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The royal Guttenbergs

The Local · 14 Dec 2010, 14:28

Published: 14 Dec 2010 14:28 GMT+01:00

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Politicians in Germany aren’t allowed to be attractive or enjoy their jobs. The public immediately becomes suspicious of anyone daring to break either of these rules. Those who do are quickly written off as showboating lightweights mostly interested in promoting themselves.

It's in this context that Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg travelled this week to Afghanistan to visit German troops ahead of the holidays – but he wasn’t alone. The aristocratic minister was accompanied by his fetching wife Stephanie, two state premiers, and the TV talk show host Johannes B. Kerner.

The Bundeswehr base at Mazar-i-Sharif became the backdrop for Kerner’s show, which had one prominent guest: Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. A few soldiers were used for garnish.


Is the war trivialised by such visits? Is there room for glamour and entertainment where death and killing is so prevalent? Did Guttenberg exhibit once more his political genius, or did he finally overstep the line separating tact, dignity and humility from obscenity? The only thing for certain is that opinions of “KT” – as his friends call him – tend to diverge greatly. The blueblood baron would probably say this division merely separates great minds from small ones.

The small minds are those focused on the recently released 109-page Foreign Ministry progress report on Afghanistan. They are scurrying from one foreign policy committee meeting to the next, ahead of the government’s parliamentary declaration this week on Germany’s military deployment in the strife-torn country.

The great minds are similarly focused on the nuts and bolts of German foreign policy – yet they are also doing a bit more. They are looking for ways to express an extra portion of solidarity with the troops and aren’t afraid to use kitschy or sentimental methods. The Guttenbergs said their joint visit to Afghanistan was “a matter of the heart,” which is why they had no qualms about bringing along Kerner to document just how big their hearts are.

The Germans are unfamiliar with such performances, at least from their own politicians.

Jacqueline Kennedy was considered the best-dressed woman in the world while she stood by JFK’s side. Carla Bruni frequently steals the show on official trips abroad with her husband, French President Nicolas Sarkozy. First Lady Michelle Obama and US President Barack Obama don’t hesitate to make public appearances as a couple both at home and abroad. Only in Germany must politics seemingly be as straight-laced and serious as possible.

And let’s be honest – if Guttenberg’s predecessor at the Defence Ministry, Franz Josef Jung, had asked his dowdy wife Beate to come along to Afghanistan with some homemade cookies for the troops, not a soul would have got upset.

At the end of a year in which several capable politicians in Germany have stepped down, we should be happy to have someone like Guttenberg. He’s stuck to his principles whether the issue was bailing out carmaker Opel or reforming his own ministry. Guttenberg has fearlessly stared down both friend and foe alike on issues such as ending military conscription. At the same time, he’s brought a fresh approach to politics – which can both impress and annoy people. But the more he seems to annoy, the more people appear to be impressed by him.

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Reason dictates that such a calculation can’t go on forever. Our brutally fickle times demand hero-worship be followed by a precipitous fall. The public instinctively wants to tear people down to its own size – especially those with an aura of aristocracy about them.

The Guttenbergs are aware of this and yet don’t seem to care. Politicians aren’t supposed to be attractive or enjoy what they do for living? If these rules no longer hold true in Germany, then it was the Guttenbergs who first repudiated them.

This commentary was published with the kind permission of Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, where it originally appeared in German. Translation by The Local.

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Your comments about this article

19:01 December 14, 2010 by Major B
Given the profound changes Germany has undergone in the last 50 years, in particular the last 20, why wouldn't its citizens want to be represented by a credible family, who looks good, is intellectually sound and is with the people. Royalty. Is that some kind of teutonic negativity or something. Guttenberg is always visiting Afghanistan, attending ceremonies honoring the troops and demonstrating is support for the troops. He who supports the troops supports the people. New enlightened leadership -- what all countries want. But, watch for the naysaying negative comments to come. Reminds me of that article in The Local that discusses that Germans have difficulty dealing with the prosperity the country is enjoying. If that is Teutonic angst, then there are many countries and peoples who would love to be beset by it.
22:34 December 14, 2010 by slawek
The difference between zu Gutenberg and any other German politician is not aristocracy. It's simply the fact, that being rich he has nothing to lose. For him politics is just a role. Whereas other politicians care too much as how to keep their jobs, because they have nothing else.
23:22 December 14, 2010 by Nemo2010
He is the leader the dem Deutschen Volke are craving. A strong leader is what is sought in such times of trouble. I'm surprised Frau Merkle has lasted as long as she has. This man's star is not going to fall for a long time yet. He has many things to accomplish yet. Watch him!
17:05 December 15, 2010 by iseedaftpeople
The Guttenbergs are a threat to Germany's liberal tolerant values. Herr zu Guttenberg is a blatant militarist who has no qualms propagating the protection of German economic interests by the sword, and his wife is dabbling in child protection merely to polish up her own media image and to create a red herring to divert attention from the Catholic Church's abuse scandals.

It would be great to see the German people wake up and realize what floodgates they would open by electing these two as "first couple".
20:06 December 15, 2010 by Bravo2
This guy is not even 40 yet. Can we give these two some time to mature before they are anointed? Germany needs strong leader and maybe he is it, but let him grow a grey hair or two first.
00:20 December 16, 2010 by iseedaftpeople
he probably dyes his hair. wouldn't put it past him anyway, being the vain boneheaded schmock that he is.
12:36 December 16, 2010 by joetke
Mental confusion! as a defense Minister, this guy should weigh everything he does! We're not in some exhibition, we're on the theater of war, with its death toll! Not a stage where your wife, and why not your kids, and you are playing some scandalous glamour! Military public relations have nothing to do with some ersatz of barack and obama visiting troops in Iraq!!! Wake up! It's completely insane!
22:20 December 17, 2010 by DOZ
A Country that fears beauty has gone too far left and risks being stuck in a Tim Burton fixation like Canada is now with it's fixation on Obese Nastiizm.
00:17 December 18, 2010 by countgregor
How refreshing to see a young German Political Couple. It's OK to have have a little flash to the world press. Germany paid off it's war reparations --it took 90 some years, but in doing so you have the respect of the whole world. Germans are now free to do what they see fit. Enjoy your new found fame. Karl Theodore is becoming familiar with Americans, and with luck could fill the void left by the Kennedy Family's withdrawing from view. Almost half of Americans claim some German Heritage, so most would feel good seeing a flashy German Political Couple. The British Royal Family is from the House of Hannover, so why be shy about showing off your royal and noble line. If zu Guttenberg doesn't offend anyone, Germany will have a whole new look.
01:03 December 19, 2010 by parografik
I prefer watching Brad and Angelina walking among the troops, and hopefully they are not elected to public office.

What is this fascination with Royals? the local has become the Neues Blatt. Time for the crossword puzzles and recipes photographed in too much Yellow.
20:41 December 23, 2010 by fryintl
Comment: Allow me to weigh in on something I know nothing about: Politicians should visit the Military that is deployed because the least they can do is live for a short time at least somewhat close to a bit of danger. Your country has tied the hands of its military and makes it dangerous to be a German Soldier in a War Zone. Untie the hands, change the rules of engagement, allow someGutes Deutsche Soldat (Speeled correctly?) the ability to defend himself and his Collegues. Free them to pre-empt the attack or pull them out of the war zone. Do not punish the soldier for killing the enemy. DO not fear retaliation from extremists if a German soldier kills a bad guy. If you do hold soemone responsible for killing in a war zone, then they should not be there at all. These wars would be over already if we fought them like in the old days. Gloves off, and go in there to break things, blow them up and kill enough of them until they surrender. Then make nice, help rebuild and give them a reason to live. If we all had soemthing to lose, that we didn't want to lose, how many people would be out in a war any how? Finally, you have to admit that these two have soemthing that the world loves- sex appeal, beauty, money, and probably are best situated to do what they are doing. If you are worried about keeping a job, because you are poor when you leave office (another point wouldbe : why do politicians get so much money for the rest of their lives when they leave office? It should be a simple amount to say thank you, but not to make them rich) you will not take risks. If you have nothing to lose, you may often find yourself free to do the right thing.
14:30 January 6, 2011 by A South African Lady
There is nothing amiss with having a title, money and beauty. It all depends on how these are used. Perhaps he will turn out to be an upright politician, If this is so may they be blessed with happiness and success in their endeavors, and a shining light for Germany.
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