Yes, I think we can. Hitherto political parties manoeuvred to change coalition partners during a legislature. This was the way both Ludwig Erhard and Helmut Schmidt were forced out. Now citizens have taken it upon themselves to reject a Chancellor. In a democracy voters must believe that their decisions can at certain turning-points influence a self-enclosed and bureaucratized political world. In West Germany it required several generations for this democratic attitude really to take hold. I have the impression that this change is now effectively sealed.footnote1
Every necessary criticism of Kohl has already been made. His historical merit was to embed German unification in a wider enterprise of European unity. People of my age also recognize Kohl as one of their own generation. I am thinking here of his almost bodily disavowal of the kind of political aesthetic that elitist spirits called for, especially after 1989. Kohl had clearly not forgotten the monstrous mises-enscèneof Nazi rallies or the Chaplinesque antics of our fascist mountebanks.
Certainly we often groaned at the shapeless provincialism of Kohl’s words and gestures. But I came to appreciate the deflation of sonorous vacuities and banalization of public ceremonies that went with it. There was an element of contrariness in Kohl’s style which, if it doesn’t sound too presumptuous, my generation wanted. Maybe we succeeded in mustering some of it against the turgid inwardness, misprinted grandeur, and compulsion to the sublime of the airs and graces of the German spirit.
Kohl achieved something else against his own intentions. The failure of his original talk of a ‘spiritual-moral change’ acted as something of a litmus test. Once Kohl in office found that he could no longer do what he wanted at Verdun or Bitburg, or elsewhere, it was clear that the country had become a liberal society. One of the mental fixtures of the early Federal Republic was the suspicion, voiced by thinkers like Carl Schmitt, of ‘internal enemies’ on the left—a deep dread of subversion discharged once again in the pogrom-like atmosphere of autumn 1977. Kohl no longer drew sustenance from this kind of emotional attitude.
As the unprecedented scale of the Left’s electoral majority became clear on the evening of the poll, there were surely many people of my age who remembered a spring in 1969. After his election as Federal President, Gustav Heinemann spoke of a certain ‘shift in power’; soon afterwards Willy Brandt became Chancellor with a paper-thin SocialLiberal majority. In that conjuncture, the long delayed end of the Adenauer epoch found a striking embodiment in the person of his opponent Heinemann, a figure famous for his integrity. The previous period I lived through as a time poisoned by continuities of personnel and outlook with a fatal past. The shift of power at the turn of the sixties came after a decade of dogged intellectual opposition and another decade of active political confrontation with its legacy. So the political shift was the eventual outcome of a deeper change in the cultural climate. The present situation is quite different. For years nothing has changed in a diffuse and paralyzing cultural climate, unaltered even
A red-green project existed up to the end of the 1980s, as long as there was a possibility of Oskar Lafontaine winning the next general election. Since then, the constraints of ‘German unity’ and ‘the global economy’ have watered the project down to little more than the slogan of ‘modernization and social justice’—garnished with a drop of ecologically conscious tax reform, if only for the purpose of finding alternative financial resources. It is not so much the pragmatic sobering up that disturbs me in the new stance. It is the mistaken premise that a social and ecological transformation could be accomplished in a national framework. The result is a largely defensive approach to the conditions of an altered and essentially post-national constellation of power. What worries me is the lack of any new perspective on this situation. Everyone speaks today of a ‘post-ideological age’. But this slogan has time and again been invoked and discredited in the past fifty years, at least since Daniel Bell’s book The End of Ideology—far too often to have any credibility. In politics, nothing moves without an ‘issue’ that divides people. That is what is missing today.
There is a project when you address a controversial issue and propose an analysis of it that clarifies the question at stake and makes some political goals more plausible than others. This is not what happened in the recent election. The social-democratic challenger eschewed any polarization of opinion, and avoided any source of potential offence. On election night the relaxed faces of the losers made it clear they did not take all the talk of a ‘change of direction’ too seriously.