Expert help for angst

January 20, 1995

At this moment in German history no one is certain whether the new (and in all likelihood, last) government led by Chancellor Helmut Kohl will survive the four years until our next elections. The government's parliamentary majority is very thin indeed and the Liberals, old allies of the conservative Christian Democratic Party, are torn apart by inner struggles that might end up with their political suicide. Liberal thought, it seems, has become so much of a political commonplace, that there is simply no need for a separate liberal party any more.

Interesting possibilities for new coalitions are beginning to emerge. It seems, for instance, that the Greens no longer regard the Social Democrats as their natural and only allies in an open and almost ruthless attempt to participate in government.

An alliance between ecologists and conservatives is more and more considered a serious political option by both sides. There is more movement in German politics than might appear from the outside. Any major change, however, would imply the end of the Kohl era. Our ancien regime is now very old indeed and no one believes that the present government will be able to achieve much more than trying to survive as long as possible.

Any major change in German politics will, as a consequence, give an even bigger role to Kurt Biedenkopf. Professor Biedenkopf is an intellectual who has no enemies any more but who is intensely disliked by party friends like Kohl who, some years ago, almost ousted "the little professor" from the political arena. Professor Biedenkopf's renaissance is linked to Chancellor Kohl's decline. His recent career is a result of the still very difficult process of German re-unification.

Even before the end of the German Democratic Republic, Professor Biedenkopf took up an assignment at Leipzig University, and after re-unification and the first all-German free elections he became prime minister of Saxony -- a post to which he was re-elected last year with an overwhelming majority. The former East Germany has now two "monarchs" -- the Social Democrat Manfred Stolpe in the state of Brandenburg and the Christian Democrat Biedenkopf in Saxony -- both of whom can rule for the next four years without being troubled by serious parliamentary opposition.

As a political intellectual, the conservative Biedenkopf can only be compared to the Social Democrat Helmut Schmidt who would of course hate to be associated with intellectuals. But Professor Biedenkopf, like Schmidt, is used to thinking strategically, without being too much concerned with party boundaries. It will, in all likelihood, become a major triumph for him when, in the end, his strategy survives whereas Chancellor Kohl's shortsighted tactics inevitably falter.

Led by a shrewd instinct for power play, Chancellor Kohl has been a very successful manager of German politics. We must congratulate ourselves that a procrastinator was in charge when the window of opportunity opened and suddenly made, to everyone's surprise, German re-unification possible and the fall of communism inevitable. For two or three months, it seemed as if a charismatic leader had returned to German politics.

This was an illusion. The German public overestimated the visionary power of its politicians who were in charge at the moment when our world was turned upside down.

In the past two or three years we have learned that our political class wanted to change the world without knowing where this change should lead. Today the political world is devoid of visionaries. Tacticians abound when long-term strategic thinking is more in demand than ever.

In the last month, Professor Biedenkopf has asked a small group of experts to write him a short letter in which they identify the major problems German politics is facing. He will then use the answers to formulate his political agenda.

This is a significant step and one which Chancellor Kohl would not have taken. But Professor Biedenkopf is a politician who realises that now and in the future the West is confronted by problems which it is ill-equipped to deal with because of the legacy of the protracted Cold War.

Growing structural unemployment is undermining the legitimacy of industrial society; a widespread egotism is threatening the fabric of our democratic institutions; the contract between the generations is not working anymore; we are on the defensive against mass migrations not just from the east but also from the south.

European thought has conquered the world and now Europe must learn to learn from others. We simply cannot continue to believe in the illusion that the rest of the world will consent to be taught by this peculiar specimen of mankind, the homo europaeus, an intellectual.

This is a time when politicians and intellectuals will have to forge new alliances and innovative types of co-operation. Helmut Kohl's disdainful type of attitude towards intellectuals has become very old-fashioned.

On the other hand it has become painfully clear in the East that the philosopher-kings have failed as well. Moralists like Vaclav Havel, president of the Czech Republic, may still be in office but they no longer have any power.

Is this, then a case of cometh the hour cometh the expert? Not quite, for there is noone on the scene who could pretend to know the answers to our urgent problems and on whom politicians could rely for advice.

The new German minister for science and research has just proposed a German Academy of Sciences as a body that will be responsible for Politikberatung -- a plan that would have made some sense in the mid-19th century. Today, it is simply exotic to believe that politicians can create a body of expertise that will direct them in their decisions.

What we need is close co-operation between politicians and experts -- call them intellectuals if you wish -- on an almost daily basis of contact and debate. We need politicians who think strategically and intellectuals who are willing to accept that their home, in the years to come, will not be in the ivory tower or in Utopia but in a rather modest hut somewhere in the middle range.

There are few politicians in Germany who could play a role in such a new association. Professor Biedenkopf is among them and it will be interesting to follow the next steps of his career. With imaginative politicians like him in charge there is a reason for realism-oriented intellectuals to engage in politics once more.

Wolf Lepenies is rector of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.

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