Where Will It Lead Us From Here?

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 Schr�der 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 Gr�nderzeit. 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 Gr�nderzeit 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 clich�d.)

The Left would never in a million years have said such a thing. Gr�nderzeit? 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 B�ndnis 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 Gr�nderzeit 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 Schr�der, perhaps, with his four wives. Joschka Fischer – back in his copper-walloping student days, maybe. J�rgen M�llemann might have fit the bill before his experiment in homeopathic parachuting. But the CDU? Never.

7 thoughts on “Where Will It Lead Us From Here?

  1. Many thanks for that. I’m not sure about others here who live in countries other than Germany, but the subtle political nuances in Alex’s post are not something I would ordinarly pick up in usual trawls of international media.

    What is coming over in my normal diet of British media is that the German electorate is highly likely to vote for a change of government on 18 September. What is also coming over is that change of government or not, the effects of recent reforms of Germany’s economy are well underway:

    “Barely noticed, Germany has overtaken America to become the world’s biggest single exporter, shipping the hardware that powers the rising economies of Asia and eastern Europe. Its trade surplus is now greater than that of China, Japan and India combined, reaching a staggering 16.8 billion euros in June alone. The profits made by German companies are running at over 33 per cent of national income, the highest in 40 years. . . ”
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2005/09/05/do0502.xml&sSheet=/opinion/2005/09/05/ixopinion.html

  2. Many thanks for that. I’m not sure about others here who live in countries other than Germany, but the subtle political nuances in Alex’s post are not something I would ordinarly pick up in usual trawls of international media.

    What is coming over in my normal diet of British media is that the German electorate is highly likely to vote for a change of government on 18 September. What is also coming over is that change of government or not, the effects of recent reforms of Germany’s economy are well underway:

    “Barely noticed, Germany has overtaken America to become the world’s biggest single exporter, shipping the hardware that powers the rising economies of Asia and eastern Europe. Its trade surplus is now greater than that of China, Japan and India combined, reaching a staggering 16.8 billion euros in June alone. The profits made by German companies are running at over 33 per cent of national income, the highest in 40 years. . . ”
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2005/09/05/do0502.xml&sSheet=/opinion/2005/09/05/ixopinion.html

  3. Apologies for double post because of online glitches – of which I’m experiencing a lot lately.

  4. I think you are over-analyzing the expression, or rather thinking that your historical associations are more generally shared than I believe they are.

    Though this is merely anecdotal evidence, as a reasonably well educated Austrian I have used “Gruenderzeit” without associating any of that historical stuff with it, rather it evokes a time of robust growth when companies, fortunes and wealth were created at great speed in the heyday of the 19th century, when social mobility was relatively high for the lucky and ambitious, and when a spirit of economic and social optimism prevailed, so different from our own fearful expectations of the future. These times and their values, naturally, are particularly admired by businessmen, industrialists, etc., the natural constituency of the CDU.

    If the associations of the word are roughly similar in Germany, then it would be entirely normal and useful for Merkel to try and claim that something similar can happen again under her leadership. Never mind whether she can deliver.

    As for the possible reactions of the Anglosphere to the expression, why should anybody care? The Anglosphere at the moment has dire moral problems of its own, and is in no position to engage in such pointless word-splitting.

  5. I don’t think it’s a particularly outlandish suggestion that the 1870s marked a turning point in the history of Germany – in fact that (the Sonderweg thesis) is as near to a standard interpretation as you get in historical scholarship.

    And I certainly don’t recall Helmut Kohl ever evoking Bismarckian Germany. It is, I think, a radical departure, and I’d like to look through some reasons for it.

    BTW, the set “Anglosphere” is not limited to the US and UK. What dire moral problems (I presume this is a long way of saying Iraq) do Canada, Ireland, India or New Zealand currently face?

  6. Howya Alex,

    nice post. The (linguistic) Anglosphere rarely gets this sort of culturally and historically informed analysis of German stuff. I do agree with our vigintioctally pseudonymous Austrian friend, though, that’s it’s entirely possible in the, emm, Teutonosphere to use Gründerzeit to express the idea of a time of great energy and activity and achievement, without any connotation of wanting an iron chancellor usw., usf.

    One of the things that has always fascinated me, and about which I know far too little, is the old ZP’s successful postwar transformation into the non-confessional (or rather, nonspecifically confessional) pan-German CDU. Anybody know of any good books on the topic?

    As for the CDU’s misuse of the Stones’ ‘Angie’, well… might this not be an anticipatory wistful look back on failure (‘you can’t say we never tried…’)?

  7. Part of my point is that non-Germans would perhaps be surprised by the reference to the Bismarck years, but shouldn’t necessarily be. After all, the old fellow tends to get a bad press in the UK – I wouldn’t be surprised if most national newspapers couldn’t distinguish him from Adolf. (This is a special case of Harrowell’s Third Principle – Trust no translation from the German in the British press.)

    Re. Zentrum to CDU. I have to say I know far too little about this theme either..

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