Reaction to Neo-Nazi Terror: Merkel Shows Lack of Emotional Leadership

A Commentary by Christoph Schwennicke

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.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has shown a lack of empathy in responding to Zwickau. Zoom
REUTERS

Chancellor Angela Merkel has shown a lack of empathy in responding to Zwickau.

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.

There have been calls for the use of paid informants in the far-right scene to be banned, for the setting-up of a central register for known neo-Nazis and for the consolidation of the 16 state-level branches of Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which is responsible for monitoring political extremism. A crisis summit was held Friday at the Chancellery in Berlin. And of course there was also the reliable classic: calls for a ban on the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), seen as a central pillar of the right-wing extremist scene.

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 Utřya 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

On Wednesday, German President Christian Wulff said a few words about the tragedy at a ceremony for the Leo Baeck Prize, which is awarded by the Central Council of Jews in Germany. And he announced he would invite the relatives of the victims to his Berlin office for a private ceremony -- a fitting gesture.

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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1. Gestures aggravate attitudes
Eleos 11/19/2011
A gesture, whether well-meaning or ill-considered, spontaneous or too late, remains a gesture. And coming from a politician it will be viewed with scepticism. Politicians and the media do their best to curtail discussions on immigration, or so immerse them in caution and insincerity that frustration drives some to extremes. This post WWII ideology that left is good and right is bad is not natural or human. Pretending that everyone should love the foreign and unknown will not work.
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