The Modern Chancellor Taking Stock of Gerhard Schröder

Gerhard Schröder was Germany's third chancellor to come from the ranks of the SPD Social Democratic Party. He was also the most contradictory of the whole bunch. But without his personal charm there would have been no SPD-Green coalition. What will his legacy be?
Von Claus Christian Malzahn

Konrad Adenauer led Germany westward. Willy Brandt opened the doors to the east. Helmut Schmidt defended the country against domestic terrorism. And Helmut Kohl oversaw reunification. Each leader of postwar Germany, except for short-lived chancellors Kurt-Georg Kiesinger and Ludwig Erhard, has left his mark on an era.

What about Schröder? He ruled for seven years, not even half as long as his predecessor, Helmut Kohl, but longer than Social-Democrat demigod Willy Brandt. Maybe Schröder will go down in history as Germany's transition chancellor. In many ways, he was caught between a rock and a hard place -- and it's difficult to take stock of his achievements.

He was responsible for the first deployment of the German military outside German borders since World War II -- to Kosovo and Afghanistan -- and yet he touted himself during the last election as a "peace chancellor."

This type of contradiction also became apparent when Schröder's government intervened in the free market to bail Holzmann, a German hallmark construction company, out of bankruptcy. But even as his government supported a state intervention, he was also hammering the nail into the coffin of Germany Inc., by undermining the country's history of promoting traditional German companies. When Schröder eliminated capital gains tax on the sale of corporate stocks, he suddenly made the country more attractive to foreign investors. This also heralded the beginning of the end of the cozy joint holdings between Germany's biggest companies which had traditionally prevented German firms from falling into foreign hands. It's a type of financial deregulation that Helmut Kohl would never have dared.

In his second term, he stepped into the ring like a swashbuckler with his "Agenda 2010" economic reform package. With all labor market and social welfare system changes, Schröder knew full well how tough the fight was going to be. After all, he was breaking with the vision of a cradle-to-grave welfare state championed by his own party. After the program was launched he nevertheless looked strangely vulnerable, sometimes almost helpless and shell-shocked. With Agenda 2010 he didn't shy away from personal risk in order to do the right political thing; yet for a long time he had no idea how to convince his party that the program wasn't meant to be a mugging of the working class but rather a way of rescuing the most important parts of the social system so they would still be around for future generations.

But what's done is done. The influential weekly Die Zeit called it patriotism. Regardless what the motivations may have been, it was a selfless bargain made by Schröder with no consideration for himself or his own people. You see that seldom in politics.

A new direction in foreign policy -- but where?

At the same time Gerhard Schröder was the first chancellor to shape a new foreign policy in the wake of the Cold War. But here he operated -- unlike Willy Brandt or Helmut Kohl -- without a noticeable plan or vision. Schröder's Germany was suddenly a Mittelmacht, or mid-sized power -- a term several old Bonn politicians had to look up in the dictionary. What did it mean? The chancellor walked a global politics tightrope without a net -- and fell. Berlin is further away than ever from a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Not that it matters -- Germany has never needed a seat in New York anyway. And Schröder's appearances on the international stage seemed to follow the rules of good stage direction more than a clear political agenda. Foreign policy, for Schröder, was sometimes just a promotion of domestic policy by other means.

Schröder even went so far as to call for the lifting of the European Union's weapons embargo against China. He never hesitated to bash America if he thought it could help him stay in power. With a stiff back and smiling face he paraded his friendship with Russia's quasi-czar, Vladimir Putin, in front of the entire world, calling him a "flawless democrat." What sort of reputation he earned with these poses in Poland or in the Baltics was either unknown to him, or -- worse -- immaterial. In Poland, especially, for historical reasons, people react sensitively to any political deals cut between Moscow and Berlin. Accusations from Warsaw that Berlin and Moscow are in any way trying to forge a new Hitler-Stalin pact are absurd. Still, German foreign policy needs to take into account the fact that every time Putin and Schröder climb into their Air Force Ones for a visit, Polish distrust in the duo will resurface. Those planes literally fly over Poland, and Warsaw fears its concerns will just be glossed over in any deals that are made.

Even when his judgements were wrong, Schröder would still pronounce them with a sense of grand confidence. In 1989 he thought German reunification was a "grand illusion," and in 1990 the idea of East German citizens entering the West German social system still seemed to him a little suspect. Then he managed to be installed as chancellor, both eight and 12 years later, by narrow margins of votes thanks to former East Germany. Maybe that was Schröder's first big success -- and his biggest trick.

In 2002 his government won a second term by only a few thousand votes. With that victory, the first generation of German politicians who had nothing to do with World War II managed to prove they were prepared to succeed. In that sense, the coalition government of the Social Democrats and Greens was far more than a chance episode in German history -- even if SPD chief Franz Müntefering, and Schröder himself, have hinted that this might be the case. The Social Democrats and Greens dusted off the old Federal Republic and modernized it on the one hand, but on the other it also managed to strew a lot of tinsel. In any case many of the progressive steps taken by this coalition (for example, in the area of civil rights) can be chalked up to efforts by the Green Party, which makes the question of who was the servant girl and who was the cook in this kitchen a bit harder to answer than Schröder would like to have it.

Schröder and his Green counterpart, Joschka Fischer, had long dreamed of political marriage, but neither had ever made any concrete plans. And the shotgun wedding that was the result of the 1998 election came as a surprise to both. Schröder calculated back then -- the way everyone else did in Bonn, including journalists -- on a grand coalition. Now, after a seven-year delay, it's finally arrived, with CDU leader Angela Merkel at the top. Of course Schröder would have done his party a favor by serving under "this woman" (as he calls her) as junior partner and vice-chancellor. But that would only have brought about an emotionless political machine, a status that would not suit Schröder, an instinct-driven consummate political animal and alpha male. It was smart of him to finally end all the jovial pole-position advice last Tuesday evening in Berlin. Now, of course, his quick-witted career advisors can gleefully commence their work.

Back to a party he never loved

Although Gerhard Schröder was no 1968 student revolutionary, he led a government which politically made explicit reference to that myth-laden year. He belonged to the generation of Social Democrats who set up the Young Socialists (known as the Jusos in Germany) and he had no tears to shed when Helmut Schmidt left office in autumn 1982. The cultural and political divide which separated Schröder, born after the war, and Schmidt, who had been a military officer in World War II, was massive. Still, the parallels between the two are impossible to overlook. 

Schmidt went against party lines by defending the decision to remilitarize under NATO, while Schröder stood by his economic reform policy which ran contrary to the opinion of most Social Democrats. In the end, both men failed as a result of their own target audience, which can be expected to take on some new policies, but not every breezy change in tone. Both recognized too late that you can't stray too far from the party's cultural roots. The SPD may be an old party, but it still likes to be coddled a bit.

Over the last few months Schröder made an effort to bridge the divide which had grown between him and his core supporters. He had never been more socially democratic. And on the other side, after the election, the SPD party gave up the Schröder debate and avowed him undying solidarity -- with such fervor that the support seemed almost tongue in cheek. A touch of the cult of Mao seemed to hang over the party. Schröder granted his party another chance at sharing power. And that's why his comrades will always go easy on him. 

He still hasn't become the next Willy Brandt, who has almost heroic status among the party faithful. But the SPD will nevertheless refrain from chasing him out into the cold, as they did to Helmut Schmidt in the 1980s. Possibly even Schröder doesn't quite yet know how in the future he will stand in relation to the SPD. 

So who was the real Schröder? Oddly enough, it was a member of the paparazzi who captured the real man. In Romania in August 2004, with the help of a telephoto lens, the journalist managed to get a picture of the chancellor who at first wanted to rule only via the television and the popular tabloid newspaper Bild. Schröder stood at his father's military grave. This was a post-war image from another world: a son crying at the grave of a father he never knew. 

But the private moment didn't have anything to do with anyone else. Yet it was still powerful in the sense that anyone can identify with a face filled with mourning and pain. Previous chancellors had their Kodak moments, too. Willy Brandt fell to his knees at the memorial to the Warsaw ghetto. Helmut Kohl held hands with Francois Mitterand in Verdun. Both photos were expressions of each chancellor's credo. And there are thousands of photos of Schröder, himself a master at manipulating the media. But the photo from Romania doesn't mirror any particular political program. Instead it offers a tiny glimpse of a gaping European wound caused by a world war of Germany's making that still bleeds from time to time today. The image was unplanned and no one could accuse Schröder of staging it. That's also why it stands out.

Schröder was his own agenda. And why not? Things are obviously going right in a country where the son of a single mother who made her living as a cleaning lady can work his way to the top and become chancellor. Indeed, it's a Germany one could even be proud of.

Otherwise, Schröder was one of the most controversial chancellor the country has ever seen. Following the election, he laid claim to an office that, only a few months before, he had more or less voluntarily given up. With the exception of Schröder and the opposition, nobody in Germany had any interest in calling for snap elections. And what about that acute danger of a putsch Schröder described in order to justify to the German president his request for new elections? Bogus. It never existed. Schröder left because he was restless -- he was always better at the offensive than the defensive. By calling for early elections he knew he might lose, Schröder also demonstrated another major difference between himself and early chacellors. Helmut Kohl would have patiently remained in office until the very end.

One difference between Schröder and Kohl far overshadows the others. Kohl was still part of an old system -- one that fostered one of the most-lavish and unaffordable social nets in the world and one that put more emphasis on keeping German companies in German hands than taking the steps necessary to prepare the country for the forces of globalization. Schröder became the first to modernize Germany -- geopolitically and economically. And he was the first to lead a country whose new role in the world was only made possible by the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Mehr lesen über

Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.
Speichern Sie Ihre Lieblingsartikel in der persönlichen Merkliste, um sie später zu lesen und einfach wiederzufinden.
Jetzt anmelden
Sie haben noch kein SPIEGEL-Konto? Jetzt registrieren
Mehrfachnutzung erkannt
Bitte beachten Sie: Die zeitgleiche Nutzung von SPIEGEL+-Inhalten ist auf ein Gerät beschränkt. Wir behalten uns vor, die Mehrfachnutzung zukünftig technisch zu unterbinden.
Sie möchten SPIEGEL+ auf mehreren Geräten zeitgleich nutzen? Zu unseren Angeboten