Strasbourg was the perfect venue last night, as the presidents of France and Germany, Emmanuel Macron and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, sat in its cathedral to the sounds of Debussy and Beethoven. This “peace concert” kicked off a week of commemorations of the end of World War I.
For centuries this Alsacian city (Strassburg in German) sat suspended between France and Germany. In 1871, the new German Empire seized it. Then, 100 years ago, the defeated German Empire had to give it back, before the “Third Empire” (Adolf’s) took it again. Today, Strasbourg stands for the hope and promise of European integration. It is the seat of the European Parliament. It is also a base for the Franco-German brigade, a joint force that could be one of the seeds for a future European army. It just departed for duty in Mali.
The commemorations will culminate on 11/11, when Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel will meet at Compiègne, the site where Germany in 1918 signed its surrender in a railroad carriage — a carriage that Hitler would wheel out again to accept France’s surrender to him in 1940. Compiègne is thus one of those places that stand as geographical memorials to the insanity of Europe’s past, and as exhortations to the present.
That’s why I am surprised that Macron is getting flak at home in France for toning down the military pomp and gloating during this centenary week of the Grande Guerre. What could be more beautiful and powerful than this iconography of Franco-German amity, symbolic for a general European peace?
Both Merkel and Steinmeier, incidentally, were obsessed four years ago — ahead of the centenary of the Great War’s outbreak — with Christopher Clark’s “The Sleepwalkers”. It describes how the continent’s leaders in 1914 stumbled into catastrophe, because they didn’t understand that even seemingly small steps can trigger large cataclysms. History does have lessons, for those who care to hear them.
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From such sublime and sweeping thoughts, I must segue to the shallow, puny, and petty. You may recall that the German Grand Coalition (sic) nearly broke apart this summer because the three parties (CDU, CSU, SPD) fought about the fate of a bureaucrat, Hans-Georg Maassen. He oversaw a domestic spy agency, but seemed to be suspiciously sympathetic to the far right. The SPD wanted him fired. The Bavarian CSU, led by Horst Seehofer (pictured, right, with Maassen) insisted that he instead be promoted to a post in the interior ministry, which Seehofer runs. Amid public outrage, Maassen was to be merely moved there, without a promotion.
Well, now he won’t be moved either, but simply sent into early retirement. The reason is apparently a speech Maassen gave in which he, clumsily as ever, accused the SPD of a witch hunt against him. But the Social Democrats, after drubbings in two regional elections, are no longer in the mood to be pushed around like that. He’s gotta go.
More interesting is what will now happen to Seehofer, who caused all this fuss, and who has in general been an infantile brat, treating the government of Europe’s largest economy as his sandbox — stealing the SPD’s little bucket, stomping on Angela’s castle and so forth. Since his CSU crashed in last month’s Bavarian election, all of Germany has been waiting for him to step down. He’s basically become a joke. This week, the CSU (which is still the strongest party in the state) is forming a new government in Bavaria. By next week, Horst, it’s definitely time to go.
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Firing Maassen, of course, won’t solve the underlying problems in this hardly-grand coalition, as both the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats keep trying to figure out why voters are running away from them. At least, the Christian Democrats (CDU) are now preoccupied by something exciting: an open race for who will replace Angela Merkel as party boss at the convention on December 8th.
The Social Democrats, meanwhile, are wallowing in their misery without anybody even paying attention. Yesterday, their honchos gathered to take stock. Ralf Stegner (pictured above), one of their leaders, brought a ten-point plan of very, very bold ideas. The ten points turned out to be ones that the SPD has repeatedly rolled out over the years and that voters have roundly rejected. Stegner, even when he’s trying to smile, looks permanently cranky. In that sense, too, he embodies the SPD.
In a new poll by Forsa, the Social Democrats would only get 13 percent if a federal election were held today. Their erstwhile junior partners, the Greens, would now come in 11 percentage points ahead of them. The SPD, founded a century and a half ago in the Marxist era, is now atrophying before our eyes. What sometimes gets lost amid the nostalgia is that the party hasn’t had a single new and big idea for the future since Gerhard Schröder. Like Marx, it no longer belongs in the Bundestag, but in a museum.
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“Sanctions are coming,” President Donald Trump promised Iran on Twitter, in the style of Game of Throne’s “Winter is coming”. Today, a new tranche of his sanctions is taking effect, and Trump must be hoping that he will soon force the Iranians to their knees. The Middle East has become messier since Trump’s preferred ally in that struggle, Saudi Arabia, lost credibility, after its crown prince became a prime suspect in the brutal assassination of Jamal Khashoggi.
Germany, a signatory of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that Trump is now trying to rip apart, has been resisting his sanctions. But, as even the Germans are now admitting, there is little that Germany, or even Europe, can do when America throws its weight around. The Iranians, for their part, are answering Trump with their own puns on Game of Thrones — when they’re not busy burning American flags. What’s dragons in the Game is nukes in the Middle East. This is a region where you really don’t want Winter to be coming. Read more.
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