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.
Steinmeier’s political mentor, former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, was a master at slyly stirring up populist class resentment. Schroeder famously managed a come-from-behind victory in 2002 by playing off of anti-Americanism during the Bush administration through vociferous public denunciations of the impending Iraq War. In 2005, he nearly pulled off a tremendous upset by raising the specter that Merkel’s economic team was waiting to wholesale dismantle the country’s social welfare provisions.
The bogeyman of that last election was Paul Kirchhof, an unassuming academic advocate of a flat tax who had been tapped by Merkel for her shadow cabinet. At campaign appearances, Schroeder would deride the ominous “professor from Heidelberg,” who deigned to pronounce on social problems from his ivory tower. In 2009, Schroeder has similarly sought to take Guttenberg down a peg in the eyes of Germans struggling through the economic crisis: After the economics minister refused to sign off on a bailout of Arcandor, Schroeder referred to him as “the baron from Bavaria,” evoking the image of a privileged scion out of touch with ordinary problems. But, unlike Kirchhof, Guttenberg has come away from the insults unscathed. Indeed, his poll numbers have only gone up. It all suggests that his aristocratic background counts as a benefit in the eyes of the public, rather than a hindrance. Prospective voters give different reasons why that might be the case.
“I think he’s the one standing up for the system as we know it,” said Michael Beyer, an accountant from Berlin. “Germans don’t like big risks, would prefer not to have to take them. They don’t like the idea of extreme shifts.” The policies undertaken by Merkel’s government — including two stimulus packages — have amounted to an unprecedented intervention into the post-war German economy.
Guttenberg’s aristocratic lineage lends the comforting illusion that things can and should stay stable through the economic crisis — or, at least, that he will change them only as much as necessary. Indeed, the social-market system of capitalism that Guttenberg defends as economics minister is something of a family inheritance: His own grandfather, as a confidante of post-war chancellor Konrad Adenauer, was involved in developing the mechanisms of the system that still frame Germany’s economic activity.
That family history indicates another reason that Germany finds itself so attracted to Guttenberg. “I feel like he’s doing what he really believes, not just benefiting one faction,” said Martin Scholz, an insurance salesman from Brandenburg. “Even if I disagree with him, I can respect that.”
Guttenberg, it’s said, didn’t only inherit money from his family. He also imbibed the high aristocratic values of public service and responsibility. His great-uncle was executed during the Third Reich because of his role in a heroic plot among German noblemen to assassinate Hitler. His grandfather was a post-war conservative politician, respected for his independence of mind and his openness to working with the opposition, even against pressure from colleagues in his own party. As Guttenberg’s own father, speaking about the family, put it in an interview with the newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, “We are raised in such a way that we are, if necessary, prepared to die for the things that we believe are right … . That’s the family ideal.”
But, while voters respect that sentiment, they are also aware of the privilege that makes it possible. The ambivalence is evident every time people talk about Guttenberg. “It’s not just a job to him,” Scholz said approvingly, before adding with a tinge of envy in his voice, “It’s not like he needs the money.”
Right now, Guttenberg is benefiting from the first part of Scholz’s judgment. Steinmeier and the SPD are hoping that come election day it will be the second part that sticks in voters’ minds.