Wolfgang Schäuble turns 80: a loyal supporter of the chancellor
Wolfgang Schäuble has achieved more in politics than many Federal Chancellors. That’s also because he’s been around for so long. The Christian Democrat has been a member of parliament for almost half a century. Nobody has held more offices in the Bundestag and in the federal governments in the last five decades than the son from a Baden family. He has represented the Offenburg constituency since 1972, always directly elected.
As a loyal follower of Helmut Kohl, Schäuble became the Bonn negotiator for the accession of the GDR to the western Federal Republic. The unification agreement that legally sealed this in August 1990 bears his signature. Federal Minister of the Interior Schäuble, who previously served as Parliamentary Secretary of the union faction and then head of the Chancellery was one of Kohl’s closest associates, seized the surprising opportunity so quickly that the faltering leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, could only agree.
The haste was at the expense of perfection. A year later, the Soviet Union collapsed after an attempted coup. Schäuble’s personal fate also took a sudden turn. A lunatic assassin shot him and a bodyguard a few days after the unity celebration in October 1990 during an election campaign event in Oppenau. Schäuble survived, but has been confined to a wheelchair ever since. He certainly struggled with that, he never complained. He fought staunchly back into life and into politics, accompanied by his wife Ingeborg and their children.
The speech that made Berlin the capital
After the assassination, Schäuble took over the leadership of the Union parliamentary group in the Bundestag and, with his very special mixture of toughness and Baden charm, secured the chancellor’s allegiance in the years that followed. His greatest hour in parliament came when he, not the hesitant Kohl, managed to win a majority for the capital Berlin with a big speech.
The chancellor’s illegal collections of donations and dubious envelope gifts that Schäuble received and forwarded, or not, took place in those years. The versions differed. At the end of a party conference in Leipzig in 1997, Kohl said everyone knew that he would like Schäuble to become chancellor one day. But the timing and nature of the announcement said otherwise. The CDU politician, then 55 years old, increasingly had to get the impression that Kohl didn’t want to support him, but rather keep him away, like Konrad Adenauer it had done with Ludwig Erhard for a while. The chancellor considered himself indispensable.
After the Union’s electoral defeat in 1998, things went downhill for both of them. Kohl got into the donation affair. Schäuble, half enlightener, half co-accused, lost the CDU presidency he had just won in a very short time Angela Merkel. With a fatalism that still amazes, he complied.
Just like later Friedrich Merz had to comply, which Merkel ousted from the parliamentary group chair. Merz left politics, Schäuble remained in parliament. His loyalty to the party leader was not feigned, but part of his concept of success and failure in democracy. Of course, Schäuble was mostly happy to hear that he was named for everything, including Governing Mayor of Berlin, Federal President, Merkel’s successor, head of the EU Commission, and Federal President again. None of this came true.
Minister of the Interior, Minister of Finance, President of the Bundestag
As Interior Minister in Merkel’s first cabinet, Schäuble initiated the Islam Conference after 2005 and tried to get serious about the integration of immigrants. As Minister of Finance, alongside the Chancellor, he shaped and determined European politics in the financial and debt crisis, sometimes stubborn and feared (“isch over”), sometimes flexible and winning.
In the previous legislative period, Schäuble had to give up his office Olaf Scholzwho knew how to use it as a stepping stone to the Chancellery.
As President of the Bundestag, Schäuble then assumed the highest public office of his career. He was there when right-wing extremists in parliament agitated against what Schäuble tenaciously defends, namely an economically strong Germany that, knowing its history and out of democratic conviction, wants to be an anchor of trust and reliability in the heart of Europe.
A sought-after advisor for Merkel
Behind the scenes, the CDU politician was an adviser to the chancellor for a long time, who in turn remained loyal to him even in periods of weakness. If Schäuble thought she had to CDU (or himself) too much politically, it was high time for them to exercise caution. He didn’t want to lead the party or the chancellor’s office, but Schäuble’s influence was huge for a long time. He relied on Friedrich Merz early on, and most recently narrowly prevented Markus Söder’s candidacy for chancellor from the CSU. Half oracle, half activist, he failed in many ways.
Anyone who has heard Schäuble speak in recent years has felt something of all this, with cautious confidence, skeptical, sometimes mockingly thinking about his fellow politicians and neighbors in Europe, approachable despite all the distance, the offices, age and personal life situation brought themselves.
Apart from Winston Churchill, there are probably only a few European politicians who have read more books than Schäuble. Sometimes he seems bored at events, only to suddenly intervene in the lively debate like a hunting crocodile.
He sometimes lets it be felt that he has often answered almost every possible party or state political question. Wolfgang Schäuble helped shape the fate of the country for more than five decades and helped the Germans to their happier years. This Sunday he celebrates his 80th birthday in Offenburg.