Reaction to Neo-Nazi Terror: Merkel Shows Lack of Emotional Leadership
The political reactions to the Zwickau neo-Nazi terror cell have been predictable. But Germany's leadership lacks the ability to reach out to the country with the right words and gestures. Chancellor Merkel has clearly failed to grasp the true dimensions of the tragedy.
You can always rely on Germany's body politic for a predictable reaction. Politicians' reactions to the revelations about the Zwickau neo-Nazi terror cell were as reliable as if a doctor really had tapped them on the knee with a little rubber hammer.
The relevant government ministers zealously gave interview after interview. As good technocrats, they rattled off the same soundbites as always, and gave the same answers to the same questions. The appearance, though, was that of a dynamic and far-reaching response to the horrific revelations of the right-wing terror cell, known as the National Socialist Underground (NSU).
But therein lies precisely the problem. The kneejerk reflex, triggered by striking the patellar tendon, is caused by the spinal cord rather than the brain. The political debate about the NSU in Germany appears equally brainless. The shocking news that the series of murders of nine people of Turkish and Greek origin was apparently politically motivated -- an eventuality that authorities at the time would seem to have neglected -- is now one week old.
Supporting the Nation
In such moments of shock, what is required of the political leadership is not a reflex, but the skill to find the right words and make the right gestures. Some politicians grow in stature in such moments, and some fail. The Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg grew in the aftermath of the Utøya massacre. Until then, he had come across as somewhat stuffy, but he was able to give his nation support after the sick crimes committed last summer -- crimes which were also ideologically motivated.
Questions about the failure of the country's intelligence services or an under-equipped police force were postponed until later. What was important in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy was to reassure Norwegians that their country could and would remain a free society. Stoltenberg was able to empathize with his fellow Norwegians and, based on this emotional insight, was able to always say and do exactly the right thing.
The Zwickau case has unsettled Germans. But Merkel doesn't seem to be growing in stature as a result. On the contrary, her ability to empathize would appear to have its limits.
On the Sunday after the Friday when the news broke, Merkel made a comment about a "disgrace" on German television. On the Monday, she devoted two or three sentences to the issue at the party conference of her conservative Christian Democrats. Then she had her party pass a motion to look into a possible ban on the NPD.
Lack of Empathy
But Merkel can not delegate such political tasks to the president. In the end, it is the chancellor who needs to act. Angela Merkel is a politician of extraordinary intelligence and with sharp wits. To put it another way, she relies on reason rather than reflexes. But at such moments she lacks the ability to give her country -- and, not least, its international partners -- the feeling that someone understands the social and emotional dimensions of the event. She also lacks the ability to capture the public mood using the right deeds and words. She lacks the language necessary, and maybe even the emotional intelligence.
Back in 1993, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl made a serious mistake when he neglected to attend the memorial service to the victims of an arson attack in the city of Solingen which killed five ethnic Turkish women and children. Merkel should not make the same mistake if there is a memorial service for the victims of the neo-Nazi murder series.
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