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Schröder's brilliant decisions

Writer Georg M. Oswald takes a critical look at "Decisions", the memoirs of former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder

What would happen if everyone writing their memoirs had to have their memories, their assessment of things, of themselves and their life's work evaluated against all the autobiographies that had ever been written? What would happen, for example, if before he started hitting the keys, a politician, a former chancellor perhaps, was forced to stand before the bookshelf and spend at least an evening or two having a long hard think about what the European culture he had represented, defended and absorbed so deeply had already produced in this particular area.

Perhaps he might stumble across Rousseau's "Confessions" where on the very first of almost a thousand pages the boldness, even presumptuousness of the formulation of his intent sends a shiver down your spine. "Here is what I have done, what I have thought, what I was. I have told the good and bad with equal frankness. ... I have shown myself as I was, contemptible and vile when that is how I was, good, generous, sublime, when that is how I was." Is this not the very purpose of such an enterprise? Indeed it is. Rousseau was not a man who held himself in modest esteem. At another point on page one he writes, "I am not made like any that I have seen; I venture to believe that I was not made like any that exist." Gerhard Schröder also has no modest opinion of himself – unfortunately though he is made like plenty of others who overestimate themselves. His book reads as follows: "With all the self-awareness I have at my disposal and which is based on my achievements, I have never ceased to wonder at my own abilities."

And just in case you were wondering too, never once in this book does Schröder presents himself as contemptible or disreputable. Every one of his decisions was right, every one of his proposals, crowned with success. There are no blunders to speak of. If anything did go wrong, it was the fault of others, whose weaknesses he is magnanimously prepared to overlook, as long as confessions were made. Of course other people have different opinions, one is a democrat after all, but these opinions are "absurd", "distorted" "unrealistic" by turns and if he feels himself being backed into a corner, then an "I'm certain of it" or an "I am utterly convinced" always comes in useful for silencing persistent doubters.

It would be exaggerated to talk about Schröder's language, so we'll stick to his choice of words. Adjectives such as "major", "important" and "significant" are on double shifts. This is quite normal for a politician. As is a predilection for euphemism. But over the course of 515 pages this is a tough test of patience for any reader. The talk is of "distant Chernobyl", for example, at precisely the moment when it becomes clear that Chernobyl is anything but distant.

When he worries about the "young" soldiers (what about the older ones?), whom he packs off to war (not referred to as such of course), he does not send them to their deaths, but "into an uncertain future" which, one ventures to add, might be over only too quickly if, in Kabul for example, they happen to be sitting in the wrong truck. Human lives, when the talk turns to victims who make "action" (i.e. war) necessary, are "innocent" as a matter of principle as if there were such thing as "guilty" lives rather than plain old guilt. Excursions into the world of literature are largely unrecognised as such and go radically pear-shaped every time.

The terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 was not aimed only at the World Trade Center but at "what holds our world together at the core." If we remember, Faust tried in vain to make a pact with the devil to find out exactly what this might be, but he never finds out. Schröder however seems to know it only too well. Faust's problem "That I no more with sweat-drops sour / To say what I know nothing of, may need" is not his. So why quote him?

Another example: "I remember times when I would awake with a start from a sleep plagued by anxious dreams" - to discover that he'd turned into an insect? Hardly. Despite having the same initials Gerhard Schröder is no Gregor Samsa and "Metamorphosis" wouldn't have crossed his mind when he penned these words, but he certainly wanted to lend them some sort of literary overtone.

Okay, so Schröder wasn't out to prove his literary prowess, and he certainly didn't take up the "vast challenge" of writing this book because his publisher offered him near on a million euros to do so: it was "to review things". The reviewing takes place over ten chapters. Number one deals with his childhood. Which he spent in Bexten. Conditions were poor, means scarce but even then the ball was round and the determination huge. "Acker" (slogger) was Schröder's nickname as centre forward for the local Talle sports club. When the Germans win the football World Championship in 1954, Schröder is ten, and he watches the final against Hungary on the telly.

"I can list all the names of the German World Championship team of '54 off the top of my head. Perhaps not every day, but whenever I needed to feel my feet on the ground, images from those days would regularly pop up in my mind. Many a political summit, many a banquet, which as chancellor I couldn't avoid, lost its obviously overblown significance."

At the premiere of national film director Sönke Wortmann's film "The miracle of Bern" in 2004, the chancellor, as he "admitted" in an interview afterwards, shed many a tear. This story which the media hungrily devoured was clearly quite free of obviously overblown significance. Because Schröder is himself a hero of Bern, at least in spirit, or rather a hero of Bexten, which is basically the same thing.

Chapter one ends with Schröder's time as premier of Lower Saxony. He takes us on a romp through his most important political successes before tucking into the real meat. Chapters two to ten deal with the chancellorship. The themes are forced labour compensation, the Kosovo conflict, the Alliance for Jobs, the power struggle with Oskar Lafontaine, cabinet reshuffling, the China trip, 9/11, Enduring Freedom, his vote of confidence, the Iraq war, the French-Russian-German alliance, a spot of domestic policy (BSE, floods etc.) re-election in 2002, Europe as world power, Agenda 1010, Putin's Russia and the 2005 elections.

Unfortunately there's nothing here that the average newspaper reader won't already have come across in those seven years, even less perhaps. The at once astounding and exquisitely comforting piece of news that Schröder has to share is that during his entire time in office not a single mistake was made, at least not by him, or at least all challenges were tackled in the best possible way, which is why the SPD is still active in government in a third legislative period, which "fills" Schröder whom the SPD naturally has to thank for all this "with satisfaction".

Of course there were some real problems, such as the war in Kosovo. "We had to fulfil our obligations to NATO. There was no ducking out." Room for manoeuvre: none. Oh yes, and we thought it would be contradictory to be elected by the former followers of the former peace movement of the eighties, and then run off to bomb Belgrade. Then with Afghanistan, a couple of Red-Green do-gooders immediately started kicking up a fuss in the Bundestag and refused to understand that there was no going back. The allegiance to NATO left no room for manoeuvre. Chancellor Schröder called for a confidence vote and because no one was that keen to surrender the so-called responsibility of government so quickly after all, everyone voted in favour of joining Enduring Freedom. Now that's convincing decision making!

The media soon adjusted to the new circumstances. But just when they thought things were starting up again, this time in Iraq, Chancellor Schröder pulled the rug out from under them. "I have ensured that Germany will not take part in the Iraq War. But of course it will fulfil its duties to the NATO Alliance."

Aha. And we thought it was a contradiction to fly "No War" banners out the window and at the same time guarantee fly-over rights, take-off and landing rights and security services. But things are not as simple as all that. We did not take part in the Iraq War because there was no UN mandate to do so. But we did provide the USA with logistical support and the help of "our services," as Schröder discretely calls the Federal Intelligence Services. Of course Schröder doesn't mention that "our services" by the looks of things also had a hand in the torturing. But even the least insightful will by now have understood why that was necessary. And why was that exactly? You've got it, Our allegiance to NATO. Selling German voters this squaring of the circle as opposition to the war has to be seen as Schröder's major political deed, one that won him a hard-earned re-election victory in 2002.

Once, one single time, something appears in his memoirs which at first glance might be taken for an unconscious early stage of self-criticism. But this turns out to be an optical illusion. "Despite the rational necessity and the conviction that we were doing the right thing, collectively and individually we all had moments nagging doubt. It was clear to me that fulfilling our obligations to NATO would be the acid test for the SPD – Green Party coalition's ability to govern. Nevertheless we managed to reach agreement through on-going talks, in which of course Defence Minister Rudolf Scharping also had a part. In public discussion about this time of change in German foreign policy, Scharping played an important role, one that cannot be valued too highly."

That's true. We remember how after he got over his nagging doubt, Scharping splashed around in the pool with countess Pilati in a way that cannot be valued too highly, of course not without previously calling up a photographer from Bunte magazine.

And otherwise? Vladimir Putin? A flawless democrat. Thank God for that, we were under the impression he was conducting a war of extermination against the Chechens, and possibly shares political responsibility for hired killings such as that of the critical journalist Anna Politkovskaya. But things just look that way for us ignoramuses. The book tells us nothing about Schröder's involvement in the Russian gas industry, nothing about the role played by the Federal Intelligence Services in the "war against terror" under his government, and nothing about whether he now assesses political events differently than in the past. To his critics he says: "Unfortunately there is no protective clothing against short-sightedness and stupidity." And we shouldn't, he goes on, dare to disagree.

Schröder says that "Bundeskanzler" (Chancellor) is the appropriate title for addressing him, now as in the past. So what if he still thinks that's what he is; other people think they're Napoleon. And he tells us that when "Decisions" is made into a movie – which will certainly happen very soon - he would prefer to be portrayed on the silver screen by Götz George. Instantly this actor's sterling performance as Hermann Willie in Helmut Dietl's movie "Schtonk!" springs to mind. Perhaps he's still got the costume and accessories. But who will play Scharping and Lafontaine? The best would be for them to play themselves. Any character actor would despair at being offered roles like that.

In closing, one could ask what sense it could have to buy such a book aside from making Mr Schröder a bit richer and oneself a bit dumber. Well, let's be honest: none at all! It's reading fodder for the herd. Onward and upward: the quicker we can forget it, the better!

Gerhard Schröder's memoirs "Entscheidungen" are published by Hoffmann and Campe.


The article originally appeared in German in Die Welt on October 28, 2006.

Georg M. Oswald is a labour lawyer and author. His most recent novel "Im Himmel" is published by Rowohlt.

Translation: lp, jab. - let's talk european