26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 15


Andrew Gimson wonders if the Germans

know whether they really want to capsize the big man at their helm

Berlin HELMUT KOHL has always done better than the press thought he would. He was not expected to become chancellor in 1982, not expected to remain in office for long and was plainly dead in the water by 1989. Yet almost a decade later he is still afloat, toiling to steer himself and his party to their fifth consecutive election victory on Sunday and credited with better chances of doing so than until recently seemed possible. How have he and his Christian Demo- crats managed it? 'We are. no proud, ele- gant sailing ship,' he said in one of the scores of interviews he has given during the campaign, tut rather a raft. There one sometimes stands with the water up to one's knees, but it has one inestimable advantage: the raft is unsinkable.'

Perhaps Herr Kohl took his image from Fisher Ames, who told the American House of Representatives in 1795, 'A monarchy is a merchantman which sails well, but will sometimes strike on a rock, and go to the bottom; a republic is a raft which will never sink, but then your feet are always in the water.' But whatever its origin, the Chancellor has given an apt explanation of why the commentators have often thought he was sinking, and have always been wrong.

A raft can also look rather difficult to steer, especially when, as in Herr Kohl's coalition, it is lashed to two smaller rafts. But there is no reason why it should not flow along with the current, which can be very fast indeed, as the Christian Democrats found under Herr Kohl's lead- ership during German reunification (when the poor, foolish Social Democrats strug- gled — except for Willy Brandt — to swim against the stream). The basis of Herr Kohl's present raft is a collection of about 350 almost indistin- guishable logs: the coalition's members of parliament. Stem magazine has carried out a survey which shows that only one Ger- man in ten knows who his or her MP is: some MPs, rather heroically, are not known to any of their constituents at all. For the overwhelmingly important thing in an MP's life is the party.

Herr Kohl is standing in Ludwigshafen against a Social Democrat called Doris Barnett, but whichever of them wins the direct contest (decided by the electors' first votes) both will have seats in the next par- liament, because both have safe places on their party lists. The electors decide with their second votes how many representa- tives each party will have, but almost every- thing else is up to the parties: the negotiating of coalitions, election of the chancellor, choice of policies.

Freedom of speech is discouraged by the Bonn parties even more effectively than at Westminster. The way to get on is to con- form — to be a regular log, with no desire or ability to be anything else. It is a system which leaves most MPs totally unwilling perhaps also totally unable — to take the people into their confidence. The euro has barely been mentioned in this election: the main parties are of one mind about it and have decided it is not a fit subject to share with the public, while the small groups which consider it of burning importance are so numerous that they will probably destroy each other's chances, though no one really knows how the three competing parties of the extreme Right will do.

Even more remarkably, there is not much discussion of tax, although a sweep- ing tax reform is in the offing. A few days ago Herr Kohl's most inexperienced cabi- net colleague, Claudia Nolte — appointed by him because she is young, a woman and from the east — let slip that if the ruling coalition gets back it intends to raise VAT in order to finance a cut in income tax. Herr Kohl was furious, and strove with considerable success to put the lid back on the debate with the remark, 'I don't think I have any reason to say anything about tax before the election and I advise cabinet members not to either.'

Dull though a debate about tax might be, it is even duller to have a debate about nothing at all. This is one of the few demo- cratic checks on the institutionalised bland- ness of Bonn: that it is no way to win over the voters at election time. Gerhard SchrOder, the Social Democrat challenger to Herr Kohl, sought in the early stages of his campaign to meet the problem by bringing in outsiders whose minds have not been dulled by politics and who, he says, will be given senior posts in his administra- tion.

The first of these, the Hamburg (cur- rently New York) publisher Michael Nau- mann, proved a great success. In the event of victory Herr Naumann will be responsi- ble for cultural matters, about which he has magnificently trenchant views. He announced to general astonishment that he is strongly in favour of rebuilding the Town Palace in the heart of Berlin (blown up by the communists in 1950) and strong- ly against building the colossal Holocaust Memorial which is intended for a site south of the Brandenburg Gate.

The most enjoyable thing about these opinions was the dismay they caused the Social Democratic establishment, which will not support rebuilding the palace for fear of appearing pro-monarchist and will not oppose the memorial for fear of seem- ing anti-Semitic. The millions of ordinary Germans who agree with Herr Naumann on both points have found in him an elo- quent champion. He pointed out that if Schloss Charlottenburg — the beautiful palace in West Berlin rebuilt after the war — burned to the ground tomorrow, no one would dream of turning the site into a car- park, as happened to most of the site once occupied by the Town Palace, leaving a void at the east end of linter den Linden.

And on the infinitely sensitive question of the Holocaust Memorial Herr Nau- mann said, 'The very expression "Central Holocaust Memorial" has something oppressively bureaucratic, Albert Speer- like and monumental about it. Once any- one has been through the deathly landscape of Bergen-Belsen and has asked himself there the terrible question "Why?", he must also ask himself whether there can be an aesthetic work in the style of the Eighties or Nineties that reflects the things that were seen and done there, or whether such a work of art will simply become a place for laying wreaths. I agree with the writer Henryk Broder, who has written that the Germans have the strange tendency to press themselves, as the peo- ple who carried out the Holocaust, into the sublimated role of victims.' Herr Naumann maintains that the true memorials are the concentration camps and that the pro- posed monument would be a form of eva- sion. Herr Kohl, incidentally, is strongly committed to building the monument, but says it is not a fit subject to discuss during the election.

`Fortunately, we've come a long way since they treated your particular disorder by punching a hole in your head with a mallet.' Herr Naumann was appointed in late July, but the nearer polling day approach- es, the less either of the main parties has felt inclined to risk such acts of defiance. Herr Schroder's campaign has become duller because he is not playing his natural game, which is to articulate the prejudices felt by ordinary Germans against the Bonn political class. He says he will stand or fall as chancellor on his ability to deal with unemployment, which is still over fourmil- lion, but his record in this respect during his eight years governing Lower Saxony is not especially impressive. The Bavarians were certainly not impressed when he went down there during their recent provincial election and gave the impression he thought he could run their affairs better than they can themselves. Bavaria is a more prosperous place than Lower Sax- ony, and has a sense of local patriotism that makes Yorkshiremen seem reticent. The Social Democrats were shocked to find they lost votes there.

Herr Kohl ploughs forward, making the same speech over and over again: an account of 20th-century German history in which, since 1982, a saviour called Helmut Kohl has got all the important decisions right, while Herr Schroder was always wrong. 'I not only keep the show on the road in troubled times but rise to the big occasion,' Herr Kohl says. 'Do you really trust the other lot to do that?'

My own belief, at least until lately, was that ordinary Germans are so fed up with Herr Kohl and his 'lies' — a word that crops up surprisingly often in conversation about him, referring to his bogus claims that reunification would cost no one any money, he would halve unemployment etc. — that they would vote for any other can- didate, neo-fascist, neo-communist or just plain Social Democrat, simply to get rid of him. Herr SchrOder was long the main beneficiary of this mood and enjoyed a huge lead over Herr Kohl. Many people have told me they are intending to vote Social Democrat for the first time this year, having previously backed Herr Kohl. No one has said the opposite.

But in the last week or two the race has tightened. Herr Schroder has somehow gone out of focus, while Herr Kohl has become more formidable, if not on partic- ular occasions, then in his cumulative effect. He has taken a lower and lower share of the vote in each of his four victo- ries, and last time his coalition scraped home by a margin of only 145,000 votes, but his very weakness makes his courage more attractive. I doubt whether the Ger- mans themselves know any longer if they can steel themselves to kick him as they inwardly believe he deserves, or whether they will yet again yield to the pleasure of being hoodwinked by the great cam- paigner.

Andrew Gimson is the Daily Telegraph's Berlin correspondent.