A Void at Germany’s Helm

Confusion in the government is creating a leadership vacuum at a time of crisis.

The first 100 days in office is often a harbinger of what is to come throughout the duration of an elected government. In the case of Germany’s present coalition government, judged by its tumultuous first four months since inauguration, the future does not look too bright. “Chaos and confusion” is how one source has described this unwieldy mix of incompatible personalities and policies that go to make up Germany’s current federal leadership.

“Chancellor Angela Merkel’s first 100 days in power … following her reelection in September have been marred by infighting on economic and foreign policy and opposition accusations of cronyism and incompetence,” reported Der Spiegel. “Merkel has been accused by members of her Christian Democratic Union of failing to show leadership, and opinion poll ratings for her coalition of conservatives and pro-business Free Democrats (fdp) have been falling ahead of an important regional election in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, in May” (February 1).

At this time of crisis, Chancellor Merkel has been strangely conspicuous by her absence from a good deal of the political action. This is giving the impression of a leadership vacuum just as Germany’s government seems to be literally coming apart at the seams.

Where’s the Chancellor?

The headlines at the close of Angela Merkel’s first 100 days of leading this misfit coalition ought to be worrying to the chancellor.

The Times Online ran the title, “Iron Lady Angela Merkel vanishes amid trouble home and abroad.” The Economist headlined an item “Waiting for Angela.” Both articles commented on Germany’s chancellor strangely missing from the action while her government is gripped by crisis. As the Economist noted, a comedy was playing at a Berlin cabaret theater that had audiences splitting their sides with mirth as actors parodied German political party officials rushing about asking each other “Where’s Angela?” (January 21).

“Angela Merkel, once billed as a kind of Iron Lady, has become the Invisible Chancellor,” the Times commented. “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 appeared at the end of the coalition’s first 100 days to announce an increase in German troops in Afghanistan and to declare Germany’s support of sanctions against Iran, even this may work against the chancellor. The latter policy, should it be enacted, will rankle some of Germany’s highest-profile corporations that for years have profited from exporting both technology and manufactured goods to Iran. If Merkel follows through with this, it will also place further strain on her relationship with her coalition partner, the business-oriented fdp.

Already under pressure through falling poll ratings, the fdp more recently suffered from a highly publicized taxation affair when it reversed its stance on “one of the only policies the coalition has implemented since it came to power,” Spiegel wrote. The decision only “added to the general picture of chaos and confusion” (op. cit.).

In a keenly focused view of Germany’s present need for assertive leadership, the Times 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” (op. cit.).

It’s been a long time since Germany had such a leader. Germans pine for more assertive leadership amid the country’s present crisis of government. Disquiet has been creeping through the populace this winter. 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 amid the global economic crisis. Chancellor Merkel’s reaction to strains on the German 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 pointed 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. “Afghanistan will ultimately determine how history judges Chancellor Merkel,” wrote Roger Boyes. “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 a situation 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 from the German populace could be the kiss of death to her coalition and her leadership of the nation’s government.

Seizing His Moment

In the meantime, there is a certain German politician who has gained 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 devoted much space in our February edition. 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 the former East Germany. He is known for his decisiveness, for taking a position and not backing down easily. She has employed a leadership style that, 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 convey 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” (ibid.).

The contrast is particularly marked between Merkel and her charismatic minister of defense on the issue currently dominating 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, completely overshadowing his chancellor and Vice Chancellor Guido Westerwelle in the process. He has been commanding German media attention over the war in Afghanistan since the Kunduz bombing in September. Be it in Berlin or Washington, on the occasions when he is before the cameras or any audience of note—which is often—his presence is commanding; anything but furtive. Guttenberg certainly does not give an impression of waiting to see how the ball drops before engaging in action. He 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 moment, 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 anything but invisible. In January, 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).

Guttenberg has also demonstrated that he is prepared to work outside his portfolio, getting involved in both economic and foreign affairs matters at the annual Davos conference of global movers and shakers. He openly upset the German economics minister, Rainer Brüderle, by breakfasting publicly at the January conference 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, but they could also 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 that, despite the efforts of his political opponents and liberal elements in the press, Guttenberg remains Germany’s most popular politician. In the meantime, not only has Merkel’s hand been weakened by her absence from the political action, but her coalition partner of choice, the fdp, has also seen its popularity sink by over 30 percent since last September’s election. This places Foreign Minister Westerwelle on the defensive.

As Germans worry about a leadership vacuum in the chancellery, the aristocratic Reichsfreiherr Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has been propelled forward on the political scene, not only in Berlin, but increasingly in Washington, cementing a much higher role in transatlantic affairs than the struggling Westerwelle.

Guttenberg does not back down willingly. After all, he hails from a long line of crusading forefathers known for their tenacity in battle. “As Guttenberg’s own father, speaking about the family, put it in an interview with the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, ‘We are raised in such a way that we are, if necessary, prepared to die for the things that we believe are right …. That’s the family ideal’” (Global Post, Aug. 12, 2009). He has already declared that he is not going to be led by Washington on matters of security and defense. Guttenberg is cutting his own path in his present portfolio—and Chancellor Merkel seems either unwilling or unable to resist this.

The Rise and Rise of Guttenberg

Guttenberg changed the whole game for German politicians by mouthing one word: “war”!

“Our engagement in Afghanistan has for years been a combat operation. But the feeling is—and not just among our troops—that the Taliban is waging a war against the soldiers of the international community,” Guttenberg declared to a journalist from the German daily Bild. In doing so he used a three-letter word that up to then had been eschewed by postwar German governments and commentators alike. Until Guttenberg shot into the forefront of the German political scene, using that word to describe German operations in Afghanistan—use of the term in association with the Bundeswehr—was simply taboo.

By breaking that taboo, Guttenberg became the darling of the German military overnight. In the clearest statement yet made by any German politician with regard to the Afghanistan conflict, Guttenberg emphasized, “In parts of Afghanistan, there are, without question, conditions that are like a war. I can understand any soldier who says, ‘There is a war in Afghanistan. It doesn’t matter if it is foreign forces or Taliban terrorists who are attacking, wounding and killing me.’”

With Guttenberg’s success in securing an increase in Germany’s troop commitment to the war in Afghanistan, the conservative and heavily government-influenced media outlet Deutsche Welle reported, “Following much speculation recently in the German media, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced at a news conference on Tuesday that a further 500 troops would be deployed to Afghanistan to join the roughly 4,300 already stationed there. A further 350 troops would be a ‘flexible reserve’ to be deployed when necessary …. Commenting on the troop hike—850 additional troops in all—Chancellor Merkel stated that this was part of a ‘completely new’ approach to cooperating with the Afghan government, which aimed to see Kabul take responsibility for the security of the country as soon as possible. ‘This is a much more defensive approach, for which the German Army’s offensive capacities will be rearranged,’ she said” (January 26).

The European Union provides over 30,000 troops to the nato/isaf force in Afghanistan, compared to the U.S.’s 45,000. As the EU’s largest contributor of troops to the war, Germany has for some time agitated for a more powerful say in the orientation of the nato campaign in Afghanistan. Defense Minister Guttenberg is now in the strongest of positions to influence Germany’s future war policy in Afghanistan, or, for that matter, any other theater in which the Bundeswehr is presently engaged or will engage in the future.

This rapidly rising star of German politics has clearly achieved a number of goals in his brief term as Germany’s minister of defense. As a result of the Kunduz bombing affair, Guttenberg was able to clean house, dispensing with defense leaders who may have held loyalties to influences and ideas that he did not share. He has announced that the Bundeswehr is definitely engaged in a war outside of Germany’s borders. He has gained an extra troop commitment to the Afghanistan campaign and gained the endorsement of the chancellor of that commitment. He has announced a new German strategy for the war in Afghanistan and asserted that he will not be influenced by Washington in carrying it out. He has successfully weathered the storm created by liberal politicians and media that called for his resignation in the wake of the Kunduz affair. In all of this, Baron and Baroness Guttenberg have continued to shine as the most prominent stars on the German political and social scene. It seems that, politically, Guttenberg has the Midas touch.

Journalist and commentator on European affairs Luigi Barzini once noted, after long experiencing the German people in wartime and peace, that “Germany is, as it always was, a mutable, Proteus-like, unpredictable country, particularly dangerous when unhappy” (The Europeans).

What is Germany’s present mood?

Germany’s chancellor is unhappy. Her coalition government is unhappy. Media commentators are not happy with the government’s poor performance, observing that the coalition is unable “to find solutions for a society that is drifting apart” (Spiegel, op. cit.). A society that is drifting apart is not a very happy one. Germany is coasting into crisis. In such situations, history demonstrates that the German people will seek out and respond to an assertive, charismatic and strong leader, giving little thought to his ideology as long as it unifies the volk with an appeal to German nationalism.

An appeal to the period of German greatness under charismatic, nationalistic, aristocratic rule, as prevailed in the time of the kaisers, may be just the medicine that a German society “drifting apart” will respond to. That was when the German military had an overarching faith in a deity to guide it toward its perceived destiny of global rule—a faith in a deity whose religion was centered in Rome—a faith that inspired its men of war to march into battle wearing on their belt buckles the slogan “Gott mit uns”God with us.

Could the time be ripening for an aristocratic leader of crusading heritage, a titled baron of the Holy Roman Empire, a dedicated, practicing Roman Catholic, who publicly declares that he prays, as does his wife, for German troops in battle, to assert his leadership over a nation crying out to be led in a time of increasing national crisis?

To see the answer emerge, keep watching Germany, watch the Bavarian pope, and watch closely the Bavarian baron, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, baron of the Holy Roman Empire.