidential candidate last time. Now, though, the boot is on the other foot. Merkel is a Prussian Protestant, a rare beast in the CDU, and therefore doesn’t have the historic constituency of the old Centre. The challenge is to find the CDU a brand new past, one that fits with a north-eastern leader and a need to attract votes up there. And, I suppose, the Grï¿½nderzeit isn’t that bad an option – it was a time of prosperity, confidence, and also the beginning of national unity. No doubt that is why she annexed it for the CDU’s first real post-reunification election. (I say so because the 1994 one was still dominated by Helmut Kohl, a pre-reunification figure who retooled as the Reunification Chancellor.)
The title of this post is of course a line from the Rolling Stones song that the CDU have been using with incredible inappropriateness to introduce the rebranded “Angie” Merkel. I’m still astonished by this – don’t they know any of the lyrics? “There ain’t a woman that comes close to you..” – not so bad, but what about “All the dreams we held so close seem to all go up in smoke..”? And the general tone of frazzled bohemianism is not something that goes well with either the old CDU’s solid worth or the new CDU’s northern grit. Gerhard Schrï¿½der, perhaps, with his four wives. Joschka Fischer – back in his copper-walloping student days, maybe. Jï¿½rgen Mï¿½llemann might have fit the bill before his experiment in homeopathic parachuting. But the CDU? Never.