The kneefall that reset German foreign policy

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50 years ago Bundeskanzler Willy Brandt fell on his knees in front of the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto. This week Angela Merkel is facing off with Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki on his country’s drift into authoritarianism…


Jörg & Axel

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1. Söder sets the tone

Bavaria state leader Markus Söder is setting the pace on corona lockdowns once again. On Sunday he declared a “disaster situation” for the second time this year, announcing a 14-point plan that he claims will help reduce the rate of infection. His tough new rules on when Bavarians are allowed to leave the house might be holier than an Emmentalerkäse (one justification is “essential Christmas shopping”), but they’ve certainly set state leaders across the land into a state of nervous panic. “We must not take any risks at the moment,” Saarland’s leader Tobias Hans told Spiegel on Monday. “We need to consider stricter nationwide rules if the chain of infections doesn’t come down,” chimed in NRW health minister Karl-Josef Laumann. A new “minister president conference” (the unconstitutional committee where lockdown decisions have been made for months) is surely imminent… bets are off on who will have the most speaking time at the subsequent press conference...

2. Dancing to the Greens’ tune?

The crisis in Saxony-Anhalt over an 86 cent increase in the Rundfunkgebühr (public broadcasting fee) is deepening. The state’s leader, Reiner Haseloff, has fired his interior minister for suggesting that their CDU could leave the coalition with the SPD and Greens and govern alone, something that would make voting with the populist AfD on individual laws very likely. The three coalition parties agreed in 2016 not to raise the broadcasting fee in their state, a strange commitment to make since every other state is now waiting for them to agree to a fee hike that applies nationwide. For politicians on the left, the eastern state’s CDU is engaged in a populist attack on independent journalism. “This is about our understanding of free speech, free words and a free press,” proclaimed Green leader Robert Habeck. Conservatives are deeply split. Some dread the image problems that would arise from voting with the AfD. Others, who’ve long sought a fusion of the twin broadcasters ARD and ZDF, worry that they are going to have to dance to the Green party’s fiddle every time the AfD decide to take the same ideological position as them.

3. Willy Brandt on his knees

On the 7th of December 1970 - 50 years ago - Willy Brandt suddenly fell to his knees. He remained in the position for close to a minute as his aides nervously whispered to each other, wondering what the Bundeskanzler was doing. The image of the kneeling statesman in front of the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising spread across the globe.  The Kniefall proved a turning point in how Germany dealt with its post-war trauma - and for how the world dealt with Germany. Brandt, a Social Democrat who spent the war years in forced exile, signalled collective German responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi regime. 

Forgotten is the fact that Brandt’s move (he never revealed whether it was planned or spontaneous) was highly controversial at the time - most Germans thought it was exaggerated, and the Polish government would have preferred the Chancellor to kneel at the National Memorial rather than one commemorating the Holocaust. It also came during a carefully planned diplomatic push to recalibrate relations with the Soviet Union and its satellites. Four months earlier, Brandt visited Moscow and signed a deal that would establish the neue Ostpolitik, a policy of conciliation and economic investment that is largely followed to this day.

4. Half a century later - German Polish face off

In a case of historic irony, Angela Merkel is expected to face off with Poland’s prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki about his government's drift into authoritarianism this week. At the last big EU summit of her career, and the final one that Germany will host during its six-month EU-presidency, Merkel must untie the Gordian knot of convincing all 27 member states to approve of the €1.8 trillion EU budget while simultaneously rebuffing Hungary and Poland’s demand that a paragraph tying pay-outs to the rule of law be removed.

Merkel is all for compromise, hence few expect her to do what some EU diplomats have suggested - just cut Poland and Hungary out of the deal. Her critics claim that she has dragged her feet for too long:  “When you compromise for too long with populists, they push you so far that by the end of it you’re right up against the wall,” Franziska Brantner, Europe spokeswoman for the Greens, told the Financial Times. 

5. The wind swindlers

Last week one of Germany’s wind-power pioneers, Willi Balz, was sentenced to prison for fraud. When Windreich, the company he started in the slipstream of the Energiewende (Germany’s large scale transition to renewable energy) started to crumble, he kept his mouth shut and continued to collect money from investors. The 60-year old businessman is only the latest in a long string of German alternative energy entrepreneurs who’ve had trouble with the law. In 2017, Carsten Rodbertus got off easy after investigations into his ponzi-scheme Prokon were suspended. As did Solarworld founder Frank Asbeck (aka “the Sun king”), who was also suspected of insider trading when his empire collapsed.

While it’s fair to say that Messrs Balz, Rodbertus and Asbeck were renewable energy trail blazers, Hendrik Holt was nothing but a con-man. Fully aware that his scheme would eventually be busted, the 30-year-old had already prepared his escape to Lebanon - armed with diplomatic passports from Zimbabwe - when he was arrested at an €8,000-a-night hotel suite in Berlin in April. For years he had run a fraud-factory with his family, luring investors (including the Italian energy giant ENEL) into investing millions in wind parks that didn’t exist. He was put behind bars in October.

It’s not a coincidence that alternative energy has attracted charlatans. Retail- and institutional investors alike, who understood little of the new technology, were all too happy to throw their money at the scores of entrepreneurs who popped up after the government launched massive renewable energy subsidies. While the Energiewende has had its successes - Germany has increased its renewable energy production sevenfold - the collateral damage has been significant...

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Who we are:

Jörg Luyken: Journalist based in Berlin since 2014. His work has been published by German and English outlets including der Spiegel, die Welt, the Daily Telegraph and the Times. Formerly in the Middle East.

Axel Bard Bringéus: Started his career as a journalist for the leading Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet and has spent the last decade in senior roles at Spotify and as a venture capital investor. In Berlin since 2011.