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by Katja Hoyer
Monday, 19
July 2021

Germany’s floods are politically dangerous, too

The country's history is full of politicians who botched responses to disasters
by Katja Hoyer
Every crisis is an opportunity for Angela Merkel. (Photo by Steffen Kugler/Bundesregierung-Pool via Getty Images)

At least 158 people have died in the floods which have devastated western and southern regions of Germany. That number is expected to rise yet higher as hundreds of residents remain missing.

Survivors of the catastrophe looked on in horror as their houses were destroyed while the water levels still continued to grow. Some areas have no clean water, no electricity and the telephone and mobile networks have broken down. And then there is the mud. A thick, heavy torrent that covers everything in its path. Residents don’t even know how to begin to clear up.

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A cynical mind might think that natural catastrophes like the floods in west Germany are a God-sent for politicians in election campaign mode. If you can credibly pull off the rolled up sleeves, the wellies and a facial expression somewhere between grim concern and firm reassurance, the emotional gravity of the moment will do the rest.

Gerhard Schröder, Merkel’s predecessor as German chancellor, showed how to do it. Seeking re-election in 2002, he trailed behind the opposition during the campaign. Until catastrophic floods hit Germany. There he was in the worst-hit town of Grimma in east Germany, patting residents on the back and promising swift and unbureaucratic help. When his Bavarian opponent, Edmund Stoiber, had finally found his wellies, he barely stepped outside his front door to console his own political backyard. Schröder went on to win the election.

Olaf Scholz, the SPD candidate — and Angela Merkel herself — did everything right last week. Scholz, who is currently vice chancellor, stepped in for Merkel while she was away on her visit to the White House. He promised an Instant-Help package for the residents. Once Merkel had returned, she donned the most casual clothes she could find in her wardrobe — a cardigan and blue trousers — and made her way to the state of Rhineland Palatinate where she walked arm-in-arm with the Minister President Malu Dreyer through the devastated village of Schuld. An iconic picture was taken. The people approved.

By contrast, Armin Laschet, currently the most likely candidate to become chancellor, messed up. Touring the state of Northrhine Westphalia, a video emerged online that seemed to show him sniggering while the German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke of the ‘heart-tearing’ grief he felt in sympathy with those who had lost relatives and friends. He has since apologised — how lasting the damage will be remains to be seen.


The Green candidate, Annalena Baerbock, had to tread very carefully indeed. She was the only chancellor candidate without a good reason to be in the flooded areas. However, not turning up would look heartless. So Baerbock explained that she wanted to gain an impression of the scale of the catastrophe and to express her condolences. Nonetheless, the floods will not make her campaign any easier. Her reputation has already been tarnished — one third of Germans already believe that her colleague Robert Habeck should take over the candidacy for the Green Party — and a reputation for patronising environmentalism is beginning to stick. If she uses this human catastrophe to lecture about global warming, many will judge this to be political opportunism.

As the rain is beginning to subside and the torrents of mud are painstakingly carried away in buckets, what remains behind is potential and risk for Germany’s politicians.

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Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
2 years ago

So…..bad luck….he was caught laughing
Can anyone tell me what he was laughing about ? Was it in any way related to the extend of the devastation he just saw ? Does anyone care to find out as surely, it wasn’t about the scale of this catastrophe ?
If this is enough not to have Latschet elected and have Frau Bearbock instead……this will be of mockery of an election on top of an hypocrisy.
Frau Baerbock glazed her resume, cheated in her book and for someone who wants to run the country, was less than rigorous in the way she managed the Green finances in Brandenburg.
Fredrich Metz had I think the most fitting remark weeks ago : her train has derailed. Let’s hope so because the first bits I read of her program was rather radical……green radical which in my view has little to do with a sane and Lågom environmental policy.

Last edited 2 years ago by Bruno Lucy
John Hicks
John Hicks
2 years ago

Mr. Laschet’s “Hun speech” moment? Probably not. Thank you for your insights. German federalism seems to provide too many opportunities for the decisions of elected representatives and officials to escape accountability. The story maybe why the media and electorate seem OK about that. Maybe embarrassing snap shots help?