Martin Schulz

The Rise of the Underdog

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    By appealing to people’s emotions, Martin Schulz could pose a real challenge to the sober, rational Angela Merkel in September’s election.

  • Facts


    • Martin Schulz left school without any qualifications and trained to be a bookseller before entering politics.
    • After stepping down as president of the European Parliament, the SPD named him as their chancellor candidate in September’s election.
    • Since then the party has bounced back in the polls, and is now at the same level as Chancellor Merkel’s CDU.
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SPD-Kanzlerkandidat Martin Schulz
Playing the underdog, Martin Schulz, is adept at appealing to voters' emotions. Source: DPA

It is a stormy day when Martin Schulz emerges from Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church. And then, something strange happens: the square in front of the church is empty, no one wants to take his photograph, shake his hand, or pat him on the back. A rare moment – for once, the SPD chancellor candidate has some time for himself.

It’s been a long day. He has met with Brandenburg’s premier, Dietmar Woidke, and made a number of campaign appearances, as he has done for weeks now. But now in the roaring wind, after Father Christian Wolff gave him a private tour of the church, Mr. Schulz is left alone with his thoughts.

Visiting churches always reminds him of his youth, of the other schoolchildren at his Catholic’s boys’ school, of the high school students at the Holy Spirit Missionary School and his youthful rage. “I didn’t want to listen to anyone.”

Mr. Schulz’s moments of retrospection reveal a lot about why he emphasizes feelings, appreciation, respect and attention as elements of his political agenda. He was kicked out of school for flunking his exams. “I didn’t believe in what they believed, and I told them that.” Nevertheless, the religious superiors and the head teacher personally arranged a teaching post for him, telling him: “You’re not stupid.”

It certainly looks that way. On Sunday, the 61-year-old trained bookseller, who left high school without a diploma, will be elected as the SPD’s new party chairman.

Mr. Schulz, former mayor of the German town of Würselen, North Rhine-Westphalia and then president of the European Parliament is being dubbed as the SPD’s designated Messiah for saving the party from a lack of identity and for the party’s Lazarus-style resurrection.

“I can become chancellor both without a high school diploma and with a beard.”

Martin Schulz, SPD chancellor candidate

Since Sigmar Gabriel stepped down as SPD chancellor candidate in January, citing his own unpopularity, things have happened that no Social Democrat would have thought possible. Within a few weeks, Mr. Schulz catapulted his party’s poll ratings from the low 20s to an equal footing with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats at around 30 percent, for the first time in 10 years.

Of course, the proof is in the pudding. The first big test will be the state elections in Saarland on March 26, the first vote in a bumper election year.

Meanwhile, wherever Mr. Schulz goes, crowds follow. When he walks onto the stage of a hall in Spiesen-Elversberg, Saarland, the crowd, both old and young, leap up and shout “Martin, Martin!” before he has even uttered a word. The occasion is the local SPD’s traditional herring meal, often eaten on Ash Wednesday and usually attended by a few dozen members. Today a throng of 400 squeeze into the hall. “Martin gives us hope!” is emblazoned on an elderly Social Democrat’s homemade sign.

He’s playing to the home crowd. This is the town where Mr. Schulz’s father, the youngest of 11 children and a miner’s son, was born.  The policeman told his son: stay in touch with your roots.

Mr. Schulz grew up in a small town called Hehlrath, near Aix-la-Chapelle, close to the borders with Belgium and the Netherlands. Here, Mr. Schulz battled with and conquered alcoholism before treading the path of respectability and becoming a bookseller, then mayor and heading to Brussels to launch his high-flying career.

17 p9 Politicians’ Satisfaction Rating-01

At the hall in Spiesen-Elversberg Mr. Schulz rattles off the names of local towns and players for local star football club Borussia Neunkirchen. The locals gape in wonder.

This is how political social awareness works with Mr. Schulz. He then starts to talk about how he visited a local dementia ward, “where we were all left deeply moved.” It’s at this point in his speeches that he starts talking about people who can’t sleep properly at night because they are worried, either students who can’t find a job or older workers who are scared of losing their job and then losing everything.

Speaking on German television in September 2016, Mr. Schulz said: “The people who have built up something have a lot to lose. Their fear of downward mobility is the fear of the erosion of their status.” And to think, many thought that those in high places didn’t care.

Since events such as the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s rise to power, experts have expected the more insecure members of society to turn away from established parties. Mr. Schulz talks about “esteem” in his speeches, addressing the diffuse feeling of contempt among the population, talking to those who have been left wondering “Why I am not respected?” The SPD’s new leader is all about feelings first, then facts.

Some fear that by stealing hearts, Mr. Schulz has opened a kind of “Pandora’s Box,” a kind of “make a wish come true” box, only the SPD won’t be able to fulfill most of the wishes.

But nice, sensitive Mr. Schulz also has another side to him. Members of his Social Democratic group in the European parliament said that he “led them from the brink of dictatorship.” He can be loud, angry and threatening if something does not quite suit him.

He is doggedly determined too. A high-level member of the Green Party recalls Mr. Schulz’s first years in the European Parliament, where he was first elected in 1994. “If he hadn’t been invited to a meeting, he would go along anyway,” describing him as a kind of “political terrier.” Mr. Schulz has the advantage that “you tend to underestimate him,” he continued, which is why he succeeded in “playing a kind of European mayor for the little man.”

So Mr. Schulz carries on telling the tale of his lack of academic qualifications and his battle with alcohol, playing the card of the underdog. At one rally a local parliamentary group leader angrily reported being asked whether Mr. Schulz could even become chancellor without a high school diploma.

In responding, Mr. Schulz injected a touch of humor: “I’ve heard that some are questioning whether you can become chancellor without a high school diploma. I can become chancellor both without a high school diploma and with a beard.”


This article first appeared in the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel.  To contact the author:

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