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Stern: New German ‘Grand Coalition’ Government a Major, Positive Achievement

Interviewee: Fritz Stern
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
November 21, 2005

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Fritz Stern, a leading historian on Germany, says the coming to power in Germany of a so-called Grand Coalition between the rival Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Social Democratic Party (SPD), is a major achievement and that there is great significance in the fact that the new chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the head of the Social Democrats, Matthias Platzeck, are both from former East Germany.

"You will probably sense a basic view on my part of optimism, of hope about this coalition that was very difficult to put together," says Stern, university professor emeritus at Columbia University. "I was thinking how difficult it would be if Republicans and Democrats in this country were to try to form a genuine bipartisan government or even a bipartisan policy at this point. I think one ought to appreciate that there is a considerable political achievement in the fact that the two parties have overcome their difficulties, that there's actually a kind of collegial atmosphere in anticipation of a joint government."

Stern was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on November 21, 2005.

Tomorrow, Germany's parliament—the Bundestag—will formally elect the new chancellor, Angela Merkel, who is the leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), who will head a "Grand Coalition" government with the rival Social Democratic Party (SPD). Is there a special significance in this besides the fact that she's the first woman chancellor in German history?

Yes, I think there certainly is greater significance. I think it's immensely significant that she's not only the first woman but she's the first easterner, the first person from what used to be the German Democratic Republic to head the united Germany. I think politically and psychologically that it is important and much to be welcomed.

Why is that?

I am well aware that there are obviously different views of the success of unification in 1990. I know that many East Germans felt they had been taken over by the West Germans, had been treated as second-class citizens, and had not been properly respected by them. On the other hand, West Germans felt, "What more do these people want? We invest so heavily in them." You had this real disparity between the two parts. There was more than lingering resentment in the East. I'm not saying that she is representative of most of the old East Germans or that the fact she is now chancellor is going to dispel the resentment, but it is going to make a difference.

I think it is interesting that the new Social Democrat chairman is also from the East, Matthias Platzeck.

I know both of them. I actually know him better than I know her. Again his selection is a major plus. It is something unpredictable. It was part of something that unfolded in history unexpectedly. A complicated election led, ultimately, to a change of generations in both parties, particularly in the Social Democratic Party. I think Platzeck might have emerged as a Social Democratic leader four years from now, but no one counted on this happening now, and he was elected by an overwhelming majority by the party. All of that speaks well at least to the question of relations between East and West.

Is there going to be resentment in the West to the top party leaders coming from the East?

I think no more than there has already been under the surface because of the cost of unification. The transfer of money from West to East is still extraordinary. I can't give it to you in percentage of GNP [gross national product] but it is a significant amount. It has helped to modernize the transportation and communication systems, but it has not produced a real change for the large majority of East German citizens. Hence, you still have a migration of East Germans to West Germany where unemployment is lower and wages are higher and so on. On the other hand, you have a counter-demographic movement of West to East. I don't think the resentment increases; the contributions will have to continue. Some West Germans might even wake up to the fact [and say], "Wait a minute, there was a great deal of talent there," as emerged in the glorious days of 1989-90, when the East Germans organized themselves into groups that modeled themselves after what was going on in Poland, later in Hungary, and so on.

What are the main issues this new government has to deal with? Are they primarily economic?

Yes, primarily economic. I think it has to be said that [outgoing SPD Chancellor Gerhard] Schroeder did make a brave beginning with his plan, called Agenda 2010. He was beginning to make reforms which above all hurt his standing in his own party; making demands which globalization had imposed on Germany to make them competitive. I have to mention the Germans have a capacity for self pity, for self worry that can hardly be surpassed. German exports continued to be greater than those of other European nations and the economy was doing better in many ways than the mood of people or public opinion would indicate.

Was this gloomy mood because there was high unemployment?

High unemployment is obviously a key issue as well as outsourcing of jobs to other nations. Nevertheless, all I'm trying to say is that there are certain parts of the economy, such as the export economy, that continues to do actually very well. The reforms Schroeder began were aimed at making the German industry more competitive and, I think, cutbacks on certain welfare programs, plans, and benefits.

It was without question a courageous start that this new coalition government will have to continue. It will continue along the lines he set out and they will raise the value added tax, they've already announced that. There are certain things, obviously in the short to medium term, which a coalition government can do more easily. They already announced that starting next year the Christmas bonuses of civil servants are going to be reduced. Either party doing it alone or in a coalition with a smaller party, would have found that kind of gesture—when Germans have an excessively high number of civil servants—very difficult. Doing it together as an economy measure is simply a signal of what they mean to do. Then they have the whole problem of the budget deficit, which exceeds European Union regulations. They have to bring that budget deficit into order and this kind of measure is simply a signal of where they want to go.

Have you ever met Ms. Merkel?

Yes, I've met her.

What is she like?

When she came here [New York] she was already the leader of the opposition party and I think expressed her own pro-American, or as I would prefer to say, pro-Bush stance relatively clearly to a small group of people. She was an impressive and very self contained lady when I met her two or three years ago in a small circle. She wasn't outgoing. She would intellectually answer questions but she wouldn't volunteer, as some politicians do, her views. Then of course she ran a not very successful campaign this year. My hunch is, when you think of her whole life of growing up in the German Democratic Republic, the daughter of a pastor, she must be capable of learning, of picking up things to an amazing extent.

She grew up in that kind of dictatorial state where the fashion was intellectual uniformity. And then as soon as unification came, she learned to adapt herself to what you might loosely call a Western way of life, particularly in politics. To me this suggests great adaptability and I think the Merkel of tomorrow when she becomes chancellor is going to be significantly different from the Merkel of the beginning of the political campaign. I'm saying this on the basis of what I picked up on as part of her persona, which is the capability for growing and learning.

There's an expectation in the United States that relations between Germany and the United States will improve when she takes office because they were quite strained starting in 2002 with Schroeder, right?

Yes, I think as far as atmospherics go, that is correct. It also has to do with Merkel's view about socioeconomic issues. I think she had a much greater temptation to look at the Anglo-American capitalism or Reagan-ized capitalism we have in this country today. She had a penchant for it, a temptation to think that's the way to go. I think she has learned in the campaign that certainly a majority of voting Germans don't want that and she'd be willing to adapt herself to that. Yes, the atmospherics would improve. I doubt very much a coalition government would make any strategic changes in Germany's foreign policy. By that, I mean her cabinet is not going to reverse the course Schroeder set on Iraq. Her travel itinerary is not uninteresting. As far as I understand it, her travel schedule is already set. She is going to go to Paris, Brussels, London, and Warsaw in that order.

And eventually she'll come to Washington?

Yes, absolutely.

It is interesting she's going the conventional European route, Paris first.

She's going to have a difficult time knitting the personal relationships because she doesn't know these people yet. But again, anyone who's done as well as she has at home—partly by nerve and willingness to be venturesome and confrontational as need be—will be guided by what the French call, "the logic of facts." I think she will do well in setting relations with the French—that will be primary. She also wants to strengthen relations with Britain. And then she will face—what one must notice in passing that has nothing to do with her, or the German situation—a changed Polish situation: Polish-German relations today, because of the new elections in Poland, are less promising or less tension-free than they were a few months ago.

Why is that?

I'm speculating that the remarks made by Lech Kaczynski, the new president of Poland, which included such comments as, "We still have claims against the Germans," may be troublesome. Now, nobody questions that during the German occupation of Poland the atrocities were beyond belief. You could almost say beyond reparations. By raising the issue sixty years later, this could awaken feelings among Germans—second- and third-generation expellees [from former German territories, now part of Poland—who would say, "Wait a minute the Poles are going to make claims on us?"

I thought all of that was settled by treaty years ago?

The frontiers were settled. The issue of reparations was raised during the electoral campaign in Poland. In other words, what I would call confidently, that the era of magnificent attempts at reconciliation between Germans and Poles that began in the late 80's and lasted through the 90's has darkened and things have become more complicated.

She of course has no truck with Russia. She's campaigned against Schroeder's close ties with [President Vladimir] Putin.

Again I think there are certain constraints. She will have to get on with him, if for no other reason than economic and economic ties are very strong and growing stronger.

And Russia supplies Germany, I guess, with most of its energy.

Absolutely. And that has been something the Unites States has been concerned about since the 1980's.

What do you feel in general about the coalition?

You will probably sense a basic view on my part of optimism, of hope about this coalition that was very difficult to put together. I was thinking how difficult it would be if Republicans and Democrats in this country were to try to form a genuine bipartisan government or even a bipartisan policy at this point. I think one ought to appreciate that there is a considerable political achievement in the fact that the two parties have overcome their difficulties, that there's actually a kind of collegial atmosphere in anticipation of a joint government.

And I want to say a couple of things about two cabinet members in particular—the foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whom I barely know because he has operated in a discreet and almost invisible way, as a confidante of Schroeder. He certainly knows the ins and outs of German foreign policy—where the troubles lie, where one has to pay particular attention, and so on. He knows all that. I think he will be a source of stability and strength to her. The chancellor does have great latitude in power even in setting foreign policy. In a coalition government, she would be careful and the advice she would get from Steinmeier would be one of continuity. Secondly, I want to say that the fact that Wolfgang Schauble is going to be minister of the interior is an excellent choice. He is one of the sharpest, most intelligent, most broad-thinking politicians in the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and a person I like to describe as a genuine conservative, by which I mean a conservative with old-fashioned conservative principles and a kind of liberal fundament. That's a key position, given the whole question of antiterrorism and so on. I think one can be very pleased by that appointment. I singled it out because he is a remarkable person and will add strength, and because she and he had a falling out. She treated him coolly on the question of electing the president of the federal republic—an office he wanted, an office he would have been very good at—and the way she cold-shouldered him and pushed him aside about a year ago didn't suggest they would get on with each other. The fact that he has this key position is something that I think is a very good sign.

My first reaction to Schroeder's decision to step down and ask for new elections was uneasiness. I thought it was very close to being contrary to the spirit of the constitution. In retrospect, I think he not only served his own departure well, he engineered to leave in a remarkable way. He served the party well by the help he gave in the electoral campaign. He managed to leave the party in better shape than one could have anticipated. It seems to me quite plausible that his place in history will be more kindly judged than likely thought a year ago or six months ago.

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