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Who is Germany's next Chancellor?
63-year-old, Social Democrat.
One metre and 70 centimeters tall.
Favourite animal - the house cat.
When it comes to Germany’s probable next Chancellor, the above is certain.
But what else do we know about Olaf Scholz? What kind of leader is he? And what has he learned from past mistakes? I’ve read through almost every portrait of the man that has been written over the past two decades.
This is what I found out.
Former Marxist (1980s)
These days Olaf Scholz has a reputation for being on the right-wing of the SPD. But it wasn’t always so. He started his political career at the age of 17; by his mid-twenties he had made it up to deputy leader of the SPD youth organisation.
He was so radical that he reportedly told one colleague who complained about their constant arguments that: “It’s because you don’t hate capitalism as much as I do!”
He spent his early years railing against Nato’s “aggressive imperialism” and denouncing the SPD government of Helmut Schimdt as only being interested in “naked power.”
He was more than willing to break taboos. He travelled to East Germany to meet with senior members of the communist dictatorship. On one trip in 1987, he called for nuclear disarmament in central Europe.
Looking back on this time in 2010, Scholz described his opinions then as “mistaken.”
“Today, I have more thoughtful positions. But I don't care much for people who want to undo their past,” he told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “I don’t consider it shameful that someone develops intellectually, politically, and personally between the ages of seventeen and fifty - on the contrary.”
As a lifelong politician, Scholz can count influential names among some of his earliest companions.
In the late 1980s, while he was deputy leader of the International Union of Socialist Youth, he worked with Jens Stoltenberg (currently general secretary of Nato) and Manuel Valls (French PM 2014-16).
Even back then he knew the value of persistence. According to a profile in Handelsblatt he would persuade his comrades to sign up to some new programme in the depths of the night when they were too tired or drunk to say no.
The fall guy (early 2000s)
Scholz next pops up in the year 2002 when Chancellor Gerhard Schröder appointed him general secretary of the SPD.
This was the position that brought him to public prominence and earned him a nickname that has stuck around ever since - the Scholzomat.
After winning a seat in the Bundestag in 1998, he’d made a name for himself in the Bundestag as an expert on labour law. Schröder is said to have been immediately impressed by Scholz’s mastery of detail and saw him as a future star of the party.
But the position of general secretary didn’t suit him. One journalist at the time compared it to using national team goalkeeper Jens Lehmann as a striker: Scholz was too dull to give the press the pithy quotes they were looking for.
As general secretary, Scholz was expected to explain Schröder’s controversial labour market reforms to a sceptical public. The so-called Agenda 2010 introduced penalties for people who didn’t find work and cut unemployment benefits - necessary measures given that the German economy was in a slump, but for many Social Democrats an act of betrayal.
Scholz had little say in forming the Agenda 2010, but was solely responsible for explaining it. He did this by repeating pre-prepared answers to journalists, who gave him the nickname Scholzomat due to his robotic communication skills.
The low point in his relations with the press came when Taz newspaper published an interview with him on its front page in which most of his answers had been struck through with marker pen. In Germany, politicians are able to see interviews before publication and can make alterations for the sake of clarity. Some abuse this privilege by completely rewriting or deleting answers. Scholz took this method to such an extreme that Taz accused him of trying to deceive its readers.
He lasted less than two years as general secretary before being given the boot. He reportedly complained about being made a Bauernopfer (fall guy) by the embattled Schröder and refused to ever speak about this black mark on his career again.
Schröder would later make it up to him by taking to the campaign trail when Scholz ran for mayor of Hamburg in 2011. He has since loyally backed his former protégé.
Labour Minister (2007-2009)
The hard-working Scholz’s political comeback arrived in 2007 when he was promoted to the post of Labour Minister half way through Angela Merkel’s first term in office.
Some journalists clearly still hadn’t warmed to him.
A rather unflattering profile in Der Spiegel described him as “opinionated, obtuse, and with a penchant for the austere.”
“Karg” (austere) and “spröde” (aloof) are words that crop up again and again among journalists who have spent time in Scholz’s company.
But he also seems to have a devilish side when he spots a weakness in his political opponent.
Der Spiegel’s 2007 profile noted that Scholz had managed to get the CDU to agree to bring in a national minimum wage, something he was obviously pleased about.
“He can laugh mischievously when he talks about things that bring him joy,” the reporter observed. “Then he squints his eyes into slits and breathes frantically through his nose. When talking about the minimum wage he almost starts hyperventilating.”
It is hard to find any interviews with Scholz in which he gets too personal. But in his years as Labour Minister he clearly felt like it was necessary to soften the image of the Scholzomat.
He told the FAZ how he liked speeding around in his red BMW coupe. “It’s fifteen years old, but it has a good engine,” he said. “I like beer too,” he added, before confiding that he hadn’t drunk any alcohol in a year as he was trying to lose weight.
While he is generally not seen as someone prone to braggadocio - indeed he is almost purposefully boring - some journalists have nonetheless spotted a lack of humility.
One anecdote about his time as Labour Minister is revealing in this regard.
Speaking years later to Christine Lagarde (at the time head of the IMF), he boasted that “with the Kurzarbeit initiative, I prevented mass unemployment during the financial crisis,” referring to the decision to offer state aid to help companies weather the 2008 financial crisis.
"Ah, we always wondered why Germany got through the crisis so well, so it was down to you," Lagarde replied, jocularly.
"Yes, exactly," Scholz is said to have responded without smiling.
Mayor of Hamburg (2011-2017)
After the SPD went into the opposition at the national level in 2009, Scholz needed a new avenue to advance his career.
An election for a new city government in his hometown of Hamburg in 2011 presented itself as a perfect opportunity.
Again, his lack of charisma is what most journalists focused on when he ran for mayor. A profile in Der Spiegel at the time was headlined “The challenger with the charm of a paper portfolio.”
But this played to his advantage in the protestant north. Many commentators at the time observed that Scholz’s centrism and pragmatism were better suited to Hamburg than national politics. His dryness was said to appeal to the northern temperament, which is distrustful of people who talk too much.
Scholz won a landslide victory and achieved that most unusual of things in German politics - an absolute majority.
His campaign promises were few and far between - but, for Hamburgers, this seemed to show that he could be trusted to deliver.
But inside his party, critics complained of an authoritarian leadership style.
“Anyone who sticks their head out now will have it cut off,” one Social Democrat rather dramatically told Die Zeit shortly after Scholz’s victory.
Others complained that Scholz made no effort to try and convince others of his ideas. If he did attempt to engage with the party rank and file, he would talk down to them and give the impression that he knew better.
His popularity among the Hamburg public was steadfast though. When he ran for reelection in 2015 he once again won a thumping majority, even if he just missed out on an absolute victory.
Even some journalists had warmed to him by this stage.
“Politics in the Hanseatic city has always had to appeal to both the coldly calculating businessman and the city’s social heart. Scholz is a master in this discipline,” cooed a very flattering profile in the Wirtschaftswoche, which noted his “charm” and “sense of irony.”
Another complimentary portrait in the Tagesspiegel newspaper argued that he had unfairly been typecast as aloof. “He doesn't smile with his mouth, he does it with his eyes. You have to get used to that, and you have to pay attention to it so you don't miss it.”
What’s more, if Scholz comes across as unhumorous, it’s because he’s fully focused on the very serious tasks at hand, the Tagesspiegel concluded.
What to expect
The parallels with Merkel are hard to miss:
Just like the outgoing Chancellor, Scholz is prepared to keep everyone at the negotiating table until they sign up to a compromise out of sheer exhaustion
Handelsblatt notes that Scholz is much more flexible politically than many critics claim. While he is accused of being too conservative for the SPD, he also took at the spending “bazooka” during the pandemic and proved that he is not shy to throw around public cash if he sees a need for it.
He has repeatedly proved that he understands the secret to winning German elections: make unspectacular pledges and then deliver on them.
While publicly a team player, behind the scenes he knows how to quell dissent.
If their is a weakness that distinguishes him from Merkel, it is a smugness and lack of humour that could rub colleagues up the wrong way. His vanity has also led to into political errors.
During his time as mayor of Hamburg he took the decision to stage the G20 summit right in the city centre, something that turned out to be a catastrophic error. Left-wing extremists flooded in from across the continent, rioting and plundered in what turned into a PR nightmare for the city.
Colleagues have privately complained that Scholz always has to have the last word. In meetings he will listen patiently, but then reply in a tone that makes clear that he sees himself as smarter and better read. That style might work in Hamburg, where the SPD enjoy a strong majority. Will it work with two ambitious junior partners in the Greens and FDP at the national level?