The German Question

Perry Anderson

Helmut Kohl’s election campaign drew to a close on a perfect autumn evening in the cathedral square of Mainz, capital of the Rhine Palatinate, where he had begun his political career. As night fell, the towers of the great sandstone church glowed a dusky red above the baroque market place, packed with supporters. Making his way to the front of this scene, the ‘Chancellor of Unity’ delivered a confident address to the crowd of Christian Democrat Union (CDU) loyalists, brushing aside the barracking from pockets of Far Left youth on the edges of the square. Security was not tight. On a screen beside the podium Kohl’s huge, pear-shaped face, with its bonhomous jawline and sharp feral eyes, was projected into the darkness. From surrounding cafés, bystanders watched the scene with low-key curiosity.

Forty-eight hours later, Kohl’s helicopter came in across the Rhine, low over the heads of strollers and cyclists along the river-path, and landed in the grounds of his residence in Bonn. Although the polls had not yet quite closed, he would already have known he had lost the election. An hour later, the first television projections – in Germany, with nearly perfect proportional representation, they are highly accurate – were greeted with relief and delight in Social Democratic Party (SPD) headquarters. But it would be difficult to speak of elation. Party workers remain proletarian in ways that have largely disappeared in Britain: victory is hailed not just with beer and sausages, but hampers overflowing with cigarette packets; a certain stolidity could be expected. But the oddly subdued atmosphere reflected national reactions as a whole. There was none of the jubilation surrounding Blair’s arrival in Downing Street, however forced much of that may have been.

The election campaign itself was in part responsible for the absence of excitement. Avoiding any sharp challenges or radical commitments, Gerhard Schröder promised no more than a reformist modicum, under the slogan ‘We don’t want to change everything, just improve many things’. In point of fact, the SPD platform involved a more thorough reversal of Kohl’s tax measures than New Labour of Major’s economic policies. But the general tone of its appeal to the electorate, ceremoniously respectful of Kohl’s stature as a European statesman, was a good deal less combative than the campaign mounted by Millbank in 1997. In the minds of party managers, the prospect of a grand coalition with the CDU was never far away, setting limits to the divisiveness of campaign rhetoric. Expecting – and often, according to opinion polls, wanting – such an outcome, voters were not greatly stirred. But the noticeably low-key reaction to the election result was indicative of something more pervasive. Living in Germany over the previous year, I was often struck by the reluctance of many Germans to register the scale of the changes about to overtake their country. Every opinion poll made it clear long in advance that, whatever the exact result, the next Chancellor was going to be a Social Democrat, after one of the longest spells of unbroken conservative rule in any West European society. At the same time, Berlin was about to become the capital of the country again – an upheaval of far greater significance, with no recent parallel in any other European country. Moreover, the national currency was scheduled to disappear with the arrival of European monetary union: a transformation with a quite special charge in Germany, where the Deutschmark has long served as a surrogate for more traditional forms of national identity. The sudden interlocking of three such basic alterations would make a formidable challenge for any society. Yet the prevailing mood could have been described as one of denial.

Against this background, the gap between the reception and the result of the September election is more understandable, though still very striking. Many observers recalled the popular enthusiasm for Willy Brandt’s victory in 1972, which put the SPD in power for a decade. The paradox is that the recent electoral upheaval, which did not generate anything like the same excitement, was far greater. There are two ways of looking at this. One is to compare the relative performance of the two major parties. Between 1949 and 1994, the CDU and the Christian Socialist Union (CSU) outpolled the SPD by an overall average of some 7 per cent – a structural predominance of the Right far greater than in Britain, let alone France. Even at the height of its success in 1972, the SPD could secure a margin of no more than 0.9 per cent over the CDU/CSU. This year, for the first time ever, the SPD was well ahead of its rival, scoring 5.7 per cent more than the CDU/CSU. This is a historic reversal. Another and more significant measure puts this success into proportion. In 1972 the SPD won the support of 45.8 per cent of the electorate. In 1998 it got just 40.9 per cent, well below its level even in 1980. There was no simple triumph of Social Democracy, old or new, in the result: overshadowing the performance of the SPD itself was the total score for the Left. With the Greens taking 6.7 per cent and the post-Communist Democratic Socialist Party (PDS) 5.1 per cent, the Left as a whole won a clear-cut absolute majority for the first time in German history – 52.7 per cent, a majority that the Left in Britain has never achieved.

What was the pattern of this victory? In West Germany after the war, religion was always the most reliable index of the regional strengths of Right and Left. Christian Democracy was inter-confessional, but invariably predominated in the Catholic South – Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg and Rhine-Palatinate; whereas Social Democracy always did better in the Protestant North and Centre – Lower Saxony, the Ruhr, Hessen. The exceptions were Schleswig-Holstein in the far north, where the large refugee population from the East initially tipped the balance towards the CDU, and the industrial Saar in the far south, with its iron and coal the most working-class of all Länder, which later swung to the SPD. The correlation was always asymmetrical, since a majority of practising, as opposed to passive, Protestants voted Christian Democrat, so that the dominance of the SPD in Lutheran Germany was never as secure as that of the CDU in Catholic Germany; and over time the link between religion and partisan preference has weakened.

In 1998, however, the confessional gradient in the West German electorate was as striking as it had ever been. The SPD’s highest scores – above 45 per cent – came in the three northernmost Länder (higher still in its traditional strongholds in the city-states of Hamburg and Bremen), followed some way down by a middle belt of Hessen and the Rhine-Palatinate at 41 per cent; ending in the far south with Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, the two firmest bastions of Christian Democracy, at around 35 per cent. The Saar was once again the exception, with over 52 per cent, the highest SPD vote in the country. Nationwide, the CDU/ CSU took 46 per cent of the Catholic and 36 per cent of the Protestant vote, the SPD, vice versa, 46 per cent of the Protestant and 32 per cent of the Catholic. It was among non-believers that the SPD opened up a crushing margin – 41 to 21 per cent – over its rival.

Class has been the other great determinant. In the West, Christian Democracy this time lost more working-class votes than Social Democracy gained – the SPD increasing its share by only a percentage point. Schröder’s appeal, pitched expressly to ‘the New Middle’, proved most effective with white-collar employees, where the SPD gained 6 per cent nationwide, and pulled over significant numbers of the self-employed, some of them former Green supporters. There was little gender variance in the vote, with the exception of young women under 24, who went for the SPD much more strongly than their male counterparts.

The truly dramatic change, however, came in the East. Traditionally, this was uniformly Protestant terrain, with sizeable working-class concentrations in Berlin, Leipzig, Chemnitz, Dresden, Merseburg – enlarged by DDR industrialisation after the war. It had long been reckoned natural SPD territory, in the event of reunification. The CDU’s complete command of the democratic Anschluss of 1990 ensured the exact opposite. Promising ‘blooming landscapes’ to the Eastern compatriots he had released from bondage, Kohl won a landslide in the former Communist Länder in 1990 and the critical margin for victory in the much closer national race of 1994. Four years later, disillusionment was complete, and popular anger at the collapse of employment in the East scythed the CDU vote, which fell to little more than a quarter of the total – a drop twice as steep as in the West. For the first time the SPD became the leading party in the region, if still with a much lower vote than in the West (35.6 to 42.4 per cent). Post-Communist success made the difference. The PDS took over 20 per cent in the East: more than two million votes.

In the electoral geography of Germany, these results are likely to prove the real landmark. The political complexion of the East is now quite different from that of the West, and will probably remain so. The contrast in the total vote for the Left (SPD, Greens, PDS) in each ‘nation’ makes this plain: 60.3 per cent in the East against 50.6 in the West. Here was the pivot on which the precise Parliamentary arithmetic of Schröder’s government finally turned. It was the 12 ‘excess’ mandates – beyond its proportional quota – won by the SPD in the East that gave the Red-Green bloc its majority in the Bundestag. If the CDU had kept its losses in the East to their level in the West, there would have been a Grand Coalition instead.

What we are looking at, then, is the potential emergence of a long-run sociological majority for the Left in Germany, as the East reverts to what might be called a historical ‘default position’, where the SPD and PDS regularly dominate. The religious landscape could be critical here. The one durable legacy of the DDR was Jacobin: within two generations, it achieved an astonishing dechristianisation of the population. Today 80 per cent of East German youth have no religious affiliation whatever – the comparable figure is 10 per cent in West Germany – and no more than 7 per cent of Easterners are churchgoers of any kind. Lutheranism has given way to an irreligion still more inhospitable than the Evangelical Church to any hegemony by a Christian-Democratic Right.

What kind of government has come out of this drastic shake-up? Conventional wisdom compares Gerhard Schröder with Tony Blair. One genuine point in common is that both were effectively picked as candidates by the media before they were chosen by their party, comparison with Blair, in Schröder’s case, being part of the anointing process itself. Telegenic looks, rhetoric of modernisation, pursuit of the New Middle, inspirational calls (‘time for a change’ etc): other parallels are ready to hand. But in some ways the parallels are misleading. With his private schooling, his stint at Oxbridge and his lucrative practice at the Bar, Blair is a typical product of a privileged upper-middle-class background, while Schröder, whose father was killed on the Russian Front, comes from the debris of postwar German society. His mother was a charwoman; his first job was behind the counter in an ironmonger’s shop; his degree was eventually obtained at night school. He became a leader of the Jusos, the SPD’s youth organisation in the early Seventies, when it was a rebellious outfit well to the left of the Party, and took active part in mass demonstrations. In the Eighties, though no firebrand, he helped topple Helmut Schmidt and, as late as 1994, was blocked by party elders, who considered him too unreliable to run for Chancellor. The aura of moderate pragmatism is quite recent. But there is no lack of charm: sturdy good looks, attractive thick voice, mischievous smile. Blair appears an over-eager adolescent by comparison.

The larger difference, however, is institutional. The SPD is not in thrall to its Chancellor. It is a very different party from New Labour. Twice the size, with 700,000 individual members, its culture remains noticeably more working-class. The atmosphere of an SPD rally in any big industrial town is closer to Labour meetings of the Sixties or Seventies than to anything in Britain today. This has much less to do with any lag of modernisation on the part of the SPD, whose Bad Godesburg programme of 1959 turned to the middle class long before Labour, than with the strength of German manufacturing, the world-class performance of which has shielded workers in the West from the extremes of de-industrialisation that have so largely broken up the traditional identity of the British working class. Trade unions in Germany weathered the Eighties better, and enjoy stronger relations with the Party.

A still more important difference between the two organisations lies in the regional distribution of power in the SPD. Germany’s federal structure means that political careers are made first and foremost in the Länder, whose rulers always provide a repertoire of possible candidates for Chancellor. By winning four successive Federal Elections, Kohl achieved a remarkable concentration of power in the CDU, but even he could not stop bitter enemies in the Party from becoming important regional figures, like Biedenkopf (‘King Kurt’) in Saxony. The SPD has never allowed the same personalisation of authority. When it has been in power, the pattern has always been a diarchy – Brandt and Herbert Wehner, or Schmidt and Brandt – with the Chancellor flanked by a powerful and independent Party Chairman, not to speak of the regional prime ministers.

Schröder, catapulted within six months of winning a provincial election in Hanover to leadership of the country, is entitled to his party’s gratitude. But he has no deep-rooted following within it: indeed, he was widely distrusted, the Party’s attitude recalling the view expressed by one of Claud Cockburn’s characters that ‘charm and dependability so rarely go together.’ The favourite of members and apparatus alike remains Oskar Lafontaine, whose skill, charisma and discipline galvanised the SPD machine in the years of Kohl’s decline. Lafontaine was another postwar orphan from a poor family, educated by Jesuits in the Saar, who became the brightest of ‘Brandt’s grandchildren’, the generation of SPD politicians that came to prominence in the Eighties. With fluent French from his borderland upbringing, he is intellectually better prepared than Schröder, with more decided views about the future. As Minister of Finance, and Chairman of the SPD, his position in the new regime is unusually strong. Lafontaine is the first Western politician of aggressively Keynesian outlook in 25 years. He has already seen off Schröder’s attempt to install a wan version of Richard Branson as Minister of the Economy, and shaken the composure of the Bundesbank.

The direction of the Government, of course, will not be set by the SPD leadership alone. The rules of any German coalition give significant leverage to the lesser partner. The Greens did not do particularly well in the September election, losing about 100,000 votes after a lacklustre campaign, distinguished mainly by sectarian attacks on the PDS. The Party, always somewhat erratic, has been losing direction in recent years, as some of its less attractive features have taken their toll – what might be called the bohemian versions of the Spiessbürger smugness of the Bonn Republic, especially evident in attitudes to the East, where the Party is virtually non-existent. On some fiscal and social issues, its exclusively middle-class base, not insensible to the attraction of neo-liberal notions, can put it to the right of the SPD. Even so, the Greens are likely to pull the Government in less conventional directions than Social Democracy, left to its own devices, would follow.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in