This article appears in The Times tomorrow.
NO COUNTRY better exemplifies civilised values than post-war Germany. Out of the ruins of barbarism, German statesmen fashioned a liberal political culture purged of xenophobia and willing to defend itself against domestic extremism. Chancellors Adenauer, Schmidt and Kohl often provided better leadership and wiser counsel for the Western Alliance than their counterparts in the US or UK.
This record makes the country’s recent political trajectory all the more dispiriting. Gerhard Schröder has proved the most feckless and unprincipled Chancellor in the history of democratic Germany.
Schröder’s attempts to reform Germany’s labour markets and welfare state have brought him domestic unpopularity despite their limited extent. What has irrevocably sullied his reputation, however, is not these faltering efforts to counter structural unemployment but his expedients to bolster his domestic position by the search for scapegoats.
When his economic proposals ran into difficulty, Schröder countered by blaming the Brussels bureaucracy (just as, more recently, he has blamed foreign investors). The strategy did not work, but the precedent was set.
Schröder’s opposition to the Iraq war went beyond strategic arguments to something more atavistic. He appealed to nationalist sentiments that are alien to the Republic’s ethos. His insistence on “a German way”, as opposed to the multilateral alliances that had characterised Germany’s postwar diplomacy, was a term consciously chosen for its historical resonance. One of his ministers, Herta Däubler-Gmelin, got the message, crowning a cynical 2002 general election campaign by comparing President Bush to Hitler.
Germany has had differences with the US before, but these have always been managed within the context of a commitment to collective security. There has been no previous case of a postwar Chancellor who has, in effect, campaigned not against his domestic opponents but against the American President.
The Social Democrats’ humiliating electoral rebuff this week in their former stronghold of North Rhine-Westphalia has persuaded Schröder to call for an early election to stave off his coalition’s implosion. In the interests of Germany’s diplomatic reputation, his ejection from office cannot come too soon.