Robin Alexander is the deputy editor-in chief of “Welt” and one of the most influential journalists in Berlin’s political arena. No other journalist is followed by more members of the German Bundestag on Twitter, and his books have become bestsellers. We speak to him about the new German Government’s promise of progress, the realignment of the CDU and the role of journalism.
The new German Government has embarked on a “progress” offensive. What do you think of this promise?
You have to look at what kind of progress it intends to make. The three coalition partners focused on very different areas during the election campaign. The Greens with their focus on the climate were the most one-sided. The FDP focused on digitalization and the elimination of bureaucracy, while the SPD addressed the issue of respect. This was an interesting choice, because it takes them away from the conventional social democratic narrative.
How do these three approaches fit together when it comes to progress?
The coalition is trying to find a coherent concept of progress. That’s going quite well for the SPD. They are focusing on the minimum wage and social policy. I haven’t yet seen a big leap towards digitalization in the FDP. That’s why the party has resorted to prevention – no tax increases. And the Greens must now show whether they can organise a reduction in CO2.
Let’s turn to Chancellor Olaf Scholz: What do you make of his governing style?
In the past, voters have always opted for change. After 16 years of Helmut Kohl, we had Gerhard Schröder. Schröder looked different, had a different style, did politics differently. Olaf Scholz, on the other hand, stands for continuity – even though he isn’t from the former chancellor’s party. Scholz said: “I was Merkel’s minister of labour, I was her vice-chancellor, I talk like her, I have the same gestures.” That culminated in him making the diamond hand gesture on a magazine cover. Voters didn’t want change – they chose a promise of continuity.
Is Scholz delivering in this respect?
His long pauses before he starts talking in debates are reminiscent of Merkel. His communication style is concentrated in that he always says the same thing. In this way he is radicalising Merkel’s style. But he says even less than she did, relies even more on prepared statements. Merkel’s method was successful for a long time, but it did reach its limits.
How do you think Chancellor Olaf Scholz has been doing since the Russian attack on Ukraine?
After hesitating for a long time, Olaf Scholz got his act together at the last possible moment: His agreement to supply weapons to Ukraine prevented Germany from being isolated in the Western alliance. His special fund for the German armed forces is finally tackling a structural problem in German politics. But the Russia–Ukraine crisis has only just begun and is sure to have more big challenges in store for Scholz.
Voters didn’t want change – they chose a promise of continuity.
How are Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck faring with the move from a co-leadership role to a governing one?
Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck helped the Greens to move on from the split of leftist vs realist. They said: We want to do this together. They had one spokesperson, one office. But this collective leadership, a style that was initially atypical for the Greens, came to an end when they had to decide who would be the candidate for chancellor. Baerbock’s winning argument was that she is a woman. It was only later that the party realised it wasn’t so important to the wider public whether they have a man or a woman at the top. Many Greens are saying in retrospect: We could have had the next chancellor if we had only risen above ourselves.
What is the situation in the CDU after the electoral defeat?
Unlike the Greens, the party spent some time reviewing the election campaign with the help of external experts. The final report even suggested changing the party name. Even though that will never happen, it doesn’t get more radical than that! Essentially, the Union became an authority subordinate to the Chancellery while Angela Merkel was in power. There was no debate. The Union now needs to develop its own ideas once more.
What does Merz stand for?
In the 1990s, he stood for progress, badly formulated neoliberal progress. Radical market orientation, making an entrenched welfare state fit for the future. An extreme programme of reforms for the Union. The question now is: Can he build on that or will he find a new narrative? The Union’s notion of progress is actually rather conservative. It wants to slow down societal and economic developments so that people can cope with them. That is hard work, but clever. Particularly in these dynamic and disruptive times. They have to communicate: We can’t turn back time, but we can help you come to terms with it.
How will the relationship between the CDU and CSU develop?
The CDU/CSU alliance is unique and extremely successful. It broadens the spectrum. For the conservatives in Schleswig- Holstein who didn’t feel that the CDU rhetoric spoke to them because it wasn’t strong enough, there was also Franz-Josef Strauss. For the liberal Catholics in Bavaria, Strauss’s rhetoric might have been distasteful. For them, there was Rita Süssmuth. This set-up has worked well for years because it enables the same message to be conveyed in two different tones. It’s like a bond that is always pulled tight. The refugee crisis caused this bond between Merkel and Seehofer to tear, and suddenly Söder started with the trees and bees and shifted the CSU to the left of the CDU.
How much tension can you sense there is in society right now?
Our society is falling apart because its channels of communication are falling apart. In the past, everyone would watch the news or read a newspaper. This is amplified when societies are under material pressure. You saw this in Greece during the euro crisis, for example: Suddenly the country was governed by left-wing populism. Other societies fall apart in the centre. Say what you like about the traffic light government, but it is not too far to the left or the right. When we change government, it is still possible to land in the centre – that’s really great. Perhaps German society is more stable than we think.
Many Greens are saying in retrospect: We could have had the next chancellor if we had only risen above ourselves.
As a journalist, where do you stand on the issue of gender-neutral language?
Sociologist Armin Nassehi says that, as a society, we are renegotiating a lot. That is extremely productive, but also extremely hard. There must therefore be some things that don’t change. He refers to these things as latent. The opening up and rethinking of language represents a complete loss of latency. This gender debate has made people feel like their very foundations are being shaken. It stresses people out because they’re busy processing other things, and I think the same, that’s why I would never do that. I don’t want to make my readers stressed – I want to make them more knowledgeable.
And how would you respond if people said that your language made them feel excluded?
I’m a journalist, not an educator. If people want to use gender-neutral language, they can do that, but I won’t unless I’m forced to. My mother doesn’t speak like that, my wife doesn’t speak like that, the WhatsApp messages I get from my daughter aren’t written like that. I only see it in official communications: My tax office uses that kind of language when it writes to me, politicians do when they talk to me, it comes from above.
What role does Twitter play in Germany?
Twitter is a good place for debates about superficial issues. Not for debates about accounting fraud, as that’s too complicated. It’s perfect for discussions about how someone has used the wrong word or is wearing trousers that are too short. People get a kick out of being able to point out that someone is morally worse than them.
What do you use Twitter for?
It’s a distribution channel. The main problem with journalism today is that we no longer have a gatekeeper function. That, for us, is fatal. However, I do benefit from these channels as well because I can reach my followers directly. When there is a CDU Federal Executive meeting taking place, I can follow it in real time and relay what is happening directly to interested members of the public in Berlin’s political arena via Twitter. I have lots of channels open to me: When I have exclusive information, I can share it on Twitter, post it on our website, write about it in our daily newspaper, talk about it on a podcast, discuss it on TV – and it will sometimes even make it into one of my books.
Was it easier when you used to just relay information once in a printed newspaper?
I was trained at “taz”, where we always had a 5 p.m. deadline. We would then have a beer at the Sale e Tabachi and gleefully congratulate ourselves on the articles that were currently being printed and would annoy someone or other. The next morning, we would have a meeting and start the whole process all over again. It was great. But those times are gone.
I’m a journalist, not an educator. If people want to use gender-neutral language, they can do that, but I won’t unless I’m forced to.
How will society and digitalization evolve?
It is always said that society gained a lot of knowledge when the printing press was invented. But actually, it also caused a lot of unrest in society. Witch hunts increased dramatically because pamphlets could be circulated. The development of letterpress printing put pressure on people, as suddenly they had to make decisions for themselves. The question now is whether we ought to view the digital revolution in the same way. Have we reached the end of this period of upheaval already, or is it only just beginning? In the past, people eventually realised that not every flyer is telling the truth.
The interview was conducted by Verena Gathmann and Stephan Kittelmann.
Robin Alexander studied history and journalism at Leipzig University. He then completed a traineeship at “taz” in Berlin. Since 2008, he has been writing for “Welt” and “Welt am Sonntag”, where he reports on the Chancellery in particular. In 2019, he was appointed the deputy editor-in-chief of “Welt”. He gained wider exposure when his book “Die Getriebenen” (The Driven Ones) was published, in which he documents the political decisions and background of the autumn of 2015. His book “Machtverfall” (Decline of Power), which examines the succession of Angela Merkel, was published in 2021.