Each time I have come to Germany in the last 10 years, I am newly amazed by three things. First, how the technological lead that Germany built up in Europe during the "economic miracle" of its post- war reconstruction has proved a liability. Streets ahead of the rest of us in the Seventies, Germans have been comprehensively overtaken by the French and the British in their facility with the essential components of day-to-day international life: telecommunications, internet access and recognition of major credit cards.
Second, how well the fundamentals of German society - Kinder, Kirche Kuche - have endured, compared with the other countries of northern Europe. The divorce rate is relatively low; you see family groups - mother, father, one or two children and probably a grandparent - wherever you go.
And third, how successfully - and with what West German generosity of spirit - Germany has been reunited. The East has been systematically rebuilt with West German (and, yes, European) money and almost exclusively West German expertise. That task is unfinished, but it is a second German miracle, and not just economic.
Now, just short of five weeks before the general election, these three German characteristics seemed on the point of giving a centre- right coalition a majority in the Bundestag and elevating Edmund Stoiber, the premier of Bavaria, to be Chancellor in Berlin.
Mr Stoiber was campaigning on his economic record in Bavaria, where he is hailed as the "Lederhosen and laptop" leader and credited with bringing high-tech investment to his home state, while successfully fostering its traditions. He has been married to his wife, Karin, for more than 30 years, has three daughters, and the campaign poster that greets visitors to Munich shows himself and his wife as a happy couple, with the single caption: "The Stoibers".
Opinion polls showed that the current Social-Democrat Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, was having great difficulty finding any way to reduce Mr Stoiber's early lead. Mr Schroder is known among those disillusioned by his four years in power as the "bankruptcy chancellor" for the number of businesses that have gone under and the numbers of unemployed. Married to his fourth wife, he is wisely not campaigning, overtly or subliminally, on family values; his election posters show a grave looking administrator, poring over papers in his study, alone.
Disillionment with Mr Schroder's tenure was set to decide an election about which few felt passionately, and in which many were probably not going to vote at all. Then came the floods. Five weeks before the election, the disaster that has struck the east of the country is fast changing calculations. …