The tragedy of Martin Schulz

Marcus Colla on the German elections and the changing fortunes of Martin Schulz.

In a world of superfast, narrative-driven politics, it pays to choose your metaphors carefully. So when the enthusiasts of Martin Schulz sought earlier this year to capture with a definitive epithet their hero’s rapid rise in the polls, their choice of ‘the Schulz-train’ was spectacularly ill-starred. Unthinkingly, Schulz’s disciples christened their hero’s crusade for the chancellorship with a curse. As headline fodder, train metaphors function only in cases of tragic exception: they may run out of control, steer off the rails, stall or crash. An effective train, meanwhile, comes to a peaceful stop, which is hardly a political metaphor at all.

It took mere weeks for this misjudgement to reveal itself. A splintered left, local election disasters, his own party’s problematic legacy in government, the tendency of German politics in uncertain times to reflex back to Angela Merkel: all of this held Schulz captive in the centre, thrashing with blunt instruments but unable to distinguish himself from the Chancellor in any question of substance. Having buoyantly entered the fight, he inelegantly tripped down a set of familiar steps; the hopeful challenger turned frustrated imitator.

In the televised head-to-head debate between the two early last month, observed by over a quarter of German voters, Schulz tumbled further, this time from imitator to victim. Here was the great left-wing promise of modern Germany, visibly flustered, always in search of lost words, flummoxed by Merkel’s gentle sophistry, and unable to either retort or attack with the meanest semblance of conviction. The Schulz-train looked more Puffing Billy than Fliegender Hamburger.

In the campaign, Merkel made a point of ignoring her antagonist almost entirely. Any critique Schulz launched tended to disintegrate before reaching her. And if a tiny speck did stick, she coolly flicked it away without seeming to register its presence. In his darker moments of frustration, Schulz cried foul, condemning Merkel’s deflective methods as an ‘attack on democracy’. The debate was his best – perhaps only – chance to draw her into the direct confrontation he so desperately craved. Predictably, he failed.

Politics by boredom

In historical terms, there is something heroically ordinary about Schulz. He is endowed with neither the gruff, macho earthiness of Gerhard Schröder nor the detached intellectualism of Helmut Schmidt. But he radiates a sliver of each. He is not a charismatic man, though he is pleasant, sympathisch. Yet his propensity to speak in absolutes and universals furnish him with an uprooted quality, a sense that his feet are not planted in German soil. ‘I don’t mind Schulz’, one often heard during the campaign. ‘He just sounds so...European’.

Whereas Schulz the sermoniser practises politics from an Olympian distance, Merkel the physicist intuits that it is a game of relativity. In 2005, she almost lost what should have been an unlosable election against the increasingly erratic Schröder. Ever since, she has preyed on her opponents’ frailties, strategically pilfering their policies to render impotent the allure of ‘change’. She may stand for nothing, but she stands firm. Her qualities may consist only of stability and experience, but in politics these are precious assets, which by definition accrue in value over time.

With stability and experience as her fundamentals, Merkel is free to re-pattern her values at will. Like some tedious Hollywood protagonist, she is a blank slate upon which can be projected any quantity of hopes and fears. There is Merkel the Machiavellian, Merkel the humanitarian, Merkel the merciless, Merkel the peacemaker, Merkel the feminist, Merkel the traditionalist, Merkel the Christian and Merkel the liberal. Each one of these appellations is as true as it is false. This is not quite postmodern politics, but it could not have existed in a previous epoch.

The jargon in which Merkel’s politics is draped – ‘asymmetrical demobilisation’, ‘triangulation’ – betrays an almost scientific sophistication. But in reality such verbiage merely conceals a shallow deception. She doesn’t regret her handling of the refugee crisis, but promises it will never happen again. Of course we must strengthen the ties that bind the European Union, she says, though not without advancing German interests.

Naturally, we should increase defence spending, but without expanding German military power. Confronted with this form of political logic, the term ‘triangulation’ seems unjust to the number three. In Merkel’s mirrored chamber, light refracts in infinite combinations, blinding and disorienting its hapless intruders. After many months imprisoned there, Martin Schulz was deprived of the power and energy to either challenge or imitate.

In a raw sense, Merkel won the relative game. She debilitated Schulz, and as such his Social Democratic Party (SPD) plunged to a 20% vote share; its lowest in the post-war era. But the final result was hardly good news for the Chancellor, whose own Union fell to a level unseen since 1949. Politics-by-boredom may have kept her in the Chancellor’s office, but did little to keep voters on side. Deprived by Merkel of the prospect for change at the top, many voters opted for the middle finger. All four of the minor parties increased their vote share, including the far-right Alternative für Deutschland, which will enter the Bundestag for the first time. German politics is about to look quite different indeed.

*Marcus Colla [2015] is doing a PhD in History.