The rime of the ancient minister

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The rime of the ancient minister
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Can Thomas de Maizière, Germany’s new defence minister, break the curse hanging over his job? Roger Boyes, correspondent for British daily The Times, takes aim at a ministerial albatross.


In Samuel Taylor Coleridge's epic poem about the Ancient Mariner, a sailor makes the mistake of shooting an albatross with his crossbow.

As any seafarer worth his salt knows, as long as an albatross follows a ship its crew can be sure of good luck. Killing the big white bird, on the other hand, brings bad luck. Coleridge's sailors and their ship were doomed, pulled down by the bane of the albatross.

A similar malediction is attached to the German Defence Ministry. I can only hope that Chancellor Merkel’s technocratic fixer Thomas de Maizière has already bought his retirement bungalow. Why? Because his political career will soon take a dive, just as it did for Theodor Blank, FJ Strauss, Georg Leber, Hans Apel, Manfred Wörner, Rupert Scholz, Gerhard Stoltenberg and Rudolf Scharping, to name only a few of his predecessors as defence minister.

But it is not that Germany's defence bosses are political incompetents. Rather, there is a structural problem with managing defence in Germany.

The ministry supervises a huge army, Europe's largest, that was never really intended to fight a battle. It’s an army that has not been allowed to have war heroes or keep regimental traditions.

The concept of "Citizens in Uniform" earned praise from abroad but only made sense for the first decade of the Bundeswehr's existence. In the long term, armies cannot be used as educational institutions. They are hierarchical organisations and their prime mission is not to make young men into better citizens but use weapons in an effective way to defend the nation.

And so here is the heart of the dilemma: for decades Germans have been unable to agree on the appropriate cost of weaponry, unable to reach a common definition of modern warfare, or how to train for it, and has been unable to define or commit itself to the nation that the army is supposed to be defending.

De Maizière thus has an impossible task; no other department of government has such a confused mission.

German defence ministers are often locked in conflict from the very start with their ministerial bureaucrats. They may – like Manfred Wörner and the recently disgraced Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg – be popular with the troops and have mutually beneficial relationship with the media.

But ultimately their main battle has to be to take control of the ministerial apparatus, its accountants, its politicised generals, as well as its intricate and often unhealthy relationship with the arms industry. Too much goes on in the Defence Ministry that never reaches the ears of the minister.

The first German defence minister that I knew personally was Hans Apel. As a young reporter in Bonn I wrote that despite his crazy hair, Apel was destined to be the successor one day to then Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. He was in some ways a Schmidt clone: Hanseatic (after the flamboyant disaster of Strauss, northern Germans were seen as natural defence ministers) with financial expertise and a sense of duty. He could even, like his mentor, sail a boat.

But it turned out to be the first of my many false predictions in German politics.

It was not easy to be a defence minister in a party that was so deeply marinated in pacifism like the Social Democrats. Even worse, Apel was systematically sabotaged within the ministry as costs for the Tornado jet exploded out of control. In parliament, a fellow Social Democrat called out to Apel, as he tried to defend his ministry: “Don’t be so hasty to shield your bureaucrats, don’t always take the blame yourself.”

That was not a mistake that Guttenberg made, of course. His early Kunduz-related sackings seemed like a commendable square-chinned attempt to take command of a troubled ministry. A year or so later the dismissals appeared more like examples of impulsive decision-making, the actions of a young upstart who would not last long in the job. The Gorch Fock affair stirred similar doubts. And what was the figurehead on the bow of the training ship? An albatross, of course.

His faked doctorate revealed Baron Guttenberg to be over-ambitious, an irrational risk-taker, careless with his own words. The scandal was naturally about standards of honesty in public life. But there was another element: had it continued, Guttenberg would have faced increasing public ridicule.

Look at what happened to Rudolf Scharping, surely the funniest man to have ever emerged from the Defence Ministry. He let himself be photographed splashing in a pool on Majorca with his countess while his troops were supposedly defending the nation.

But he also tried to re-brand himself with Armani glasses and tax-deductible designer clothes. He also managed to fall off his bicycle while in office, and banged his head on the roof of his limo when a security trap was accidently sprung at the entrance of the Pentagon during his visit.

Once voters start laughing at ministers, you know that there is no chance of a comeback. Guttenberg got out just in time, only days before he was likely to become a figure of fun, a modern-day Baron Münchhausen.

Once you lose your luck, after you kill your albatross, nothing can save you in political life. The only defence minister who appears to have clung to his good fortune was Helmut Schmidt. Perhaps the 92-year-old is ripe for a comeback.


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