Interview with Martin Schulz 'We Cannot Leave Any Room for the Enemies of Democracy'

Social Democratic chancellor candidate Martin Schulz still believes he has a chance of unseating Angela Merkel. DER SPIEGEL spoke to him about the anger many Germans feel against establishment parties and how to deal with authoritarian politicians.

SPD candidate for chancellor Martin Schulz
Hermann Bredehorst/ DER SPIEGEL

SPD candidate for chancellor Martin Schulz

Interview Conducted by , and

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Schulz, would you mind telling us what you wrote in your diary last night?

Schulz: As usual, I filled an entire page. For the most part, I summed up the press conference, in which I talked about the four main policies that we Social Democrats (SPD) would like to push through after the election. And then there was a private section, but I'll leave that out of this interview.

DER SPIEGEL: You really write in your diary every day? One page a day?

Schulz: Yeah, for the last 37 years. Unfortunately, I left it back at the hotel. But I can have someone get it so I can show you.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you simply chronicle things as they happen? Or do you also describe your feelings?

Schulz: If there is a notable moment during such an event, then I will record what happened. Yesterday, I wrote that I have to be careful to avoid changing too much.

DER SPIEGEL: What do you mean?

Schulz: I have been noticing for some time that there is a certain amount of pressure to conform to the Berlin scene, to conform to the circumstances that are defined around you.

DER SPIEGEL: You sound like Hannelore Kraft, the former SPD governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, who was fond of complaining about the atmosphere in the German capital.

Schulz: No, I'm not complaining. But in Berlin, there are certain rules -- over which you have no influence -- that you have to be aware of. And then you have to make sure that you don't lose yourself in all of those rules. You can't subordinate yourself to the rules.

DER SPIEGEL: Can you give us an example?

Schulz: There are certain reactions that you aren't allowed to show in Berlin, for example that you feel offended. If you do, the best-case scenario is a sympathetic article along the lines of: Nice guy, but he's not up to it. The alternative is to don a suit of armor and become cynical. But that's not healthy either: Cynicism is the worst characteristic a politician can have. That's why you have to have an internal balance in Berlin, so you can stay true to yourself. And I have that.

DER SPIEGEL: Have you had moments during the past weeks and months of campaigning where you thought that you were becoming overly submissive to the rules?

Schulz: I could tell you, but I won't.

DER SPIEGEL: During the TV debate?

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Schulz: Oh, the debate. The former editor-in-chief of (public broadcaster) ZDF, Nikolaus Brender, described it perfectly. It was a corset based on Chancellery blackmail in which Merkel didn't need to move and in which I couldn't move. During a car ride a couple of weeks ago, I watched a debate between Schmidt and Strauss from 1976 (Eds. Note: Helmut Schmidt was the -- ultimately victorious -- SPD incumbent. Franz Josef Strauss was his conservative challenger). My goodness, that was quite something. Back then, we still had a culture of debate. I find it frightening that in today's Germany, hardly anyone talks about the big questions facing our future, neither about digitalization nor about education.

DER SPIEGEL: We have the impression that you have often squeezed yourself into the corset. A couple of weeks ago, you accused Angela Merkel of staging an "attack on democracy." Then you said that you wouldn't express it quite that way again.

Schulz: I used a pointed formulation because I was speaking at a party convention. The word "attack" was severe, but essentially, I stand by what I said. Merkel's irresoluteness on the issues damages this country's democratic culture.

DER SPIEGEL: Many voters see Merkel's approach to politics as healthy pragmatism.

Schulz: There is a difference between pragmatism and a lack of principles. Merkel's attempt to avoid the debate about the future of our country has led to a political vacuum that the opportunists of the day are filling by peddling fear. And those opportunists are members of the AfD.

DER SPIEGEL: Are you saying that Merkel is responsible for the rise of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party?

Schulz: No. But the AfD has naturally profited from the fact that Merkel has robbed the Christian Democrats (CDU) of their ideological core. That is why the two so-called sister parties, the CDU and the CSU (Eds. Note: The Bavarian Christian Social Union, currently led by Horst Seehofer), are actually adversarial parties and that is why the conservative wing is rebelling against the chancellor behind closed doors. Of course, the conservatives are clinging to power, but in truth, Angela Merkel has as much in common with Jens Spahn (Eds. Note: A prominent member of the CDU's conservative wing) as I do with ...

DER SPIEGEL: ... Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán?

Schulz: That's your comparison, not mine.

DER SPIEGEL: At the same time, anger with the chancellor and the country's political elite -- of a kind we haven't seen for a long time -- is on full display at campaign events, particularly in eastern Germany. Why?

Schulz: For me, respect is an extremely important political term. Since I began campaigning, it has been at the heart of each of my speeches. Many people have the feeling that politicians aren't paying a sufficient amount of attention to them. They hear that things are allegedly going well for the most part, but in their lives, nothing is going well in actuality. A woman can't return to her fulltime job, her daughter can't use the restroom in the run-down school, the trains never run on time, the grandfather can't find a spot in a care home even though he suffers from dementia. And then, when the refugees arrived on top of these problems, there was a feeling: You do everything for them, but nothing for us. This mixture of frustration and fear has led to this reaction. That is why it is so important to show these people: We respect you.

DER SPIEGEL: Your party, the SPD, has been part of the government for almost the last 20 years, aside from a brief, four-year interim. Doesn't your party share some of the responsibility for this problem?

Schulz: (Former German President) Johannes Rau (of the SPD) had a wonderful sentence for us Social Democrats: We are the protectorate of normal people. Our task is that of making the lives of average income earners a little bit better every day. That is the opportunity the SPD has against a chancellor who avoids being pinned down and who gives the impression that she doesn't know how the majority of the population is doing.

DER SPIEGEL: Many Germans see the chancellor as being down-to-earth.

Schulz: It could be that she has this image. But her entire platform can be summed up in a single sentence: Trust me, everything will be fine. She isn't saying what she wants or what her vision is for the future of our country. It drives a lot of people crazy. They feel they are being patronized to.

The door opens and one of Schulz's bodyguards comes in carrying his black, synthetic-leather diary, imprinted with the logo of Germany's Sparkasse savings bank. The candidate opens it up and pages through it: "These diaries give me the invaluable ability to correctly recap my life."

DER SPIEGEL: Polls seem to indicate that many voters aren't as critical of the chancellor as you are. They are seeing authoritarian governments taking power all over the world and believe that Merkel is needed to help protect Western values.

Schulz: At the international level as well, she tries to avoid taking a position for as long as she possibly can. But you have to have a clear position when confronting a man like Donald Trump.

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