From Boris Becker to an airport boondoggle, five things that Germans are talking about instead of their deeply boring election.
- By Paul HockenosPaul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).
Germany may be smack in the middle of a national election campaign, but you wouldn’t know it from the conversations taking place around the country’s watercoolers and biergärten.
The two top candidates — current Chancellor Angela Merkel, the head of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and Martin Schulz of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) — should be slugging it out, but they’re not. In terms of content, the two parties are so close to each other on so many issues that voters are hard-pressed to differentiate between them: Merkel has sought to get so close to the SPD that voters see no reason to cast their ballot for the center-leftists; Schulz isn’t willing to propose anything so bold that Merkel couldn’t sign on to it. None of the four smaller parties — the Greens, the Left party, the liberal Free Democrats, and the far-right Alternative for Germany — all hovering around 8 percent in polls, has managed to stand out either.
The hugely hyped debate Sunday night between Merkel and Schulz, which was supposed to finally shake some life into the campaign, appears to have done no such thing. The billed duel was a deeply dull affair in which Merkel — who loathes the debate format and thus agreed only to one — came off the smoother of the two, most probably padding her party’s already substantial lead. Schulz, known for his silver tongue and man-of-the-people flare, looked nervous and insecure, his points muffled in awkward, excess verbiage. Neither candidate proffered anything new or mildly controversial, however, nor was there a single cheap shot the entire night — a testament to the civility of German democracy but a boring watch. The tone was affable, as if consciously promoting the resumption of the current grand governing coalition between the CDU and SPD. (One German commentator described the match as a discussion between a deeply troubled married couple who know they’ll be together for a long time to come, like it or not.)
The result of all this has been not a national conversation about the future direction of Germany but a snoozefest. There are, however, other things happening in the country that are more interesting than the campaign for its highest office. Here’s what Germans are talking about instead of the election.
- Nurse Ratched, German-style
We already knew that Niels Högel, a nurse working at a clinic in northwestern Germany between 1999 and 2005, had plied patients with lethal drugs, killing at least two, when he was arrested for murder in 2005, having been caught in the act by a colleague injecting a patient in critical condition with an excessive dose of heart disease medication. Over the course of multiple trials, the latest in 2015, we learned that the scale of the crime was bigger even than that: Högel admitted in a court that he had injected at least 90 patients with cardiovascular medication in order to impress his colleagues with his resuscitation skills when they tanked. In many cases, he failed, and, according to Högel, 30 patients died. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.
But Germany’s grisliest murder spree in decades turned even grislier this year, after authorities revealed the result of a new investigation: Högel, it turns out, may have killed at least 86 people, many at a second clinic, which he had moved to in 2002, having left the first with a stellar recommendation in hand.
The investigators exhumed 134 bodies in Germany, Poland, and Turkey at a cost of 10,000 work hours. Since many of the clinics’ deceased were cremated, officials say they’ll never be certain exactly how many people Högel murdered. The scope of the investigation has widened beyond Högel himself: Six staff members at his second clinic will be tried for manslaughter, as authorities have said they ought to have grown suspicious and alerted authorities after deaths at one of the clinic’s intensive care stations doubled. Although Germans pride themselves on civic courage, a culture supposedly imbued in the postwar generations, the German Patients Foundation expressed its disgust. “The clinics’ staff looked the other way for much too long,” it said. “There has to be a culture of responsibility at all levels in the hospital: from nurses to doctors to management.”
- Boris Becker, dazed and confused
Few heroes soar so high, only to nosedive and crash, like Boris Becker. Back in the 1980s, when Germany’s beloved strawberry-blond tennis pro — nicknamed “Boom Boom” for his thundering serve — was winning Wimbledons, he was (West) Germany’s darling. He captured the Wimbledon title three times, as well as three other grand slams, and 15 doubles titles. The first photo of his newborn son in 1994 sold for millions of dollars. But his 1999 retirement was followed by an acrimonious, high-profile divorce, then another divorce, and convictions on tax fraud charges.
While Becker remained in the public eye, for example as the yearslong coach of Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic, so did his troubles. In June, the 49-year-old hit bottom and was declared bankrupt by a London judge. Shocking photos showed an overweight man, his faced bloated, deep, dark rings beneath his eyes. In July, to add insult to injury, his blue Maserati was towed away after he failed to pay the fines on parking tickets he’d accumulated in London.
- Ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Dirt Bag of the Year
Upon leaving the chancellery in 2005 after seven years in office, Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder promptly entered the world of business — but not just any business. He and Russian leader Vladimir Putin had hit it off famously while Schröder was chancellor; Schröder even called the Russian leader a “spotless democrat.” Two weeks before stepping down from office, Schröder agreed to a $6 billion pipeline deal with Moscow for a gas link between Germany and Russia running beneath the Baltic Sea. It thus naturally raised eyebrows when later that same year he signed on as chairman of state-controlled Russian giant Gazprom’s North European Gas Pipeline Company (now called Nord Stream). Ever since, Schröder has remained on Gazprom’s payrolls and a staunch defender of Putin, resulting in a certain amount of cringing within his former party.
But the SPD was caught even more off guard than usual when Schröder announced — in mid-August, in the midst of the campaign — that he was joining the board of Rosneft, the majority state-owned Russian oil giant, considered an extension of the Kremlin, for a whopping sum of about $500,000 annually. The move comes at a time when Putin continues to occupy Crimea in Ukraine and is actively trying to destabilize the European Union. Martin Schulz expressed his deep dismay, and media across the country vented their indignation: “It’s more than just bad taste when the former German chancellor, once our chief comptroller, switches over to a company that is being sanctioned by the EU and which supports the political goals of an at least partially authoritarian president with billions. It’s unacceptable,” opined the Rheinische Post. Merkel even chimed in, declaring that she does “not intend to go into business when no longer a chancellor.” But the 73-year-old Schröder remains obdurate. “I’m doing it to help the energy security of Germany,” he said — which just happens to be an extremely lucrative role.
- Airport ’18
The mortifying postponements, one after another, of the opening of Berlin’s new, ultra-modern, crazy-expensive airport have made a mockery out of German pretenses to punctuality and dependability. Like a running joke, since 2012 when it was first scheduled to begin operation, there have been at least seven dates given for its completion, until finally the city of Berlin simply said the giant project will be ready when it’s ready. The Willy Brandt airport, named after the postwar chancellor and West Berlin mayor — or already better known by its tag BER — is the laughing stock of the country. There are now even T-shirts and coffee mugs (“BER Delayed” among other witticisms) that all rub salt in its flops. The boondoggle has cost one mayor, Klaus Wowereit, his job, along with many others lower on the totem pole, including engineers and architects. But even so it appears that a 2018 opening date, which was floated but not promised, won’t happen either. (An airport spokesman was fired last year for saying the construction might never be finished. “No one, unless he is addicted to drugs, will give you any fixed guarantees for this airport,” he said.) Cost projections are around $8.1 billion now, instead of the some $2 billion that was cited in 2004.
- The extreme weather — what else?
Before Hurricane Harvey pounded southern Texas, the grimmest showcase for climate change this summer was Southern Europe, which caught fire in June and didn’t stop burning in some places until late August. “Lucifer” was the official name for the brutal heat wave that seared Southern Europe as temperatures exceeded 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Farmlands were transformed into parched wastelands, water resources dried up, and wildfires devoured whole forests and villages. Officials recommended that people “stay indoors, avoid long journeys, drink enough fluids and listen for emergency advice from health officials,” according to the Guardian.
But across Northern and Central Europe, where the worst summers usually mean low-lying clouds the color of a damp, wadded-up ball of newspaper, this summer was a notoriously wet one (the 10th-soggiest since 1881!). It rained and stormed, flooding lowlands and upturning trees. In Germany, vacationers spent their holidays holed up in guest houses and campers, playing cards and praying for sun — and not talking about their impending election.
Image credit: INGO WAGNER/AFP/Getty Images