In 1998, Gerhard Schröder became the first politician since World War II to unseat an incumbent chancellor in Germany.
He defeated Helmut Kohl who had been chancellor for 16 years and promised to continue the social programs and to reinstate the mild cuts in worker benefits that Kohl had made earlier, but he also pledged to modernize policy so that Germany could remain a global economic force.
When Germans went to the polls in 1998, they were somewhat reluctant to make major changes. However, the Social Democratic candidate, Gerhard Schröder, convinced them that he was not an extremist. Although his party’s leftist policies could offer benefits, he would not necessarily always follow the official party line.
He supported the working class, but also understood the importance of promoting business. He moulded his image after that of US president Bill Clinton and British prime minister Tony Blair, both of whom claimed office after years of control by opposition parties.
While serving as a premier in the state of Lower Saxony from 1990 to 1998, Schröder emerged on the national scene as a charismatic, telegenic personality capable of stirring popular support for his party, which was eager to unseat Kohl’s Christian Democrats.
Despite a much-publicized divorce from his third wife in 1997, the charming Schröder, with his designer suits, cigars, and witty remarks, remained a favorite with the public. Many commentators professed skepticism about his leadership abilities, expressing the opinion that he was more interested in getting to the top than in effecting needed policy changes in the government.
The country’s generous social spending and rigid labour laws were making it difficult to compete in a world market, and critics wondered if Schröder would be willing to push through the unpopular, but necessary reforms that Kohl had begun.
The majority of Germans however, were willing to try a fresh face, and were anxious to see if he could follow through on his promise of balancing social programs and economic stability.
Gerhard Fritz Kurt Schröder was born on 7 April 1944 in the village of Mossenberg, in what is now the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. His father, Fritz Schröder, a lance corporal in the Wehrmacht, was killed in Romania in October 1944, while Gerhard was still an infant. He, his sister, and their three half-siblings grew up in poverty.
In order to support her family, his mother worked as a cleaning lady in the barracks for British occupation forces in the town of Lemgo, in northern Germany. Schröder began working in the fields as a farm hand at the age of 12 to bring in money. He quit school at 14 to take sales jobs in a china shop and then a hardware store.
He was an eager student and paid for night courses in order to finish high school. He went on to Göttingen University, where he studied law and joined the Young Socialists, a youth branch of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Schröder became the group’s leader in the district of Hannover in 1977. The following year he became the national chairman of the SPD Young Socialists.
In the meantime, he pursued post-graduate work and obtained a law degree in 1976; he was a practicing attorney from 1976 to 1980.
Schröder combined his profession and his politics, becoming noted for defending Red Army Faction terrorist Horst Mahler in a parole hearing. He also spoke for the dissident socialist organizer Rudolf Bahro who had been arrested in 1977, as did U.S. President Jimmy Carter as well as other personalities.
He also had a close working association with Willy Brandt, the former SPD chancellor.
By 1978, he had completely embraced mainstream Marxism and was busy organizing protests against the United States and the deployment of NATO missiles in Germany.
In 1980, he won a seat in the Bundestag – the National Assembly branch of the legislature – as a member of the SPD from the district of Hannover.
Premier of Lower Saxony
After six years in the Bundestag, Schröder returned to Lower Saxony in 1986, serving until 1990 as opposition leader in the parliament and chairman of the SPD Party Group. He made an unsuccessful bid to become premier of the state government of Lower Saxony in 1986. He ran again in 1990 and this time, won the election.
As he began his rise, Schröder’s views became more moderate. This undoubtedly helped his success in 1990, as did the assistance of his third wife, Hiltrud, nicknamed “Hillu.” As an environmentalist, vegetarian, and animal-rights proponent, she forged important relationships with members of the Green Party. The pair became known as the German equivalent of the Clintons, a political power couple who were young, attractive, and on the move.
As the premier of Lower Saxony, Schröder formed what was dubbed a “red-green coalition,” a combination of the socialist SPD party and the environmentalist Green Party. He became nationally known through his popularity with the public, rather than his leadership abilities within his party. In fact, he built a reputation as a leader unafraid to cross party lines, rather than one bound to ideology.
Though he held to socialist programs such as nationalizing some failing industries, he was viewed as being more pro free-market than most Social Democrats, thus earning him the tag of the “German Tony Blair.”
Media-savvy and good-looking, many felt Schröder could be the new face of Germany.
Challenging Helmut Kohl
Schröder won re-election as premier of Lower Saxony in March of 1998 with a populist platform. “It makes sense that politicians think of people’s feelings,” he once announced to a cheering crowd.
By that time, he made it clear that he wanted to challenge longtime incumbent Helmut Kohl, in a bid for the chancellorship.
The SPD, long the underdog to the Christian Democratic Union, had managed to gain seats in 1994 and saw a chance to finally topple Kohl. Schroder lobbied to win his party’s nomination again Oskar Lafontaine, the SPD chair. Lafontaine was more dedicated to the party’s leftist politics, but Schröder was more popular among German voters.
Though some criticized his state’s fast-growing debt and high unemployment, Schröder pointed out that he suppressed the rise in unemployment by saving jobs. Again, critics observed that his methods included costly government bailouts. Schroder replied to a crowd, “It’s always better to invest in jobs than to invest in unemployment !”
Schröder was ahead in the opinion polls and continued to win supporters with his brief, ten-minute speeches. “People don’t want to listen to hour-long oratories anymore,” he commented. In fact, most of Schroder’s campaign was marked by his willingness to give the people what they wanted.
Observers noted that his reticence to discuss specific issues made it impossible to determine what he really stood for. He would appeal to the working classes, but he also held the title of the “Comrade of Business” due to his willingness to forge relationships with heads of industry.
In fact, as minister-president of Lower Saxony, Schröder also served on the Volkswagen board and his tendency to promote pro-car policies led to him being nicknamed the “Auto-Kanzler” (car chancellor).
He promised to continue social programs and reinstate the mild cuts in worker benefits that Kohl had made, but he also pledged to modernize policy in order to remain a global economic force. Schröder also tapped into voters’ reluctance to usher in an unproven leader after living with Kohl for 16 years.
Not entirely happy with the way their country was heading, especially in terms of the double-digit unemployment figures, the conservative Germans were nonetheless concerned that a change could be for the worse. As a result, the SPD developed the slogan, “We won’t change everything – we’ll just do things better.”
In an SPD advert which ran in cinemas across Germany at the time, a team of astronauts, accompanied by rousing orchestral music, was beamed from Earth in spectacular fashion to another planet. But while the slimmer ones, including Gerhard Schröder, made it, the bulky one got left behind. The message in this political broadcast was clear: Helmut Kohl, the Christian Democrat chancellor was deemed unfit to take Germany into the future.
Schröder went on to defeat Kohl in September 1998, making him the first candidate to oust an incumbent chancellor since the end of World War II. He won by a surprisingly wide margin of about six percentage points in an election that saw 81.5 percent voter turnout.
Although Schröder identified himself as a Protestant, he created something of a stir when he did not add the optional phrase So wahr mir Gott helfe formula (so help me God) when he was sworn in as chancellor for his first term in 1998.
Be that as it may, the Christian Democrats suffered their worst defeat in over 40 years, taking just 35 percent of seats in the Bundestag, while the Social Democrats reaped about 41 percent.
However, this was not enough to give the SPD a majority, so Schröder was expected to form another “red-green” coalition with the Green Party, who earned 6.7 percent of the seats. This put him under some scrutiny, as the Green Party consisted of both pragmatic and extremist wings. It was feared that their radical elements could strain the partnership.
Schröder faced a number of challenges upon taking office, including participating in the unification of Europe with a common monetary system, balancing social justice and fiscal concerns, establishing ties with France, and promoting economic development in Russia.
He also faced the task of establishing a policy on immigration – the SPD has generally taken a liberal stance in accepting non-Germans – as well as tackling the high unemployment rate, especially in the former East Germany.
In 1996, his marriage dissolved after Schröder became involved with Doris Köpf, a journalist who had a daughter out of wedlock while she was living in New York. The German media, normally rather stoic on such matters, turned the event into a circus. Hillu Schröder subsequently wrote a scathing exposé of the relationship accusing her ex-husband of being mean, egotistical, cowardly, and opportunistic.
Schröder countered in the media, claiming that she tried to force him to become a vegetarian, a serious offense in a nation that enjoys eating meat.
He managed to emerge with his popularity intact and he married Kopf three weeks after his divorce in 1997. Schröder reportedly once said “I’m a constant guy…I may swap wives every 12 years, but I’m faithful in between !” In response, Köpf is alleged to have quipped “In that case, my successor will have to be able to push a wheelchair !”
And Gerhard Schröder, who was once a figure of fun in the political world for his colourful personal life, did effectively separate from wife number four in 2015. He split from his wife of 18 years, Doris Köpf, and moved out of the family home into a separate apartment in Hanover.
Schröder earned the nickname the ‘Audi Chancellor’ during his political career, a reference to the German carmaker’s four-ring symbol.
However, his other nickname ‘The Lord of the Rings’ was reinforced even further when he married for the fifth time in October 2018.
His new wife, Kim So-yeon is a South Korean translator 26 years his junior.
Kim, 47, is a Seoul representative of the Economic Development Agency of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia and has worked as a Korean translator for Schröder.
But it is not just his many wives that has landed him in hot water.
In 2014, Schröder was photographed hugging Russian President Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg as he celebrated his 70th birthday.
He has long had close ties to Mr Putin and devoted considerable attention to improving relations and economic ties with Russia. He is in fact a key proponent of the original Nord Stream project and he joined the board of the Russian energy giant Gazprom after losing Germany’s 2005 election as leader of the Social Democrats, who are now in a coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU).
Controversy over Gerhard Schröder’s relationship with Russia began in 2006, when he became chairman of the shareholder committee of Gazprom’s first Nord Stream pipeline under the Baltic Sea.
Nord Stream 2, a second pipeline along the same route became a flashpoint in EU affairs. This project is a joint venture between Gazprom and half-a-dozen Western European energy firms.
Once completed, it will double Nord Stream’s existing capacity, and be able to deliver another 55 billion cubic metres (1.9 trillion cubic feet) of Russian natural gas to European countries per year.
It runs from Vyborg compressor station at Portovaya Bay in western Russia along the seabed of the Baltic Sea to Greifswald in north-east Germany.
The length of the under-sea pipeline is 1,222 kilometres and bypasses traditional transit countries, such as Ukraine and Poland.
It is condemned by many eastern European states that say it will endanger the continent’s energy security by increasing dependence on Russian gas.
In other political areas, Schröder has defended the Kremlin’s aggressive actions in the Ukraine by claiming Russia wanted to stay ‘big and strong’ and an equal to the US. In the past, he has described the Russian President as a ‘flawless democrat’.
As recently as 2017, Schröder’faced a backlash after being elected chairman of the Russian state-controlled oil giant Rosneft. The appointment deepened his controversial links with Moscow.
The West had imposed sanctions on Rosneft after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and Schröder was accused of “cashing in” on his former role as chancellor and agreeing to work for a company that is a “major part of President Putin’s system of power”.
Gerhard Schröder was the last chancellor of the Social Democratic Party and his government engineered and implemented the sweeping social and economic reforms that have helped buttress Europe’s biggest economy against the worst of the Eurozone crises in recent years.
But Schröder’s drastic policies known as Agenda 2010, also alienated much of the SPD’s traditional grass-roots base and the party has never really managed to win back many disenchanted left-wing voters. Many feel that it’s still an issue even today, that it was unjust and that the SPD betrayed its values.
In many ways, he was caught between a rock and a hard place – and it’s difficult to take stock of his achievements.
Konrad Adenauer led Germany westward. Willy Brandt opened the doors to the east. Helmut Schmidt defended the country against domestic terrorism.
And Helmut Kohl oversaw reunification. Each leader of postwar Germany, except for short-lived chancellors Kurt-Georg Kiesinger and Ludwig Erhard, has left his mark on an era.
What about Schröder? He was Germany’s third chancellor to come from the ranks of the SPD Social Democratic Party and he ruled for seven years, not even half as long as his predecessor, Helmut Kohl, but longer than Social-Democrat demigod Willy Brandt.
Gerhard Schröder may well go down in history as Germany’s transition chancellor.