Saturday, 26 June 2010

Night Shift

Oh my poor blog, I’ve really been ignoring you lately! This time though, it’s not due to lack of ideas but has to do concretely with the fact that I’m having to get used again to something that I (foolishly) thought I had left behind me over two years ago – night work.
A few weeks ago I posted here about a major change happening in my work life and mentioned that the new project I’ve been entrusted with would involve me taking leave of the basic eight to five, Monday to Friday work rhythm I’ve had for the past few years. This is a change I wasn’t looking forward to, although it has advantages as well as disadvantages. It’s often quite positive to have time off during the week when everyone else is working – it’s a lot easier to manage many things in life which don’t have to do with work, organisational things like changing your telephone provider, for example, or even cleaning up the flat (something I often just don’t feel like doing at the weekend). It can also be very nice to spend some days consecutively working eleven or twelve hours a day and then have three or four days free at one stretch.
The trick is, of course, to make sure that this actually happens and that’s a bit of a problem at the moment, because, until the end of June, I’m simultaneously winding up my old day-care job and starting building up my new one, which would (according to the original plan, by the beginning of August) involve me with a small team taking over the intensive care, eighteen hours a day, of a very sick young boy in his own home. Right now we don’t yet have the team together, but the boy and his family need support immediately, which means we have to work with what we’ve got. The fact that his continued presence in this life depends on the problem-free functioning of a respirator means that he has to be continually monitored. His parents, understandably, see the highest priority here during the night-time hours and so my goal this month and next is to cover as many nights as possible. But, as I don’t yet have enough people in my team to really do this properly, it means that I have to do a lot of the nights myself.
It’s been one of those really screwed-up situations where the care company which preceded us suddenly stated, with only a week’s notice, that they simply would not be coming any more so that we were faced with taking over the whole project from June 16. I managed, thanks partly to a very flexible colleague, to organise things so that there are only three nights in June where the parents have to cover the nights themselves (two of these have already happened) and in July we’ve got someone for every night (if nothing goes wrong).
It also means that I’ll be doing 17 11-hour night shifts in July. Well, that’s the way it goes. I’m telling myself that the positive aspect of this is that I also have fourteen days off next month. As the Monty Pythons put it, “Always look on the bright side of life!” And in August things look much better. But right now, it has led to me taking over quite a number of nights immediately.
It’s not that the night-shifts are so physically strenuous. Unless you happen to do weekend nights in A & E, this is often the case in nursing. The strain of night work is different. You’re working against your normal rhythm. Humans are diurnal creatures and our body clocks are programmed accordingly. Even if you’ve managed to sleep ten hours before going on nights, your body isn’t so easily fooled. At around three in the morning it starts to insistently signal that being awake at this time is not normal and that it is not happy with the situation. If you’re working on a ward with a couple of colleagues it’s not too bad because there is the possibility of quiet conversation (as long as they’re people you get on with, but that’s another story!) and there’s always something to do. But where I am, I’m on my own, my patient is, happily, pretty stable at the moment and he seems to sleep (as he’s in a persistent vegetative state[i], this is not always clear). If anything serious goes wrong, the various machines give an acoustic alarm, but frequently he will show signs of discomfort – for example, if he develops bronchial congestion (something which happens quite often but can be easily relieved with a suction tube) – before the respirator signals that there are potential difficulties. So if I want my patient to remain comfortable I have to keep a fairly constant watch. In a darkened room. At three in the morning. And I’m sitting in a fairly comfortable armchair.
After the first night, I went out and invested in a good LED flashlight. I can combat sleepiness fairly well by reading, but for that I need light, light which won’t disturb my patient. I’ve quickly learned to pace out the various other things I have to do during the night, preparing medication, checking supplies, etc. so that I can do them when I feel the sandman getting the upper hand.
At eight in the morning the shift is over. I’m dead tired but a beautiful summer morning is some consolation. The days promises to be hot, but now there’s still a beautiful freshness in the air and this morning, Saturday, things are still quiet. I take the time for a well-deserved cigarette (the last one was before the shift started) and get into the car. In half an hour I’ll be home.
And then to bed. Well, not immediately. I’m sleepy but feel I need a bit of time to wind down. Drink a cup of coffee (that’s not going to stop me sleeping in this state), check my mails, scan the newspaper headlines online. And then, off to sleep.
Which is a problem. Not falling asleep, that happens within minutes of my head hitting the pillow. But my traitorous body-clock knows that it’s daytime and will wake me around noon and then, once the initial exhaustion has been combated, sleep will not come easily again. Anyone who has ever flown across the Atlantic or Pacific will know the phenomenon; it’s called jet-lag. When you work nights, it’s something you have to deal with constantly. I know a few colleagues who have chosen a radical solution; they work only nights and organise their life-patterns (including the periods when they’re not working) accordingly, but that price is much too high for me. I work to live and not the other way around.
So you wake up after about three hours and sleep won’t come again. The important thing here is not to panic. The fact is seditiously whispering at the back of your mind that you’ve got to put in another eleven hours tonight and that if you don’t sleep some more the night is going to be bloody hard. I’ve found the best thing to do is to get up for an hour or so, potter around a little, maybe read for a while and then go back to bed. I can usually sleep then for another couple of hours. But – at least in my case – the more nights I work, the more the sleep deficit increases. It’s something you learn to live with. I don’t get an awful lot of other stuff done during the period when I’m working nights.
The last night before you have time off usually compensates for a lot. I find elation increasing from about three a.m. onwards. Tomorrow I won’t have to do this. The fatigue endorphins have a paradoxical effect; I know I’m tired but there’s a kind of lightness about it, a slightly hazy, vaguely stoned feeling of relief.
And then home again. One more battle remains to be fought with the internal body-clock. Usually the relief, the easing of pressure means that I can sleep like a log today, maybe even eight hours long. This is not a good idea. I’ve got to fight the jet-lag the other way now, otherwise I’m going to stay on night-rhythm. So I set my alarm for one o’clock and force myself out of bed. Once I’m up, it’s ok and I usually even discover that my energy levels are back up; up enough to write this (and even simultaneously watch Uruguay beat South Korea in the World Cup)! And, in all probability, I’ll be able to sleep normally tonight – maybe a little later than normal but tomorrow is Sunday and I don’t have to get up early.
Life is good. Not always easy, but good, nevertheless.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Where I live (1): The Duchy of Berg

The first time I saw the Duchy of Berg was on a fine late June morning, twenty four years ago. I’d arrived by train from Rome in Cologne and we drove in open VW Beetle convertible east into a landscape of rolling hills and valleys, with a rich variety of fields and woodlands, all lush and green and lovely. Coming from Italy, where the Mediterranean sun was already leaching the green lushness of spring from nature and transforming it into the dusty sere dryness of hot high summer, the contrast was stark and welcoming. I remember thinking at the time that it was perfectly beautiful – but the fact that I was madly in love may also have had something to do with that thought.

In the following two years, I visited the area frequently before in 1988 moving here (with one short pause at the end of the nineties) for good. And, as it has always been important to me to know something about where I live, I have tried over the years to find out more about the Bergisches Land, [the Berg Country].

East and west of the Rhine from Cologne to the Dutch border are four counties/duchies whose histories (particularly the histories of their ruling dynasties) are interwoven – Cleves, Jülich, Mark and Berg[1]. Historically, the Duchy of Berg stretched eastward from the Rhine between Bonn and Düsseldorf to the Westphalian border, bounded on the south by the river Sieg, on the north by the Ruhr (although given the historical continual dynastic horse-trading between the many rulers of the Holy Roman Empire the borders were always flexible). In general, the area in which people generally define themselves as “Bergish” can be most easily defined as the catchment area (in the widest sense) of the river Wupper.

Geographically, the territory marks the point where the eastern Rhenish Massif starts to rise from the Middle Rhine valley. The geological morphology of relatively soft sedimentary rock, including a lot of slate, means that glaciers in the ice ages and many of the rivers have, over the aeons, cut deep valleys on their way to the Rhine. Because the Bergish region marks one of the first major elevations of altitude in continental Europe east of the Atlantic, it is one of the rainiest areas in Germany (cloud masses rising into cooler air and shedding moisture as a result). I have been known to wryly remark that this is a phenomenon which makes me, an Irishman, feel so at home here.

Bergisches Schieferhaus

The traditional method of building in the Bergish Country frequently involves slating the walls. Slate is plentiful in the region and gives good protection against the abundant rainfall.

The Duchy of Berg is not particularly well known even within Germany, and people who aren’t from the area will often mistakenly assign it to the Ruhr area. In fact, as the people here will quickly tell you, it’s quite different. The industrial revolution which centred on the Ruhr in the 19th Century was largely based on the mining of the large coal-reserves in the area. The Bergish region also experienced the industrial revolution (even earlier in fact) but here it had more to do with fast-flowing rivers, which provided abundant power for milling-wheels, washing and the carrying away of waste-products, abundant woods for charcoal and some small iron deposits. Based on these assets, traditions of steel-working had already been established in the 18th Century; particularly tool-making in Remscheid and swords, knives and cutlery in Solingen. The valley of the Wupper became the centre of a major textile industry, based around towns like Barmen and Elberfeld which (with a number of others) combined in 1929 to form the city of Wuppertal.


The Müngstener Brücke between Remscheid and Solingen is Germany's highest railway bridge

The three cities of Solingen, Remscheid and Wuppertal flow almost indivisibly into each other and form the most urbanised part of the duchy with a combined population of over 600,000. Wuppertal, the largest of them, is defined by its geographical position, strung out in a long river valley surrounded by steep hills. Faced with the problem of developing public transport in this situation at the end of the 19th Century, public planners came up with an original solution and built a 13.3 km. long suspended monorail over the river, the famous Wuppertal Schwebebahn.

Datei:Schwebebahn ueber Strasse.jpg

The existence of so many river valleys, particularly in the more rural Upper Berg region, led to the building of dams and the creation of many artificial lakes to secure the water supply for the local towns and cities, lakes which are nowadays just as important for recreational purposes.

Describing peoples’ characters in terms of local characteristics is always a business of dodgy generalisation. The Bergish region is often lumped in with the Rhineland, but there are significant differences between the natives of both regions. The Rhinelanders are generally known in Germany for their relaxed, easy attitude to life – an extroverted, open, fun-loving approach to things, with a (very un-German) tendency not to take things too seriously and to manage things by personal contacts and connections rather than objective rational organisation. The people in the Bergish Country are more reserved, with a stronger inclination to taciturnity and straight talking, sometimes even suspicion of strangers. This may have something to do with history. While the Rhineland (generally) rejected the Reformation and remained largely Catholic, Protestantism had a stronger impact in the Duchy of Berg. Wuppertal was one of the centres of German Pietism and it was in Barmen/Wuppertal in 1934 that the small protestant opposition to Nazism (die bekennende Kirche) was first organised.

But religiously the Bergish Country is a patchwork. For many years I lived in the town of Wipperfürth in Upper Berg. The town is traditionally completely Catholic and carnival is celebrated there with a frenzy which surpasses even Cologne. Only 6 km. down the Wupper (which even changes its name between the two towns) is Hückeswagen, with a proud Protestant tradition. Once divided by bitter religious enmity, the two towns today share a friendly rivalry.

Twenty-four years after first seeing the Duchy of Berg, I’m still living here in Remscheid, about which city I’ll tell a bit more in another post.

[1] In the English-speaking world, Cleves is an interesting footnote as the home of the fourth wife of Henry VIII, Anne. Henry married Anne in an attempt to gain German allies, after being shown a flattering portrait of her, painted by the artist Hans Holbein the younger. Seeing the lady in person, the king found her ugly and the marriage was never consummated. He quickly divorced her but she remained in England and she and Henry became good friends.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010


“I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily …”
(W.B. Yeats, The Circus Animals’ Desertion)

Yeats is usually good for a quote and this is no exception. In the past weeks all sorts of themes have gone through my head, been examined, some even started only to be left, as unsatisfactory, unfinished. Some just appeared futile. Should I add a few more futile words to the futile millions already uttered about Israel and Gaza – a strife poisoned by new and ancient wrongs, by endless reciprocations of mutual, almost ritualised despite and hatred, provocations and violence, two sides claiming the high moral ground long abandoned (for all sorts of understandable reasons) by both? Should I write a philippic about the greed and careless, unthinking callousness of those who play the markets, making speculative profits in amounts inconceivable to us ordinary people, betting at the same time on their failures – which can throw hundreds of thousands into misery – so that, even when they lose, they win? Or the greedy, arrogant incompetence of multinational concerns who pay out millions in dividends to their shareholders while the result of their technological hubris (and our insatiable hunger for cheap, abundant energy) poisons thousands of square miles of ocean and coastline? What’s the point? The world has always been so and does not seem likely to change in the foreseeable future.

Or is it just that my lazy muse is taking some time off, doing something more productive like laying in beer, peanuts and a subscription to a pay-TV channel so as to watch the World Cup in comfort? If I’m honest about it, I just have to admit that I know perfectly well what’s wrong; I have been, for the past six weeks or so, out of balance.

Just before going on holidays at the end of April, I was called in for a talk with my boss who informed me that the top management of the company I work for had decided to close the day-care centre I’ve been running for the past two years or so at the end of June. Nothing to do with my colleagues or me, the quality of the work we have been doing was exemplary. It was a simple economic, business decision. It didn’t even take me completely by surprise, I was aware that my department had not been making money; in fact, I’d been fighting to have our firm implement measures which, in my view, would have effected a turn-around by the end of the year. But, in the end, management decided that the situation was too uncertain and, to put it bluntly, wasn’t worth the effort.

With one exception – and that in the case of a colleague who had basically already decided to quit anyway – there were no redundancies involved; we were all offered alternative positions within the company. We have organised alternative care for our guests and one colleague has even managed to negotiate a new contract with the organisation which is taking most of them – so the transition will be as smooth as is humanly possible for them. In my case, the alternative offered to me involves a number of disadvantages, particularly as it entails working some nights and weekends, something I thought I had happily left behind me. But there are also advantages, including a new challenge and a fair deal of freedom (and responsibility) in building up and running a new project.

Still, it hurt. I liked the work I was doing, I’d been confident that the difficulties that were there could be overcome and was quite happy with the prospect of settling into middle age and continuing to do that work for many years to come – even, perhaps, to retirement. And then, wham, forget it, it’s over, realise that the only constant thing in life is change and change can come suddenly, unexpectedly. And other, darker realisations. That even in areas where you are confident, security is a fragile thing. A reminder that our society is based, for most of us, on us selling and being able to sell our competence, our skills, our time on a market where a significant part of our value has to do with whether others can make a profit with it. That friendship, sympathy, care, all the immaterial values have to bow to the dictates of material profit and loss. That there is quite some truth in the description of the way we run our world as wage slavery.

The past weeks at work have not been easy. It’s not easy to motivate yourself when you know that the job you’ve been doing for years, the work you enjoyed, the work that sometimes drove you crazy, the people you’ve learned to know well, all this will be over in a few weeks. My colleagues and I all have to deal with the traitorous feeling that, in our view, this step need not have been taken, but that we were, in the end, powerless to change decisions made at other levels by other people. We have to listen to the indignation and complaints of our guests (those of them who understand what is happening) and their relatives, who are, understandably, saddened, angry and feel insecure about the coming major change in their lives, and reply diplomatically and sympathetically.

As head of the department, I’ve had the added load of having to organise the winding-up of the whole thing; announcing it to our clients in the first place, doing the planning of the hand-over to their new day-care centre, explaining to inquirers that, no, sorry, we don’t have a place for your mother/father because we’re closing. And simultaneously I’m finding more and more time taken up with the planning of my new project, which has to be up and running on July 1. As difficult as saying goodbye to our day-care centre is, I’ll be glad when June is over.

So that’s why, as I commented earlier, I’m somewhat out of balance. But then, yesterday evening, maybe ten minutes before eleven, shortly before going to bed, I went into the kitchen and chanced to glance out the window. The sun had gone down and it was almost dark but on the north-western horizon, under a bank of clouds, the sky was still bright. It’s almost midsummer, I thought, and the nights have indeed grown short. The world turns, the seasons change and the earth moves on around the sun. There is balance everywhere, in everything large and small. But balance is not something static, it is founded in dynamism, movement, growth, change. Panta rei, is one of the earliest philosophical realisations of the ancient Greeks; all is change, everything is in transition. Go with the flow, I thought, you can only balance on a bicycle when it’s moving. And suddenly, there was a feeling of peace, of serenity.
The balance is always there – it’s just harder to feel it sometimes.

Picture retrieved from:

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Germany and the World Cup

In a few days the world cup will begin in South Africa and already, at least here in Germany, it seems impossible to avoid it. Every second packet in the shops seems to be decorated with football emblems. My local supermarket is giving away vuvuzelas – those plastic trumpets that the fans in South Africa use to make lots of lovely noise – and I’ve already threatened my daughter that, if she isn’t nice to me, I’ll give her three-year-old son one as a present. The commercials on TV are full of footballers earning lots of extra money by endorsing everything from chocolate cream and deoderant to credit cards and the newspapers are full of discussions of the line-up in the German squad and with gloomy reports of the negative consequences of the absence of a number of players, including Michael Ballack, through injury. Germans take the world cup very seriously. But then, in the history of the German national psyche since the Second World War, the world cup has had a very special place.

Switzerland, 1954

On July 4, 1954, the West German team defeated Hungary 3:2 in the final in Bern. The result was a sensation, as Hungary had been regarded as clear favourites to win the competition. The German team was composed of amateurs, professional football (like many other things) still not having regained its feet after the war. The effect of the victory on the German soul cannot be underestimated. In 1945, following the horrors of Nazi rule and World War II, Germany had, to all intents and purposes, been destroyed. Utterly defeated in war, Germans were also confronted with the evil they had tried to inflict on Europe and the world. For most people this was much too much and, simply shutting out as much of it as they could, they set about rebuilding their country and trying to integrate the millions of people displaced in former German provinces in the east who had streamed westwards in the years of chaos at the end of and subsequent to the war.

The “miracle of Bern” marked the first occasion after the war where it was possible for Germans to experience an unalloyed, unsullied moment of national pride and marks, in many ways the moment when West Germany started to finally put the trauma of the war behind it and get on with the “economic miracle”, that process of hard work and good organisation which would see the country into unprecedented prosperity in the following years. If you want to get a feeling of what Germany was like then and what that world cup victory meant to the country, then you could do a lot worse than watch Sönke Wortmann’s film Das Wunder von Bern [The Miracle of Bern] (2003)[1].

West Germany, 1974

Twenty years after Bern, a resurgent West Germany hosted the world cup and, having been defeated 1:0 by East Germany in the first round, went on to beat the Netherlands 2:1 on July 7 in the final in the Olympic Stadium in Munich. The team was captained by Franz Beckenbauer.

On first sight a confirmation of self-assured West German success, the victory in 1974 came at a complex time in German history. The charismatic chancellor, Willi Brandt, the first Social Democrat to rule in post-war Germany, the man who had pioneered a new strategy of rapprochement towards East Germany, the Nobel peace-prize winner who had knelt in humble shame at the Warsaw ghetto, had been forced to resign only weeks before as a result of the Guillaume espionage affair. The oil-crisis of the previous year had shaken confidence in the country’s economic primacy. The final was played in Munich, the scene of the Black September massacre of Israeli athletes at the Olympics two years previously and the shock-waves of the sixties – the generational conflict between the young, born after the war, and their parents, who tried their best to forget and were thus silent about their part in the third Reich, growing criticism of the solid bourgeois attitudes which had driven the economic miracle – were still spreading. Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof and other leaders of those radicalised young people who had turned to terrorism were already in jail but the orgy of politically-inspired violence would continue. Some of those on the fringe of the Red Army Faction, including Joshka Fischer, would subsequently reject the path of revolution and go on to found the Green Party.

Italy, 1990

In what some commentators have described as the worst world cup in recent times, West Germany (having knocked England out after penalties in the semi-final) defeated Argentina 1:0 on July 8, in the Olympic Stadium in Rome[2]. The team was managed by – surprise, surprise! – Franz Beckenbauer, now known all over Germany by his nickname, the Kaiser.

Not that anyone in Germany was worried about the complaints of experts concerning the quality of the tournament. In November of the previous year the Berlin wall had fallen. The winds of change had swept away the iron curtain and Germany was reaping the peace dividend. After the final was over flotillas of cars hooping their horns drove jubilantly through the streets of the country, east as well as west, celebrating the victory, the last world championship West Germany would ever win. For a few months later, on October 3, West Germany as an entity would disappear, subsumed into a reunified Germany.

At least in football terms. In a stricter political sense, it was the GDR which disappeared, the territory of the Federal Republic, its constitution and laws, expanding to take in the former Russian controlled east zone. The rapidity with which the two Germanys united had as much to do with practical realities as with any high national ideals. There were fears in Bonn about the stability of Gorbachev’s power-base within the Soviet Union. More practically, GDR citizens had automatic citizenship of the Federal Republic and they were streaming westwards, abandoning what many had judged to be a state without a future. A week before the world cup final, the Deutschmark had already replaced the East German mark as the official currency of the GDR, with a one-to-one exchange rate – a political decision which placed huge strains on the economy of West Germany extending far into the future. A basically bankrupt economy was merged with the most powerful one in Western Europe and united Germany is still paying for that today.

But on the evening of July 8 1990 no-one in Germany was thinking of future difficulties. The unimaginable was happening and Germany was world champion. Everything else could wait for tomorrow.

Germany, 2006

Before the world cup started, Germans went through a typical phase of national agonising. There was a dispute about the opening ceremony which led to it being axed completely and there were dire predictions about potential fan violence and racist-inspired attacks on foreign visitors. Worse still, the host team had been less than impressive in the months leading up to the tournament and there had been a lot of criticism concerning manager Jürgen Klinsmann’s insistence on continuing to live in the USA and flying back to Germany to carry out his job.

But then the competition began and all the doubters were silenced. The German team played attractive football and reached the semi-finals. More important, however, was the atmosphere which swept the country. Generations who had been born since the war, the youngest of which could not even remember the Berlin Wall, suddenly discovered that they could be unashamedly, innocently patriotic. The national flag became popular overnight, with people hanging it from their windows, or flying it from their cars. But it wasn’t just German flags; I remember seeing apartment blocks with German, Turkish, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian flags, all hanging peacefully side by side from different balconies – a positive expression of an often difficult multi-cultural reality. In wonderful summer weather Germany celebrated a four-week long party for the world in what quickly became known as the Sommermärchen, the Midsummer Fairytale. There was a sense that Germany had grown up, that the nightmares of the 20th Century had finally been left behind.

South Africa, 2010 …

And so, it begins again. For the first time, the world-cup is being hosted in Africa, in a (despite all its problems) post-apartheid, multi-racial, democratic South Africa, and who would have believed that twenty-five years ago? Here in Germany, every city and town is erecting large screens in their squares and stadia and people are planning to party once more.

Who’s going to win? A majority of Germans asked believe that their national team can do it this time, but, while I hope they’ll go a long way, I don’t see it happening. Following their victory in the European championship two years ago Spain looks strong. So does Argentina, though I have my doubts about the competence of their trainer, a certain Diego “Hand of God” Maradona. Personally I fancy Holland – they have a cadre with some awesomely talented players – and I enjoy annoying my German neighbours with this view, given that the Netherlands and Germany have always been keen football rivals. Or perhaps an African country will surprise and thrill us.

One thing I am sure of. As a patriotic Irishman I am looking forward to seeing the French being beaten, humiliated, destroyed … Only on the football field of course!

[2] My Irish patriotism proudly notes that the Republic of Ireland reached the last eight in the competition.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

German president resigns

The president of Germany, Horst Köhler, in a move which completely surprised the country, resigned yesterday – the resignation to take effect immediately. In an obscure radio interview, on the way home from visiting German soldiers in Afghanistan, he had made a comment about German military activities and economic interests, almost a throwaway remark, inelegantly formulated, so that it was open to an old-fashioned militaristic interpretation. Given Germany’s history in the last century this is a sensitive theme and opposition politicians picked up on it and were critical, some even scathing. Köhler clarified his position subsequently, but the initial damage was done.
The German presidency is basically a ceremonial office (although the president is formally the head of state) and the president is not directly elected. Dropping his resignation bombshell, Köhler explained his step by claiming that the political criticism had so damaged the dignity of his office – which is regarded in Germany as being above politics – that he had no other option[i].
As is frequently the case in such stories, the event has a much more complex background. Although Köhler had been a member of the Christian Democrat party for years, prior to the nomination for his initial candidature six years ago (he started a second term last year) by Angela Merkel and Guido Westerwelle, now chancellor and foreign minister respectively but at the time both leaders of the major opposition parties, he was not a professional politician. He had previously been a civil servant, an expert in economic and financial issues, and before his election had been boss of the IMF. His election by a tiny majority in the electoral assembly (a complex body composed of members of parliament and electors nominated by Germany’s provincial governments), was regarded as something of a coup for Merkel and a slap in the face for the then government under the chancellorship of Gerhard Schröder.
Köhler liked to define himself as a plain speaker and had occasionally caused controversy by critically commenting on aspects of political life, culture and issues in Germany and by a tendency to refuse his signature to proposed laws because of doubts about their constitutionality. In a number of cases this had meant the end of these laws. Strictly seen, this is part of his job – the problem was that the laws had come from a government now headed by Merkel, who was the one who had basically put him in the job in the first place. Reports over the past few years had increased that he was increasingly unhappy about his relative powerlessness and that he was the subject of growing (off-the-record) ridicule in political circles. In contrast to this, he was popular among ordinary Germans who liked his plain speaking and criticism of the professional political classes.
As a ceremonial, basically formal president, he was walking a thin line in all of this. As many commentators in Germany pointed out yesterday, it’s one thing for a (ceremonial) president to appeal to the dignity of his office; it’s quite something else to use the office as a bully pulpit to comment on actual issues and not to be open to criticism of the positions taken. The professional media commentators have pointed out that Köhler was excessively thin-skinned, prepared to dish it out but not able to take it, that he was unhappy in office, felt unsupported by the chancellor and her government and was either looking for an excuse to bail out or had acted too hastily or too sensitively. Nonetheless, there is some justification for Köhler’s perception of his position. In the controversy following his ambiguous remarks, Merkel and her ministers were conspicuous by their silence; justifying this Merkel commented that it would not be seemly for one organ of state, the chancellorship, to comment on another, the presidency. He informed her of his decision to resign by telephone, only two hours before going public with it.
Anyway, Köhler is gone and at the end of this month Germany’s politicians will choose a new president. Inside the Berlin beltway there seems to be a consensus that Köhler’s successor will almost certainly be a full-blooded politician. The experiment with a non-politician hasn’t worked and it’s time to get back to the tried and trusted method of filling the office with a political professional who knows the ropes from the inside, will do what is expected of him/her and will be in possession of that all-important political attribute, a rhinoceros-thick skin.
And this is the area where I see the most serious questions which the whole Köhler affair raises. World-wide we have a major problem with a nexus of issues involving leadership, trust and the professional political classes. In the democracies of the (so-called) developed world the credibility gap between politicians and the people who elect them and whom they supposedly represent is growing constantly, voter participation in the ritual of elections is declining and people generally seem to regard politicians as best located somewhere between rats and used-car salesmen. Many of those who still bother to go to the polls do so with a kind of resigned hopelessness, wondering, as they cast their votes, which of the candidates is the best of a thoroughly bad lot. Politics is the province of a small professional elite, its practitioners working their way up through a torturous party career, learning to wheel and deal, to compromise and backstab, to be bought and sold by all sorts of special interests, to speak while saying nothing; all part of a morally soul-leeching process, necessary to achieve the holy grail of power. And power is finally what they achieve; power to make decisions which have far-reaching effects on all of our lives.
We despise them and yet, if most of us were challenged to do something about it, to exercise our constitutional right to involve ourselves in the whole process, we would recoil in horror. The price, in time invested, in effort involved, in the (perhaps justifiably feared) erosion of our personal integrity, is just too high. In this sense – what a dreadful thought! – we do actually get the politicians we deserve, because, in the end we are too lazy, too comfortable, too fastidious to really do anything to change the situation. And, even more perilously, the combination of our inaction and despairing anger at those “up there” opens the door for dangerously lunatic populists such as Sarah Palin in the USA, or the late Jörg Haider in Austria.
Before this background, the failure of Horst Köhler is a shame, apart altogether from the specific issues involved, because it cements the blinkered view of most professional politicians that politics and the immense power that it brings belongs to them, because they are the only ones capable of dealing with it. Our best and brightest are doing other things – many of them going instead into business and finance, areas with their own morally sapping dangers as the events of recent years have amply shown. Even if the Köhler experiment (and it was a limited, largely powerless experiment) has failed, we need more non-professionals in politics, people who value integrity, people with a genuine idea of service, people who might just conceivably be able to inspire and lead.
Not that I’m volunteering, mind you … I’ve got lots of better things to do with my time (like [probably uselessly] sounding off here)!

[i] There are remarkable parallels to the resignation of the Irish president Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh in 1976.Ó_Dálaigh


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