Where's Olaf? Germany's Chancellor Opts for a Low Profile at a Moment of Crisis
It takes just under 500 paces, or a five-minute walk, to get from the gates of the Chancellery in Berlin to the large tent that has been erected at the south entrance to Berlin’s main train station. For the German chancellor, it wouldn’t take much effort to visit the site where thousands of refugees from Ukraine are arriving each day – where hundreds of volunteers are helping the new arrivals with their basic needs and registration before escorting them to buses waiting to bring them to shelters.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 13/2022 (March 26th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.
Such a visit by Olaf Scholz would be an important political message at a moment when more refugees are potentially arriving in Germany than in 2015. It would also be an emotional gesture for a society in which fear and depression are taking hold after two years of pandemic and four weeks of war in Ukraine. A society where the need for certainty and political leadership is growing.
The German president has already made a visit, as have the interior minister and the mayor of Berlin. Olaf Scholz, though, has not.
In traveling with the chancellor and speaking to him and those close to him, one learns that he doesn’t see such gestures as particularly important. For him, they are merely symbolic and do nothing to solve actual problems. He also doesn’t think that people expect such gestures from him.
It is one reason why, after four months in office, Scholz remains an invisible chancellor to many, a political hermit crab who only rarely emerges from his shell.
He is a man who walks in short strides, slightly stooped, as he makes his way up the red carpets that are rolled out for him, and who generally speaks quietly into the microphones set up for him. His facial expressions rarely betray much about what he thinks or feels.
In September 2021, the Germans opted for a reserved head of government who prefers substance over style, one whose most salient characteristic is tedium and who never, ever raises his voice. The "First Scholzian Law” continues to apply to his team: "We are never offended; we are never hysterical.” And he also adheres to a second principle, which he borrowed from Queen Elizabeth II: "Never complain. Never explain.”
The 63-year-old Scholz is no king, of course, he is the elected head of government in a country plagued by insecurities. According to a recent survey conducted by the pollsters at Allensbach, only 19 percent of Germans are optimistic about the near future, the lowest such value since 1949.
Last fall, Germans thought they were voting for a chancellor to lead them out of the coronavirus pandemic and away from a rollercoaster of infection curves and protective measures. Scholz, a lawyer with a penchant for numbers and statistics, seemed well-suited to the task – or at least better suited than his two main competitors, Armin Laschet of the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and Annalena Baerbock of the Greens.
But times have changed, with German society facing new catastrophes: a war of aggression, fears of a nuclear escalation, concerns about exorbitant heating costs and gasoline prices, a potential recession and the largest movement of refugees in Europe since World War II.
Scholz spoke in German parliament of a "watershed,” a word he repeated over and over again in his speech immediately following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Since then, though, he has remained largely out of view, and the power of his speech has waned. Is he the right leader for Germany in these times? What are his strengths and weaknesses? Can someone like him be an effective crisis leader?
Scholz surprised many when announced a 100-billion-euro special fund for the German military immediately after Russia invaded Ukraine.Foto: Bildgehege / IMAGO
The Hubris of "Brainy Smurf"
His silence can sometimes be unbearable. At 9:23 a.m. last Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is finishing his 11-minute address to the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament. Wearing an olive-green T-shirt and speaking from a bare room in the capital of Kyiv, Zelenskyy expresses both praise for and criticism of Germany’s role thus far, and demands more support. The Russian invasion, he says, had established a new wall in Europe "between freedom and slavery.” He then addresses the German chancellor directly: "Chancellor Scholz! Tear down this wall. Give Germany the leadership it deserves!”
Olaf Scholz looks up at the screen. A black mask is covering most of his face and only his blinking eyes visible. He says nothing.
The gathered lawmakers rise to applaud the speech, as does the chancellor. And then, the Bundestag vice president simply returns to the day’s agenda and congratulates two representatives on their 60th birthdays.
When Scholz is asked about the embarrassing moment a few hours later, he says: "As head of government, I do not have the authority to comment on debates in the German Bundestag.” It is hard to imagine a more bureaucratic response than that.
Scholz is a deeply rational person, as almost all those who regularly interact with him say. One ally of his in the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) says that he does not exhibit any emotional blips, either up or down. The chancellor tends to reserve his superior manner for people who he thinks are close to his level intellectually, but who don’t live up to his expectations. Politicians like Hendrik Wüst, for example, the CDU governor of North Rhine-Westphalia and head of the Conference of German State Governors – but also for journalists, whose questions Scholz frequently finds to be overly superficial.
Scholz is disgusted by people who enrich themselves at the expense of others, such as oligarchs. In 2005, he was the senior SPD member of the parliamentary investigation committee looking into corruption and criminality related to the issuing of visas at German embassies. One country was a primary focus in the scandal: Ukraine and its oligarchs. Some believe that Scholz remains skeptical of the country, even if Ukraine’s current leaders have nothing to do with that era.
Scholz has a difficult time hiding his disdain for people, and he also doesn’t hide his conviction that he has a better grasp of issues than everyone else. It is an attitude that alienates many whose support he needs in the political day-to-day. "When Olaf Scholz doesn’t like somebody, he quickly becomes schoolmarmish,” says Bavarian Governor Markus Söder, who has taken part in countless rounds of negotiations with Scholz.
When it comes to preparing for meetings, though, Scholz is meticulous. He has his advisers prepare models or different scenarios and he gathers ideas from his extensive reading. He is a fan of the sociologist Andreas Reckwitz and of the American philosopher Michael Sandel – and even in the middle of the pandemic, he managed to read a book about the Moors in Spain. Ultimately, though, he formulates his ideas on his own and makes his own decisions about what is important and what is not. Scholz, says a member of his inner orbit, charts his own course and can sometimes be impervious to advice from others.
His monologues were notorious when he was a member of ex-Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet, where he was finance minister and then vice chancellor in her final term. That, in fact, is when he first received his nickname: Brainy Smurf.
Even allies of Olaf Scholz say that one of the chancellor’s greatest weaknesses is his hubris. And his greatest strength? Olaf Scholz, says Markus Söder, "has an incredible amount of experience in committee meetings. He is confident in formalizing process structures.” A rather unique expression of praise.
Scholz during a recent interview with German public broadcaster ARD.Foto: Steffen Kugler / Bundesregierung
A Man of Emotions?
Still, he has been known to invite a grieving party ally to lunch following a death in the family. And people say he sometimes cries at the movies. Books, too, can move him to tears, such as "Hillbilly Elegy,” the J.D. Vance memoir about the unfulfilled dreams of a working-class white family in the U.S.
"One of the largest fallacies about Olaf Scholz is that he has no emotions,” says a confidant. "He just lacks the ability to express them.” And Scholz himself believes that his feelings are nobody’s business but his own. So he keeps them to himself – both the tears and the triumphs.
On the evening of Sept. 26, election night, members of the SPD gathered at the party’s headquarters in Berlin. Before long, it became clear that the SPD had won the election and that Olaf Scholz had an excellent chance of becoming chancellor in a three-party governing coalition with the Greens and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP). The party was in a celebratory mood, fueled by years of poor election results and a seemingly inexorable slide toward irrelevance.
Scholz, say those close to him, disappeared at some point to a room on the sixth floor that is reserved exclusively for him. The room used to be an apartment for the party chairperson, established back when Oskar Lafontaine led the SPD. Today, though, "the apartment,” as it is still called, is used as a meeting room and is sparsely furnished with a table, a couple of chairs and a sofa.
Scholz stayed in the room for several minutes, all by himself. Without confidants. Without his wife Britta Ernst. Only then did he return to the celebration.
Andrea Nahles, former SPD head and ex-parliamentary floor leader, is one of those to whom Scholz shows his emotions. They have been friends ever since she was first elected to the Bundestag in 1998, and he still enjoys visiting Nahles, telling her about his visits to the Documenta art exhibition in Kassel, for example. And she is among the few whose advice he listens to.
They make for a rather odd couple. "I know, many think: My God, what do they have in common?” says Nahles. "Me, an emotional Catholic from the Eifel region. He, the impassive agnostic from Hamburg.” So, what do they have in common? Nahles doesn’t like to say so, but she can think of no better way of putting it: The protestant work ethic, she says.
They first met many years ago, back when they were both young parliamentarians and were part of the SPD working group focused on labor and social issues, in part because both were sincerely interested in the subject matter. They wanted to understand the problems that existed with the pension system, the social welfare system and the labor market – and they wanted to find solutions. "Olaf examines things for as long as it takes for him to understand them,” Nahles says. "His ability to provide an answer to every single follow-up question is something I’ve never seen with anyone else.”
Nahles is fully aware of the impression her friend can make on others. But his "pedantic” or "biting” style, she says, is reserved exclusively for the political stage. "He would never expect anything more from a bus driver or electrician than that they do their best,” she says.
Scholz’s campaign for the Chancellery last year was defined by the word "respect,” a focus that he was committed to, says Nahles. Lars Klingbeil, now a co-leader of the party, confirms as much: "It is important to Scholz that nobody should ever again turn away from the party because they feel betrayed by it.”
When the SPD again joined Angela Merkel’s CDU as junior coalition partner after losing the 2017 election, it was Nahles and Scholz who ultimately forged the partnership with the conservatives. Nahles became SPD floor leader in parliament and Scholz was named finance minister – and both of them began planning for the election four years hence, with a clear division of duties. He was to be built up as the man of the future while she was charged with keeping the parliamentary group and the party on board. Even then, he was considered by some as a possible chancellor candidate for the SPD.
But both Nahles and Scholz stumbled and became the targets of attacks from within the party. The emotional Nahles resigned from her party leadership position in June 2019 and ended her political career. The more rational Scholz sought to replace her as part of a joint candidacy with Klara Geywitz, but they lost to two outsiders. He continued in his position as finance minister as though nothing had happened. At least that’s what it looked like from the outside.
Scholz knows that he can depend on a stable network of loyal supporters who, like him, have plenty of patience and who have supported him throughout various low points in his career. There have been a few of the latter: The riots on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg -- in part the result of Scholz, who was mayor at the time, having misjudged the situation. Then there was the CumEx scandal, during which Scholz was suddenly unable to recall key conversations with a banker. There was the fraud scandal surrounding Wirecard, a bit of malfeasance that Germany’s supervisory authority BaFin failed to identify at a time when Scholz was head of the Finance Ministry. His impassivity, though, helps him withstand direct attacks and his team then provides the necessary narrative. Following the G-20 disaster, his staff supported the mayor in his decision not to resign.
Scholz’s current team is made up of old allies from party headquarters, his Hamburg administration, the Finance Ministry and the parliamentary group, most of them men, most of them lawyers, all extremely loyal to Scholz. They include Chancellery Chief of Staff Wolfgang Schmidt, who tries to balance out his boss’ reserve and who knows pretty much everybody in political Berlin – a man who almost never leaves his office before midnight. Then there is government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit, who patiently explains the chancellor’s occasionally mystifying neologisms to reporters. And Jörg Kukies, Scholz’s chief economic adviser, whom he brought over from the Finance Ministry. Even Nahles’ former spokeswoman, Lena Daldrup, has a staff position in the Chancellery.
When surrounded by his team, Scholz tends to shed his reserve and will even crack the odd joke or two, not all of which are clean. His team, meanwhile, uses the informal "du” when addressing him and joke around with the chancellor. Scholz finds it refreshing. "That’s how it should be,” he apparently said on one occasion when outsiders expressed surprise at the flippant tone.
The well-practiced familiarity and established routines do, though, come with a certain amount of risk. After all, the goal is no longer to run a city or a ministry, but the entire country. Scholz holds the most powerful position in government and is responsible for charting the nation’s course.
Thus far, though, the chancellor has tended to approach the historic challenges he is now facing just as he used to address the housing shortage in Hamburg or the push to establish a global minimum corporate tax rate. By reading up on the problem until he understands it, and then negotiating a solution. And holding a press conference to publicize his role.
But the chancellor appears to be realizing that the tried-and-true recipes of yore may be insufficient for his current job. On the Monday following his widely praised speech on rearming the German military with the help of a special, 100-billion-euro fund, Scholz apparently reproached himself in an internal meeting for neglecting to establish an emotional connection with the German public.
The German people are scared, the chancellor reportedly said. Perhaps he was thinking about his own mother: For her generation, World War II isn’t some black-and-white film, but a real experience full of terrible memories. Should he have tried to more clearly address such feelings?
Scholz provided the answer three days later by appearing on a political talk show, something he rarely does. But during the show, he seemed to be nailed to his seat, his tone of voice unchanging. Instead of playing the role of statesman, he became bogged down in the details of the SPD’s approach to Russia and the intricacies of the arms package. While he briefly touched on the fears many people feel, Scholz didn’t utter a single memorable sentence.
It was a similar story this week, when parliament met to discuss the budget. "Many citizens are deeply worried,” the chancellor said, adding that he receives hundreds of letters and emails each day asking: "Will there be war? Here too?”
No, Scholz insisted, NATO will not join the war. "That is a question on which all our European allies and the United States agree.” And then the debate shifted to Germany’s natural gas supplies.
Following the election, Scholz hammered out a three-party governing coalition matching his SPD with the Greens and the FDP.Foto: marco-urban.de
Abandoning the "Ideological Junk"
Since he took it over from Angela Merkel, Olaf Scholz has changed little in his office in the Chancellery. The black meeting table has remained, as well as the desk and the crème-colored upholstery.
Merkel took out all that was personal and colorful: the black-golden globe, the souvenirs from African and Arab countries that she displayed on the long windowsill, the large chess pieces made of wood, her portrait of former German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.
Now there are black-and-white photographs of the German pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair: architecture photography, no people anywhere, just straight lines running towards a vanishing point. An insight, perhaps, into how the chancellor feels politics should work.
Scholz discovered the photographs at an exhibition when he was still Germany’s labor minister. He liked the sobriety, the transparency of the building, one designed to be a direct contrast to the pavilion designed by the Nazi architect Albert Speer for the World Expo of 1937.
Since then, Scholz has taken the photographs with him into every new office: to Hamburg, where he was the mayor, to the Finance Ministry, and now, to the Chancellery.
They are among the few constants in his political life. His convictions, meanwhile, are flexible. He is driven, as he once put it, by "the charisma of realism.”
In the 1980s, when he was the vice-president of the SPD’s youth wing, known as the Jusos, and a member of the group’s left-wing Stamocap wing, which drew on the Marxist-Leninist thesis of state-monopolistic capitalism, Scholz called for the "end of the capitalist economy.” Later, as the party’s secretary general under SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, he defended the latter’s controversial Agenda 2010, whose wide-ranging reforms included cutbacks in the welfare system and the liberalization of the labor market.
When Scholz was part of the Jusos’ leadership, the group called for civil disobedience in support of good causes, street blockades and the occupation of houses. Then, when he became Hamburg’s interior senator, Scholz took a hardline approach and approved the forced use of emetics, substances which induce vomiting, for suspected drug dealers. A Nigerian later died as a result of such a procedure.
When he was a Juso, Scholz spoke of an "aggressive-imperialist NATO.” Now, as chancellor, he has committed himself to rebuilding the German military and to increase defense spending to meet the NATO target of 2 percent of GDP.
Scholz once said that he has abandoned the "ideological junk” of his younger years. He believes it is unfair to be confronted with these old contradictions – as intellectually lowbrow. Doesn’t everyone have the right to rethink, to change opinions, to become responsible? Maybe even the obligation to do so?
Unlike many other Juso members, Scholz didn’t go into politics after completing university. Instead, he started a law firm specializing in labor law. He worked on the liquidation of East German companies after the fall of the Berlin Wall, negotiated mass layoffs and social plans, and became a pragmatist. "The practice,” Scholz told DER SPIEGEL in 2019, "became more important to me than the rituals of a political organization.”
That is still true today. Reversing fundamental principles isn’t difficult for him. It was not his plan, much less a desire, to transform the SPD from a party of peace to a pro-armaments party overnight. But when the world changes, Scholz changes along with it. He has found it far more difficult, though, to craft a narrative to accompany this transformation, to lay out a vision for the future and to convince the skeptics. What does "watershed” mean, besides more money for the Bundeswehr? Will German soldiers be involved in more fighting? How will the war affect the transition away from nuclear power? What should Germany’s position be on its relationship to authoritarian regimes like China?
During the campaign, Scholz insisted that a vaccine mandate be introduced in Germany, but he has since backed away from that promise to mollify his coalition partners from the FDP.Foto: Christian Spicker / AdoraPress
People close to Scholz say that he, too, is thinking about such questions, but that he hasn’t had the time to think them through. His approach to crises is similar to that of his predecessor: to adapt as things develop.
Jörg Kuhbier still remembers the early Olaf, from Scholz’s Juso days: lively, witty, with wispy curls and a leather jacket. He was someone who liked to discuss things and could also take them lightly. "Today you get the feeling he is someone who feels the weight of his office,” says Kuhbier, who was Scholz’s predecessor as the head of the Hamburg SPD.
Kuhbier, who is now a lawyer, has a mixed view of his party colleague’s pragmatism. He argues that when Scholz was the SPD’s secretary-general, he spoke for the chancellor, not for the party. "He misinterpreted his role,” says Kuhbier. During this time, between 2002 and 2004, Scholz was given the nickname "Scholzomat,” a joke about his perceived robotic way of answering questions. Then the party punished him by only giving him 53 percent of the vote at the party conference, at which point he decided to no longer run for the chairmanship of the Hamburg branch of the party and transitioned completely into federal politics.
When he returned to Hamburg in 2011 as the lead candidate for the mayor’s race, in the hopes of breaking the SPD out of the opposition, Scholz supposedly asked for confirmation that the party really wanted him. He won the election and governed with an absolute majority. Back then, Kuhbier learned to appreciate his party colleague’s pragmatism. He said that Scholz fully kept his promise to build thousands of apartments every year. "He didn’t delegate anything on this issue, didn’t wriggle out of it,” Kuhbier says. "The project became his personal success and I admire him for it.”
Scholz visited the Kremlin on the eve of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.Foto: Mikhail Klimentyev / action press
The Great Negotiator?
Hamburg became Scholz’s springboard to where he is today. It is where he tried out a number of things on a small scale that he would later apply on the larger canvas of the Finance Ministry or, indeed, in his election platform: concepts to fight youth unemployment, to improve digital administration and to boost public infrastructure, such as roads, daycares and universities.
Hamburg also saw the birth of Scholz’s fearsome reputation for always being a step ahead in negotiations, including those that led to the formation of the 2018 coalition with the CDU and the negotiations for his current, three-party coalition. He is universally described as being perfectly prepared, as someone who has everything in his head and always has a compromise prepared. People say that he can read his counterparts, and even steer them, without them even realizing it.
One minister in the current federal government says: "Scholz works like a vacuum-cleaner salesman.” He says that Scholz makes people believe that they themselves wanted his solution. People speak of "FBI methods” when describing his cross-examination tactics, and they mention his deceptively drowsy "late-night radio voice.” Others say he is like a crocodile, listening silently for a long time before pouncing when he senses weakness.
Before becoming chancellor, Scholz faced off in 2015 against Katharina Fegebank, who was head of the Green Party in Hamburg at the time. The SPD had lost its absolute majority in elections that year, but only by such a small margin that the Greens were clearly the junior partner. In speaking of her conversations with Scholz, Fegebank says: "There were moments that could be described as intellectual bullying.” She says he swore them all to secrecy and decorum. "But at the same time, he made use of all instruments of power.”
The Greens went into the coalition flattened and unsettled and allowed Scholz to repeatedly foist policy issues onto them. "Back then, I learned that if nobody contradicts him, Olaf Scholz believes it’s a done deal. But it wasn’t all bad. She says Scholz really pushed his cabinet, wanting it to become the best state government in Germany. In the next election, the Greens doubled their result.
At the time, Scholz was already eyeing a return to federal politics and transformed Hamburg’s state office in Berlin into a bridgehead, with Wolfgang Schmidt, todays head of the Chancellery, as its head.
Scholz knows the legends about his negotiation style, and they are likely congruent with his perception of himself as someone excellently prepared, shrewd and, if necessary, tough as nails. But perhaps that image has gone to his head?
In mid-February, Scholz visited Vladimir Putin in Moscow carrying with him a promise by the Ukrainian government to finally pass the laws to implement the Minsk Peace Agreements. Was there really still room for a peaceful solution at the time? Despite the 150,000 soldiers near the border?
Putin politely and respectfully received Scholz and they spoke confidentially for around four hours. Scholz had been preparing for the encounter for several weeks, speaking with Russia experts, with the political scientist Ivan Krastev and with Angela Merkel.
And the German chancellor seemed calm in Moscow, looking confident and self-possessed at the press conference. And he even allowed himself a joke at Putin’s expense when he speculated about the end of the Russian president’s tenure in office. Putin smiled sourly, but offered Scholz a glass of champagne in private, just the two of them.
On the return flight, the chancellor oozed relief, and seemed almost exhilarated. Was he already dreaming of the parties gathering around a large negotiation table with himself as a moderator, negotiating a long-lasting peace between Moscow, Kyiv and NATO? Why not? He has had so many difficult conversations in his career. Scholz and his advisors would later say, of course, that they had been fully aware that anything could happen, including an invasion. Any other approach, they said, would have been naïve.
And shortly after Scholz landed in Berlin, it became clear that any dreams of peace were misguided. The Kremlin was continuing to build up its troops on the Ukrainian border. The hopes of preventing conflict had been deceptive.
Heads of state and government at the G-7 summit in Brussels on ThursdayFoto: Michael Kappeler / dpa
Leading from Behind
The start of the Russian invasion was two-and-a-half weeks old when Finance Minister Christian Lindner, who is head of the FDP, called Scholz on the phone. Lindner told the chancellor that he intended to say something about the high gasoline prices, arguing that people urgently need a signal that the coalition wouldn’t leave them alone with high fuel costs.
According to government sources, Scholz indicated he was open to sending such a signal, but sought to slow down his minister. He reportedly asked Lindner to refrain from making any announcements before the coalition could assemble a package of relief measures to soften the blow of the high energy prices and said that the government should act in unison on the issue.
Shortly thereafter, Bild, the country’s largest tabloid, announced that Lindner was planning a gas station rebate meant to lower gas prices below 2 euros per liter. Gassing up cheaply at taxpayers’ expense? Is this the governing coalition’s solution when Russia starts bombing a European country?
Green Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck publicly contradicted the report, but Lindner remained undaunted. On German television, Lindner was asked, "How high are the chances that you will ultimately get your way on this?” He answered: "High.” It took days of meetings, in some cases until the early morning hours, before the coalition partners were finally able to agree on a relief package, including a tax rebate for gasoline – one that is set to expire after three months.
Chancellor Scholz no longer takes the tough approach to his partners that he did in Hamburg – now the overarching goal is that of maintaining peace within the coalition. He even lets other people garner praise when he’d prefer things to be different. "We all want to be reelected in four years,” Scholz told DER SPIEGEL in his first interview after the election. "A new coalition needs to have that on its mind every day.”
Scholz wanted to assemble a team of equals, but now he is in danger of becoming less visible. At some point, the question could progress beyond where is Scholz? And become: What does Scholz want?
At the moment, the chancellor isn’t particularly convincing as a tough guy nor as a skilled mediator. He only exuded decisiveness when he announced the 100-billion-euro money bazooka for the Bundeswehr without much consultation with his coalition partners. At that moment, Scholz fulfilled the famous promise he made many years ago: "If you order leadership from me, that’s what you’ll get.”
But in the silence following the big bang, he disappeared. Now he wants to plan, implement, govern well, and only appear in public when there is something to announce. Meanwhile, others are pushing themselves into the spotlight.
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, for example, is displaying the emotions that Scholz keeps hidden, and the poise he lacks. Economic Minister Habeck is establishing a political style that seems like a counterpoint to the silent chancellor. He shows emotion on talk shows, acting almost agitated and talks about his unease with the contradictions within German energy policy, caught between dependence on Putin and the ideals of a climate coalition.
No, the consequences of an energy boycott against Russia would be too hard for the country, Habeck sighs. "My oath of office forbids that.”
Even when Habeck traveled to Qatar to negotiate contracts for natural gas and hydrogen with governments that disregard human rights, he openly wrestled with himself. The Green politician called this political style "self-critical fighting.” It gives him the aura of a shadow chancellor.
In his penetrative restraint, Scholz resembles his predecessor. Angela Merkel also rarely showed her emotions, she wasn’t a woman of many words. Nevertheless, Germans knew that behind the scenes, the chancellor could lead with toughness and was able to convince others, so that even if she was negotiating with autocrats like Vladimir Putin, there would be a solution on the table by the time it was over. For this reason, Merkel was held in high regard internationally.
Olaf Scholz does not yet have this bonus on the international stage. When U.S. President Joe Biden recounts all the people he called about Russia, he names European presidents or prime ministers by name. He only adds the country name when he said: "Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany” -- in case not everybody knew yet who he was. Sometimes Scholz is simply unlucky. Because of the long talks with his coalition, he arrived late at the NATO summit and missed the group photo.
It is not Olaf Scholz of Germany who is leading the European states or the G-7 nations in this crisis – that role has instead been taken over by French President Emmanuel Macron, who speaks with Putin on the phone more often than Scholz and holds more important speeches. Scholz’s government isn’t yet acting on the international level, and it has required a fair amount of coaxing to get into line with the others, whether it’s the cancellation of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, arms deliveries to Kyiv or the ejection of Russian banks from the SWIFT banking information system.
Time to Step Up
And while other countries proudly announce every day the weapons they have delivered to Ukraine, the German public is only slowly discovering that the Germans have supplied more to Kyiv than helmets, bazookas and seriously defective East German anti-aircraft missiles.
The chancellor has recognized far too late that in a crisis like this one, not only pragmatism matters. Symbolic policies also have their value and a decision can turn out to be effective even if many rational arguments initially speak against it. Olaf Scholz hasn’t yet grown into his role as a war and crisis chancellor.
The more horrific the images from this war become, including those of enclosed Mariupol and occupied Kherson, and the more urgent President Zelenskyy’s appeals, the greater the pressure will become on Scholz to do more, to speak more clearly, to position himself and finally to lead. He himself raised expectations with the term "watershed,” and now he must fulfill it.
Ultimately, the acid test for the coalition’s ability to function may emerge in a completely different subject: pandemic policy. On this issue, Scholz took leadership early on. In his first days as chancellor, he announced vaccination goals and spoke out clearly in favor of a general vaccine mandate.
At first, the vaccination campaign went well, up to 1.6 million people arrived each day at the vaccination centers and the doctor’s offices. But with the Omicron wave and the increasing number of breakthrough infections, it quickly ebbed again. The goals remain unfulfilled. Germany’s vaccination rate is still modest compared to other European countries.
Now it seems like the governing coalition will struggle to find a majority in its own ranks in favor of the vaccine mandate. The smallest coalition partner, the FDP, is rebelling, which means that Scholz needs help from, of all parties, the CDU in the opposition, as was the case with the rearmament of the Bundeswehr, for which the Basic Law needs to be amended. Friedrich Merz, the head of the parliamentary group of the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, has already stated that his people do not want to be the "back-up bench” for Scholz.
Due to pressure from the FDP, the coalition now also wants to largely remove the COVID restrictions, which are to only remain possible in so-called "hot spots.” The Bundestag is to pass a law on the subject, but the states feel like they have been sidelined.
In the most recent meeting of the heads of the German states, the chancellor faced unanimous opposition from the states’ governors. Not only the CDU governors criticized the chancellor for the government’s course – those from the SPD, who have otherwise stood with Scholz like praetorians, also vented their anger.
Scholz took the beating on behalf of the FDP. Even when the governors expressed their anger in three protocol declarations, positioning themselves united against the chancellor, he apparently remained unmoved.
Olaf Scholz thanked them for the good conversation. "I think that we still have some work to do on this issue,” he said.
Then he called up the next item on the agenda.