Resurrection of the SPD The Unexpected Rise of Germany's New Chancellor, Olaf Scholz
What is displayed on the screen seems rather presumptuous, almost absurd. Outside this room in central Berlin, it would merely produce sympathetic head shaking and a bit of wry chuckling. But here, nobody is laughing. They apparently mean it seriously.
It is Jan. 13, 2020, and the meeting is taking place at the headquarters of the ASK.Berlin communications agency in the German capital, where the leadership of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has gathered. The new party heads Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans have invited senior SPD members to get together for a strategy meeting on the 2021 general election campaign, still on the distant horizon, and a presentation is up on screen. A slide comes up with the heading "Our Goal," with three dark red boxes beneath it.
"We want to achieve a successful result in the election," reads the first box.
In the second: "Successful means a better result than last time."
And in the third: "We want to lead the next federal government."
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 50/2021 (December 11th, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.
That January, surveys were indicating that support for the SPD hovered around 12 to 14 percent, and many felt the party was finished. Most commentators agreed that the Social Democrats had lost their status as a big-tent party for good when they chose Esken and Walter-Borjans as their new co-leaders in lieu of Olaf Scholz, who had become the face of the party. In Berlin, it was considered a certainty that even though Chancellor Angela Merkel was stepping down, her party, the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), would remain in power. And those who disagreed thought the Greens had a shot.
Yet this week, almost two years after that presentation in January 2020, the German parliament elected Olaf Scholz as the country’s next chancellor. The vote was smooth and sedate, much like the coalition negotiations that had preceded it. Indeed, it was almost possible to forget that as recently as last summer, it seemed out of the question that the SPD would win the election. But Scholz and his party managed to produce a political sensation this year – perhaps the most unlikely victory postwar Germany has ever seen.
But how did they do it?
A closer examination of Scholz’s path to power reveals an election victory in which, although it may have been the desired end result of a carefully laid plan, luck also played a not insignificant role. It was the mixture of the SPD’s own strength and the weakness of the others. There was a masterplan and there were plenty of people who had faith in it, but for it to work, a lot of things had to come together independently of it.
And it all began with a defeat, the worst one in Olaf Scholz’s political career.
I. The Victor and the Vanquished
Nov. 30, 2019, seemed like a Saturday like any other in Berlin, with the city’s Hertha football team chalking up yet another loss, this time to Borussia Dortmund. At SPD headquarters, meanwhile, news began spreading that Olaf Scholz and his political partner Klara Geywitz had lost the intraparty vote to determine the SPD’s new leaders that afternoon – and they had lost to a couple of nobodies: Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Eskens.
The result had the potential of fundamentally changing the direction of the party. It was a huge surprise – for Scholz, surely, but also for much of the party and for the public at large. But it didn’t come entirely out of nowhere.
Many Social Democrats had grown exhausted and frustrated in the preceding years. The party felt trapped within the Grand Coalition with Merkel’s CDU, stuck in a political time warp and forced into compromise after compromise by the political realities facing the country. And they tired of continually being told by party leaders that things would improve at some point as long as they kept their noses to the grindstone in the government.
By people like Olaf Scholz.
The SPD hadn’t actually wanted to be a part of Merkel’s fourth government. After the 2017 election, the party’s defeated candidate for chancellor, Martin Schulz, announced that he would be leading his party into the opposition. But then, coalition negotiations between the CDU, the Greens and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) fell apart and Scholz guided the party back into a Grand Coalition with Merkel. His message at the time: The SPD could have actually won the election.
The upshot was that Schulz lost his position as party leader and Scholz became finance minister and vice chancellor. "I was too naïve at the time," he says looking back.
The party’s choice of Esken and Walter-Borjans was essentially payback for Scholz’s having led the SPD back into the Grand Coalition. The message of the Nov. 30, 2019, vote was clear: Enough! It was a vote of no confidence for Scholz and for the entire party establishment that supported him.
From left, Klara Geywitz, Olaf Scholz, Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken.
But it raised a couple of important questions. What now? Would the party remain in government? And: Did Scholz have a future? Just a few months earlier in June, when his close party ally Andrea Nahles had stepped down from the position of party leader, it had looked as though her fall might bring Scholz down too. He managed at the time to stabilize his position and then run for party leader himself. But now that he had lost, many thought his political career had reached an end.
On the evening of his loss, he gathered his closest confidantes in Vino e Libri, a restaurant in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood of Berlin. The mood was glum as they picked at their pizzas. At some point, Scholz went home with his wife Britta Ernst leaving a small group behind, and they decided to head to a bar across the street to drink away their frustrations.
The drinks were also flowing six kilometers away in Vogt’s Bier Express, a bar in Kreuzberg. That was where Esken, Walter-Borjans and their supporters were celebrating the pair’s victory. At 12:40 a.m., an additional guest joined the party, a person without whom the victory would never have happened: Kevin Kühnert, head of the party’s left-leaning youth wing. He had coached Esken and Walter-Borjans and gathered the younger members of the party behind them. Now, he was close to his goal – that of shifting the SPD to the left and freeing the party from the constraints of government. But Kühnert was anything but flushed with victory.
As he walked in, he told the others that he had just spent several hours on the phone, which included a conversation with a frustrated SPD General Secretary Lars Klingbeil. Kühnert wanted to convince Klingbeil to stay in his position. In contrast to many of the others, Kühnert realized that they couldn’t just sweep the old guard out of power – a realization that led to the left-winger Kühnert supporting the conservative Klingbeil. It was the first indication of possible reconciliation. But how far would it go?
Nobody in either bar really knew.
II. Testing the Waters
By Monday morning two days later, everybody had had a bit of time to digest the result of the vote. But was 36 hours enough after such a momentous development?
Many in the victors’ camp thought that Scholz might step down from his party functions. In Scholz’s camp, meanwhile, there were concerns that the new party leadership duo might tell the finance minister that his services were no longer needed.
Wolfgang Schmidt, Scholz’s closest confidant who was serving as Scholz’s state secretary in the Finance Ministry, had flown to a conference in southern Germany on Sunday morning, but his attentions were elsewhere. He spent much of his time on the phone, trying to figure out if Kühnert and the designated party leaders were really planning on removing the party from the governing coalition. It didn’t seem likely, to be sure, but Schmidt wasn’t certain.
Such was the situation when Esken, Walter-Borjans and Scholz met at SPD headquarters on Monday morning at 9 a.m. The victors were clear about what they expected of the vanquished Scholz: They wanted him to stay on and continue in his current capacities. The did not want to see the SPD disintegrate into two camps.
Politics at the highest levels is highly complex, yet it frequently only works according to archaic rules. One of those rules holds that the loser must disappear. Esken and Walter-Borjans, though, knew that they needed Scholz. If they were to force new elections by backing out of the coalition with Merkel’s conservatives, it was clear that they would be punished by the voters. So Scholz remained, as did the Grand Coalition. But under what conditions?
Examining an SPD campaign posterFoto: Peter Rigaud / DER SPIEGEL
The SPD party convention was scheduled for that weekend, and it was clear that Esken and Walter-Borjans had to send some kind of a signal to their supporters. They couldn’t just take the stage and say that even though they had won, everything was going to stay as it was. Nuance was crucial and formulations had to be chosen with extreme care, particularly in the keynote speech. To settle on the precise wording, negotiations between the party’s two main camps were vital – and it still wasn’t clear if Scholz would resign or not.
The two camps butted heads in particular when it came to financial policy. Finance was Walter-Borjans’ specialty, and it was Scholz’s cabinet portfolio. In one instance, the two found themselves in direct conflict about the wording of the following sentence: "Investments cannot fail just because of the black zero," a reference to the balanced budget policy followed by Germany’s Finance Ministry in recent years.
Scholz rejected the formulation, arguing it would be a departure from the policies he had been pursuing in the Finance Ministry. The negotiations were adjourned, Scholz consulted with his team, and then he made a proposal: "Continuous investments" cannot be allowed "to fail due to dogmatic positions such as Schäuble’s black zero."
Mentioning Scholz’s CDU predecessor at the Finance Ministry, Wolfgang Schäuble, struck precisely the right note and the line was included in the keynote speech. Another hurdle cleared.
To that point in the government, Scholz had largely continued the policies put in place by his predecessor Schäuble. "A German finance minister is a German finance minister," Scholz said in describing his approach. Now, though, he had to become a Social Democratic finance minister.
The SPD remained in the coalition, but the party was determined to become a sharper thorn in the side of Merkel’s conservatives. The ensuing months would show whether the coalition had much of a future.
And how long would the truce hold between Scholz and the new SPD leadership team? The new leaders arranged to hold regular telephone conversations with General Secretary Klingbeil and SPD parliamentary floor leader Rolf Mützenich, every Monday and Thursday morning at 8 a.m. They also started an internal chat group called "Coordination."
It was an attempt to establish a basis of trust, a space where everything could be discussed without anything leaking to the outside world. A short time later, the SPD leadership gathered in the ASK.Berlin offices in central Berlin and set their sights on election victory. In hindsight, some people describe that meeting as a turning point: The moment when the party sought to leave its differences behind and begin working toward a common goal.
But did everyone in the room really believe it was possible?
One of them did, or at least he believed that victory wasn’t impossible: Scholz’s confidant Wolfgang Schmidt. Even shortly after Scholz lost the vote to become SPD leader, Schmidt insisted that Scholz could become the party’s chancellor candidate, and that if he did, the SPD could win parliamentary elections.
It sounded rather crazy at the time, but it wasn’t just a pipe dream. He had read a lot about the "Reagan Democrats," those working-class Americans from industrial regions who were actually part of the Democrats' core clientele but who had backed the Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. Schmidt believed that kind of thing was possible in Germany, too, just vice versa.
Schmidt’s hopes were based on a statistic from surveys about past elections. According to those studies, a huge number of people had voted for the CDU, or the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, because of Angela Merkel. At some point, Schmidt figured, people would come to realize that Merkel wasn’t running again. And that, he was convinced, presented an opportunity for Scholz.
For the moment, though, not many shared his optimism.
III. The Metamorphosis
On March 8, 2020, SPD leaders were again meeting at the party’s headquarters in Berlin. It was something of a test to see if the trust that had been reestablished in the past several weeks was holding.
The focus of the meeting was on the 2021 campaign: possible issues, polling, that kind of thing. The meeting was chaired by the old party stalwart Kajo Wasserhövel, once the right-hand man of SPD chair Franz Müntefering. Wasserhövel knows the SPD better than most and he was concerned that the meeting could descend into angry bickering – but it didn’t.
The party once again presented its election-year goals and it was reiterated that every party member should be able to say "why voters should vote for the SPD this time around and what the focus of the party’s platform was." In interviews, Scholz had already indicated where he thought the focus should be: a 12-euro minimum wage, stable pensions and fair taxation. Three points, not more. That was his concept.
"We are playing to win," read one of the slides that Klingbeil had prepared. On that same weekend, the pollsters at Forsa released their latest survey. Support for the SPD was at just 15 percent.
A few days later, though, the world had changed. It was Friday, March 13, and the preceding 48 hours had been rather surreal. Just a few weeks earlier, many in Germany had believed that a virus, no matter how contagious, wouldn’t be enough to change their lives all that much. But in early March, public life in the country was largely shut down because of the rapidly spreading coronavirus. And Finance Minister Olaf Scholz found himself sitting next to Economics Minister Peter Altmaier in front of the Berlin press corps.
The two explained how they planned to prevent economic collapse. Companies were to be given immediate tax relief and workers were to be placed on paid leave, known as "short-time work" in German political parlance. In addition, Germany's KfW development bank would take on much of the risk for corporate loans.
"That is the bazooka we are deploying to do what is necessary," Scholz said. "We’ll see down the line what other weapons we may need."
Scholz realized that political leadership was going to be vital in the new situation in which the country and the world now found itself. And he understood that the pandemic presented him with an opportunity.
The party’s left wing still suspected him of being a kind of Schäuble in SPD clothing, simply continuing the CDU’s balanced-budget policy to the detriment of other political goals. And Scholz did, in fact, want to disprove old prejudices that the Social Democrats couldn’t handle money. He had Merkel voters in his sights. The pandemic, though, now allowed him to distribute fistfuls of money without looking irresponsible – rather, as the savior of the German economy.
SPD leftists were astonished: Suddenly, the finance minister looked like one of them. And he was popular to boot.
Olaf Scholz with his wife Britta ErnstFoto: MAJA HITIJ / EPA
And the development came just as the party was beginning to get serious about choosing a chancellor candidate for the 2021 election – particularly given that the CDU appeared to be tearing itself apart. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Angela Merkel’s hand-picked successor, had just announced her resignation from party leadership and there were three men fighting to take over: Armin Laschet, Friedrich Merz and Norbert Röttgen. None of the three held a federal political office. Scholz, meanwhile, was vice chancellor.
Could the SPD afford to choose anyone else?
The restaurant Le Bon Mori is just across the street from SPD headquarters, and on July 7, 2020, a Tuesday, five of the highest-ranking Social Democrats met at the restaurant: Esken, Walter-Borjans, Scholz, Klingbeil and Mützenich. The group had reserved a separate room at the back of the establishment. There was an announcement to make.
In the previous weeks, unrest within the party had been on the rise. A growing number of state SPD chapters had been asking if plans had yet been laid for the campaign and whether a candidate for chancellor had been chosen. Some voices from among Scholz’s supporters had begun demanding that he be chosen.
The Scholz team, though, wasn’t particularly pleased about such demands. They knew that only Esken and Walter-Borjans had sufficient authority to convince the party’s left wing of a Scholz candidacy – and that the two could only do so if it looked like the decision had been left completely up to them. Any public pressure would be counterproductive. Scholz’s team had even taken to the phones to urge important supporters to keep quiet.
Esken and Walter-Borjans were also spending a fair amount of time on the phone, trying to get a feel for the mood. It was an extremely sensitive question for the two of them. After all, they had run for SPD leadership on a platform of party renewal and of freeing the SPD of its turgid leadership – and now they were supposed to name Scholz as the SPD candidate for chancellor? They needed time. In their regular conversations with Scholz, the issue of the party’s chancellor candidate was largely ignored, instead focusing on the challenges of the day, including the pandemic and other issues facing the governing coalition.
Olaf Scholz together with Green Party co-leader Robert Habeck, new head of the Economics Ministry, and FDP head Christian Lindner, who was given the Finance Ministry.Foto:
Tobias Schwarz / AFP
But the feedback Esken and Walter-Borjans were receiving from the party was that Scholz was by far the most popular Social Democrat and was the most obvious candidate. General Secretary Klingbeil also indicated internally that he felt Scholz was the best solution. It gradually became clear to the SPD leadership duo that sidelining Scholz wasn’t an option.
And perhaps they could even profit from it? Wouldn’t it be a grand gesture if they made their vanquished opponent the SPD candidate for chancellor?
In Le Bon Mori, the two announced their decision right at the beginning of the gathering: They wanted Scholz to be the candidate because the party had the best chances for success with him at the top. Nobody at the table was particularly surprised by then; they had all received certain indications of which way the wind was blowing in the preceding few days. There were no objections.
Esken and Walter-Borjans had defeated Scholz because they understood what messages the party wanted to hear. But they chose the party’s candidate based on perceptions outside of the SPD.
The group decided to go public with the decision in August and to keep it strictly confidential until then. Not even key party staff members were told.
Shortly after the meeting, Lars Klingbeil and SPD whip Carsten Schneider flew off to Mallorca, where they planned a few days of biking and relaxing. Every morning before getting on his bike though, Klingbeil would work on the choreography of the announcement, in close consultation with others in the know. He told Schneider nothing.
The group kept things secret until the very end. Staff at SPD headquarters prepared an event in the Schöneberg neighborhood of Berlin for Aug. 10, but they didn’t know what was going to be announced there. Internally, it was being discussed as a kind of "post-corona party," given that the first wave of the pandemic had subsided.
On the morning of Aug. 10, the SPD executive committee met, and Scholz was presented as the SPD candidate for chancellor, which came as a surprise to most of those present. But nothing from the meeting initially leaked to the outside. For some participants, it was rather uncanny, accustomed as they were to the situation in prior years when sensitive information from SPD meetings would immediately be leaked to the press.
After the executive committee meeting, SPD management met. It was a much larger group and less impervious to leaks. Quickly, the news became public knowledge: Olaf Scholz was the SPD’s candidate for chancellor.
V. Slowly but Surely
The SPD had managed to do something it hadn’t done since the Gerhard Schröder era: It ran an orderly process free of strife to choose a candidate for chancellor, and early enough that they had plenty of time to prepare for the campaign. What, though, is the point if nobody was much interested in voting for the SPD?
As 2020 came to an end, Scholz was still quite popular in the country, but his party wasn’t. Poll numbers were still extremely low.
In January, SPD state governors put Health Minister Jens Spahn, a member of the CDU, on the spot by sending him a list of questions pertaining to Germany’s extremely slow vaccine rollout. Scholz joined the campaign by demanding in a cabinet meeting that Spahn answer the questions. The move angered Angela Merkel and she saw it as a rather unfriendly provocation. Which is exactly how it was intended. The campaign had slowly got rolling.
But would it be enough?
The Green Party named Annalena Baerbock as their candidate for chancellor and immediately enjoyed a spike in support in the public opinion polls. Armin Laschet, meanwhile, managed to beat out first Friedrich Merz and then Markus Söder of the CSU to become the candidate for the conservatives. He wasn’t particularly popular in the country at large, but the CDU continued to poll well. State SPD chapters started getting nervous.
In late April, the SPD party chief in Rhineland-Palatinate, Roger Lewentz, went after Lars Klingbeil in the influential German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. "We are missing the campaign launch," he complained. The attack reached the SPD general secretary when he was in a meeting, his spokesperson informing him via text message. Walter-Borjans called Lewentz and urged restraint, but the quote had already begun making the rounds – along with the impression that the SPD, even if it had a candidate, wasn’t making any progress.
Klingbeil tried to keep the party quiet. During executive committee meetings held during this phase of the campaign, he constantly reminded attendees of the goals they had agreed on: clear messaging, confident tone. We’re playing to win.
But he started receiving calls from party allies and journalists. And, in the early summer, from TV broadcasters telling him that if Scholz didn’t start moving up in the polls by August, they might have to exclude the SPD candidate from the televised debates and reserve the stage exclusively for Laschet and Baerbock.
That, of course, would have been a disaster. Televised debates are key, and candidates who are not included can essentially abandon their campaigns – for the Chancellery, at least.
And Scholz? He did what he always does. He just kept on going, taking care of the pandemic, attending crisis summits and even taking a trip to Washington. The G-7 had agreed to a minimum global corporate tax and Scholz was a major player in pushing it forward. It was actually a huge success for him. In the U.S., he had hoped to give the project a bit more substance, ideally in a meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris. But she had no time – and then, her convoy even cut him off on the streets of Washington.
By then, only three months remained until the election.
VI. Harvest Time
In late June 2021, Scholz had an appointment with the photographer Axel Martens in the Finance Ministry and a couple of staff members attended as well. The Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin, a weekly supplement delivered with the paper, had commissioned Martens to photograph Scholz for the magazine’s silent interview segment, in which interviewees are only allowed to respond to questions with facial expressions and gestures.
"What does conservatism mean?" Scholz stood stiffly at attention as Martens took his picture.
Then Scholz, the former mayor of Hamburg, was asked about life in the northern German city. The SPD candidate held a fish sandwich up for the camera.
"How badly will you miss Angela Merkel?" Scholz paused.
Those present remember him thinking about it for a bit before an idea began to form.
Scholz then stood in front of the camera and shaped his hands into the diamond form that had become Merkel’s trademark, the so-called Raute. Once the segment was printed, that photo quickly spread. The message was clear: I am Merkel’s true successor. Those who have voted for Merkel in previous elections should vote for me now.
Changing of the guard: Scholz giving Merkel flowers as he takes over the Chancellery.Foto: JOHN MACDOUGALL / AFP
It was exactly the message that Scholz’s confidant Wolfgang Schmidt had been spreading for the last year and a half, condensed down into a single gesture.
Was that the moment that reversed his campaign’s fortunes? No. But it was certainly one defining moment among many.
If there was a single turning point in this election year, then it was the scene last summer when Armin Laschet visited the region of Germany hit hard by severe flooding. As German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke earnestly into the camera, Laschet could be seen laughing hysterically in the background. Such frivolity in the face of suffering was enough for many voters: Laschet was out.
Late summer 2021 was almost magical for the SPD. Everything that had gone wrong in preceding years was suddenly working. The party stayed quiet, the candidate was perfect for the moment, everything was coming together – luck and hard work, chance and planning. It was like a movie with a rather overwrought happy ending.
Baerbock lost her nonchalance, Laschet couldn’t control his laughter and suddenly, even Olaf Scholz started looking good on his posters: black-and-white on a red background. Klingbeil’s campaign worked – a perfect mixture of a kind the party hadn’t experienced since 1998 when the Germans had had enough of Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schröder won the election.
Just that the SPD under Schröder pulled in 40.9 percent of the vote against the 25.7 percent won by Scholz’s SPD on Sept. 26. But it was enough to edge out the others.
Olaf Scholz being sworn in as chancellorFoto: Marco Urban / www.marco-urban.de
The SPD had pulled almost 2 million former Merkel supporters away from the conservatives. Exactly as Schmidt had envisioned it.
But the SPD also wrested 800,000 voters away from the far-left Left Party. Because of Esken and Walter-Borjans? Because of Kühnert? Or because, for the first time in a decade and a half, there was an opportunity for a leftist majority under Social Democratic leadership? Perhaps, though, the main thing was that it suddenly no longer seemed absurd as the campaign rolled along for the SPD to insist that it intended to win the Chancellery.
Would all that have come together if Scholz had won the party vote to become SPD chair two years ago? It seems unlikely. A large chunk of the party base would have been frustrated and the left wing would have had a hard time supporting Scholz as the party’s chancellor candidate. It would have ended as things so often do with the SPD: Well thought out, but ultimately unsuccessful.
After all, not everything can be planned.