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In troubled times, Germans seem to prefer aristocratic stability.
BERLIN — One way to understand a country is to see who its people turn to during a crisis. As Germany’s Social Democratic Party is discovering, the people’s will can prove very unpredictable.
With their country in the throes of the global economic crisis and a federal election just over the horizon, the center-left SPD thought Germans would seek leadership from someone from the party’s blue-collar, beer-drinking base. Instead, Germans have turned to an independently wealthy aristocrat from Bavaria by the name of Karl-Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg. The 37-year-old economics minister, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union, has quickly emerged as the country’s most popular public figure, topping both Angela Merkel and the SPD’s candidate for chancellor, Foreign Minister Frank Steinmeier, in approval polls prior to the Sept. 27 election. It has been an astounding rise for someone who emerged on the national scene just a few months ago, a hastily selected replacement for an unexpected resignation in February from Merkel’s cabinet.
Guttenberg immediately stood out from the rest of the Grand Coalition between the SPD and CDU that Merkel heads. Younger and more telegenic than his cabinet colleagues, Guttenberg also can’t and doesn’t care to hide his upbringing as a baron in Germany’s vestigial aristocratic system.
Whereas most German politicians sport sober, ill-fitted pinstripes, Guttenberg’s suits are tailored and paired with silk ties and cufflinks. His hair is stylishly gelled. His wife is a countess descended from Otto von Bismarck. When asked what his summer reading would be, he named Plato’s “Republic,” which he would be perusing in the original ancient Greek.
Guttenberg has broken with the political consensus in the Grand Coalition. He openly objected to Merkel’s plans to help ailing car manufacturer Opel and rejected efforts by the SPD to save jobs by bailing out Arcandor, a national retailer and owner of some of the country’s largest department stores.
The SPD originally saw Guttenberg’s elitist affect and stern economic policies as vulnerabilities that it could exploit over the course of the campaign. His contrast with their candidate is stark: Steinmeier makes a habit of describing his humble upbringing as the son of a carpenter in a poor rural area of the German state of Westphalia.