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Commentary: Berlin's alehouse politicians

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Editor   |   Feb. 10, 2003 at 11:37 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Feb. 10 (UPI) -- One of the unkindest putdowns in the German language is "Stammtischpolitiker," meaning alehouse politicians. It refers to beer-drinking characters devising patent solutions for the world's problems around a tavern's table.

There is a growing consensus among Germans of the left and the right that precisely this species is in power in Berlin, destroying literally overnight the 50-year friendship with the United States. Hence the exasperated outcry of columnist Carl Count Hohenthal in Tuesday's Die Welt newspaper: "No federal chancellor has ever done greater damage to this country (than Gerhard Schroeder). Mr. Schroeder is no longer tolerable."

As a conservative daily, Die Welt can be expected to fume against Schroeder's "unsurpassed political irresponsibility" in the Iraq crisis. But its charge that Schroeder is acting "not according to any canon of values but only in the interest of personal power" echoes rather accurately what many Germans, regardless of party affiliation, are saying.

"We have never had such an incompetent and irresponsible government since World War II," a former Social Democrat minister told this correspondent in a telephone conversation.

It was by no means a right-wing publication, but the left-of-center newsmagazine, Der Spiegel, that reminded Germans last week that they were indeed governed by alehouse politicians in the true sense of the word.

Before we get there, though, it must be understood that to discover the makeup of German politicians, one should always talk to the landladies of their favorite watering holes.

As a correspondent in Bonn, while the already ancient Konrad Adenauer was squaring a circle by establishing intensely close relations with Washington and Paris, he took his tipple nightly -- always wine -- in a pub owned by the wonderful Ria Maternus, who instructed him, "Mr. Chancellor, don't look to the left, don't look to the right -- look at my legs!"

Ria is dead now. But another celebrated Bonn landlady is still alive. Her name is Heike Stollenwerk, and she was the owner of Schroeder's favorite tavern, called Provinz. In an interview with Der Spiegel, Stollenwerk described an evening 20 years ago that would later have disastrous consequences for the nation.

Schroeder came in, trailed by young members of Parliament of the Greens. They sat down and scribbled on cardboard beer mats who would get which position in a future coalition government led by the Social Democrats. Schroeder would be chancellor, Joschka Fischer foreign minister...

Recalled the ex-innkeeper: "They left no doubt that they considered themselves a godsend to the world ... They all had the same dreams: 'Make love, not war; let's get out of NATO, Americans go home: expropriate Springer (the conservative newspaper magnate)'."

This, however, describes the attitude of Schroeder's cohorts at that time, rather than his own. Another anecdote about him tells what he was really all about. One day he stood outside the chancellery in Bonn rattling at its steel fence, exclaiming: "Ich will hier 'rein!" ("I want to get in here"). He just wanted to be chancellor.

To remain in this position, most of my interlocutors during a recent journey through Germany concurred, Schroeder is prepared to sacrifice what for two generations has been a stable feature in German national life -- America's friendship.

This raises troubling questions:

Q: Why did a majority of the voters -- albeit a slim one -- fall for this ruse when Schroeder, banking on the Germans' near-pathological fear of war, resort to crass anti-Americanism in last September's national election campaign?

A: Because in Germany, the trauma of World War II -- the bombings, the destruction, and ultimately the shame -- is still vividly present in the public's mind. This is why Germany is perhaps the most pacifist country in the world.

Q: Does this mean that the Germans have turned anti-American?

A: Not at all. According to all recent surveys, some 70 percent of all Germans consider the United States their country's closest friend.

Q: Why, then, do they follow Schroeder's anti-Americanism?

A: Well, they don't anymore, to wit the defeat of his party earlier this month in two key regional elections, including in his home state of Lower Saxony.

Germans have by now become painfully aware that there is much truth in their famous adage: "Angst is ein schlechter Ratgeber" (fear is a bad counselor). But how does one undo the damage? The fathers of Germany's postwar constitution have made it deliberately difficult to remove even an incompetent government before its four-year term is up, for they wanted to avoid the constant regime changes that destroyed the Weimar Republic and ushered in Hitler's tyranny.

Hence, Germany is in the absurd situation where the relationship between a reckless chancellor and his less irresponsible deputy and foreign minister is marked by veritable shouting matches, according to reports in several newspapers -- a hitherto unheard-of state of affairs. Yet it is still unclear whether this government can be brought down.

Even if it is, though -- who would replace it? "There is nobody in our party competent enough to run the country," the Social Democrat former minister said, "and the Christian Democrats, who have good people, would be fools if they pushed for power now. Why would they want to inherit such a mess?"

Quipped one friend in a recent telephone conversation: "I'm almost sorry Germany is not in South America, where they have ways to topple unpopular governments."

In truth, Iraq, the war on terrorism, and Schroeder's anti-American rhetoric rank way down on the list of woes that plagues average Germans. They are much more preoccupied with the bad economy, unemployment, and struggling medical and education systems in their country, the wealthiest in Europe.

In my daily telephone conversations with Germans of all stripes, the potential impact of the bogus anti-Americanism initiated by Schroeder is only beginning to sink in. One decidedly pro-American editor naively chided Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for lumping Germany together with Libya: "That doesn't help German-American relations. He should be more careful."

The strange thing about German-American relations is this: Like naughty children, Germans are certain that the Americans will ultimately forgive them. Perhaps the Americans will. This time, Germany has caused the ire of conservative Americans, though, and they have long memories. This is not yet understood by all in Schroederland, which has left the tracks laid by great Christian Democrats and Social Democrats alike -- by Adenauer, Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl.

Nothing describes Germany's current mood more adequately than the report by the venerable Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung about a Munich talk show featuring Rumsfeld and Petra Roth, the former boss of the Greens and veritable paradigm of the aging 1968 rebels now running Germany.

The paper described Roth as "whiny in her usual way, irritable, indeed hysterical." At the end of the show, she turned to Rumsfeld's adviser, Richard Perle, saying: "Give peace a chance!"

Commented the newspaper with dry sarcasm: "No doubt: This must have given the Americans thought."

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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