Olaf Scholz: Trying To Crack The Code Of Germany's Enigmatic Chancellor
Olaf Scholz took over for Angela Merkel a year ago, but for many he remains a mysterious figure through a series of tumultuous events, including his wavering on the war in Ukraine.
BERLIN — When I told my wife that I was planning to write an article about “a year of Scholz,” she said, “Who’s that?” To be fair, she misheard me, and over the last 12 months the German Chancellor has mainly been referred to by his first name, Olaf.
Chancellors from Germany’s Social Democrat Party (SPD) have always been easy to characterize. First there was Willy Brandt – he suffered from depression and had an intriguing private life. His affected public speaking style is still the gold standard for anyone who wants to get ahead in the center-left party. Then came Helmut Schmidt. He lived off his reputation for handling any crisis, smoked like a chimney and eventually won over the public.
Finally, there was Gerhard Schröder, elected on a promise of economic growth that quickly turned sour. He wore Brioni suits, smoked cigars, had more wives than you could count and was widely condemned for promoting growth at any cost, even after his stint as Chancellor came to an end.
On the edge
But how to sum up Olaf Scholz in a few sentences? It’s impossible. On the one hand, he seems so nondescript that a single sentence would suffice (“he is from Osnabrück, not from Hamburg, as many people think”), while on the other hand he is so mutable in every aspect – from his communication style to his political convictions to his approach to leadership – that it’s hard to know where to begin.
Maybe we should begin here: a photo of Scholz at the G20 summit, surrounded by other national leaders. That’s fairly standard – there are similar photos of Merkel at such summits, standing in the middle of the crowd (in one iconic shot, apparently reading the riot act to Donald Trump) as the leading figure in a group of pragmatic politicians.
The photo of Scholz shows the German Chancellor on the edge of the group. Still, at first glance, he seems to be the main focus of the scene. Almost everyone’s eyes are on him, and those who aren’t looking at him are watching others look at him. He stands with his arms folded and head down. Difficult times. Germany’s Chancellor looking thoughtful. Everyone is waiting for him to speak. Is he about to drop a bombshell, to make an announcement that will send shockwaves through the group? No. The photo is a trick of perspective. From all the other vantage points, we can see everyone is focused on Biden, Trudeau or Sunak.
Smoke and mirrors
There are other well-staged photos of the German Chancellor: Scholz taking an important phone call on a plane, wearing a shirt and tie, a paper cup of coffee on the table. It looks like a still from The West Wing. Or Olaf Scholz in casual mode, wearing a T-shirt.
Smoke and mirrors? Yes and no. They are attempts by Scholz’s entourage to counteract the dry, boring image that still clings to him from his time as finance minister, as Merkel’s right-hand man. His public speaking style is usually fairly monotone. He strings words together without emphasis, always making some kind of sense but rarely reaching a firm conclusion.
When he claimed that those calling for strong leadership from him would get it, the response was one of irritation. Because it wasn’t until early autumn, almost nine months after he became Chancellor, that he took any action that seemed – at least to an outside observer – to surprise his coalition partners: announcing his decision to hold off on decommissioning nuclear power plants, bringing an abrupt end to the dispute between the Greens and the liberal FDP party.
15 November 2022, Indonesia. G20 summit in Bali.
Kay Nietfeld, dpa via ZUMA Press.
Cutting ties with Russia
But even that was just for show: it wasn’t really a case of flexing his political muscle, but a decision for which the groundwork had been carefully laid in backroom negotiations. A diplomatic success presented as a show of strength — a good outcome, but easy to see through.
Still: being Chancellor is all about balancing different demands, especially for Scholz, who has to please the Greens on one side and the liberals on the other.
He was slow in speaking out against Russia.
So far, that has been his best play. That and his quick, unambiguous decision to cut the umbilical cord between Germany and Mother Russia – Nord Stream 2, a former pet project of Merkel’s (and of Scholz himself, and his party, especially regional leader Manuela Schwesig). Long before the pipeline was sabotaged – by whoever was responsible – Scholz had already buried it forever in the mud of the Baltic Sea.
But those decisions do not mask the fact that Scholz is a prevaricator. He was slow in speaking out against Russia – a country that his party has always handled with kid gloves – and only began to speak of “changing times” when Putin showed his true nature and invaded Ukraine.
Even then, his words were not followed by swift action in supplying Kyiv with the weapons it so desperately needed. Why? It’s still not clear. When Putin held a meeting with him at his ridiculously long table, did he threaten nuclear attacks? Did Scholz still believe there was any decency left in the Kremlin, when it had soaked a land in blood? We don’t know.
Scholz keeps his cards close to his chest. Is that a shrewd political move for a Chancellor or a sign that he doesn’t know which direction to take? He often comes across as arrogant – for example, when he responded to a very reasonable question from a Polish colleague by saying that he could answer her, but then simply didn't.
At such moments, his smile can tip over into a smug smirk, while in better times it might more charitably be described as arch. The message it sends is: Don’t worry, I have everything under control. But democracy demands transparency, not secret backroom negotiations. Does Olaf Scholz know that?
In fact: what does Olaf Scholz know? What does he remember? His time as Mayor of Hamburg and his involvement in the Warburg bank financial scandal both hang over Scholz’s Chancellorship like a sword of Damocles. The legal implications of his actions are one consideration, but it is also concerning that the Chancellor insists he can’t remember such important details.
Up close, you see a different Scholz.
Even those who take him at his word must then reconcile themselves to the idea of a Chancellor who clearly has trouble sifting through his internal hard drive.
Mysterious, enigmatic, inscrutable
Scholz’s smile is often described as goblin-like, but he is more like a sorcerer – mysterious, enigmatic, inscrutable. To the public, that makes him seem a strangely aloof character. Not necessarily unsympathetic, but nothing like Schröder, who you felt you could go to a football match with, or Brandt, who would play “Imagine” on the ukulele, or Schmidt, who you could see yourself putting the world in order with over a cigarette in the street.
He is not unlike his predecessor, Merkel, although – naturally – he lacks her familiar, comforting trustworthiness.
Up close, you see a different Scholz. Engaged, witty and argumentative, according to those who have worked with him for a long time (and who can speak freely, as they no longer do). Then his guardedness melts away, as it always does when he feels comfortable. When there is no microphone thrust in his face, no cameras whirring away, he is a good, clear, empathetic and clever speaker. Another parallel with Merkel.
In a year marked by war, crisis and the legacy of the pandemic, the coalition has inevitably had to abandon some of the policies it had planned. So what has it achieved? The SPD has raised the minimum wage, which was one of Scholz’s central election promises. Their plan to reconfigure the social welfare system and create a utopia in which a universal basic income means no one has to work if they don’t want to was blocked by the opposition – although the Chancellor doesn’t seem overly concerned by this.
Scholz is above all a pragmatist. As Helmut Schmidt, the most popular Chancellor of all time, said, “People who have visions should go see a doctor.” The current Chancellor’s health insurance provider can rest easy on that front, he won’t be suffering from any visions any time soon.
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