The Shepherd Losing His Sheep

By Gimson, Andrew | The Spectator, June 7, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Shepherd Losing His Sheep


Gimson, Andrew, The Spectator


Berlin

THE atmosphere in Bonn grows more hysterical by the day. More than a regime, a whole system of government is collapsing, and those at the heart of events have as little notion of what is going on as soldiers staggering across a smoke-covered battlefield.

East Germany fell in 1989, long after most experts had forgotten it was unsustainable. West Germany sailed triumphantly forwards, unchanged in all essentials, though paying a vast amount of money to the East Germans to try to persuade them to stay where they were. In 1991 the political class in Bonn voted by a narrow margin to move to Berlin, but they have put off the evil day of doing so until 1999 at the earliest, and have meanwhile forgotten - if they ever realised - that a revolution awaits them too.

The West German consensus has become unsustainable. It lasted 20 years longer than the post-war British consensus, because it was based on firmer economic foundations. In the late 1940s Ludwig Erhard founded a strong currency, abolished rationing and price controls, and set the Germans (including 12 million hungry exiles from the east) free to create their economic miracle -- about which, as he said, there was nothing in the slightest bit miraculous.

The story of the West German people since those days is the familiar tale of the craving for absolute security leading to a welfare state so costly and all-embracing that it reduces the people - or a sizable proportion of them - to a condition of degrading passivity. But the condition of the country's political elite is even worse. Its personal version of the welfare state is astoundingly lavish, an object of envy and mockery to the rest of the Germans, who know that most of their MPs would otherwise have had no better hope than to rise to a lowly level in the civil service.

This is not just an economic problem, though it saps Germany's economic vitality. The most severe danger is that it has produced a race of politicians with no more capacity for independent thought than a flock of sheep. They must all move together or they will not move at all. That is one of the things that makes Bonn such an outstandingly boring place. Even if someone has an original thought, he dare not express it for fear of being ostracised by the rest of the flock.

Above them stands the great shepherd, Chancellor Helmut Kohl. His career goes back to the very start of the new era in Germany. He has been a member of the Christian Democratic Union for over half a century, since December 1946, its leader for nearly a quarter of a century, since June 1973, and Chancellor for over 14 years, since October 1982. He is the virtuoso of West German politics, the man who can play the system better than anyone ever has, a political opportunist with a penetrating instinct for power. …

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