SPIEGEL Interview With Wolfgang Schäuble: 'I'm a Pedestrian in My Dreams'

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, wheelchair-bound since an assassination attempt by a mentally ill man in 1990, talks about his struggle with disability, the drawbacks of a life in politics, his relationship with Helmut Kohl and the failed comeback of former Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg.

SPIEGEL: Minister Schäuble, 2011 was probably the most exhausting year a German finance minister has ever had. Is this the right job for a 69-year-old wheelchair user?

Schäuble: It's true that the current problems create a lot of pressure, but I don't see that the wheelchair was an impediment for me. Even traveling is relatively easy for me, because I'm simply carried in and out of the aircraft. And there are always people around to help me, if necessary.

SPIEGEL: Is crisis diplomacy sufficiently wheelchair accessible?

Schäuble: As a wheelchair user, you can't move about freely. That's the only thing that bothers me a little. When I'm in the euro group in Brussels, colleagues who want to talk to me have to come to me. But I hope they know that this has nothing to do with arrogance.

SPIEGEL: How often have you thought of throwing in the towel in this grueling year?

Schäuble: Not once.

SPIEGEL: Aren't pro-European politicians like you and (former German Chancellor) Helmut Kohl partly to blame for this crisis, because you introduced a monetary union years ago without politically unifying the euro zone?

Schäuble: A political union was not an option in the 1990s. It certainly would have made more sense to get the two things going at the same time, which is what we wanted. But there was simply too much resistance to the idea.

SPIEGEL: In other words, you are secretly pleased about the crisis, because it forces the Europeans to close ranks politically?

Schäuble: That's nonsense. I'm not pleased about the crisis. But in retrospect, it's certainly true that every great integration step in Europe came on the heels of a crisis. It's always been this way, and it could also be the solution today.

SPIEGEL: You had to spend many weeks in the hospital last year because of your disability. Why didn't you just say to yourself: It's time to quit?

Schäuble: Your question assumes that I'm desperately waiting for the right moment to give up. Be assured that I am not unhappy in politics -- on the contrary. However, last year I did ask myself whether such a responsible office as that of the finance minister was compatible with my state of health at the time.

SPIEGEL: Did you have any doubts?

Schäuble: In the long term, Germany didn't need a finance minister who was absent during important negotiations in the European Council. But the chancellor strongly encouraged me to stay. And everything did work out for the best in the end.

SPIEGEL: In the weeks of your absence, there was whispering within your party that Schäuble was no longer suitable as finance minister. How difficult is it to put up with such anonymous grumblings?

Schäuble: Quite honestly, it isn't a problem. Politics means competition, especially in senior positions. If you don't know that, you're not especially suited to politics. There is competition everywhere. Just look at the debate that erupted over Michael Ballack. I thought there was something tragic about Ballack's departure from the German national football team. But there are worse things than to have been the best, highest-performing and most successful German footballer for an entire decade.

SPIEGEL: Did you regard the debate over your illness as hurtful?

Schäuble: No. It's legitimate to ask: Can Schäuble still do his job? Fourteen years ago, when the debate began over whether I would be the Christian Democrats' candidate for chancellor, I even asked myself whether a man in a wheelchair could lead the country.

SPIEGEL: At the time, a headline in (the German weekly news magazine) Stern read: "A Cripple as Chancellor?"

Schäuble: It's completely okay to ask that question. If you are prepared to run for public office, you also have to be willing to accept a debate about you.

SPIEGEL: Some in the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) are quietly saying that the only reason Schäuble has remained in politics for so long is that its infrastructure -- drivers, security officials and so on -- makes it possible for a disabled person to lead a reasonably pleasant life.

Schäuble: That's nonsense, if you'll forgive my saying so. First came the question of whether a wheelchair user could be a cabinet minister. And now, according to you people are saying Schäuble only wants to remain a minister because he's in a wheelchair? Come on …

SPIEGEL: How much of a hindrance is it, really, that the physical gestures of power are unavailable to you as a wheelchair user?

Schäuble: Communication is limited, which is sometimes a hindrance. When you're at a parade or at a cocktail reception, you can't move freely. When people want to speak to you at eye level, they either have to strain their thigh muscles or find a chair. The advantage is that you focus much more strongly on the person with whom you're having a conversation. And besides, missing a cocktail reception isn't all that tragic. Nowadays, I read more or go to the theater and concerts.

SPIEGEL: In politics, it's important to exhibit strength. Weren't you afraid that the wheelchair would be seen as a sign of weakness and vulnerability?

Schäuble: After the assassination attempt (on Schäuble in October 1990), I sometimes discussed the issue with (then President) Richard von Weizsäcker and (then Chancellor) Helmut Kohl. They said to me: In our society, we no longer behave as we did in the Stone Age, when the winner of a fight became the leader. That's correct, and I don't think it's a step backwards.

SPIEGEL: What exactly is more uncomfortable for you, when people look down at you from above or when they crouch down in front of you?

Schäuble: It's almost irrelevant to me. I really prefer sitting at a table, which is also more comfortable for me. When people are standing against a bright sky, I don't always recognize them right away. And when someone crouches in front of me for a while, I say: "Watch out, you'll get a cramp." I know how strenuous that can be. But I'm pretty tolerant about these things. I even make jokes about my disability, which startled some people at first.

SPIEGEL: Tell us one!

Schäuble: Someone once said to me: "Oh, don't get up." And I said: "Oh, don't worry. I won't!"

SPIEGEL: Do you still pay attention to advances in spinal-chord research?

Schäuble: Of course, I read this material with greater interest than you do. But I forbade myself early on to pin my hopes on that.

SPIEGEL: Do you sometimes talk to other politicians who are disabled?

Schäuble: Otto Graf Lambsdorff, who is now dead, unfortunately, once asked me whether I walk or sit in a wheelchair when I dream. I had never even given it any thought. Then I did think about it, and I said: "I'm a pedestrian in my dreams." Lambsdorff replied that he -- many decades after his leg amputation -- dreamed that he still had his legs. Apparently the subconscious never comes to terms with the disability.

SPIEGEL: Looking back, would you have made it to the chancellorship without your disability?

Schäuble: I didn't fail because of the fact that I was a wheelchair user, but because I had been the closest associate of Helmut Kohl for 16 years. There was a certain historical inevitability to the idea that I could not be considered as his successor during a crisis he had triggered.

SPIEGEL: Kohl let you down twice. The first time was when you hoped to become the candidate for chancellor, and the second time was during the scandal over political donations. Does this justify the conclusion that loyalty doesn't pay off in politics?

Schäuble: Well, first of all, Kohl didn't let me down when it came to my candidacy for the chancellorship. Before the 1998 parliamentary election, I knew perfectly well that he would never give up voluntarily. So his behavior was not a disappointment to me.

SPIEGEL: And in the donations scandal?

Schäuble: That was a different matter. In a certain sense, I can even understand him. He was in a desperate situation. He believed that the donations scandal was overshadowing his entire life's work and his historic achievements. I said at the time that our personal relationship was over. But that doesn't change the fact that we had had a good working relationship for a long time, and that our country, and I, owe him a lot. We treat each other with respect today.

SPIEGEL: Looking back on your long history with Kohl, this is how you once characterized your relationship: "I do things the way he would decide if he understood it." Is it possible that you made your intellectual superiority clear to Kohl early on?

Schäuble: No, that's silly. Kohl is a very well-educated man. Those who believe they are intellectually superior to him are to be pitied at best. Kohl knew perfectly well that as the head of the government, he couldn't attend to every detail. It's a very similar situation for a cabinet minister. I tell my state secretaries and department heads: You have to tell me how we're going to do things, because you're the expert. And then we make the decisions. Your allusion to intellectual arrogance is complete nonsense.

SPIEGEL: Former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt was recently honored at the SPD (Social Democratic Party) convention. Do you believe that former Chancellor Kohl will make a similarly celebrated appearance at a CDU convention once again?

Schäuble: No, because his poor health will probably make it impossible. Otherwise Helmut Kohl would be greeted with just as much applause by the CDU as Schmidt was by the SPD.

SPIEGEL: Were you irritated when Kohl said in an interview a few months ago that the CDU had apparently lost its direction when it came to foreign policy?

Schäuble: As a former leader, it isn't easy to find your role. A certain amount of restraint can be helpful. Helmut Schmidt doesn't raise his index finger and tell his successors what they're doing wrong. Kohl has given interviews here and there where I thought: Well, one could have put that differently.

SPIEGEL: Helmut Kohl is old and sick now. Don't you have a desire to truly reconcile with him?

Schäuble: Actually, I didn't even have the desire to talk about him at such great length in SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL: Why was it easier for you to forgive Merkel than Kohl? She also seriously let you down.

Schäuble: I'm familiar with this interpretation in the papers that you're alluding to, but I don't agree with it. She was very supportive when I was sick.

SPIEGEL: Perhaps you'll recall that there was a broad movement in your party that would have liked to see you serve as president in 2004.

Schäuble: Yes, I know.

SPIEGEL: Angela Merkel wasn't exactly your advocate at the time.

Schäuble: I don't even know if I would have been all that happy as president.

SPIEGEL: Don't deny it, you wanted it at the time.

Schäuble: At any rate, it doesn't bother me today that I didn't become president.

SPIEGEL: You were in the Bundestag for 39 years, and in that time you suffered many injuries, both physical and emotional. Did the years in the top echelon of politics make you more abrasive?

Schäuble: No. These are the verdicts of people who don't know me. There is a certain clichéd image of me: Schäuble, the master of discipline. Okay, many think to themselves, he's sitting in a wheelchair, and that must be terribly strenuous. So he tortures and overworks himself and others. None of this is true at all.

SPIEGEL: You don't believe that the disability changed your personality?

Schäuble: I don't know. My brothers -- the older one is unfortunately dead -- have said that I'm still the same horrible person I used to be.

SPIEGEL: Aside from the attempt to assassinate you in 1990, what was the greatest injury inflicted on you in politics?

Schäuble: I've given up thinking about it. I've probably hurt many other people in my life, too. The scales are balanced.

SPIEGEL: Have you done things as a politician that you, as a human being and a Christian, you would have preferred not to do?

Schäuble: That, unfortunately, is part of being a Christian. The Bible reads: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, the goal of a Christian must be not to harm others.

Schäuble: That's true. It's something one has to strive for, and I do. And yet we will never be truly successful, which is why we need redemption.

SPIEGEL: Do you regret having openly ridiculed your former spokesman, Michael Offer, during a press conference?

Schäuble: Were you in the room when this happened?

SPIEGEL: No, we only saw it on TV and on YouTube.

Schäuble: No one who was in the room has complained. The scene had a completely different effect on the Internet.

SPIEGEL: So it wasn't Wolfgang Schäuble, but the Internet that was to blame?

Schäuble: It was not particularly noteworthy for any of those involved. But it seemed especially ludicrous on the Internet, which certainly irritated me. Because of modern communication technologies, as well as the omnipresent cameras and smartphones, one is under completely different, and more intense, scrutiny than in the past -- and it's constant. Just look at poor Václav Klaus, the Czech president, who pocketed some ballpoint pen at a conference -- a scene witnessed by millions on the Internet. But that's the modern world for you. It's a part of the reality in which we exist, and there's no reason to complain about it.

SPIEGEL: But apparently you are complaining. At any rate, the incident reinforced the image of you as someone who treats his staff very brusquely.

Schäuble: Really?

SPIEGEL: Really.

Schäuble: Well, if you ask the members of my staff, you won't hear them say that. In fact, they're more likely to tell you that I'm much too generous.

SPIEGEL: FDP (Free Democratic Party) Chairman Philipp Rösler isn't a member of your staff, but a fellow cabinet member. Why did you upset him?

Schäuble: What do you mean?

SPIEGEL: In an interview in the spring, you said that Rösler was "exceedingly knowledgeable and likeable," and that he also had "a great sense of humor." According to Rösler's interpretation, you were belittling and making fun of him.

Schäuble: Excuse me, what part of what I said was a) untrue and b) insulting? I've realized that if someone is determined to misinterpret what I said, he certainly will, which is why I won't say things like that anymore. But the same thing doesn't necessarily apply to him. What did I say again?

SPIEGEL: That he was knowledgeable and likeable, and had a sense of humor.

Schäuble: Okay, well then I certainly won't claim the opposite of that! If someone said that I'm knowledgeable and likeable, and that I have a sense of humor, I wouldn't take it as an insult.

SPIEGEL: When you recently congratulated (former Defense Minister) Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg on his 40th birthday, you added that if he were from (the southwestern German region of) Swabia, he would now become clever. Wasn't that a nasty thing to say?

Schäuble: There's a Swabian saying that goes: "You become clever when you turn 40." You can interpret that in any way you want.

SPIEGEL: Did Guttenberg handle his attempt at a comeback cleverly?

Schäuble: I assume you're asking a purely rhetorical question. I feel bad for him. I knew and liked his father, a conductor, and I saw a lot of potential in Karl-Theodor. It would be best for him to take a little break.

SPIEGEL: Does the Guttenberg example also show that it doesn't just take charisma, but also hard work and discipline to be a good politician?

Schäuble: History shows us a lot of things. It shows why the Lord's Prayer includes the supplication: "And lead us not into temptation." In my day, dissertations were still written by hand, or drummed out with a typewriter. In the past, you had to round up the literature, find the books and find the passages. Nowadays you click on Wikipedia or Google and you have everything you need. This probably makes it more difficult to resist temptation.

SPIEGEL: Should Guttenberg be given a chance to return to politics?

Schäuble: You and I, at any rate, should stop constantly talking about Guttenberg.

SPIEGEL: Do you sympathize with people who say: Politics is too tough for me, I won't put myself through this?

Schäuble: Of course. But politics hasn't treated me that badly, which is why I still like it. Of course, it has to remain the exception for someone to remain in the Bundestag as I long as I did. If all members of parliament stuck around for 40 years, things would become calcified. On the other hand, why shouldn't a few members of parliament contribute their experience by virtue of having been there for decades?

SPIEGEL: Are you worried about the emptiness that could follow politics?

Schäuble: No. It doesn't exist.

SPIEGEL: Are you sure?

Schäuble: Yes, because there is more to life than politics. But as long as I'm given the opportunity to be politically active, I'll stay.

SPIEGEL: Back to Michael Ballack. Would you want…

Schäuble: …to see a farewell match?

SPIEGEL: Very funny. No, would you want a more dignified departure from politics for yourself than Ballack's departure from the national team?

Schäuble: You know, I'm just too busy to lose sleep over things like that. Besides, you really can't plan too much in life, anyway. On the day of German reunification, Oct. 3, 1990, I couldn't have imagined that, nine days later, I would be lying in the ICU at the University of Freiburg Hospital, more dead than alive. You can lead a happy life if you recognize that it's limited and completely unpredictable from one moment to the next.

SPIEGEL: Minister Schäuble, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Markus Feldenkirchen and René Pfister; translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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1. Journalists above themselves
Eleos 12/19/2011
To me at least the interviewers seemed unnecessarily arrogant and disrespectful to a courageous, resolute and very clever man.
coastscape 12/20/2011
Having lived in Germany for 25 years, I was not surprised by the aggressive, unrelenting tone of the interviewers, who virtually insisted that WS agree with all their opinions and Bemerkungen! You wonder why they interview someone if all they want to do is tell him he's wrong - about his wheelchair, his personality, Kohl – I had to laugh. It's not an interview at all, it's a means of communicating the interviewer's own agenda! Public figures in Germany have to put up with this kind of media attitude and defend themselves over and over.
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