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Germans swoon over a legacy

In troubled times, Germans seem to prefer aristocratic stability.

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.