When he first announced his candidacy, ex-European Parliament President Martin Schulz rocketed upward in the opinion polls. But his slide was just as dramatic. DER SPIEGEL was with him throughout and provides a unique look from the inside of his doomed effort to unseat Angela Merkel.
Five more hours. Then he’ll finally know how this insane mission will conclude. He’s sitting on the terrace of his home in Würselen, surrounded by the people who have stood loyally by his side throughout the campaign. The sun is shining, the garden is in bloom and Belgian rice tarts have been set out on the table. Now, it has simply come down to killing time.
Martin Schulz, the candidate for chancellor for the center-left Social Democratic Party, has brewed a pot of filter coffee for his guests, but his wife has made him an herbal tea instead. It’s better, she insists, given all the jitters and tension.
The group once again rehashes a few stories from the campaign trail as Schulz’s mobile telephone buzzes with heartening text messages from well-wishers in both Germany and abroad. “You fought like a lion,” writes Werner Faymann, the former chancellor of Austria. “Congratulations on your vigorous campaign,” writes a fellow SPD member from Germany, adding that Schulz has restored the party’s courage and fighting spirit.
“It’s amazing all that you have endured in the last few months,” says his wife Inge. “And in an organization that wasn’t tailored to you in the least.”
Schulz sips his herbal tea. “I gave it everything I could,” he says. “Both physically and psychologically.” Knowing that, he says, gives him a sense of inner peace.
Then it’s time to leave for Berlin. “On to the last battle,” calls out his speechwriter, Jonas Hirschnitz, as everyone stands to go. Hirschnitz is carrying an SPD flag with him, which he waves on the terrace one last time.
“No,” Schulz says. “It’s not the last battle.
The battle Schulz fought over the course of the last several months was a tough one and behind him lies one of the most curious election campaigns in modern German history. The spike in the polls Schulz experienced shortly after his nomination in late January was just as singular as his later collapse. In September, he went on to lead the 154-year-old, once-proud party to its worst-ever postwar election result.
Martin Schulz’s campaign is the story of a candidate who grew increasingly frustrated with his inability to pin down Chancellor Angela Merkel, the incumbent — and who likewise grew frustrated with some of his own party allies. It is the story of a man who struggled in vain to remain true to himself throughout the campaign but was only able to do so once the polling stations had closed. Not as chancellor, but as the leader of an opposition party.
Just 20.5 percent. That is the sobering outcome of months of a chronic lack of sleep, hundreds of strategy meetings, 41 large campaign rallies, countless conflicts, three townhall meeting-style TV appearances, constantly shifting emotions, dozens of interviews and one so-called debate.
March 22, Hotel Mövenpick Restaurant, Berlin
He has just come from a rally of 500 people for new party members in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, and before dinner is served, his office manager wants to know how it went. “Like always,” Schulz tells her on the phone. “I held a dramatic speech, got a big round of applause and then I left.” Everything feels so easy at the moment. Everything is working and it’s a lot of fun. If it really were possible to grin from ear to ear, that is what Schulz would be doing on this evening in the restaurant of the Mövenpick Hotel in Berlin.
The Mövenpick has been his go-to Berlin place of lodging for years now, because it fulfills Schulz’s top three requirements for a Berlin hotel: It is close to SPD headquarters in the Willy Brandt House; it has no unnecessary frills; and the food is decent, particularly the currywurst, sausages with curry-flavored ketchup.
It is the peak of the so-called “Schulz hype” and the candidate is spending much of his time meeting some of the thousands of new SPD members who only joined the party because of him. Three days earlier, a national SPD convention elected him as party chairman with a 100 percent result, and the widespread enthusiasm is making it look as though he has a realistic shot at victory in September.
In public opinion polls, the SPD stands at 30 percent, where it has been for weeks. “That’s what is making the conservatives so angry — that their prayers aren’t being answered,” Schulz says. He folds his hands, looks up at the ceiling and sarcastically implores: “Dear Lord, please let it be but a passing moment!”
When received his party’s nomination in January, Schulz had hoped that the SPD would climb to 25 percent by the time the convention rolled around in March. He then planned to increase it slowly throughout the campaign. “But that things would take off like they did! My goodness! I didn’t think it was possible,” he gushes.
The situation, he says, is reminiscent of the famous “Willy Election” in 1972, the triumph of former West Berlin mayor Willy Brandt that has gone down in SPD lore. Even though he was a teenager at the time, Schulz says, he could sense that it was about Willy and about deeply felt emotions. “Against the conservatives, against the right-wingers and for Willy. That’s what it was about back then.” Today, it’s the same, he says: Against the right and for Europe. “That is the gut feeling among the youth. It’s an emotion.”
Schulz says that Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), hasn’t yet understood that the election will be decided on the basis of feelings. “And I happen to be the one who triggers more emotion.” He sincerely believes that he will be able to defeat Angela Merkel with emotions – which is why he doesn’t want to present any ideas or campaign platforms for the time being. “I insist: Don’t get too specific! My refusal to be pinned down is driving the conservatives crazy! They can take a hike!”
Schulz has also decided to do his best to stay even-tempered and remain friendly. Conservatives are currently launching bitter attacks against him, but Schulz insists that is all like water off a duck’s back. He says it’s a sign that they’re getting nervous. “I’m going to stick stubbornly to my guns: I won’t attack them. The longer I am able to avoid reacting, the worse they will look. Amazing that they don’t get it!”
April 12, Hotel Königsdorf, Hannover
Late in the evening, he takes a seat at the desk in his hotel suite to write about his day in his diary. Earlier that evening, he gave a speech at Capitol, an event venue in Hannover. It will be his last speech for a time — and, once again, he was met with the boisterous cheering of thousands of enthusiastic supporters. The Schulz-euphoria hasn’t yet spent itself. The vote in the state of Saarland in late March, where the SPD lost badly to Merkel’s CDU, may have been a setback, but his party, Schulz is certain, will emerge victorious in the two state votes that are approaching. The fact that the Saarland election will come to be seen as the moment when Schulz’s candidacy began to go sour hasn’t yet become clear.
He takes a last look at his diary entry. All in all, another good day. He then shuts the journal, pours himself a glass of apple juice and sits down on the couch.
He is looking forward to the coming days. Easter is just a few days away, offering him a brief respite after all the hype, and after that, the plan calls for a less frenetic phase of the campaign to allow the SPD candidates in the states of Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia to run their campaigns without external interference.
Later, Schulz will say that it was a mistake to discontinue his schedule of public appearances. It was a point of conflict within his team, with some arguing that such events played to his strengths. But ultimately, the viewpoint won out that such rallies had served their purpose and it was time to move on. The media wasn’t reporting on them anymore, anyway. “That was wrong,” Schulz says in hindsight. “We should have kept going.”
Back in his hotel room, Schulz says a debate is raging among conservatives over whether or not to go on the attack against him. “Schäuble and Spahn,” he says, referring to senior CDU members Wolfgang Schäuble and Jens Spahn, “want to pound on Schulz. But Merkel and (Chancellery Chief of Staff Peter) Altmaier say: ‘He’s running himself ragged. Let him run. In serenity, there is strength.’ But they’re wrong. I’m running, but I’m not running myself ragged. They underestimate us. They think we’re stupid.”
Schulz, who is his own harshest critic, often says out loud what is going through his mind. Even when he is surrounded by people, his comments sometimes sound like an inner monologue that has forced its way out. In this respect, the difference between him and Angela Merkel – who rarely offers a window on her thoughts – could hardly be greater.
That morning, he was woken up at 5:30 a.m. by a text message from former SPD leader and current Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel. After the bomb attack on the Borussia Dortmund team bus the day before, Gabriel wrote, Merkel uttered the brilliant sentence: “Today, we are all BVB.” But there has been nothing from the SPD, Gabriel complained. “Where are we?” Additional text messages followed.
Schulz says that he sent out the first Twitter message about the unfortunate events in Dortmund: A photo of himself with a BVB team scarf around his neck. Schulz, who only became the SPD candidate because Gabriel saw fit to resign from the SPD chairmanship and get out of the way, is slowly realizing that his friend isn’t able to completely let go and that he still wants to exert a certain amount of control. The two have been close for many years; and although they have fought repeatedly, they have always succeeded in reconciling their differences. Schulz is a loyal person and wants to avoid having to clip his old friend’s wings. He doesn’t yet realize that their failure to clarify the nature of their new relationship will be a factor throughout the entire campaign.
The next day, Schulz drives to Würselen in the hopes that the next eight days at home will allow him to relax. Various campaign aides will visit him there for meetings and strategy sessions, and he will spend a lot of time on the telephone, but more than a week will pass between his last public appearance in Hannover and the next one in Cologne. In this age of agitation and instant gratification, though, a few days feels like half a year. Newspapers begin wondering: “What exactly is Martin Schulz up to?” Once the break comes to an end, DER SPIEGEL writes in its newsletter: “Haven’t heard much from the SPD chancellor candidate in a while after his fervid start. But today he is back on the trail, campaigning in Schleswig-Holstein, where he is visiting a fish smokehouse and a pump factory.”
If there is one thing that you can say about a political culture in which a slower pace over eight days at Easter is a problem, it is this: It’s not very Christian.
May 7, SPD Headquarters, Berlin
It is shortly before 6 p.m. when Schulz turns on the television in his party chairman’s office. In just a few minutes, the country will learn what everyone in the Willy Brandt House, the Social Democrats’ national headquarters, already knows: The SPD didn’t do well in the Schleswig-Holstein state elections.
“If the SPD doesn’t win,” says Tina Hassel, the anchor on public broadcaster ARD, “then the Schulz hype will have completely evaporated.” She’s speaking in the conjunctive even though journalists and politicians have access to early results and she already knows how the SPD fared.
“Such is the privilege of being SPD chairman,” says Andrea Nahles, who is sitting next to Schulz along with many other members of SPD leadership. “You get to be blamed for all the problems of others.” What can I say, says Schulz? “If you get whacked on the head, you get whacked on the head.”
Shhh, everyone listen, he says as the first analyses are shown on television. A journalist says that the result in the state was strongly influenced by regional factors. “Aha,” Schulz calls out, his finger in the air. “That is an interesting analysis.” Regional factors is shorthand for: Schleswig-Holstein Governor Torsten Albig, of the SPD, focused on the wrong issues and gave a stupefyingly idiotic interview about his failed marriage – and is therefore to blame. Not Schulz. It offers a tiny sliver of hope on an otherwise depressing day.
“He was the wrong candidate,” Schulz says, “But now we have to clean up the mess.” When he steps before the cameras in the atrium of the Willy Brandt House a short time later, he will speak of “communication deficits” that had apparently been present in Schleswig-Holstein. “I will call it what it is: a total defeat.”
“But you should also say a couple of things about the path forward,” says his campaign manager, Markus Engels. “This evening, it’s all about deportment. The SPD has to get the message that its leading man is still standing. And you can say that the national election isn’t decided in Saarland or in Schleswig-Holstein.”
“Very good, Dr. Engels!” Schulz praises him. He’ll say, Schulz continues, that it’s like in football: If the opposing team scores a goal, you have to pull yourself together and redouble your effort. Politicians love football metaphors, particularly when they are male members of the SPD. Schulz looks to his press spokesman: “Or have I said that before, Dünow?”
Tobias Dünow googles the sentences on his iPhone. Unfortunately, the search reveals that he said something similar after the defeat in Saarland. “Crap,” he says. “What about: I’m from North Rhine-Westphalia. There, after a bad day, you get up the next morning and get back to work.” Everyone likes it. “That’s what we’ll do,” says Schulz.
He then says he has to go out for a second to call his wife, Inge. “She is always so agitated and thinks that I must be too. I’m not, but I have to remind her.”
After five minutes, he comes back. “I’ve got it,” he announces, standing in the door with a big grin on his face.
“What do you have?”
He says he knows what he will say in his statement. “As of now, the goal is no longer that of winning the Chancellery, but of surmounting the five-percent hurdle.” Silence, incredulous faces. Schulz, who isn’t just widely read but is also usually quite serious, likes to try to loosen up moments of tension with small jokes. It is his way of dealing with the stresses of politics. “And then we’ll fire our treasurer.”
Dietmar Nietan, the treasurer, looks on in annoyance. “These days, heads must roll,” Schulz says. “You always need a scapegoat. And this time I’m afraid it has to be Dietmar.”
When he returns to his office after giving his statement in the atrium below, Torsten Albig, the loser of Schleswig-Holstein, is speaking on television. “So. Time for quiet,” Schulz says as he mutes the volume. “Fine. This is obviously a shitty situation. But what can you do?” Now, he adds, we just have to wait for the state election in North Rhine-Westphalia to be over and then the campaign can finally begin in earnest. Then he will finally be the focus of attention. “My greatest attribute is authenticity.”
May 12, Highway Rest Stop Bottrop South
Schulz walks across a garbage-strewn patch of grass and sits down on a metal bench, its blue paint peeling. “First, a relaxed cup of coffee and then time for a leak.” An aide brings him a coffee to-go from the rest stop McDonald’s. Honking cars, the roar of traffic on the Autobahn, screaming children: It is a classic campaign-style break.
For the last several days, he has been traveling nonstop through state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). Just now, he is coming from Grevenbroich, where he visited a factory, and is heading to Dülmen for an appearance at the weekly farmers market there. Schulz would like to look ahead, but finds it difficult, rankled as he is by the past and the present. The state elections, that he had initially thought would be a boost for his campaign, have proven to be just the opposite.
He’s not happy with education and security policy in Schleswig-Holstein and NRW, nor does he approve of their transportation policy. Schulz is supposed to represent a new, reborn SPD, but he is faced with the fact that his party has had a hand in policymaking for decades and hasn’t always done a good job. He also isn’t happy with the lead SPD candidates, who he had no hand in choosing – the arrogance of some and the petulance of others. “None of this is my fault,” he says. That is the disadvantage of being the head of such a party, he continues. “You are responsible for everything, but you only have limited influence.”
But he is also aware of the mistakes he has made himself – that he squandered his momentum following the first wave of enthusiasm for his candidacy. “I said to my eggheads, I want to tell you something.” Eggheads, it should be mentioned, is Schulz’s term for his closest aides and is meant as a term of endearment. “All of your pollsters said: Mr. Schulz, don’t get too specific! Keep vague for as long as you can!” He shakes his head. “Now, we are losing one election after the next and I have to listen to people telling me: You are losing because you didn’t offer specific policy proposals.”
In politics, personal convictions are increasingly being replaced by public opinion research. There are few policy proposals, strategies or candidates anymore that haven’t first been tested for their public approval. Schulz’s own candidacy is the result of the fact that, for months, his likability ratings were higher than Sigmar Gabriel’s.
May 14, SPD Headquarters, Berlin
Once again, he is sitting in his office, once again, the television is on and once again, it is showing a defeat for the SPD, this time the worst one of all, in North Rhine-Westphalia, a party stronghold. “Life is like a chicken ladder,” Schulz says. “Covered in shit.” Nobody says anything, the room is silent. “I have now become the royal defeat commentator.” He shakes his head in disbelief.
Schulz stares at the TV screen. When the results are shown, revealing just 30.5 percent for the SPD, he is silent, his finger pressed to his lips. He then stands up, hands in his pockets, and begins pacing back and forth across his office, eventually walking to the window and gazing outside.
Again, he finds himself faced with the question as to how he should react to this latest disaster, what he should say to his fellow SPD members and to the public at large. Schulz turns around: “I mean, the problem we have is that I can really only say that we need a couple of days to analyze the results.”
“What you say doesn’t matter a bit,” says his spokesman Dünow. “The only important thing is that you don’t give the impression of being depressed. You have to seem combative.”
On television, the moderator reminds his guest, SPD politician Karl Lauterbach, of something that Schulz said just a few weeks earlier about the SPD incumbent governor in the state: “If Hannelore Kraft wins in North Rhine-Westphalia in May, then I will become chancellor in September.” The commentator would like to know if the statement was still valid. Lauterbach answers: “Martin Schulz didn’t say that he would lose if she failed to win.”
“Ha,” Schulz calls out and claps his hands. “Karl is a class act.” It is a defiant moment of triumph, a brief revolt against the depression that is filling the room.
Later, deputy party chairman Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel storms into the office. He has been asked to give an interview to “heute journal,” a politics newsmagazine on public broadcaster ZDF, and wanted to ask if it might be better for the candidate himself to take over. “I have commented on enough defeats,” Schulz says. “The only thing I do is comment on defeats. I am tired of it.” He shakes his head and stares into the distance. “I have to finally go on the offensive.” He begins walking aimlessly through his office. Somebody remarks that Angela Merkel hasn’t been seen at all that evening. “She never comes out,” he says, acerbically. “For 12 years she hasn’t.”
After his office has emptied, he wants to watch the evening news. The anchor says that the SPD has received its worst-ever result in North Rhine-Westphalia. “Man, there are bitter moments in life. Laschet of all people,” says Schulz, referring to the CDU election winner Armin Laschet, who defeated Kraft. When a moderator sardonically comments on the “completely deflated Schulz effect,” Schulz cries: “That scumbag! He doesn’t have even an iota of decency!” When Hannelore Kraft appears on the screen, he says: “We paid a high price for you.”
Later, he will say that the party and his campaign never recovered from the day of the NRW election. He will also say that the biggest mistake he made in the campaign was allowing Kraft to convince him that he should stay away from her re-election campaign. After he had presented a reform proposal for unemployment benefits in the spring together with Andrea Nahles, and then joined Family Minister Manuela Schwesig of the SPD to introduce the idea of monetary benefits to help working parents spend more time with their children, Schulz had wanted to introduce an education offensive together with Malu Dreyer, governor of Rhineland-Palatinate. The plan had called for him to do so before the election in NRW, but Kraft had been vehement in her opposition. Doing so, she feared, would highlight the deep problems with the education system in her own state. He had wanted to override her objections, Schulz would later say, but several people told him that he couldn’t do that to Kraft. So, he didn’t. “I should have listened more closely to my gut and my intuition,” Schulz says in hindsight.
May 22, Wilhelmstrasse, Berlin
A bomb threat. SPD leaders have been standing on the sidewalk in front of SPD headquarters for two hours. They gathered that morning to approve the draft campaign platform, with Schulz hoping to finally be able to go on the offensive. He wants to finally offer specific policy proposals.
No bomb is found. But there are other problems.
The news conference, at which the campaign platform is to be presented, is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. and the event has already been announced over the German newswire DPA. But because there were countless requests for amendments and because it wasn’t clear that the original timeline could be adhered to, an employee at the SPD press office had called DPA and asked them to remove the event for the time being, adding that the SPD would inform the news agency when a new conference was scheduled. That leads to news reports that the SPD is postponing the passage of its campaign platform. It is the kickoff to a seemingly unending series of bad luck and mishaps. When the news conference finally is held, Schulz himself is not part of it. His advisers told him that the three chairs of the platform commission, Thomas Oppermann, Manuela Schwesig and Katarina Barley, should be in charge of presenting it and that the candidate himself should speak about it only on evening television.
‘The Whole Internet Is Full of This Crap!’
In the afternoon, Schulz is sitting in his office with his closest advisers. The team usually includes his office manager, his press spokesman and his campaign manager. Depending on the occasion, his speech writer could also be present, as might the party’s general secretary, the national manager, the treasurer, one or two department heads from SPD headquarters or external consultants.
Schulz is furious: “Why didn’t I go to that news conference? On every channel, they are saying: ‘The SPD is hiding Schulz!’ It is a mistake.”
Where are they saying that, asks his campaign manager Engels.
“Everywhere. The whole internet is full of this crap. My wife says there is a regular smear campaign taking place on all the networks.” His aides try to calm him down, without success.
“People, we are in a shitty situation,” Schulz says before falling silent for a time. “Maybe I am looking at the wrong media.” Engels responds with a piece of advice: “I wouldn’t watch any media at all.”
“I don’t know. What are we doing wrong?” Schulz bangs his hand on the table, rattling glasses and plates. “We are doing something wrong! Or is there really a campaign against us? I don’t know.”
He breathes deeply in and out. “These are mistakes where you wonder how something like that is possible.” A long silence fills the room. “On a day when we unanimously pass our campaign platform, on a day when we offer more specifics than any other party, we have this shit!” He exhales loudly, his fingers drum on the table. He seems consumed by frustration. “How do we get out of this hole? That is the decisive question. How do I get out?”
A plan is quickly developed for him to give interviews on the evening news programs to counter the impression that he is in hiding. But first, he has to practice. His spokesman, Dünow, asks him questions that will likely come up. “Mr. Schulz, what do your campaign promises cost?” Schulz thinks about it. “What should I say?” Dünow sighs deeply and then laughs. He recommends, he says, that Schulz say that his tax plan and spending models haven’t yet been finalized, but that the costs for all his proposals will be covered.
The last practice question is: Why didn’t you present your platform to the press yourself this afternoon? Schulz laughs in anticipation of the joke he is about to make. “In the SPD, we have a policy: Mr. Oppermann talks with the second-tier journalists. I am responsible for talking to the real ones.”
Laughter breaks out and the mood in the office finally lightens. That is exactly what he should say, his aides agree. In the news show that evening on public broadcaster ARD, the first question asked by anchor Pinar Atalay is: “Why weren’t you present today for the presentation of your campaign platform?” Schulz answers: “We have a commission that assembled the platform and they presented it. And I said, I’ll go talk with Ms. Atalay on the evening news.”
He is then asked about the employee who made the mistake with the scheduling of the news conference. Schulz has every reason in the world to fire the man, but he defends him vigorously instead. The man also isn’t fired later.
At the end of this week, after a passionate appearance before regional party leaders, there is an air of satisfaction in his office. After the screw ups Monday, they had a great week, says Engels.
“You saved us Monday,” Dünow tells Schulz. “You saved the Willy Brandt House, even though the Willy Brandt House is actually there to save you.” But hardly any media outlet reported on his excellent appearances, focusing instead on the mistakes, Engels complains. “A caricature is being drawn that I simply can’t stand anymore. They are constantly saying what idiots we are.”
Dünow says that he would advise against complaining about journalists. “We can’t fall into the Steinbrück trap.” During the 2013 campaign, then-SPD chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück constantly complained about the unfair coverage he thought he was receiving and ultimately held up his middle finger to the press from the cover of the Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin. “Take a look at some of his recent interviews. We can’t allow ourselves to go there.”
Schulz sits up. “Why, what is Steinbrück up to?”
Schulz is told that his predecessor has launched a political comedy show and is going on tour. To advertise it, he has just given two large interviews in which he speaks scornfully of the SPD and offers a bit of advice to Schulz. And now, instead of reporting on Schulz’s speeches, the media is talking about Steinbrück’s interviews.
“The fact that he even gave two interviews to advertise his stupid comedy tour is the height of obnoxiousness,” says Dünow.
“I haven’t been reading the press roundups for the last 14 days,” Schulz says, adding that he stopped doing so on the advice of his wife. “Since then, I’ve been in a better mood.”
May 28, Marinelli Restaurant, Berlin
Once the seafood salad has been ordered, Schulz sits up straight with a solemn look on his face. He has made a resolution.
“As of tomorrow,” he says, squinting into the evening sun, “as of tomorrow, there will be a different Schulz.” It is Sunday evening and we are sitting at his favorite Italian restaurant in Berlin, across the street from the Mövenpick Hotel.
There has been a fair amount of criticism of his leadership style, that he is too soft, too understanding and not decisive enough. Schulz believes that Gabriel and Matthias Machnig, a close confidant of Gabriel’s, are behind the critique and that they are trying to force him to revamp his campaign team, ideally with Machnig as his new campaign manager. Doubts have been raised as to whether Schulz is tough enough to be German chancellor.
Ironically, this accusation also applies to Schulz’s guarded approach to Gabriel, who has been poaching significant amounts of attention from the SPD candidate with his almost daily appearances on the European political stage. A fellow party member has told Schulz: “If you don’t kill him, he will kill you.” But the candidate refuses to believe it.
“People are going to get to know the other side of the lovable Martin,” he says as the seafood salad arrives. “I have to now show what I can do.” He bangs his fist resolutely on the table. He says that his wife once left a note on the kitchen table for him with a saying from a book of proverbs: “If you shy away from conflict, the wolves will get you.” His wife often reminds him of the saying, Schulz says.
“Either I will prevail with my own style or I am the wrong guy,” he says, adding that part of his initial popularity came from people’s belief that he wasn’t just another power-hungry politician. “That means I don’t have to behave like a normal politician.”
But he has issued a warning to Gabriel: If he says one more thing about Europe, it’s over.
June 12, SPD Headquarters
One of his biggest problems, Schulz says while sitting at the conference table in his office, is that he is losing his intuition. “I have become completely unsettled by all of the advice.” He says everyone is constantly telling him what to do: his campaign team, the consultants and the other party leaders. “I am yanked back and forth.”
“So, now it is time for you to get into a Brigitte mood, please” says his office manager, Natalie Hagemeister, referring to the widely circulated German women’s magazine. Hagemeister has developed a finely tuned sense for when Schulz threatens to drift off into self-pitying pathos.
It is, though, time for him to begin preparing for the evening’s event, at which two editors from Brigitte will pepper him with questions onstage at Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater. The point of the event is to show the human side of Martin Schulz.
“Why am I even going?” Schulz asks. He is quickly told why it is important that he show up: Because many media representatives will be there. Four years ago, his staff tells him, Merkel was all over the press after her interview with Brigitte.
OK, says Schulz. “My first sentence will be: If a man needs a word, a woman needs a dictionary.” He was, of course, just joking – and during the discussion that evening, Schulz is much more charming than his afternoon irascibility would have led one to suspect. In speaking of his wife Inge, who he married 32 years ago, he says onstage: “I would say I almost love her even more than I did back then.”
One week later, the conference table in his office is again full of advisers, this time to discuss the speech he is to give at the upcoming party convention Sunday. The hope is that it could become the turning point of his campaign. The table is set with fruit skewers and cookies.
First, the group discusses the question as to how aggressively Schulz should attack Angela Merkel – the key question that all of her challengers have had to address. Hubertus Heil, the SPD’s newly appointed general secretary, says there is clear survey data pertaining to the question. “If you attack Merkel, many people who waver between the CDU and the SPD will go to Merkel. Particularly the women,” Heil says.
Heil is a new member of the team. After senior SPD member Erwin Sellering withdrew from his political functions to fight cancer, Schulz had been forced to make some personnel changes.
Then it probably makes no sense to focus too much on Merkel, Schulz says. But one of his closest aides disagrees: People want Martin to be more authentic, like he was at the beginning, the aide says. “And a more authentic Martin Schulz would attack Merkel in some form or another. Anything else would be this spin-doctored, pollster-approved approach.”
The image that must be conveyed, says his spokesman Dünow, is that “you have energy, you have vision and that Merkel has neither energy nor vision.” There absolutely has to be something visionary in the speech, he says, something like the demand for a United States of Europe. “Something big like that,” Dünow says, so that people say: “That’s awesome. That’s the old Martin, the one with the courage to show passion, the courage to have huge ideas. And that is a speech that you will never hear from Merkel.”
Heil speaks up to say that someone who recently saw Schulz on television told him: “He looked so sad. When is he going to get his shine back?” Heil continues: “If the vision that we have talked about helps you to start glowing again, then it will be a great convention. And then we need to demonstrate how hard you work, the sweat stains. You should consider taking off your jacket for the speech.”
Schulz then says he would like to talk about “asymmetrical demobilization.” The reference is to a piece of advice given to Merkel by a pollster that she shouldn’t take strong positions during the campaign, that she should do all she can to avoid being polarizing. It has been a complaint of Merkel’s political style for years – that she refuses to be pinned down. Sitting in his chair, Schulz begins developing an angry attack on the chancellor and her CDU party. He talks himself into a fury, his cheeks trembling and fingers pounding on the edge of the table in rhythm with his words and sentences. Hirschnitz, his speechwriter, flips on his recorder. When Schulz finishes, Hirschnitz says: “If you do it like that, the whole hall will be standing.”
That was good, says one of those seated at the table. “That would be a relatively aggressive approach.”
“Yeah, but without attacking her personally,” Schulz says. “On the contrary, I would be complimenting her for her strategy.” He then turns to his speechwriter: “Did you write all that down?”
“I recorded it.”
“I have one more request in closing. I have to be able to speak freely, like I just did. If I have to read the speech word for word, you can forget it.”
Three days later, the group reassembles. There is now a manuscript for his speech, Schulz’s team having worked on it until 4 a.m. that morning. Schulz steps up to the podium and begins reading. When he finishes almost an hour later, his advisers knock on the table in approval, but Schulz peers uncertainly into the room. The expression on his face is unmistakable: People, what happened?
Everything that had been edgy and courageous, everything that had been risky about what he said three days earlier was gone. It isn’t clear how many advisers and experts had contributed to the final product, but it seems they know neither their candidate nor the rules of political campaigning. It is rather rare that a well-behaved challenger emerges victorious.
“Where is the sentence: Everybody thinks they know Merkel but nobody knows what she stands for?”
“Our research makes it extremely clear that we should avoid direct attacks on Angela Merkel,” says Heil.
“But Sunday, we said that we were prepared to pay that price to tap into the emotion that we need,” says Schulz’s close aide. It is exactly the same discussion that took place three days earlier.
“To be completely honest,” says Schulz, “this here is a governmental policy statement, not a party convention speech. With this speech, I won’t be able to communicate the emotion that I need at the convention. Did the supervisory boards again decide to take everything out?” Schulz uses the term “supervisory boards” to refer to those who advise caution and refuse to let him be who he wants to be.
No longer is there a reference to the “United States of Europe,” but to the “United Democracies of Europe,” says Heil. It’s better that way, he adds, because German voters are ambivalent on the issue.
Schulz is despairing. He views all of the objections as an attempt to tame him. The line about asymmetrical demobilization has also gone missing. “Everything that was important to me, why was it all cut?”
Once again, Schulz launches into an impromptu speech: “In sociology-speak, you can call it asymmetrical demobilization. I call it the erosion of democracy.” He speaks of “erosion” three times and then throws in another sentence: “Deliberate acceptance of lower voter turnout is an attack on our democracy.” It is the sentence that people would later remember from his speech.
Schulz says he could even imagine beginning the speech with that sentence. Suddenly, his bad mood is gone, replaced by a rising sense of euphoria. “That’s what I’ll begin with! That would be a great intro! That would get their attention!”
“Boom,” says one of those present.
“You’d get the place rocking right away,” says speechwriter Hirschnitz.
June 25, Dorint Hotel, Dortmund
On the Monday before his big speech, he is sitting at the breakfast table and showing a video to his team on his iPhone. It is from a satirical television show in Austria and it shows EU heads of state and government talking in Brussels, including Merkel and Schulz. The dialogue has been made up and their voices all sound like cartoon figures.
“You know what I like so much about it?” he asks after the clip has finished playing. “The talks in Brussels aren’t actually that much more substantial.”
The party has brought in a red podium complete with the SPD logo into the “Mondrian Suite” and positioned it next to the potted plant. It is time for Schulz to practice his speech one last time.
Everyone is there except for one member of his team and Schulz asks repeatedly where he is. When the doorbell rings, Schulz jumps up and answers the door, but it is only room service. He is always extremely concerned when a member of his staff isn’t doing well. He is now running out of time to practice his speech, but he doesn’t want to start until the well-being of his missing adviser has been clarified. He just sits there, not saying a word.
Finally, a call comes in. “OK, thank God. He just overslept.”
“Now you can relax,” says his office manager Hagemeister. “And practice your speech.” Everyone moves over to the living room and sits down on the sofas and easy chairs to listen.
With just two hours to go before his real speech, he asks Engels and Dünow one last time if he should really say the part about the attack on democracy. Both agree that he should.
He holds his speech, says the sentence, and 6,000 SPD members in the Westfallenhalle convention center in Dortmund erupt in cheers.
‘We’re in Freefall’
The next day, at home in Würselen, Schulz takes a close look at the press coverage of his speech, even though he allegedly doesn’t do that anymore. A handful of conservative politicians have fiercely criticized him for the part about the “attack on democracy,” and that makes him happy. “Finally, there is some friction,” he says. “I hope that a few conservatives will fall prey to the temptation to insult me personally.” He says he has also noticed that nobody from Merkel’s closest circle has said anything, adding that they are still sticking to their strategy. Don’t react! Don’t say anything! “I could send a truck full of manure to the Chancellery and they wouldn’t react,” Schulz says.
When asked about the “attack on democracy” line the next day, Merkel says that it isn’t the kind of thing that the Schulz she knows would say. And then she buries his hopes for a bit more friction by adding: “But it’s no big deal.”
July 3, SPD Headquarters, Berlin
The table in his office is set with a hearty breakfast, including four dishes filled with fried eggs being kept warm by candles. “I’ll just get started then,” says Schulz as he spears an egg with his fork.
It is the beginning of an important day. At 1 p.m., Merkel and Horst Seehofer, the head of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s CDU, are to present their joint campaign platform. The most important details have already leaked and Schulz and his team must now figure out how the SPD should react.
“Do we have the courage to say: They copied everything!” Schulz asks. “They simply took it all from us!” He argues in favor of taking that approach, but the others advise against it. Doing so would sound too whiny, says Heil, and nobody in the public at large finds such a thing scandalous. If he were a conservative, he says, he would hope for exactly that response. The rest of the group agrees.
“Fine,” says Schulz. “They copied everything from us, but now we have to act as though their platform is 100 percent the opposite of ours.” It runs counter to his convictions, he adds, but OK.
It is the fundamental problem that he has encountered with his campaign. You would need a microscope to find the differences between the platforms of the SPD and the CDU. The division heads at SPD headquarters have done exactly that, but they were unable to find enough differences to fuel a fiery campaign. Under Merkel’s leadership, the conservatives have drifted so far to the left – or so far away from solid convictions – that it is almost impossible to highlight significant contrasts using classic Social Democratic issues of the kind that Schulz stands for.
Still, he now has to act as though there are such differences. Schulz fidgets in his chair and you can see how uncomfortable it makes him. He had launched his campaign in the hopes that he wouldn’t have to play too many tactical games. He wanted to be able to speak in accordance with his convictions.
At the news conference later, he will say nothing about “theft” and “copying,” instead presenting the CDU/CSU platform as though it represented a significant danger to societal peace in the country. He calls it “flawed,” “unfair” and “irresponsible.”
Three days later in the evening, Schulz receives the latest results from a regular public opinion poll carried out on behalf of public broadcaster ARD. The survey hasn’t been conducted for two weeks and in the meantime, the SPD – in contrast to the competition – has presented concrete, carefully calculated reform plans for the country’s pension and tax systems and even received praise for their ideas. The party convention was likewise largely a success; there hadn’t even been any memorable gaffes. Furthermore, Sigmar Gabriel has refrained from giving any eye-catching interviews.
Finally, the numbers should start trending upward again, Schulz has said repeatedly in the last few days. At least a bit. Nothing is as important to political campaigns as “momentum,” the feeling that you are on the right track. Throughout the week, he and his staff were convinced, the momentum would return to Martin Schulz and the SPD.
Now, though, the results are here, and they show that the SPD has lost a point and fallen all the way down to 23 percent – roughly the same level as when Schulz took over from Gabriel several months earlier. The conservatives, meanwhile, have climbed up to 39 percent. Schulz has also lost ground in the personal likeability comparison between himself and Angela Merkel. The best-liked Social Democrat in Germany is now Sigmar Gabriel.
“We’re in freefall,” says Schulz. He speaks quietly, lethargically, as though there is no reason to keep going. “Maybe I’m the wrong candidate.” “The people are nice to me, but it’s out of pity. I’ve sensed that for some time now.”
He has never before seemed so defeated and adrift. “How are we supposed to turn the tables in 80 days? If I only knew what I did wrong.” Schulz admits that he’s at the end of his rope. “I can’t pick myself up if there’s no reason to do so.” When asked what kind of reason he means, he says: “I don’t have the faintest chance.”
The next evening, Hamburg’s Schanzenviertel neighborhood stands in flames, the product of violent protests at the G-20 summit being held in the German port city. Olaf Scholz, the mayor of Hamburg and deputy head of the SPD, finds himself the target of fierce criticism, with the entire country wondering if the Social Democrats are too soft when it comes to domestic security. Yet it was the chancellor herself who had chosen Hamburg as the G-20 host city.
“There is always something,” Schulz curses while riding in a car to the Munich airport on the Tuesday evening after the riots. Whenever he decides to take a step forward, such as the presentation of his “Plan for the Future” on the coming Sunday, something gets in the way, he says. “There is always some sort of incident that blindsides me.”
At home in Würselen last Sunday, he had two long conversations that made him think, he says. One of them was with a friend and the other was with his wife, Inge. The friend said, the candidate relates, that Schulz is seen differently now because he has changed. The freshness and unselfconsciousness he displayed at the beginning of the campaign are gone. The friend said it seems as though the worrywarts who see dangers everywhere have taken full control.
“He’s right,” Schulz says from the backseat of his car. His voice sounds raspy and throaty from constantly speaking. Someone, he says, is always warning: You can’t say it like that, the unions won’t like it. Or: You’ll upset the SPD parliamentary group. Or: You’ll have to coordinate that idea with the party expert. And on and on.
Inge told him: “It has become noticeable that you have begun doubting yourself.” “And it’s true,” Schulz says in the car. “This feeling that it’s all wasted effort anyway combined with the fact that I submitted myself to this excessive caution have led to a situation that I can no longer get out of.” He says he has begun censoring himself and is constantly wondering: Is that too risky?
Yesterday evening, he says, he made a decision: “The whole time, I’ve allowed myself to be held back. But that’s over now. From now on, I’m only going to do what I think is right.”
But what is right?
Having arrived at the VIP wing of the Munich airport, his office manager Natalie Hagemeister calls about a new problem that has cropped up. Schulz’s summer campaign schedule, a series of appearances that was planned long ago, calls for him to head to Hamburg on Thursday. His team had planned for him to take a relaxed tour of the port in the afternoon, but after the violence of the G-20 protests, such a thing would look terribly inappropriate.
“I have such bad luck,” says Schulz after the phone call, sitting alone on the terrace of the VIP wing. “How is it possible for someone to have such bad luck?” He grabs his temples with both hands and shakes his head. “Hamburg, of all places!”
Jonas Hirschnitz, his speechwriter, joins him to go over a few questions submitted by a labor union magazine. One of them asks what his favorite Beatles song is.
“‘Penny Lane,'” Schulz says. They quickly call up the song on the iPhone and play it loudly. Schulz stares at the phone and suddenly he is fighting back tears and swallowing hard. Just then, a woman from VIP services comes to get him and drive him to the jetway.
In business class on the flight to Cologne, he explains why he became so emotional earlier. The Beatles, he says, were the children of simple people and the song “Penny Lane” was an anthem to a street in a working-class neighborhood. The message is that everything you experience in life, Schulz says, can be traced back to the street where you come from. You can never escape your origins.
He says he started thinking of his parents, who were extremely simple, honest people. And then of the situation today, where he is hanging out in the VIP wings of airports and being asked over for a spontaneous conversation with the prime minister of Singapore, who just happens to be there too. “My father would say: You’ve become so aloof!”
It was a painful moment, he says.
July 15, Mövenpick Hotel, Berlin
He orders currywurst and fries with mayonnaise, a dish that he has been eating more and more often these days. The strict diet that he committed to before his nomination as SPD chancellor is on a brief hiatus in these stressful weeks.
The next day, he will present his “Plan for the Future” at SPD headquarters. That’s the comforting thing about political campaigns: There are always new opportunities – always new events, speeches and occurrences that could theoretically turn things around. The “Plan for the Future” is the next opportunity.
The plan calls for him to practice the accompanying speech at dinner – and once he has finished, everyone in his team is enthusiastic. A great manuscript, they say. But then they begin going through the 13 pages, paragraph by paragraph, with each phrase coming up for debate. Even simple punctuation mistakes are addressed by the group.
“People, what are you doing?” Schulz finally asks at one point. “You’re rewriting the entire speech.” He checks the time on his mobile phone. It’s 10:30 p.m. “I’ve been working on this thing for 10 hours. I want to go to bed.” But when his advisers offer to stop for the evening, he demurs. “No, let’s just get this over with,” he says, and orders another sparkling cherry juice.
The speech ends up being the best one of his campaign. He finally gets the attention that he has been hoping for all this time, with several media outlets publishing positive reports. Breakfast with his team the next morning is one of the most euphoric moments of the campaign. “For the first time in a long time, we are in a situation where things went well yesterday and we have the wind at our backs,” says Schulz. “For the first time! Really, we should see the speech yesterday as the kickoff to our campaign.”
We started at 20 percent, he says. If the election were held now, we would win 25 percent. “There really is a feeling out there that the election isn’t over yet.”
When the discussion once again turns to how to attack Angela Merkel, a secretary walks into the office: “Martin, a telephone call with the chancellor would be possible right now.”
“I’m coming!” Schulz calls out, his mouth half full of breakfast. He jumps up and walks to the door as his puzzled team looks on. “It’s her birthday. I’m just giving her a quick call.” More questioning looks. “I’m a polite guy!”
“But swallow first,” Hagemeister advises. “Tell her you hope it’s her last birthday in office,” his treasurer calls after him.
“And, was she happy you called?” asks his spokesman Dünow when Schulz returns.
“Yeah, I think she was surprised. She wasn’t expecting it.” He imitates her with a high-pitched voice: “‘What a pleasant surprise. And so early!'” He seems a bit proud of himself.
July 19, SPD Headquarters, Berlin
Pollster Richard Hilmer has prepared a Powerpoint presentation for delivery in Schulz’s office and he has brought along some interesting studies that make it clearer how the Schulz hype developed so quickly in spring and why it disappeared just as fast. Schulz closes the blinds so he can see – and understand – better.
“The new clientele,” Hilmer says, referring to those who flocked to Schulz’s campaign shortly after his candidacy was announced, “was the old SPD clientele that the party lost.” The reference is to millions of people who turned their backs on the party after the Agenda 2010 welfare and pension reforms were passed by then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in the 2000s. These people briefly found their way back to the SPD when Schulz’s candidacy was announced, Hilmer says, but now they are gone again.
Schulz interrupts. “But how did we disappoint these people?” It is the most important question of his candidacy. The key question.
“Because … it’s, it’s because ….” Hilmer hesitates. “It’s like ….” Then he comes up with a metaphor. “It’s like a small plant that needs to be regularly watered,” he says. “There was a long phase of disappointment.” Schulz was the first sign of hope they had seen in quite some time. “Finally, someone who understands us, who speaks our language, who knows our problems. It was enough to last for two months.”
When Schulz became the candidate, many people saw him as a different kind of politician: sensitive, passionate, down-to-earth, upright and genuine. He was a comforting contrast to the standard, power-hungry politician. At the same time, it looked as though the SPD could finally heal its wounds, as though it could restore its credibility as the upstanding representative of the bottom half of society. The fact that Schulz carefully condemned the welfare cuts his party had been responsible for fit this image of the candidate. But this impression began fading, and having Schröder as a featured speaker at the SPD convention certainly didn’t help.
“What did I do wrong?” Schulz asks. “What did I do wrong?” Pause. “I didn’t change. I also didn’t change my rhetoric.”
Yeah, but concrete plans should have quickly followed, says Hilmer. That finally happened with the “Plan for the Future.” Schulz didn’t begin watering the seedling quickly enough, Hilmer says. He raised short-term expectations that he didn’t live up to in the medium-term.
“Can we make amends, or is it too late?” Schulz asks. “A disappointment like that doesn’t disappear overnight,” Hilmer says. Those who claim to still be undecided, though, could theoretically be won back, the pollster says.
There is also some good news. The Europe chart. Approval of Europe has increased dramatically. Whereas only 34 percent of German voters said two years ago that the advantages of the EU outweighed the negatives, now it is 64 percent, says Hilmer.
Schulz points to the graphic and the 30 percent increase. He is electrified. After all, he spent 22 years in European Parliament, and the last five years as its president. “That has to give me a boost,” he says.
Schulz says he would like to openly address a question he has. He speaks hesitantly, making it clear that it is something that has been bothering him. “I was forced to largely take over structures here that someone else created.” He is referring to SPD headquarters and his predecessor, Sigmar Gabriel. “It’s unfortunately true.” In 1998, he says, there was also a situation where it wasn’t clear which of two possible candidates it would be, Oskar Lafontaine or Gerhard Schröder. At the time, Schulz says, senior SPD member Franz Müntefering prepared two different campaigns to fit the two different possible candidates, both in content and appearance. There were two structures built for the campaign, Schulz says. “But we arrived a bit late and found a structure that wasn’t tailored to me, but to someone else. I didn’t really realize that in the moment when I took over.”
Schulz was late in recognizing the problems that hobbled his candidacy at the beginning. When he arrived in the kitchen, there were hardly any ingredients left – and almost no prep-cooks who he knew. But in the euphoria early on, he hardly noticed.
In the initial weeks after becoming the SPD candidate for chancellor, he traveled unselfconsciously around the country, Schulz now explains. He just headed out and talked about what was on his mind. “I just started blah-blahing.”
And you struck a nerve, interjects Hilmer.
“But the longer the campaign went on, the more I turned into a kind of apparatchik. I was told: You have to stop with the Europe stuff, this isn’t a European campaign. You also can’t be seen as the Eurocrat, but as a possible German chancellor. In my opinion, that is 100 percent the opposite of what I should be doing.”
Heil and Hilmer agree with him.
“OK, so why am I not talking about Europe?”
“Because people convinced you that you shouldn’t play the guy from Brussels,” says Heil, who wasn’t part of the campaign at its inception.
At the end of the discussion, Schulz is satisfied. He feels like his gut feelings have been confirmed. Hilmer has essentially given him permission to present himself as an unbridled pro-European.
July 20, a Limousine, Paris
“Man, am I exhausted,” Schulz says as he gets into the car shortly before midnight. He is just finishing a day that included a meeting with Emmanuel Macron and several interviews against the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower. For one day, he has once again been able to play the role of the great European – the man he was for so long and the man he still is in his heart of hearts. But he still didn’t make it into the nightly news. Instead, they focused on Sigmar Gabriel and on the threats he had issued against Turkey.
On the drive to the airport hotel, Schulz reads a report on SPIEGEL ONLINE on his mobile phone. The gist of the story is that Gabriel stole his thunder with his remarks on Turkey. “On the previous day, the SPD chancellor candidate had called for a halt to EU aid for Turkey and also said that talks on expanding the customs union should be put on hold,” Schulz reads out loud. “They were the clear words of a campaigner, and yet Schulz was not truly taken seriously. Gabriel seemed more vigorous, as has so often been the case recently. Once again, this raises the question of who is actually in charge.”
Schulz stops reading. “The usual crap. Well, OK, it doesn’t matter. I’ll survive this one, too.”
‘What an Idiot’
Gabriel actually did the right thing, says Schulz. He explains that the two men agreed yesterday that Schulz would be the first to make demands of Turkey and that Gabriel would follow them up today. “But of course, there was no clear reason for him to interrupt his vacation, to do so,” Schulz says. Doing so imparted a certain sense of drama to the matter and that hadn’t been part of the deal.
Gabriel is simply the way he is, says Schulz, looking out the window at nighttime Paris. As a result, he adds, he’ll just have to distance himself from Gabriel and stop working with him.
Again and again, Schulz has suffered from his friend’s behavior during this campaign. He doesn’t believe that his intentions are bad; he knows that Gabriel also needs the SPD to be successful if he hopes to survive politically. But Schulz is also frustrated by the fact that his friend has no self-discipline and keeps drawing the spotlight to himself when it should be pointed at the candidate.
In early August, new problems arise. A Green Party member of state parliament in Lower Saxony has switched parties and joined the CDU, causing the SPD/Green Party coalition government to lose its majority. There will be new elections. The lawmaker was offended because her local party organization had not nominated her as its candidate. Although the party switch has nothing to do with Schulz and the SPD, this is precisely the way it’s portrayed in the papers. In a statement, CDU General Secretary Peter Tauber says: “This shows us, once again, that the SPD and Green Party simply cannot govern reliably together.”
“So I said to myself: I’ve had it,” says Schulz while eating dinner with his team. “No more. Now they’re going to get to know another side of me. This rabble cannot be allowed to run our country. The country is about to get to know my fighting side.”
Everyone around him nods with relief. As the people who are concerned about his state of mind day and night, they like these moments of rebellion. Again and again, there have been moments in his life, says Schulz, when he was able to flip the switch. He snaps his fingers in the air. “That’s when I say: Enough already! Now I’m showing my strength. Last Friday was one of those moments. Some trollop from the Greens defects, and it’s supposed to be our fault! No, no, no, we don’t put up with that sort of thing.”
August 17, SPD Headquarters
Today’s lunch, currywurst with fries and mayonnaise, is consumed at the conference table, as so often these days.
“You’re really turning me into a clown, know that, right?” says Schulz, when a staff member goes over his schedule for the rest of the day. “I don’t feel like it. I want to go home.”
“Everything else OK?” his office manager asks.
“How could everything be OK? Nothing is OK.”
This time, Gerhard Schröder is the reason for his bad mood. The former chancellor has been tapped for a position on the board of the Russian oil giant Rosneft and the papers are full of stories about greedy Schröder and his Russian connections. And once again, the media is saying it is a huge problem for Schulz. Schröder has just upped the ante by defending his future job in an interview with the Swiss newspaper Blick.
“That Schröder really gets on my nerves,” says Schulz. “Man oh man. Now I’ll have to spend the entire day talking about Schröder.”
If there is a common thread in his campaign, it is the lack of sensitivity, or, to be more precise, the heedlessness, of his various predecessors. Schulz could certainly have found better things to do with the time and energy he has been forced to devote to Messrs. Schröder, Steinbrück and Gabriel, not to mention all the negative headlines for the SPD. Solidarity, the foundation of the social democratic world view, doesn’t seem to be a particularly well-developed trait among former SPD leaders.
Now Schulz regrets having invited Schröder to speak at the party convention in Dortmund in June. The invitation was nothing if not well-intentioned. “As a longtime friend, I did everything I could to reconcile that man with the party. I approached him, and I invited him to the party convention, against the objections of some members of the executive committee. And then this. Really!” And to make matters worse, says Schulz, Schröder had to give that interview to Blick. “What an idiot.”
August 22, a Sedan, Approaching Trier
Schulz has started his main campaign tour through the country and by the time voters go to the polls on Sept. 24, he will have held 41 rallies. Yesterday Bremen, today Trier. During the trip, he pulls out the manuscript for his speech. “We had to make some cuts, because I made too many impromptu additions yesterday,” says Schulz. “But the parts I added got the most applause. It’s true.”
Then he recites the speech and asks his bodyguard sitting in the front seat whether he liked it.
Shortly before the exit, he receives a text from a staff member with a photo of the event site. The stage is positioned in front of the Porta Nigra, a large Roman-era gate. “I suggest you tune out for five minutes before arriving. Close your eyes and relax. Then get up on the stage and let loose. The weather is good. The speech is good. Day two of your comeback.” Schulz seems touched as he looks at his mobile phone. “He’s sweet. He’s so nice.”
He receives another text message shortly before arriving at the Porta Nigra, this time from a pollster at the SPD headquarters. “Forsa has me up by one percent!” Schulz exclaims enthusiastically, referring to the polling agency. He then explains what that means: a 24 percent result with Forsa is really more like 26 percent, he says. “I’m up a point for the second week in a row. That’s not bad.”
When someone is constantly inundated with bad news, the few pieces of good news become all the more important. They are like antidepressants countering the stress and feelings of futility. Even though Schulz occasionally plunges into emotional black holes, he always manages to pull himself out again.
He already knows that he isn’t going to be the next chancellor. But he still hopes to reach 27 or even 28 percent. “In general, the mood is shifting in our favor,” he says. And if the photo he has just received on his phone is telling the truth, there’s quite a crowd waiting for him in Trier. The photo is accurate.
But only three days later, the mood turns catastrophic. He sits at the table in the breakfast room of his Frankfurt hotel for several minutes without saying a word – something that is completely out of character for Schulz. The new surveys from the public broadcasters ARD and ZDF are in, and both show the SPD losing two percentage points, dropping to 22 percent. It never stops. All the élan he has accumulated throughout the week, fueled by the first few speeches on town squares, a single Forsa poll (showing an uptick of one percentage point!) and a healthy dose of self-delusion, has suddenly vanished.
There is no point in whitewashing things, says Schulz. “It’s a terrible situation.” He doesn’t understand what’s going on. “Thousands of people showed up in Essen yesterday, and then they serve up polls like these!” He shakes his head. “I’m mystified.”
He gets up and walks into a conference room, where two reporters from Radio FFH are waiting to interview him. The first question: After the huge bump early in the year, the SPD is back down to 22 percent. Perhaps Schulz has heard.
Yes, he’s heard, says the candidate. “But I’m not interested in the polls,” says Schulz. “I’m only interested in what the polls say on Sept. 24.” His reaction a short time earlier had been a bit different.
August 28, SPD Headquarters
Schulz has brought along a piece of paper to the obligatory Monday meeting with his team with a few requests. He needs more staff on his speaking tour, he says, noting that he is traveling with nothing but an aide and a media spokesman. “I mean, I’m supposed to be the candidate for chancellor, I’m Angela Merkel’s challenger, and here I am running around the country on my own.” He sounds exhausted, short of breath and exasperated. He also complains that there is no room for fresh shirts and suits. “I looked like a wet mop in Bochum. And then it was time to head off to the next event. I would like to be able to put on a clean shirt and change my tie. It makes such a difference.” But he needs more space for that, he says. His bodyguards are nice, he says, adding that they are happy to pack his suits into their trunk, but it’s already full of guns, bulletproof vests and suitcases. “Then a Kalashnikov ends up on top of my suit, and the suit looks like I just spent the night in jail.”
Last week, he says, he had three different press spokespersons at his side at different times. “I keep having to get used to a new one. That’s unacceptable, people.” In a situation like that, you need a bit more help. “I’m not a machine. So please, I need more support!”
Schulz is scheduled to give a speech that evening in Salzgitter, in Sigmar Gabriel’s electoral district about an hour from Hannover. The tabloid newspaper Bild published an interview with Gabriel on Saturday and during the conversation, the Bild journalists showed him two photos, one of Martin Schulz and another of Gabriel and his daughter Marie, and then asked: “Who would you choose?” Gabriel chose his daughter, of course.
All weekend, Schulz’s phone was lighting up with angry text messages. How could Gabriel have been so insensitive! Then Schulz himself sent Gabriel a message, telling him that he had gone too far. The interview itself was excellent, he wrote, but the visuals? He should have shown more professionalism than that, Schulz wrote.
“And this evening I’ll be in Salzgitter, of all places,” Schulz says at the conference table. The journalists, he adds, will of course realize that something’s not quite right. He says he’ll have another sit-down with Gabriel before the speech and tell him that it’s imperative that he devote himself to the cause this evening. But as it turns out, he is only partially successful, with the Berlin-based daily Die Welt mentioning the apparent friction between the two in an article.
September 1, a Hall in Berlin
The next two days are to be spent in a secluded room practicing for the big televised debate with Merkel. Schulz stands facing four people playing the roles of moderator while behind a lectern next to him is a woman who has spent weeks practicing to be Angela Merkel. She does a perfect job, saying all the things that are likely to infuriate Schulz.
In the way that she constantly agrees with Schulz, praises the SPD and is never specific, she seems like a satirical version of the chancellor. But when the real debate rolls around two days later, it will become clear that her performance was fairly realistic. Schulz laughs a lot during the practice debates, and sometimes he shakes his head. This will continue for two days.
When one of the actor-moderators talks about “potential terrorists in Germany,” Schulz interjects sarcastically: “By the way, they’re all members of the SPD. All of them are registered members.”
“I think the subject is too important to be making cynical remarks about it,” the Merkel-impersonator says drily.
“Oh, of course, when the sun is shining it’s the CDU’s doing, but when there’s ice and snow it’s all the SPD’s fault,” Schulz says, sounding outraged. “I’ll flip out if she says something like that.”
It’s only a practice session, nothing is at stake and he is surrounded by actors and friends, yet Schulz is seriously upset. He lacks a filter.
In her closing statement, the Merkel stand-in says: “Mr. Schulz says he wants to be chancellor. I say that I want to serve Germany.”
“For ever and ever, amen,” Schulz says, before leaving his lectern and approaching his team. “I think I still need a little more distance.”
The group sits down over a meal of currywurst and fries, with mayonnaise, to discuss the mock debate. “We are now in a decisive phase of the campaign,” says Schulz. “I need to get it right on Sunday.” The most important thing, he adds, is that he is well-rested and relaxed. Unfortunately, though, he is physically exhausted at the moment. “When I’m well-rested, I’m quite a charming person,” he says. “And if any of you contradicts me, I’ll punch you in the face.” Everyone laughs.
He needs a way to curb his anger at Merkel. Everyone at the table says that aggression aimed at Merkel doesn’t poll well, especially with women. They urge him to adopt a measured tone in his interactions with the chancellor.
Schulz says that this is one of his biggest problems. His father, born in 1912, had three sons and two daughters and he treated all of his children the same. He would have his sons wash dishes on Sunday while the girls were excused, Schulz says. “There were no differences. That’s how I was raised.” He too has never distinguished between men and women, he explains, because he hates gender differences. But, he adds, “if you treat a woman the way you would treat a man, you have a problem. If a man messes with me I say: What’s your problem? And if a woman messes with me, I say the same thing. But if a woman does mess with me and I say: What’s your problem? everyone says: You can’t treat a woman that way.”
Unfortunately, this is not a problem that can be solved before the TV debate. In the second run-through, he is much more cautious, disciplined and polite. But it’s also much more boring.
“Ha! I slept 10 hours!” With these words and a clenched fist, he walks into the studio the next morning. He says that he now knows what he’ll do for a closing statement. “I’ll sing. Or I’ll play the tuba with my tie.” He sticks his tie into his mouth and pretends to play the tuba with the tip. The mood in the studio is much better today and the next practice debate begins.
‘Excellent. Out of This World’
He does really well at first and is more dynamic and focused than on the day before. But he gradually becomes more aggressive and impatient with the woman playing Merkel. At one point he accuses her of a barefaced lie. The advisers in the room shake their heads: Much too aggressive. A sense of panic begins to take hold. Only 30 hours left until the live debate.
Schulz cuts the mock debate short after 53 minutes of the planned 90-minute session. “It’s no use. I’m not in the mood.”
The advisers had suspected that it would be difficult, but not this difficult. They huddle in a corner with the candidate to discuss the problem. A crisis meeting.
“I had to break it off because I couldn’t control the aggression,” says Schulz. The woman playing Merkel is doing an excellent job. But she is, after all, only playing Merkel. There is no good reason to get upset with her.
Schulz had expected that he would win the election with an emotional approach. “I am emotional, but Merkel isn’t,” he has said repeatedly, believing it to be an advantage. Now, though, those emotions are hurting him and standing in his way.
The group decides to go for a walk, even though it is raining. They hope it’ll calm Schulz down. The candidate spends 20 minutes walking with his umbrella through an old cemetery in the neighborhood. Now, the rehearsal can continue.
Suddenly he seems like a different person: confident, assertive, glib and even charming. When the practice session is over, an adviser jumps up from his bench, runs over to Schulz and gives him a high-five. Everyone is relieved.
“I really have to tune out the environment in the studio,” says Schulz. “I have to focus entirely on my message.”
He isn’t completely successful in doing so during the real debate, but that is partly because of the moderators’ odd choice of topics, focusing as they did almost exclusively on immigration and the refugee crisis.
“I’ll be happy if I haven’t embarrassed us,” says Schulz, while being driven from the studio back to his hotel after the debate. “I’m happy if they say that I did a respectable job representing the SPD.”
Back in his room, he spends an hour-and-a-half on the phone with his wife. She was very enthusiastic about his performance, he says later, but when she saw the snap poll that described Merkel as the winner, she became very depressed. His wife is always quite critical with him, he says, but she found the poll result to be preposterous. He says he told her: “Honey, the people say what they think. What can you do? It’s just the way it is.”
The snap polls also influence the post-debate reporting. The unanimous tenor is that the debate didn’t succeed in highlighting any appreciable differences between the candidates and that Schulz was too tame. As we now know, this impression was precisely the reason why both big-tent parties lost support in the last three weeks before the election.
When Schulz was asked, right at the beginning of the debate, whether he still believed that Angela Merkel is committing an “attack on democracy,” he responded that this was something he had said at the party convention and that he would put it differently today. He later regrets having said this and wishes he had stood by his original statement. “It was because they kept telling me during the debate prep: Don’t attack her! So at that moment I thought: OK, I won’t! But it was a mistake. A real mistake.”
A few days after the debate, Schulz is sitting on the train to Braunschweig being interviewed by newspaper journalists. “Boy, was I upset just now,” he says, after the reporters got off the train in Wolfsburg. He is exasperated about how the interview went. “Here you are talking about future-oriented projects, like the digitalization of schools. And then they ask: So didn’t you do that before?” He says he was asked the same question three or four times: The SPD has already been in power for so long, so why hasn’t this happened yet? “That’s when I said, I’ll tell you why: We are fat, stupid, lazy and greedy. We were asleep at the wheel. And now we’ve noticed that we are fat, stupid, lazy and greedy, which is why we want to change everything.” He pauses for a moment and says: “Man oh man.”
He is slouching in his chair, almost as if he were lying down. He tensely presses his fingertips together. “If we don’t see any movement in the polls this week, this thing will be over. Then we have to accept the fact that we’ve lost. We have to see things as they are.”
The next polls are coming out on Thursday. He still hopes that the debate had an impact, saying that undecided voters thought he performed better, as did younger voters. “If we get up to 25 percent now, and if we can manage to gain another percentage point or two in the last two weeks, it’ll be a good thing. But if those numbers don’t move or we actually sink in the polls, which I’m not ruling out, then I think our campaign will collapse.” We just have to wait for Thursday.
On Thursday, he is sitting with his team in the Esszimmer restaurant in Marburg waiting for his rally to begin. The numbers aren’t in yet. “If we don’t see some improvement now, we’ll start losing people,” he says again. “And I can’t be making a fool of myself. Every day I have to say that I want to be chancellor, and everyone knows: He’ll never be chancellor.”
“No, no one is laughing at you,” says Dünow. In fact, he adds, he has never seen this much support and sympathy for a top candidate in a situation as difficult as the one Schulz is facing. “You have done more for this party than a number of chairmen combined. And in just a few months. You can be proud of that.”
But Schulz isn’t feeling proud. The mood improves a little after the food has been served. “People, you have to let me vent once in a while,” he says later. “I need to have an outlet for my feelings and stress. I can’t just dump all this stuff on my poor wife Inge all the time.”
While Schulz is saying that it’ll all be over unless his poll numbers improve a little today, his staff members receive the results of the latest poll on their mobile phones. Twenty-one percent, a decline of two percentage points. Their last hopes have been dashed. They glance at each other, but they don’t show Schulz the numbers. Not now. Not a good time. They don’t tell him until after the Marburg rally.
September 10, SPD Headquarters
The party wants to try something new today. With the election only two weeks away, Schulz will announce four issues that will be non-negotiable for him after the election. The Greens and the FDP make a similar move a week later, but with much greater fanfare at their party conventions.
In contrast, the SPD places its candidate in front of a camera inside SPD headquarters with a few people at his side and livestreams the event. There is a mobile unit parked outside the building. The project is relatively expensive, but unfortunately the script is so poorly prepared that it has to be revised at the last minute. And then the sound fails at the beginning of the livestream. Needless to say, the impact isn’t quite what the party had hoped.
September 14, Munich City Hall
The next poll shows a further drop. The latest number is 20 percent. Schulz is standing in Munich City Hall, about to step out onto Marienplatz to tell people that he wants to be the next chancellor. Instead, he goes to the restroom first. He stood there alone for an entire minute, he says later, pulled himself together and said: Ok, now go out there and show people that you are not giving up. “I was depressed when I went to the bathroom and I was ready to fight when I came out.”
He gives a stirring speech and the crowd applauds enthusiastically. No one has any idea how he feels inside.
An hour later, he is sitting in the seat of a small propeller plane, shivering. His head is resting against the cabin window and his arms are clasped around his upper body. His eyes are open but his gaze is empty. A staff member finds a slightly worn wool blanket and places it over his lap and legs. Schulz wraps himself in the blanket, looking miserable and saying nothing for a long time.
His staff knows that this will be a difficult flight. To be on the safe side, media spokesman Dünow bought a jumbo bag of gummi bears at the kiosk in the terminal. They praise him for the speech he just gave on Marienplatz. “Yeah, 20 percent of the people agree with you,” Schulz mutters.
He simply can’t understand, he says. The mood is always excellent at his rallies and his campaign is focusing squarely on the key issues. But he isn’t budging in the polls.
“I don’t want people to say that I didn’t give it my all,” he says, as the aircraft climbs into the dark sky. “I give even more than I can.” He pauses for a moment. “I mean, there’s something humiliating about it. You work your ass off and all you get is people giving you the finger.” The indefatigability with which he keeps soldiering on, despite all the setbacks and adversity, is even noticed by those who otherwise criticize him. Who knows how low the SPD might have fallen without the fortitude of its candidate.
The plane lands at Schönefeld Airport in Berlin at 10 p.m., but the mobile phones start buzzing even before the aircraft has touched down. There are two pieces of good news. A bodyguard shows Schulz that 1. FC Cologne is leading Arsenal London 1:0 in their Europa League match. Schulz clenches his fist. Then he receives a text message from his pollster. The pollsters at Forschungsgruppe Wahlen will show the SPD at 23 percent tomorrow, three percentage points higher than the Infratest poll. Schulz seems almost relaxed as he steps off the plane. FC Cologne will go on to lose the match 1:3.
September 18, ARD Studio, Lübeck
“Are you satisfied?”
He is sitting in a black leather armchair in the curtained-off VIP area, gazing at his entourage. He has just spent 75 minutes on an election show broadcast by ARD. Everyone in the group agrees that it was Schulz’s best TV appearance to date. Unfortunately, it is also his last.
He was focused, charming, combative and forceful and he conveyed clear messages on all of the issues that are most important to the party. He managed to make do without the typical, dry formulations about SPD policy proposals. He spoke so passionately that he was able to convince a woman, who had lost all confidence in politics, to trust him. He seemed liberated. It was as though he had reverted to the unburdened Schulz that the country had got to know in February.
Sitting in a restaurant later on, the members of his team read the online media reports out loud. “Might He Still Have a Chance After All?” reads one of the headlines. “Did we pay them this time, or what’s going on?” asks his TV coach. “Nothing but praise for you, across the board. We’ve never had that.” Finally, something has worked just the way his team had hoped and planned. Everyone is in high spirits. Schulz is even enthusiastic about the meal: salmon with fried potatoes. “Excellent. Out of this world. I’m absolutely amazed.”
The group discusses whether to make a big splash in the last few days. A major appearance. Something surprising.
“Well, what else can we do at this point?” Schulz asks. They all think about it, and then he makes his own suggestion: “I’ll fly to Washington tomorrow and meet with Trump.”
At the end of the meal, they all share a package of marzipan, which the city is famous for. “Time for bed,” says office manager Hagemeister. His flight leaves at 7:45 the next morning — for Stuttgart, not Washington.
September 24, Election Day, Berlin Schönefeld Airport
Schulz arrives at Schönefeld Airport at 3 p.m. He stands in front of his car and switches on his mobile phone. After a moment, the preliminary exit poll results pop up on the screen – marking, officially, the end of his dream of becoming chancellor.
It isn’t his fault that he was unable to turn around a trend running through Europe, according to which many are no longer confident that social democrats have the right answers in the age of digitalization. Such a thing couldn’t be achieved in the roughly 200 days he has been chairman of the SPD, and certainly not in the frenzied days of the campaign. Given the prevailing mood among the electorate, perhaps a candidate with less stamina and passion would have performed even worse than Schulz.
And it isn’t his fault, either, that advisers and party experts were constantly giving him suggestions that were not compatible with his views or temperament. It is fair to ask, though, why he accepted many of these suggestions and why he didn’t emancipate himself earlier. Or why he didn’t insist that he be surrounded by real professionals who suited his personality. As a loyal person who prefers harmony, he finds it difficult to disappoint people. As bitter as it might sound, however, a candidate has to be prepared to do such a thing if he wants to become chancellor. Angela Merkel certainly is.
He stares at his mobile phone, shakes his head and gets into the car.
On the short drive from the airport to party headquarters, he undergoes a transformation similar to the one he experienced two weeks earlier in the men’s room at Munich City Hall. He gets into the car as a failed candidate and gets out as a feisty opposition politician.
Perhaps this is a better role for him anyway, a role better matched to his personality. He would have had to suppress too much of his inner feelings to be even half as cool and disciplined as Merkel, the chancellor whose style many Germans have become accustomed to.
Aloofness and coolness may not be the most likable traits in everyday life, but in politics they are associated with professionalism. When it comes to the job of chancellor, most citizens prefer someone who creates the impression of professionalism rather than emotionality.
Schulz seems more and more liberated as the evening progresses. He no longer has to play a role, nor does he have to worry so much about offending people, perhaps not the worst thing for the leader of the largest opposition party in these contentious times – against a chancellor who faced a weak opposition for far too long. And against the right-wing populist AfD, a party which claims to be the true voice of the people.
The SPD will now go into the opposition, he confidently announces onstage at SPD headquarters to cheers from the audience. The speech is one of the strongest and most emotional he has given in recent months.
Soon afterward, Schulz joins the leaders of the other political parties that won seats in parliament on television. It is traditionally one of the highlights of election night in Germany, as the candidates vent their frustrations or preen in victory. And Schulz doesn’t disappoint. He derides Merkel as the “biggest loser” of the election, a reference to her conservatives having plunged to their lowest election result since 1949, and accuses her of stealing ideas.
“Ms. Merkel ran a scandalous campaign,” he says. Her strategy of systematically refusing to take positions on issues created “a vacuum” that the populists were able to fill, he says. His performance is reminiscent of the practice debates, before his advisers urged him to tone it down. The difference on this evening, though, is that he is facing the real Merkel and not a stand-in.
“I guess I came across as a disgruntled jerk,” Schulz says later over dinner with his team. “But I wasn’t about to hold back this evening.”
After the broadcast, he briefly shakes the hand of the woman he set out to replace and disappears without another word. He walks toward the nearest elevator, where a woman bars his way and says: “This elevator is reserved for the chancellor.”
“Oh, I see. Of course. It’s not for normal people,” says Schulz. “OK. I’ll just take the ordinary elevator.”