Schröder's Story

The Man Who Fought His Way Up

gerhard schroeder_Stefan Kroeger_WirtschaftsWoche
Gerhard Schröder.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    In a new biography, Gregor Schöllgen paints a complex and detailed portrait of Gerhard Schröder. The former Social Democratic chancellor left a lasting imprint on Germany with his reforms to the social welfare state.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Gerhard Schröder was chancellor of Germany from 1998 to 2005.
    • He trained as a lawyer before entering politics.
    • He had a reputation as a non-conformist and a sometimes brash politician.
  • Audio

    Audio

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Desire defines existence, the desire for recognition, power, money, conquest and savoir vivre. The lower the social status, the stronger these desires can be. German politicians like Franz Josef Strauß and Joschka Fischer know this desire, as does Gerhard Schröder.

Growing up, Mr. Schröder’s family was so poor, they would now have qualified for welfare benefits. He grew up in towns like Bexten and Osterhagen, places that are easy to forget and yet remain imprinted on his memory. He talked about these places during his campaigns. It was clear they had shaped him.

His emphasis on his roots is one of the reasons Germans are so well informed about his mother Erika Vosseler’s survival skills, his nagging and jealous stepbrother, and the local soccer club, where Mr. Schröder, an aggressive center-forward nicknamed “the plower,” was a reliable scorer.

“I wanted to get out of there,” Mr. Schröder admitted. He yearned for activities like singing, painting and reading: the things that children in wealthier homes took for granted. He freely talks about how he suffered as a result of what he called the “shortcomings of my background.”

Mr. Schröder lived up to his childhood nickname. Today, he has risen so far above his humble beginnings that he commands substantial fees for advising entrepreneurs and important companies, and gives statesmanlike speeches at conferences. There are several biographies and books about his politics. He wrote his own memoirs early, and as a result they are incomplete.

The latest book about Mr. Schröder is a hefty tome by the seasoned biographer Gregor Schöllgen. It will be launched on Tuesday by Chancellor Angela Merkel, his successor in office. Mighty Schröder himself will also be present at the event.

In the introduction, the author quotes Ms. Merkel, who said that while the former chancellor had a “bourgeois attitude,” he lacked a “classic bourgeois core.” But no matter what anyone says, Mr. Schröder’s reputation as a chancellor of reform and as an opponent of the disastrous Iraq war gets better from one year to the next.

Mr. Schröder has made the law of the street a yardstick for his life.

When Germany celebrates Ms. Merkel’s tenth year as chancellor, it is also commemorating the 10-year anniversary of the end of the Schröder era.

According to Mr. Schöllgen, Mr. Schröder holds Chancellor Merkel and his predecessor Helmut Kohl in high regard. But his role model is former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, known as a pragmatist and a man of action.

His appreciation for Ms. Merkel, the author writes, was not diminished by an incident in a TV studio in September 2005, when Mr. Schröder, perhaps fuelled by too much testosterone, appeared to bully Ms. Merkel, who had just won an election with a narrower margin than had been forecast. Even his staunch supporters within his the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) whispered about his erratic behavior.

Mr. Schöder was the first chancellor to give up a parliamentary seat after leaving office. He is happy to be free, with all the money he earns from consultancies for Ringier, Nord Stream and Rothschild Bank. Occasionally he even cultivates his churlish image.

Mr. Schröder has made the law of the street a yardstick for his life. His world is one in which political combatants must outsmart their nearest opponents to be able to move on to the next dogfight.

Mr. Schöllgen leaves no doubt that the former leftist rebel pursued a systematic path from his political beginnings as head of the youth wing of the SPD to the governorship in the state of Lower Saxony and, finally, to the chancellorship. Mr. Schröder pushed himself relentlessly towards this goal, writes Mr. Schöllgen. He was determined to prove that he would be more than a hard-working, former salesman who spent six months selling hammers in a hardware store before attending night school to advance his career.

 

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Former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder (left) with Russia’s current president, Vladimir Putin (middle) and German rock musician Udo Lindenberg. Source: Handelsblatt

 

His instinct for power has always served him well. Next to Oskar Lafontaine, he became the favorite protégé of the great Willy Brandt. It remains a tragedy within the SPD that the relationship between the two “political animals” ended in a cheap street fight.

Mr. Lafontaine, who became finance minister under the red-green SPD/Green Party coalition government, had expected Mr. Schröder, as chancellor, to consult with his advisers before making important decisions. But Mr. Schröder is a bruiser, who likes retain all power for himself.

“He seeks power, and he is addicted to power,” Mr. Schöllgen writes.

During his career, the SPD politician was forced to come to terms with the need to reach consensus, and with the tenacity required to achieve majorities. Today he is fascinated by the flawless power of his friends, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Schröder has been impressed by decisive business leaders, men he met early in his career as a member of the Volkswagen supervisory board. He admires Volkswagen’s Ferdinand Piëch and steel industrialist Jürgen Großmann, one of Mr. Schröder’s skat-playing and wine-drinking associates.

As an alpha male, Mr. Schröder loved rescuing companies in danger, whether from takeovers by foreign companies (Conti, Preussag) or bankruptcy (Holzmann), efforts that sometimes yielded little more than positive PR. A chancellor with a penchant for industrial policy, he loved traveling abroad. When he did, he took along squadrons of business leaders and managers, who praised him for his ability to open doors, even if they did not agree with him politically.

As long ago as 1996, Mr. Schröder, recognizing that the social welfare state was on its last legs, said “deep cuts are necessary.” He was already opposed to the redistribution of wealth and didn’t think much of Marx, Gramsci or Djilas, whose works were widely read at the time.

Mr. Schöllgen has gathered a vast amount of material on Mr. Schröder. His 900-page book leaves no stone unturned, although it suffers from a lack or organization and evaluation. It uses up a lot of paper, but it is no psychological profile, nothing that could offer a new explanation of Mr. Schröder. Given that Mr. Schöllgen analyzed new files and documents, even looking through Stasi reports on target “Jung” (“likes to drink beer, and drinks a lot of it, always from large glasses”), this is surprising.

 

schroeder_schroeder-kopf_Frank Ossenbrink
Doris Schröder-Köpf is a German journalist and was the fourth wife of the former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder.The pair separated in March. Source: Frank Ossenbrink

 

Mr. Schöllgen allows the reader to draw his own conclusions about Mr. Schröder. Of course, he also mentions Mr. Schröder’s reputation as the “media chancellor,” pointing out the power-hungry politician’s ability to secure the support of regional newspapers, the tabloid Bild, and publications such as Der Spiegel and Stern.

It is obvious Mr. Schröder wants to be noticed, whether it is modelling for suit makers Brioni or appearing as a guest on the TV show “Wetten, dass…”

“He has no reservations,” Mr. Schöllgen writes.

Mr.Schröder had a close team of advisers who shaped him. They included, first and foremost, Sigrid Krampitz and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and, of course, as his very own “spin doctor,” his fourth wife Doris Schröder-Köpf, an experienced journalist. He also sought the company of painters like Markus Lüpertz and musicians like Udo Lindenberg, men who embodied a welcome alternative world to the political chaos of his world.

What remains in the end? The portrait of a quintessential power-politician, who gave more to his SPD party than it gave him, who Germany is rediscovering, and who has a portrait of a fellow architect of power, Otto von Bismarck, painted by Franz von Lenbach, hanging on the wall in his office.

 

Hans-Jürgen Jakobs is one of the co-editors in chief of Handelsblatt. To contact the author: jakobs@handelsblatt.com

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