Mr zu Guttenberg, you’ve been living in the US now for several years, but you were very present during the Bundestag election campaign and appeared at several events for your party. What was your first thought when you saw the early projections on television on election night?
My first reaction was one of astonishment. It was one of the most peculiar election results in decades and we are facing relatively difficult times. I didn’t expect it, not in that way. But I was lacking some of that insider perspective because I spend most of my time in the United States these days.
I’ve never seen Mr Seehofer look as pale as he did on that election night.
And I don’t think he was the only one looking pale.
The CSU seems to have seen this disaster coming before the CDU did…
It was quite remarkable to see the cheering crowd at the CDU headquarters on TV – against the backdrop of an almost historically bad election result for the CDU. That’s the art of great dialectics.
Why, in your opinion, did it come to such a debacle?
I think a lot of factors played a role. When it comes to the CSU, two things need to be considered. One is the proportion of voters disappointed by the so-called establishment at federal level and, without believing the crude slogans of the AfD with any conviction, are saying: “Enough is enough”. Other key issues include the management of the refugee policy, which didn’t exactly go to plan after the first wave of refugees entered the country. According to the media, it was Bavaria where things seemed to be dealt with best. If Bavarians wanted to show their anger and dissatisfaction with Berlin, they really had only two options: they could dump the SPD, but not the CDU. So who did that leave them with? The CSU. So that election night became somewhat tragic for the CSU. A second aspect is the traditional split between CDU/CSU voters. They wanted to vote for their CSU direct candidate in the constituency, but liked Lindner too, and could see him shaking things up in Berlin. So their second vote went to the FDP. This shift in the casting of second votes came on top of all the other factors and contributed to the CSU’s losses. No one could have guessed that the FDP would then deal with it in such a lousy way.
But isn’t the real catastrophe for the Union a million votes to the AfD? Especially in Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, where we have full employment, and where you can’t use the get-out that it is a “disenfranchised ex-GDR region”?
It’s a catastrophe that has hit all the national parties. It reflects a wider phenomenon that we are seeing in almost every European member state and which we have seen culminate in the United States. This phenomenon perhaps has something to do with a certain weariness with the establishment, but also with increased brand awareness. The question is: what do the populist parties stand for today? For decades, having a popular party brand largely guaranteed runaway success in this country. But that hasn’t been the case for some time. Especially when quite a few leading political figures are sacrificing their authenticity to the pursuit of careerism. Creating a catch-all party brand is incredibly difficult because you have to somehow pack everything in there, from left to right as well as the centre. And that’s even harder to do if you have two or three highly emotional topics such as the refugee crisis and the European debt crisis and there’s still a general uncertainty in the population about where the journey is actually headed in a global context. Developing a popular party brand in that situation is damn difficult.
Probably also because the loyalty factor is no longer there. Even the major brands are experiencing the same thing. Like Coca-Cola, for example, which is being pushed out by all the new trendy lemonades on the market that we are all huge fans of…
That’s a very interesting comparison.
Except that in the party-political landscape we aren’t just talking about new cool brands, but “toxic” ones.
Yes, and I consider the AfD to be a toxic brand in the long term. And the strategy of simply refusing to talk about it has intellectual limitations and sometimes even results in a “now more than ever” effect among some people. Of course, there is this bunch of idiots that the AfD has in its ranks who aren’t afraid of expressing their anti-Semitic, racist, historically revisionist sentiments, that were last heard 80 years ago in this country, and such people have to be confronted resolutely. Those who remain silent are not facing up to their responsibilities. That applies to the whole of society. In this case, confrontation is justified and needed. The other issue is the AfD manifesto. Whether we like it or not, the party does have a manifesto. But it contains some highly confused ideas, and we need to make that clear to the people. We need to discuss the content, but without offending those who have chosen to vote AfD, who are actually decent people. And there are a lot of them. At the same time, we need to force into a corner those party leaders who are reluctant to distance themselves from the brown whispering of some of their members.
Getting back to the Union: the allegation here is that they have given up their brand essence, for example on issues of domestic security, compulsory military service and same-sex marriage. What would you advise the Union? It’s not possible to build a CDU or CSU like we did 30 years ago…
A brand core has to be sustainable and feasible. If I hadn’t made the decision to abolish compulsory military service when I was Defence Minister, it may well have been insisted on by the Federal Constitutional Court a year later. I would have liked to see the reaction of the population then: the failure of the politicians to tackle such a problem… I would have preferred a different solution, but that’s a different story. The fundamentally positive concept of military service was doomed a long time ago and undermined with gradual erosion. I don’t think that the brand essence has been neglected as far as the issue of domestic security is concerned either. That’s one of the areas where the CSU managed to score points. Given the speed of change in the world in which we find ourselves, the question is whether populist parties must now undergo a permanent brand renewal process. Some recommend complete flexibility. Flexibility, however carries the risk, of becoming completely unrecognisable at some point. Or you pick up on issues that have been neglected so far. For example, the big topic of digitalisation and new technologies, an area with opportunities, but also potential for risk. It was a topic that did not appear on the major parties’ agenda at that level of clarity and with the necessary emphasis. You could argue, though, that our main voter base is aged 60 and over, and they probably don’t care much about the impact of WhatsApp and Facebook on the future…
But they might be quite keen on having a broadband connection themselves.
The broadband connection was already a topic six or seven years ago, when I was still in politics, and we’re simply not competitive compared to countries like Japan and South Korea, where half of all households meanwhile have fibre-optic connections. But if you put that on the agenda, of course you have to be able to come up with the goods after the election.
Christian Lindner sat here a year ago and we talked about how he rebuilt the FDP. He said that at the time everyone in the party had asked him: “How do we get back into the Bundestag?” And his response was that the real question should be: “Why do we need to get back into the Bundestag?” What is our task as liberals? What is our brand’s core? It is possible that parties simply had historical functions that have eventually served their purpose. I’d like to ask you this “why” now: why do we still need the Union? What is its brand core?
A purely clientele orientated party is not capable of covering the entire spectrum of social issues from the local to the international level. For this, political forces with a broader base are needed. But the inherent problem here is that it is difficult to develop a brand core – or it quickly dissipates. What becomes dangerous is when a brand core is seen to be represented by only one person, for example one head of government. In that sense, the FDP has an easier ride. It doesn’t aspire to be a people’s party with 35 percent of the popular vote, or to shape the country as a leading party, but instead, is cheered and celebrated when it achieves 10 percent. It is thrilled by double digits and naturally has the luxury of focusing on a few core issues. Without being envious, I do recognise that the FDP ran a very successful campaign, and I think it’s good that they are represented in the Bundestag. Just how easy it is to stumble on one’s own hubris has been demonstrated with the Jamaica coalition negotiations. The main protagonists Kubicki and Lindner will need to work had to rid themselves of the image of being immature, vain self-promoters.
You made some appearances during the election campaign and were greeted by cheers. Did that surprise you?
When you’ve been out of the back-breaking business for six years and have forgotten the rhythm and time pressures, it can be pretty exhausting to begin with. I also found it a little bizarre sometimes because I wasn’t standing for election, it was just about helping my party. Some had already begun to project their expectations. You can see though, by the election results, that my attempt at helping was only partially successful. But I now live in a completely different environment, and this brief return to politics with all its pressure mechanisms just wasn’t able to excite me anymore. That’s why three weeks on the election campaign were more than enough.
In politics you have to work yourself to the bone, but the enthusiasm and accolades must build you back up again. Like a wave you would ride again, right?
Once you’ve ridden all these waves and know how limited the duration and effect of the cheering and support is, especially in politics, it doesn’t really build you up again that much.
So you’re calling the United States your home once again?
Germany will always be my home. I won’t be growing old in America. Once you’ve lived there for a few years, you see the limits of happiness that living in the USA can bring, irrespective of the clown who’s currently occupying the White House. Once you’ve sat around in the office of the driving licensing department for 16 hours, you suddenly start to get quite enthusiastic about German bureaucracy. And the same is true of our healthcare system, or pensions and care system, which don’t even exist there in the form that we are accustomed to. Which brings me to conclude that it’s not too bad in this country, even if we are the world champions in whingeing and whining.
You said that you failed in politics. So after a rapid and steep rise, disappointment with your political brand followed. That was six years ago. How would you describe the Guttenberg brand today?
I hope I never have to describe myself in terms of a brand again. And I think it’s a big mistake, as an individual, to fall into the trap of wanting to embody a brand, especially in politics. You start being steered from the outside. And I certainly made that mistake. It is sometimes genuinely difficult to avoid that trap. You submit to the compulsion of obeying a figure that someone else has enthusiastically created and occasionally imposed on you. And so along with the media, the person also fails.
It’s like switching on the stage lights and then complaining about the heat…
Exactly. And that’s no doubt one of the great lessons I learned over the years with growing distance, also with regard to my own behaviour. In the sense that it becomes clear that the man Karl-Theodor Guttenberg should be in the limelight, but for God’s sake never be a brand again. That was quite interesting during my election campaign appearances. You suddenly read things like: “Guttenberg is testing his brand” or his brand value or its market value. All I have to say here is: it’s the same old same old nonsense being brought up again.
We have become a very unemotional country that manages our own prosperity. We live in a protected space and we’re constantly being updated on the record economic figures. But somehow the passion has fizzled out. What needs to change in Germany? Do we need more emotion again, alongside the anger and fear that has been fuelled for some time now?
Emotions are always a great thing. I appreciate anyone who brings a level of passion to political discussions, even if they represent fundamentally different beliefs to my own. Passion is something that I like to express in everything I do. I would like to see more emotion in some political debates. It would do the whole debating landscape a power of good in this country. Not every political decision-maker is driven by passion. Our re-elected Chancellor, for example, no doubt has great passions, but communicating them, I would say, is not one of her greatest strengths. But no one expects that of her, she wouldn’t be authentic if she suddenly started expressing her feelings. In fact, she has gained wide recognition for her level-headed common sense. Nevertheless, we could certainly do with one or two politicians who represent the so-called centre position with passion. And that is possible. The centre doesn’t have to be boring.
Thank you very much for the interview.