The Downfall of Andrea Nahles A Year with the Doomed SPD Chairwoman

Andrea Nahles had hoped to rejuvenate Germany's Social Democratic Party. But after just over a year as party chair, she threw in the towel amid an unceasing storm of criticism. What went wrong?
Von Lena Niethammer
Andrea Nahles together with actresses during an appearance in summer 2018

Andrea Nahles together with actresses during an appearance in summer 2018

Foto: Peter Jülich/ Agentur Focus

It's July 2018 and Andrea Nahles is on a summer trip to Hesse, accompanied by a dozen journalists from Berlin. All of them are sitting in the back of the bus, as is Nahles. She is in a good mood, having just returned from Sardinia, where she was on vacation with her daughter Ella -- her first vacation since she took over leadership of the German Social Democrats three months previous. There is laughter, there's a bit of griping and some criticizing. Her press spokesman then joins the group and says that there are a couple of different dinner menus to choose from: beef, schnitzel or pasta. Who wants beef?

Nahles raises her hand and immediately the journalists follow, with the exception of two vegetarians. The spokesman quickly turns around to head back to the front when Nahles changes her mind, opting for schnitzel instead. And just like little children who have been granted permission by their mother, the journalists also switch to schnitzel, one after another. They are all aware of the absurdity of the situation, and one of them says: "That's power for you."

"Is that how things work at SPD headquarters  as well?" one of the journalists asks. A mischievous smile creeps across Nahles' face. "Soon," she says, and laughs.

When Nahles announced a week and a half ago that she wasn't just stepping down from her official party offices, but also giving up her seat in parliament, when this woman turned her back on politics after spending 30 years shaping the SPD, I found myself thinking of that day last summer. It was the first day I spent with her, and it would remain the most hopeful one. It was a day on which you could see the kind of party chairwoman Nahles could have become if only somebody had been ready for it. If only she had been ready for it.

On that July 18 in Hesse, Nahles sat down in the evening at a long table with her traveling companions, perhaps 15 people in total, for a dinner of fish carpaccio and then beef, schnitzel or pasta, all accompanied by expensive wine. Nahles sat in the middle, leaning back relaxed in her chair, her eyes awake. Over the course of several hours, she was asked one question after the next -- about specific politicians, about the SPD, about the government, the country, the world. And about her. Nahles seemed to be completely in her element, quick witted and unafraid to say what she thought -- and funny as well. And as she was sitting there not unlike a mafia boss, it was clear from her cheeky smile how much she enjoyed being able to show off just how smart and important she was.

"You have to experience her. She's totally different from what you expect," her spokeswoman had told me as we were planning this profile. And it was true. At the end of the evening, Nahles could be found out in front of the hotel chatting heatedly with a group of mechanics about whether Porsche, Mercedes or Audi build the best sports cars. All of them were enjoying themselves: she and the mechanics.

By the next morning, though, once again standing before the microphones, the lightness of the previous evening had vanished. As soon as a question was asked, Nahles would squint her eyes and look intensely into the middle-distance as though she was searching for an answer on a teleprompter 50 meters away. Her smile was frozen onto her face and the tone of her voice serious. At some moments, when a question was particularly provocative, the Nahles from the previous evening showed through, her eyes wide awake as she prepared a riposte. But then she would force herself to remain serious and to avoid the impulsive answer.

Why does she censor herself at such moments? Because doing anything else would be naïve, she says during a later discussion. "People say they want politicians to be authentic, but they don't really want to see the rough edges." What she really means is: They don't really want an authentic woman.

Repeated Thousands of Times

Now, she has failed, after just 13 months as chairwoman of the SPD. During her tenure, I frequently accompanied her to various events and met with her on two occasions for face-to-face interviews. Initially, the story was to be about how Nahles was doing as the first-ever woman to lead the center-left party. That question, though, has now been answered. Which leaves the question: Why did her downfall come so quickly?

Nahles kept her personal narrative to a minimum: Daughter of a bricklayer, Catholic, joined the SPD at a young age, founded a local SPD chapter, studied German language and literature, advanced quickly in politics, now a single mother. Even in her autobiography, called "Frau, Gläubig, Links," or "Woman, Devout, Leftist," there are just a couple of anecdotes from her youth that have been repeated thousands of times.

She was still a child, perhaps eight or nine years old, when she first realized that there was a difference between boys and girls. She was the only girl in her group of friends and saw her gender as an impediment. The dainty sandals, the skirts, all the restrictions that applied to girls at play: She wanted none of it. She wanted to be free and equal and to play just like the boys. So she simply eliminated the restrictions and gave everyone in the group new names, boy names. Problem solved.

Later, she noticed that the mothers of her classmates didn't go to work like hers did. When asked if her mother was proud to have worked, she simply laughs. "We didn't really talk on that level. That's kind of a metalevel."

At 13, she began thinking about what her calling might be. "I'm not a person who has a bunch of unique talents," Nahles says. "But I have always been good at organizing groups. I could always pull together a coherent message out of a number of different voices."

Andrea Nahles on June 3, a day after suddenly announcing that she was stepping away from leadership of the SPD.

Andrea Nahles on June 3, a day after suddenly announcing that she was stepping away from leadership of the SPD.

Foto: John MacDougall/ AFP

It was only at age 18, following several hip operations and months in the hospital, that she began getting politically involved. She wanted to establish an SPD chapter in her village, but her parents were opposed, concerned that it could lead to conflict. One day, when Nahles returned home, her furniture was no longer there, her mother having moved it all to the unfinished house that was to one day become the family home.

"My mother thought that I would give up, but she was wrong. I just grew even more stubborn," Nahles says. She lived in the unfinished house for two years, her father making sure that the heating worked. And she founded the village SPD chapter anyway.

Personal Attacks

When Nahles visited a Protestant student group in Mainz in February of this year, she was asked whether linking her political involvement to her faith also has disadvantages. "Yes," she responded, "because as a Christian, I always try to remain open and to never close up. It is much more difficult to not be hurt if you always keep a channel open. Many who have been in politics as long as myself have closed up. Some have grown cynical. And that cynicism, which is much more prevalent in Berlin than here in Mainz or where I come from, is something that I despise. And that's why being Christian, if you take it seriously, is not at all something that can protect you from criticism or the impact of criticism. On the contrary, sometimes it leaves me unprotected."

The number of personal attacks, the malice, the criticism and insults that politicians must endure is enormous. And what women in politics have to face is even worse. In addition to all that men must withstand, women also have to deal with the constant evaluations of their appearance along with all the expectations that are consciously or unconsciously placed on women's shoulders.

Nahles made things even more difficult on herself: She didn't just take on a position of power, she was also unafraid of offending men. When Rudolf Scharping was deposed as party leader in 1995, Nahles cheered his departure. She also humiliated Franz Müntefering, another SPD leader of yore. She didn't show gratitude for being allowed a position of power, rather she found it completely normal. And many men proved unwilling to accept a woman like her who didn't show much in the way of humility. They were often ashamed of her behavior, her coarse language and her demonstrative demeanor.

During Nahles' tenure, it sometimes seemed as though they were all simply waiting for the opportunity to be ashamed in her yet again. In September 2017, following her last cabinet meeting as labor minister, she was asked what it felt like. She said: "A bit melancholic. And starting tomorrow, you're going to get hit in the mouth." It was a joke. She was even laughing as she said it. But the comment was still treated as though she had threatened someone with violence.

The pattern repeated itself this year during carnival, a time in Germany when politicians take to the stage to make jokes, chide their opponents and be made fun of themselves. The moderator at the event where Nahles took the stage forced her to sing, and she couldn't stop laughing because the whole thing was so embarrassing. Afterward, the criticism began pouring in. And because many in the party were ashamed of her, few were willing to jump to her defense.

A Rotten Mood

Over time, Nahles learned to subtly deflect personal attacks. One example: When a man begins lecturing her onstage during a talk show or podium discussion, she'll lean over to a neighbor and start whispering something. The audience immediately stops listening to what the man is saying, preferring instead to think about what Nahles might be whispering.

At SPD headquarters in Berlin in early November, Nahles was taking the elevator down to the garage and she was in a rotten mood: She was running late, she was worried she might miss her flight, and she couldn't find her bag. She began complaining that Katarina Barley, the justice minister who is also a member of the SPD, had a better parking spot even though she wasn't there as often. Nahles' staff feared their boss' moodiness. Often, all it took was a call from her daughter and Nahles was either ecstatic or deeply aggrieved.

During the drive to the airport, she talked about what it was like when she became head of the SPD's youth wing in 1995 and suddenly had to deal with the national press. "I came from Rhineland-Palatinate where there were only three media outlets and they were all OK. But at the national level, I then gave 20 interviews on a single day. And when I started reading the profiles later, I started wondering: What did you get yourself into?" She came down with a stomach malady that dogged her for two years.

Nahles says that her Christian faith actually made it more difficult for her to deal with criticism.

Nahles says that her Christian faith actually made it more difficult for her to deal with criticism.

Foto: Maurice Weiss/ Ostkreuz

Ultimately, a three-step pattern emerged. The first phase involved simply ignoring the criticism. If it didn't stop, though, phase two would begin: self-doubt. What did you do wrong? After that came phase three: defiance. By then, she had generally moved on.

But defiance can also be dangerous and it became a standard fallback for Nahles. Because she constantly felt she was being misunderstood, she was constantly on the defensive -- waiting to be accepted rather than going on the offensive and winning over her adversaries. And that meant she missed out on opportunities.

She complained, for example, that the media didn't write enough about the fact that she had been elected as the first-ever female leader of the SPD. Yet it was a talking point that she and her team didn't do enough to actively promote.

I often had the feeling that I was a nuisance, that she didn't want me around. She would look at me with an expression full of skepticism when she saw me hanging around at yet another event. "Here again?" Sometimes, she would say that she couldn't answer a particular question because journalists were present and they would love to take something she said out of context.

Strategies and New Ideas

The car had already arrived at the airport when Nahles said that there actually was something that had helped her deal with criticism. "I was part of a women's group at the beginning of my career. Talking with them helped me a lot back then," she said. And then she had to go catch her plane.

It was in the early 1990s when a network of six-to-eight young women developed in Rhineland-Palatinate, all of them in their early to mid-20s, all of them self-confident, eloquent and progressive leftists. And they were all biding their time until they could take over the male-dominated youth wing of the SPD.

As their headquarters, they used the kitchen in the local SPD office in Koblenz. They would meet regularly to develop strategies and new ideas.

Andrea Nahles in 1995, the year she was chosen to lead the youth wing of the SPD.

Andrea Nahles in 1995, the year she was chosen to lead the youth wing of the SPD.

Foto: Bonn-Sequenz/ ullstein bild

Group solidarity was absolute. If they went to an event together, it was clear that they wouldn't criticize each other, even if they held contrasting opinions on the issue at hand. If one of them was scheduled to speak, the others would sit in the first row. If one of them wanted to push through a proposal, the others would sign up for a speaking slot to support the idea. And when one of them failed, the others were there for support.

It quickly became clear to the group of women which of them had a bright future in politics: Kristina Augst, who would later leave politics and now works as a theologist. And Andrea Nahles. Promoting the two became the group's pet project.

"Andrea is good at winning people over," says Birgit Strack, who used to be part of the group and is today the director of a retirement home. "I'm politically active and I do good work, but I'm better fit for the local level. Andrea is politically brilliant. She can take over a room. Wherever she went, a group of people would form around her. She had this amazing talent to make things possible; an amazing networker. She had this small notebook and it was full of hundreds of numbers.

A World of Gender Equality

Strack says that the group's goal had always been that of changing the system. They didn't want to be women who found a way to fit into a man's world. They wanted to establish a world of gender equality.

To explain what she meant, Strack pointed to the example of quota-based speaker lists. During national congresses of the SPD youth wing, it was often the case that 30 men would immediately sign up for a speaking slot as soon as a specific agenda item was announced. Why didn't any women sign up? In taking a closer look at the phenomenon, Strack says, they found that men would sign up just in case they had something to say and because they wanted to be a part of the debate. Women, by contrast, tended to only join a debate when they had the impression that they had something to contribute. So they would end up low down on the list of speakers and often wouldn't get a turn. When Strack and the others mentioned the problem, the men said: Then sign up earlier. That, though, would have been the equivalent of fitting in to a man's world. Instead, the women developed the concept of having two separate lists, one for men and the other for women -- with speakers being taken alternatively from each.

The most intensive period of the group's work came to an end when Nahles was elected head of the SPD youth wing in 1995, after which, the others went on to finish their university studies or moved away. But they continued to watch Nahles' career from afar and sometimes found themselves worrying about her well-being. But the higher Nahles climbed, the less often the friends could find a time to meet up. Strack took to sending Nahles postcards, just to let her know she was thinking of her -- and made sure Nahles knew that there was no expectation of a response.

When Nahles became party chairwoman, she found what she described as a "withered" SPD. She saw it as her job to reinject a sense of passion and to give the members a renewed sense of community and to encourage them to dream again. So she developed a kind of debate camp reminiscent of the meetings she would hold with the women's group at the beginning of her career.

Strack describes those early meetings by saying: "Together, we would write papers, draft motions, develop strategies and reinvent the world." And that was roughly the idea behind the debate camp Nahles held last November in a disused factory building on the outskirts of Berlin. It worked, initially at least, with those present feeling a sense of euphoria. But then, a short time afterwards, someone once again called for Nahles to step down and the euphoria quickly evaporated.

Many of the political obituaries written for Nahles last week included the observation that she stood for an anachronistic approach to politics, one in which decisions were made behind closed doors.

Inability to Motivate

It is true that her political approach is old: She told me that she decided how she wanted to lead back when she was 25 and remained true to it since. She would often speak of the "power of communicative action," a theory developed by the philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas. "It's a decision in favor of teamwork and to trust communication," Nahles said. She meant that she wanted to find ideas that everyone could get behind as though they belonged to them. Compromises, in other words. The party's new social welfare plan is just such a product. In assembling it, the SPD turned its back on the welfare cuts it passed so many years ago under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a far-reaching reform that many believe was the key misstep that led to the party's current decline. In addition to the new social welfare plan, the SPD also included an increase the minimum wage and, taken together, the package was one that everyone could get behind. Nahles had managed to manufacture a sustainable consensus.

The result was a bit of badly needed peace and quiet. But despite the well-earned feeling of accomplishment, there wasn't a broad sense that the party was getting back on track. Party members didn't seem to understand that it was up to them to get the voters excited about the new plan. It was almost as though the party were waiting for some kind of miracle, similar to the initial boost the SPD received when it nominated Martin Schulz to run against Merkel in the 2017 general election. And Nahles failed to motivate the rank-and-file to get out and campaign for the new plan. Which ultimately meant that her downfall wasn't just the result of well-timed attacks of vengeful predecessors, but also of her own inability to motivate the party.

It's late March, and Nahles is sitting in a conference room on the third floor of the Reichstag, the federal parliament building in Berlin. In the background, you can hear the gong announcing upcoming floor votes and during our interview, Nahles jumps up on two different occasions to briefly run downstairs.

Has this year as SPD chairwoman changed her in any way? "Yes." How so? "I don't know yet." Any ideas? "The weight of responsibility changes you, the feeling that you always have to give your absolute best. It's an immense amount of pressure. You feel that you are completely reliant on yourself and that the very core of who you are is exposed. There is no protection anymore, no buffer. Nothing. This feeling of complete vulnerability to everything: criticism, the public, your own strengths and weaknesses. It's crazy. But I don't just see myself differently, but also my party."

When asked to elaborate, she immediately says that she doesn't want to comment any further. But the somber, resolute look on her face hints at disappointment.

People close to her say that she was still confident after the parliamentary group meeting at the end of May, despite the wave of criticism. She spent the next several days on the telephone, personally speaking to a number of SPD parliamentarians -- and she believed to the very end that she could win the vote to maintain her position as SPD parliamentary group leader.

Ultimately, though, it became clear to her that even if she did win the vote, her adversaries in the SPD wouldn't stop attacking her. Yet her strategy for renewing the SPD could never work without solidarity within the party. And if there was no solidarity, what use did she have for power?