Germany’s Missing Person

Getty Images

Germany’s Missing Person

Germany’s chancellor is missing in action.

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has been strangely absent at a vital time in German politics. This is giving the impression of a leadership vacuum as Germany’s coalition government seems to be coming apart at the seams.

A week ago, the Times Online ran a headline “Iron Lady Angela Merkel vanishes amid trouble home and abroad.” The current edition of the Economist contains an item titled “Waiting for Angela.” Both articles comment on Germany’s chancellor strangely missing from the action while her coalition government is caught in the grip of crisis. As the Economist notes, there is even a comedy playing at a Berlin cabaret theater which has audiences splitting their sides with mirth as actors parody German political party officials rushing about asking each other “where’s Angela?” (January 21).

The Times Online commented, “Angela Merkel, once billed as a kind of Iron Lady, has become the Invisible Chancellor. Even Germans who are usually quite happy to have a non-intrusive, modest head of government, are astonished. There is trouble brewing at home and abroad but the leader of Europe’s biggest economy is distinguished by her absence. … At home, she suddenly looks weak. And abroad, there is a sense that her attention is flagging” (January 25).

Though she briefly popped out of the woodwork last week to declare Germany’s support of sanctions against Iran, even this may work against the chancellor, raising the hackles of some of Germany’s most high-profile corporations that have for years profited from exporting both technology and manufactured goods to Iran. If Merkel follows through with this, it will further strain her relationship with her coalition partner, the business-oriented Federal Democratic Party (fdp).

In a keenly focused view of Germany’s present need for assertive leadership, the Times Online observed, “Ms. Merkel looks more fallible. The first 100 days of her new government have made almost no impact on her countrymen. What is needed now is a shift from passive to active leadership, the kind that governors need in order to demand sacrifice from the governed.”

It’s been a long time since Germany has had such a leader. But an increasingly unsettled feeling has been creeping across the country this winter as Germans pine for more assertive leadership amid the present crisis of government. The once greatest export nation in the world suddenly finds itself knocked into second position by China. Unemployment gradually bites deeper into the German economy in the wake of the global economic crisis. Chancellor Merkel’s reaction to strains on the economy is to push very hard for a German to head up the European Central Bank. But that is not helping her back home.

The Times rightly points to Afghanistan as being one of the major questions on which Chancellor Merkel’s leadership will either wax or wane. Right now it’s on the downside. Roger Boyes of the Times states that “Afghanistan will ultimately determine how history judges Chancellor Merkel. It is a deeply unpopular war. Ms. Merkel has yet to tell the Germans it is a necessary war. Nor has she tried to drum up popular support for the mission of the German troops there. … Ms. Merkel does not know even how to start to be a war leader; there hasn’t been one in modern Germany …” (ibid.).

And that’s the problem. Germans are becoming unsettled once again, and it’s in such situations that they crave strong leadership. Should Merkel not soon be able to pull a few rabbits out of the hat to keep her electorate happy, the outcry could be the kiss of death to her coalition and her leadership.

In the meantime, there is a certain German politician enjoying a high profile and great popularity with the German public who is prepared to state things as they are. He has even broken a postwar taboo in Germany by mentioning the German term krieg (war) in direct association with the Bundeswehr’s engagement in Afghanistan. He is a politician to whom we have devoted much space on this website and in the February edition of the Trumpet magazine. His name is Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg.

The contrast between Guttenberg and Merkel is marked. He is a devoted Roman Catholic, she a somewhat diffident Protestant. He hails from the Bavarian rightist Christian Socialist Union, she from the more centrist Christian Democrats. He is a titled aristocrat, she hails from the working classes of East Germany. He is known for his decisiveness, for taking a position and not backing down easily. She has employed a leadership style which, in the words of Times journalist Boyes, “waited for issues to cluster, tribal rows to reach critical proportions and only then would she intervene.” Added to this is what Boyes terms “a certain furtiveness” in her dealings. Such an approach does not give the impression of strength in times of crisis. Rather, it gives “the impression of weakness” as she has always appeared “slow to deliver an opinion or enter a debate.”

The contrast is particularly marked between Merkel and her charismatic minister of defense when it comes to the issue currently dominating the headlines in Germany—the question of the nation’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan.

Minister of Defense Guttenberg has hardly been out of the headlines since being sworn into office in his current portfolio, completely overshadowing his chancellor and Vice Chancellor Guido Westerwelle in the process. He has been having a field day commanding media attention in Germany over the war in Afghanistan since the Kunduz bombing in September. Be it in Berlin or Washington, on the occasions that he is before the cameras or any audience of note—which is often—his presence is commanding. He certainly does not give an impression of waiting to see how the ball drops before engaging in action. Guttenberg is out front leading and powerfully influencing the debate in Germany on the nation’s foreign-policy question of the moment: Afghanistan.

Those cutting words of Roger Boyes—“Ms. Merkel has yet to tell the Germans it is a necessary war. Nor has she tried to drum up popular support for the mission of the German troops there. … Ms. Merkel does not know even how to start to be a war leader”—are at the nub of German politics and, in particular, Germany’s foreign policy at this particular juncture, 10 years after postwar Germany first sent a military force outside its own borders to participate in war.

Guttenberg has been singularly impressive in doing what no other postwar German defense minister has done. He has quickly demonstrated his willingness to tell the German people that their troops are involved in a necessary war and that he actively seeks popular support for Germany’s combat role in Afghanistan. He has shown, in contrast to his predecessors in the Ministry of Defense, that he knows how to lead the nation as its commander in chief in that war. Not only that, but, at the very time that his chancellor is “missing in action,” he is highly visible. In his most recent press statement, Guttenberg declared that there is no room for failure in Germany’s new approach to the war in Afghanistan, clearly indicating that there may be German casualties in the process (Bild, January 31).

Again, Guttenberg is proving himself quite prepared to work outside his portfolio, recently getting involved in both economic and foreign affairs matters at the recent Davos conference of global movers and shakers. He quite openly upset the German economics minister, Rainer Brüderle, by breakfasting publicly with the chiefs of German corporate giant basf and energy mammoth rwe. This might seem unusual till one realizes that these corporate moguls are heavily engaged in business within Iran. German corporations have a history of being involved in espionage in foreign countries. Any sanctions that Germany lays on Iran would not only potentially harm German business, they could limit the bnd (Germany’s intelligence agency) in keeping tabs on Iran and feeding information of value to the defense minister, especially in relation to Iraq and the war in Afghanistan.

No wonder then that Guttenberg—despite the efforts of his political opponents and liberal elements in the press—remains Germany’s most popular politician. In the meantime, not only has Merkel’s hand been weakened by her absence from the political action, her coalition partner of choice, the fdp, has seen its popularity sink by over 30 percent since last September’s election, placing fdp chairman Vice Chancellor Westerwelle on the back foot.

As Germans worry about a leadership vacuum in the chancellery, continue to watch the rising star of Baron Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. He may yet fill that gap in the not-too-distant future.

Check our editor in chief’s leading article, “Is Germany’s Charlemagne About to Appear?” in our October 2009 edition for more on this subject.