Hanging on to Mutti


Neal Ascherson reports from Germany, in the LRB:

They always loved huge halls, the Social Democrats. They still do. Vaulted spaces taller than cathedral naves and vaster than locomotive assembly halls, mammoth sheds big enough to hold a battle-cruiser on stocks. This time I was in Augsburg, at the last SPD congress before the German federal elections on 22 September, but it was all familiar as I plodded towards the loudspeakers. The scent of bratwurst and mustard and German coffee; the aisles of lobby stalls promoting car factories, renewable energy, private health insurance or Bavarian tourism; the crop-haired bouncer scowling as he checked the press passes; the delegates clutching the party programme as they waddled through antechamber after antechamber towards the sound of the big guns. And then at last the arena itself, the loyal thousands sitting in half-darkness and staring towards a horizon on which tiny pink figures wiggled in the lights. Giant voices spoke from somewhere.

Yes, it was the same party I had known. The Social Democrats, the heavy, rusty anchor of German democracy, are 150 years old this year. Still honest, still fearful of taking a risk, still prone to the ghastly blunders which used to make people cover their faces and say: ‘Scheisse! Trotzdem, SPD!’ – ‘Oh shit! But we’ll still have to vote for them.’ The great exhibition hall at Augsburg could have been the gigantic Westfalenhalle in Dortmund where Willy Brandt used to speak at the climax of his election tours. That harsh, hoarse, painful voice seemed to be powered by coal and iron from the Ruhr industries around him. And now, forty years on, the SPD still speaks with a steam-age accent. Peer Steinbrück, the chancellor-candidate, is a steady, potato-faced politician, not a living monument like Brandt. But his oratory has the same blast furnace glow: red-hot rather than white-hot, pouring predictably down the channels of expectation.

He is a good man, with quite a bold programme for ‘social justice’. Tax increases for the better-off, a proper minimum wage, dual citizenship for immigrants, less elbowing individualism and more solidarity in a society where das Wir entscheidet – ‘it’s the we that counts.’ The German public, surprisingly, mostly agree that increasing taxes is a sound idea. What they resent is that the idea comes from the SPD. In the same way, the Augsburg programme is widely thought to make sense, but the voters don’t fancy Peer Steinbrück. They are pissed off with Angela Merkel’s governing coalition, but reluctant to let go of Mutti’s hand. In short, the public are in one of those sullen, unreasonable moods which make politicians despair.