Germany: Scandals for the Baron and a vote for more war

The German man of the hour is Baron Karl-Theodor von und zu Guttenberg. Actually he has eight other given names, but the title shows that his family traces back to 1158.

He is currently less often in his ancient castle (built 1482) than in Berlin where he is Minister of Defense. This handsome politician, only 40 years old, seemed to be gradually squeezing far less colorful Angela Merkel, in no way “noble,” out of her chance to remain Germany’s first woman chancellor — one with a humble East German background at that. In popularity polls, the casual but always well-dressed, well-groomed, suave politician from Bavaria is already leading the race. He is probably even further to the right than she is.

But suddenly a series of scandals scratched the shining image of this scion of conservative Bavarian circles. First of all, in mid-December, he paid an unscheduled visit to the fighting German troops in Afghanistan. What was intended as good publicity suddenly looked far less heroic when it turned out that Guttenberg not only took along his wife (also from an ancient noble family), but also a special TV team. That was just a bit too obvious.

Soon afterwards it was discovered that, in full defiance of German legal rules, mail from those same German troops in Afghanistan had been opened en route, delayed and in some cases never reached the soldiers’ families. This had been going on for three months. The culprits have not yet been found — but are not difficult to guess at.

Just as Guttenberg — to abbreviate his long name — promised to look into this, it was learned that one more German soldier in Afghanistan had been killed, but not by a road bomb or Afghan snipers, what most media call “counter-insurgents” or “terrorists,” but in a relatively safe base camp. Although it was first announced that this had occurred while the man was cleaning his weapon it was later reluctantly admitted that a fellow soldier had shot him. Was it an accident or the result of some stupid game, like Russian roulette? Or worse? Guttenberg promised to look into this as well, but only after it had become impossible to hush up any further.

The next scandal soon followed. On the “Gorch Fock”, the handsome three-masted sailing vessel used to train navy officers, which had rounded Cape Horn and was in Brazilian waters, a 25-year-old woman trainee, Sarah Lena Seele, was ordered to climb high up into the rigging although she was both too short to meet the requirements for this job and allegedly exhausted after a very long flight to reach the ship. She fell and died. To make matters worse, rumors circulated that the captain had dismissed her death as just another accident, and even permitted a carnival celebration in South American waters two days later. Other reports called him a little dictator and it was said that some of the officers’ candidates were involved in a protest “mutiny”. Another woman had died in a similar incident a few years earlier and rumors of sex abuse were also rife.

When the scandal broke, despite attempts to hush it up, the biggest and dirtiest newspaper in Germany demanded that the captain be removed, and Guttenberg, far more flustered than usual, quickly obliged. This brought him attacks both from old marine officers, who said he should have waited for a proper hearing, and from opposition parties in the Bundestag, which rejoiced at any chance to slam government parties and their flashiest up-and-coming leader. It remains to be seen whether such unexpected storms will prove tougher politically for the baron than rounding Cape Horn in the old sailing days.

These stories provided exciting headlines. But some saw them as a distraction from a related, far more important matter.

On January 28th, the Bundestag once again defied German majority opinion and voted to continue the use of troops in that troublesome war in Afghanistan. Although both political and military leaders admit that it is a hopeless mess with a NATO victory only a bloody illusion, and although even the former German president admitted that economic objectives were the main concern (a confession which cost him his job), the ruling coalition put one more annual extension to the vote. This meant about 5,000 troops and four fighter planes killing more Afghans and occasionally getting killed themselves.

Since nearly two thirds of the population opposed sending troops and wanted them out, it was politically necessary to get the opposition parties on board if at all possible. To tempt them, or give them an alibi, the government spokespeople proclaimed that they would start withdrawing troops by the end of 2011, though. it was hastily added, only if the situation warranted, while a possible final deadline of 2014 was vaguely hinted at.

Although this was basically a blank check, the Social Democratic Party, which had been involved in sending troops to Afghanistan in the first place, decided to support a government that it is otherwise vigorously opposing, at least in words. The vote: 105 Social Democrats voted Ja, 8 courageous ones voted Nein, while 8 abstained.

The Greens here are also an opposition party, at least officially. Their grass roots, once adamantly anti-war, have not been completely tamed. And so, like last year, their deputies split on the vote for the extension: 9 were in favor, 22 opposed, but 34 took the wishy-washy path of abstention. There were a few brave No votes from the Christian corner, 4 to be exact, while the 86 right-wing Free Democrats all voted to keep the troops in their risky positions along the Hindu Kush Mountains.

As always, it was the Left Party, all 70 of those present (6 were unable to attend), who unanimously demanded an end to German participation. Again all the others, including some Green leaders, attacked them. The final count was 419 for keeping the soldiers in the war, 116 opposed, 43 abstaining and 44 absent. This was ten votes less for the war than in 2010 and five more No votes, no great change.

And now it’s time for business as usual, with the government parties arguing how best to cut social services without really seeming to, the Social Democrats and Greens trying to look as if they are really opposing cuts that they helped put in place while they were in power (but not really putting up a fight).

The Left Party, taking correct decisions in Parliament but still trying hard to break away from inner-party problems, must conduct tough, rough 2011 election campaigns in seven of Germany’s 16 states, with the other four parties attacking it from all directions in the eastern states where it is strong or trying to ignore its presence in the western states where it is young and not very strong.

The first test will be in the city-state of Hamburg on February 20, when the Social Democrats hope to recapture leadership and the Greens hope to join them, after sharing power until now with the Christian Democrats. The last vote of the busy state elections schedule will be in the city-state of Berlin in late September. All are of great importance, especially for The Left Party.

Under sharp attack: will the Left Party demand a dangerous political rounding of Cape Horn in 2011 or, just perhaps, a Cape of Good Hope?

Photo: Peter Ramsauer, MP, Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Karl-Theodor von und zu Guttenberg, MP. Wikimedia Commons  


Victor Grossman
Victor Grossman

Victor Grossman is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He fled his U.S. Army post in the 1950s in danger of reprisals for his left-wing activities at Harvard and in Buffalo, New York. He landed in the former German Democratic Republic (Socialist East Germany), studied journalism, founded a Paul Robeson Archive, and became a freelance journalist and author. His latest book,  A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee, is about his life in the German Democratic Republic from 1949 – 1990, the tremendous improvements for the people under socialism, the reasons for the fall of socialism, and the importance of today's struggles.