Frank-Walter Steinmeier is like the Germany that elected him: a little vain, a little mendacious, but always proud of his own integrity. Unfortunately, he now wants to be seen as an esthete.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier has achieved everything that is humanly possible. Head of the Chancellery, Foreign Minister, Federal President – that’s all that’s really possible. But there is a deep, unfulfilled desire that, because it has not yet been fulfilled, casts a shadow. It is the desire to also be successful as an author. Best-selling author Steinmeier, that would be the crowning achievement. Oh, if only he had the joy of being an author, then his life would be complete!

Steinmeier made his first attempt fifteen years ago with a kind of autobiography entitled “My Germany: What I Stand For”. I still remember how my friend Gabor Steingart earned the eternal hatred of the then candidate for chancellor when, during a visit to his office, he casually said: “Amazon rank 24312 – I’m sure there’s something else going on.” Steingart has always had one Talent for making friends in politics.

This was followed by “Flight Recorder”, a kind of notebook in which Steinmeier gave insights into his life as Foreign Minister. Here too, the response was – how should we put it – muted. “What Steinmeier writes about foreign policy has long been read in the newspaper,” said one disappointed reader on Amazon. Another criticized “a best-of collection of phrases.”

Steinmeier is a lawyer, so his poetic streak is usually rather weak. The most daring revelation: that he occasionally treats himself to a gin and tonic when taking off. At least not a glass of juice like his predecessor Christian Wulff, whose relaxation rituals we are also aware of thanks to a biography (“When I have fulfilled my quota, I like to be at home, watch a little TV or drink another glass of juice “).

A new attempt at the end of April. “We” is the name of the current work – “an urgent plea from the Federal President for more cohesion and for the courage to act,” as the subheading on Amazon reads. The book launch took place, befittingly, at Bellevue Palace.

The noble Suhrkamp publishing house, the journalistic home of Germany’s greatest thinkers, acted as midwife. A book that the publisher praises as “haunting” in the subtitle can need any support. It’s like an armband with black dots, it helps you cross the street without asking.

“We” focuses on the most German of all genres: the sermon. “Who are we? This question is difficult to answer (…). Who is actually meant by ‘we’?” it says at the start. “What do these words want to tell us?” Otto Waalkes asked at the beginning of his famous sermon about the hit “Theo, we’re going to Lodz”: “Which Theo is it about? Isn’t it also that Theo in all of us? Which appears in such wonderful words as theology, theodorant, tea or coffee?”

I think you have an idea of ​​what happens next. Something is going terribly wrong right now. When even the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” comes to the conclusion in a comment that the president is currently a bit out of character, things look serious.

Steinmeier is like Germany. Or rather like the Germany that elected him: a bit vain, a bit mendacious, but always infinitely proud of its own integrity. The old white man of politics, so to speak, if I may borrow that term for once. As with many people who have fallen out of time, even small gestures go wrong.

Two weeks ago the Federal President was on a state visit to Turkey. The fact that he came up with the idea of ​​bringing a kebab skewer as a guest gift surprised not only the Turkish hosts. Steinmeier fans were also taken aback. What did he want to express with that? That it is a nice sign of integration that Turks have at least become snack sellers? There is no decision in the Federal President’s Office that does not go through at least three departments.

How could it happen that Steinmeier had a 60-kilo frozen kebab in his luggage, which he then cut personally, assisted by a snack bar owner from Kreuzberg who had flown in specially? The only way I can explain this is that the employees at Bellevue Palace now also live with their backs to the world.

The pictures from Istanbul were also terrible. The president was seen listlessly chipping away at the meatball. It was clear that Steinmeier had never stood in front of a kebab skewer, let alone worked with it with a knife. Every movement seemed to cost him endless energy. Joe Biden has to listen to a lot of ridicule because of his age. But against Steinmeier in Istanbul, even the energetic Biden looked in great shape. If you didn’t know that the Federal President has access to the best doctors in the country, you would have to be really worried.

There are a lot of good things to say about Steinmeier. He supported Agenda 2010, to which the country owed its economic recovery. He donated a kidney to his wife when she needed a new kidney. In my opinion, the much-complained boredom that he exudes doesn’t speak against him either. Most citizens have nothing against boredom in politics. Boredom means reliability. Only journalists complain that there is no sentence from Steinmeier that one could remember. If only there wasn’t this urge to want to stand out as an esthete.

It’s not that Steinmeier has nothing to report. There is a picture from the Munich Security Conference, taken two years after the land grab in Crimea, that shows him with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. You can see Lavrov leaving the room and putting his hand on his German colleague’s shoulder as he passes. Steinmeier takes the Russian’s arm and smiles thoughtfully – a gesture of intimacy that reveals great familiarity, even affection.

That would be a worthwhile topic: Germany and its lies. Written by someone who can say: I was there. This would have the makings of a bestseller. But unfortunately there is no line about that.

The biggest foreign policy lie in life is certainly that one could somehow settle between the world powers. The belief in equidistance still determines social democratic politics today. They have just taken out the peace posters in the Willy Brandt House that Gerhard Schröder used in his election campaign. The stupid thing is: Back then we could afford it because it was clear that the Americans would always out us as soon as things got serious. Today that is anything but certain. German flak can only hold a city like Chemnitz for two days.

I admit, I liked Joachim Gauck. His straightforward language, his hands-on manner. Gauck was not free from vanity either. But you could always tell that Gauck had the wind of life whistling around his ears. I also liked Horst Köhler. The man from the International Monetary Fund was perhaps a little too honorable for the state office, and also a little too professorial. But he was an independent person who was genuinely interested in his surroundings. If anyone met others without conceit, it was Köhler.

We didn’t do so badly with people who didn’t come from the party apparatus. Maybe next time we’ll try again with someone who had a life before politics. Until then we have to be brave. Federal presidents are elected for five years. Of the five years, only two are over.

By the way, when I checked in the middle of the week, “We” was ranked 18,024th on Amazon. That’s the brutal thing about the book market: it’s incorruptible. Here you can’t force anyone to applaud you. Titles and badges of honor don’t count here either. What matters is that you have something to say that moves and interests people. Then the book sales will also work.

Read all of Jan Fleischhauer’s columns here.

Readers love him or hate him, but very few people are indifferent to Jan Fleischhauer. You only have to look at the comments on his columns to get an idea of ​​how much what he writes moves people. He was at SPIEGEL for 30 years, and at the beginning of August 2019 he moved to FOCUS as a columnist.

Fleischhauer himself sees his task as giving voice to a worldview that he believes is underrepresented in the German media. So when in doubt, avoid herd instinct, platitudes and mental patterns. His texts are always amusing – perhaps it is this fact that provokes his opponents the most.

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