With their familiar capacity to get to the surface of events and remain there, our media, in reporting on the State Department cables on Germany exposed by WikiLeaks, ignore an essential story—or, rather, two. The first is that some significant figures in the German political elite do not accept US claims to global leadership, and that this doubt is shared with large segments of German opinion. The second is that our foreign policy apparatus defends the nation against the consequences of this cosmic impiety by continuing (as we did in the cold war) to recruit eager informants and servants in Germany.
The Free Democratic Party (FDP) is the junior partner of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (and its sister party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union) in the present German coalition government. During the negotiations last year to form the coalition, and afterward, the senior administrative assistant to FDP leader Guido Westerwelle was a frequent visitor to our Berlin embassy, which he supplied with news and transcripts of the negotiations. Multiply this dubious figure by twenty: our “friends” are everywhere in the German political system, and in the German media as well.
Encounters between our embassy and these Germans are reported as gossip, but no one has asked an obvious question. How valuable is the support of people so devoid of a sense of national dignity? Westerwelle, now the German foreign minister, is described in the cables in unflattering terms. Some of those negative characterizations come to our embassy from the nobleman (complete with castle) Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who as defense minister in the coalition government is the rising star of contentless conformity and institutional drift in Germany. That Guttenberg said the German refusal to send more troops to Afghanistan was due to Westerwelle’s obduracy rather than the German public’s skepticism suggests that he is, among other things, a miserable informant. On that, the cables I have seen maintain a loud silence. They substitute gossip for serious analysis.
Meanwhile, practically unmentioned in American reporting, the striking news from Germany is not only that, were elections to be held tomorrow, Chancellor Merkel would lose; the coalition she leads has lost majority support. The surprise is the rise of the Green Party, which is now almost even with the Social Democrats. What accounts for the success of this once marginal and young grouping of environmentalists, feminists, pacifists and proponents of participatory democracy? Their voters are now in the educated middle and upper-middle ranks of German society, so they are hardly marginal. Neither are they so young. Their onetime star, Joschka Fischer, who was foreign minister in their coalition with the Social Democrats under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder from 1998 to 2005, is now an elder statesman. His generation’s heroic phase of concentrating their energies on street demonstrations is well behind it. Many in Germany, across class and educational divides, now share the Greens’ distrust of the obtuseness of the nation’s elites.
Two recent episodes express the change. Merkel’s government rescinded a previous decision to shorten the working life of Germany’s nuclear power plants. A shipment of nuclear waste from France induced thousands to converge in northern Germany at the storage site three weeks ago to proclaim their rejection of the technology. Meanwhile, in the conservative southern city of Stuttgart, capital of the rich state of Baden-Württemberg, stolid citizens have demonstrated against the demolition of an old railway station and the destruction of a treasured park—to speed up trains that already run thrice as fast as ours. The Greens are listened to when they complain that politicians are obedient primarily to bureaucrats and capitalists. National elections are scheduled for 2013, but next year the Greens may win the mayorship of Berlin and the governorship of Baden-Württemberg. If they overtake the Social Democrats, they may have the chancellorship.