Political Comeback

Return from Exile

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Günther Oettinger, a leading German conservative whose political faux pas six years ago seemingly halted his career, is making a comeback and could be critical to Angela Merkel's reelection hopes next year.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party is suffering historic defeats in various state elections, and direly needs help ahead of next year’s federal election.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Günther Oettinger took office as the European Commissioner for Energy in February 2010, stepping down as Minister President of Baden-Württemberg after a controversial speech.
    • This month, Ms. Merkel’s approval ratings sank to 46 percent, its lowest level in five years.
    • Mr. Oettinger, a hard-working politician who remains influential in his region six years after leaving, could be a strong asset for the CDU.
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    Audio

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When Günther Oettinger left Germany in 2010, few political observers in Berlin expected to hear from him again. The minister president of Baden-Württemberg, the state that is home to Stuttgart, Porsche and Daimler, had been a rising star in Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party.

But his ascent seemed to come to a grinding halt in 2007 after he gave a controversial eulogy for one of his predecessors, Hans Karl Filbinger, the state’s minister president from 1966 to 1978. In his speech, Mr. Oettinger said Mr. Filbinger, a marine court judge in Nazi Germany from 1943 to 1945, was “not a Nazi.” Mr. Filbinger had stepped down as minister president in 1978 after it came to light that he had sentenced four Nazi deserters to death.

Until his death at 93, Mr. Filbinger denied being a Nazi sympathizer.

The outrage over Mr. Oettinger’s remarks came swiftly, fed by political opponents in the Social Democratic Party and elsewhere. Mr. Oettinger initially defended his comments, saying he was misunderstood, but was admonished by Ms. Merkel to explain himself.

He eventually issued a public apology to Holocaust victims, saying he had never, as his political rivals had claimed, attempted to relativize the Holocaust or assert that Mr. Filbinger was an opponent of the Nazi regime.

“He wasn’t one and I never maintained that he was,” Mr. Oettinger told Bild newspaper at the time. Mr. Filbinger was a “deeply Christian and conservative person with a demonstrable inner distance to the Nazi regime,” he told Bild. “I also believe by the way that one shouldn’t condemn a person for their entire life for mistakes that they may have made as a young person under this horrible system.”

Despite attempts to explain himself, the political damage remained, and instead of coming to Berlin for a bigger political job, Mr. Oettinger’s next stop was what some might consider self-imposed exile – Brussels, as European commissioner for energy, and Germany’s only representative on the panel that drafts and administers laws for the European Union.

At Ms. Merkel’s invitation, he took the job in February 2010.

Most assumed Mr. Oettinger had reached the zenith of his political career, and until recently, he had maintained a relatively low profile, surfacing in Germany to make news on digital rights, copyright and other issues in his E.U. portfolio.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Mr. Oettinger’s political burial. Ms. Merkel, his party colleague and one-time rival, stumbled in the European refugee crisis, letting more than 1 million migrants into Germany in a matter of months, and unleashing chaos, grumbling and political retribution.

Now, a year after the crisis began, Ms. Merkel is fighting for her political survival, and, a year before national elections that could give her a record fourth consecutive term as chancellor, she needs every CDU vote in every German state, and none more than in Baden-Württemberg, a stronghold.

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