There are many TV talk shows in Germany, sometimes hot, often vacuous. But the one on January 16th hit the roof, with far more people watching it afterwards via Internet than at the time it was aired. And their comments, by the thousand, were mostly pounded away in great anger!
A main cause of such emotion was Markus Lanz. For years the most popular TV show in Germany had been Wetten, dass . . ? (copied in the USA as Wanna Bet?). But when its extremely popular moderator stepped down after 27 years Markus Lanz took over. With an unusual combination of dullness and bad taste he soon managed to send the show, which once hit a record of 14 million Saturday night viewers, skidding down to 6.3 million. But Lanz kept plodding — and did better with his late-night talk show three evenings in the week, mostly with prominent, newsworthy guests. Their views, Lanz’s jolly manners, and perhaps his handsome good looks kept a much smaller audience more or less satisfied.
Then he invited Sahra Wagenknecht, vice-chairperson of the Left party (Die Linke). A highly intelligent expert, especially on economic and financial questions, she is a good talker and always a cool, dignified fighter. Considered very photogenic, she gets invited to a surprising number of talk shows — though never without weighty, usually very aggressive opponents.
Lanz, aggressive but not weighty, displayed questionable taste from the start, introducing Wagenknecht with an ingratiating grin as “the prettiest leftist of all times.” Then he launched his attack, keeping his trademark grin but wielding a nasty bludgeon. His method was to ask an unfair question, then interrupt her answer with a new question, and then a third one.
His attack was directed at Left party objections to the European Union (EU), especially seven words in a proposed Left program for the European Parliament elections in late May, which called the EU “a neo-liberal, militaristic and largely undemocratic power.” Wagenknecht faced the task of explaining that this harsh wording, though it would most likely be toned down at the party’s congress in mid-February, was not really so very false. She tried to point to the military build-up by the EU and to the fact that “it makes 10,000 people wealthier while the livelihood of so many has been worsened.” At the same time, she kept trying to explain that, while the Left party was highly critical, it wanted neither to disband the EU, to quit it, nor to withdraw from the euro currency — but was instead intent on improving — or saving — it.
But at every such attempt, Lanz interrupted with new questions which he never let her properly answer. “What did you earn as a deputy to the European Parliament?” was one of them, an obvious attempt to revive a media caricature that, though a Leftist, she lived a life of luxury. (All German delegates, she answered, automatically received about 7,000 euro a month; some Internet critics later noted that for one Saturday night program Lanz reportedly receives at least 100,000 euro.)
As he frequently peeked at the crib sheets in his hand, seeking a new question with which to interrupt her, his prime aim became apparent: to try to tie the Left position with that of the new Alternative for Germany Party (AfD), which attacks the European Union from a right-wing nationalist position — “against all those intrusive, dependent (or lazy) foreigners.” Of course, there was no such proximity, but Lanz insisted, despite her objections, that “it is hard to obtain from you a clear declaration favoring this Europe. That, simply, is what we must conclude from this debate.”
As usual when anyone from the Left is invited, Lanz, increasingly seen through as a fool, needed and received assistance, this time from the right-wing journalist Hans-Ulrich Jörges from the weekly Stern. Unlike Lanz he did not smile when he charged in, telling Wagenknecht that her words about the militarization of the European Union were “baloney.” “You live in a totally alien world,” he threw at her. Some viewers claimed he was beginning to foam at the mouth. No doubt they exaggerated. In any case Wagenknecht never lost her cool and kept trying patiently to get her views across.
The result? The studio audience, hardly a left-wing crowd, overwhelmingly supported her, and so did a storm of Internet commentary. One woman in Leipzig pointed out that the station employing Lanz was a public channel, paid for by the compulsory radio-TV tax — in other words “our money”! She therefore launched an Internet petition to have him dropped, and within a week over 200,000 people signed on.
A few days later Lanz apologized weakly for his bad manners. But the mass media, fearing that her words reflected the feelings of millions who had hitherto known nothing of the Left’s position, quickly launched a counterattack, either against the petition, which they self-righteously disqualified as “attempting to curtail Lanz’s freedom of speech,” or by trying to disqualify Wagenknecht and the Left. (A frequent point: in the Bundestag in 2010 she and a few Left deputies did not stand up to applaud Simon Peres after a speech in which he claimed that Iran already had atomic weapons.)
That only proves that what the journalist had called “baloney” was the meat of the show. Fifteen years ago, in 1999, the EU decided to create an armed force of 60,000 soldiers; if rotation is counted in, this meant more than 150,000 trained troopers. It was stated that they would be deployed only within a circumference of 4,000 km from Brussels; but they have already been sent to the Congo 6,200 km away, as well as on almost 30 other missions.
The strongest member of the EU is Germany. Actually, Germany’s Basic Law (its substitute for a constitution) set up armed forces only for purposes of defense. But then in 2002 Defense Minister Peter Struck, a Social Democrat, stated, to explain why troops were to be sent to Afghanistan: “The security of the Federal Republic of Germany is also being defended at the Hindu Kush.”
This kind of “self-defense” has been interpreted ever more expansively since German unification. Within a few weeks of taking office, the so-very-sweet-talking new Defense Minister, Ursula von der Leyen (CDU), showed how far this elastic term could be stretched. In an interview with Der Spiegel, after justifying humanitarian military missions in Africa, she criticized the policy of military restraint (as in Libya) of former Foreign Minister Westerwelle: “Europe will not move ahead in the match of global forces when one side always observes decent restraint in the question of military engagement while the others storm ahead with no questions asked.” Asked whether Germany should assume more international responsibility, she answered: “Within the framework of our pact memberships, yes.” In the long term, she added, the national armed forces within the EU should be replaced by European forces. This could take a while, and the will of parliaments must be respected, “but I believe that joint armed forces will be the logical result of an ever stronger military cooperation in Europe.”
This led some to wonder where “ever stronger military cooperation” might be employed. German soldiers and sailors in Mali, Central Africa, the waters off Somalia and Lebanon, and at rocket sites in Turkey on the Syrian border might perhaps be clues.
As the elections to the European Parliament in May draw closer these matters will be up for debate, also at the February congress of the Left in Hamburg. The Social Democrats, now part of the government coalition, and most leaders of the Greens, who share opposition seats in the Bundestag with the Left, support such increases in military strength and deployment, whether carried out in German uniforms or as part of the EU or UN. They demand the same position from the Left if they are ever to accept this hitherto ostracized party as a coalition partner in the years to come. Should and will the party tone down its rejection of any compromises on this question — perhaps at first for presumably humanitarian purposes under the aegis of the UN — or stick to a position of “Hands Off” for German soldiers and also for German weapons (now comprising the third largest component of world arms sales)? This question will affect the choice of Left candidates as well as the campaign to strengthen the left-wing caucus in the European Parliament, now increasingly important in light of a looming right-wing threat — from the extreme right, as in France or Hungary, with fascist groups demonstrating in the Ukrainian capital — and similar symptoms in too many countries. More strength left of the aisle could make a difference, and Europe’s future direction is indeed a weightier matter than a game of wagers!
Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).