Did the Terrorists Win in Madrid? German Views

As you all well know, almost-simultaneous bombs set off in several Madrid commuter trains during the morning rush-hour last Thursday killed over 200 people, and wounded many, many more. Then Spanish general elections followed on Sunday; in a result that took many observers by surprise, the Spanish Socialist and Workers’ Party, i.e. the opposition, emerged as the winner, with that party’s leader, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, posed to take over as prime minister instead of the hand-picked successor (Mariano Rajoy) to José Maria Aznar of the ruling (right-wing) Partido Popular.

Aznar of course had been one of US President George W. Bush’s stoutest allies when it came to the War in Iraq, and 1,300 Spanish troops are still stationed in the Polish sector there. Mounting evidence suggests that last Thursday’s massacres on the rail-lines of Madrid were the work of some sort of Arab-linked terrorist organization; so that the thought has come to not-a-few that Spain was being punished for that support for the US with these attacks, and that the Spanish electorate reacted to them drastically by removing the regime that would bring this sort of punishment down on them.

So: Is Aznar’s loss a victory for terrorists? That question is posed in an on-line article by Kathleen Knox from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. It is answered in the affirmative in today’s New York Times by regular columnist David Brooks – he asks in his column Al Qaeda’s Wish List “What is the Spanish word for appeasement?”, although he also claims to be resisting the conclusion that “swing Spanish voters are shamefully trying to seek a separate peace in the war on terror.” That’s basically the same answer given by Edward Luttwak, on the very same NYT Op-Ed page, in Rewarding Terror in Spain, which starts out “It must be said: Spanish voters have allowed a small band of terrorists to dictate the outcome of their national elections.” (But the NYT editorial board disagrees.)

But that’s all English-language; you already know about all that. Let’s check what the German press has to say.


The most interesting commentary for this observer, not surprisingly, comes from Die Zeit which, with Werner A. Perger’s piece Explosion of Popular Anger, offers an alternate explanation of the Spanish election results that Messrs. Brooks and Luttwak would do well to consider. Yes, the Spanish election results were surprising, even astounding, resulting in the sweeping out of one political party by the opposition of the sort that has not been seen in European politics for a long time – say, since Aznar’s Partido Popular swept out Felipe Gonzalez’s Socialist and Workers’ Party from power in the late 1990s. What lies behind this massive shift in voter sentiment? Was it really some sort of appeasement of the Muslim terrorist groups, a feeling that getting rid of Aznar and the PP would buy some sort of immunity for Spain from future attacks of this sort?

Perger agrees that the PP lost this election in the 48 hours after the Madrid attacks, just before the polls opened, but not out of any sort of “appeasement.” Rather, he cites what he terms the “ignorant and arrogant way” that the entire ruling regime, from Aznar on down, tried to push through during this period their “party line” on the bombings, namely that it was the work of the Basque terrorist organization ETA. It was obviously in the electoral interest of the Partido Popular to have people believe this, as then they would support all the more the PP, which was known for (and had shown itself to be) quite a bit more tough in its dealings with that outlaw organization than the Socialists.

But the Spanish people weren’t having any of that. In fact, Perger puts this alleged attempt at manipulating the facts for political advantage on par with the deception that has since come to light about whether Iraq really possessed the sort of Weapons of Mass Destruction that would have truly justified that country’s invasion. Overwhelming majorities of Spaniards had been against their nation’s support of the American attack on Iraq in the first place; the WMD revelations only added to a frustrated sense of political impotence, of one’s government going ahead and doing what it wanted no matter what the people it purported to represent thought about the issue, of raising arguments that later would be revealed as false.

Naturally, then, this substantial portion of the electorate finally saw its chance to have its voice heard again with the general election. Yes, it’s true that public opinion polls prior to the Madrid attacks showed the PP cruising once again to victory; but something came around to remind people of the political impotence they had felt, to remind them that an opportunity had arrived to be impotent no more, and that something was not the attacks themselves but the know-it-all way that Aznar’s government tried to push the story that it was all ETA’s fault – one more attempt at manipulation, one attempt too far. As Perger writes, when Aznar and his lieutenant Rajoy showed up at their local polling stations on election day, the whistling and cat-calls they encountered there foreshadowed the fact that the Spanish electorate would finally say basta ya! – enough already! – to all of that.


The FT Deutschland’s Hannes Külz contributes her own somewhat short but highly-original commentary in Zapatero’s Dangerous Poker Game. In her view, new premier José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s promise to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq is not aimed at actually achieving such a withdrawal. Recall that Zapatero has established the proviso that these troops will not be withdrawn if the United Nations receives a mandate to exert its authority in Iraq; in Külz’s view, that is actually Zapatero’s goal, not a Spanish withdrawal. In effect, then, he’s playing poker with his 1,300 troops there, bluffing to get his way and influence American governing policy in Iraq.

But of course this is high-stakes poker, as the Americans may not oblige. Then, in order not to lose face, Zapatero will indeed be forced to withdraw the Spanish troops. And basically the terrorists will then harvest their victory from the 200 people they killed on Madrid trains last Thursday. At least, in Külz’s view, this result is not Zapatero’s ultimate goal, only something he risks having come to pass.

(By the way, for completeness’ sake let me cite a couple other German newspaper commentaries that fell wide of the mark. Joachim Stoltenberg’s contribution to the Berliner Morgenpost, The New Threat, basically urges Germans to buck up, claiming that the Madrid attacks demonstrate that Germany now has to face down the second terrorist threat to its existence as a democratic state – the first one having been the antics of the Red Army Faction in the 1970s. And Christoph von Marschall’s article in Berlin’s Der Tagesspiegel, The Signature of Evil, is even weird: He deals far too much on the meaning and implications if it turns out that ETA actually was behind the attacks. Either he’ll be revealed as brilliant in the end, when that actually turns out to be true or, more likely I think, his article will be dismissed as having taken a distinctly wrong turn on the course of events.)

Finally, in addition to the “Poker” commentary cited above, the FT Deutschland makes my €S job a lot easier with a press review article whose common theme is newspapers from various European countries taking Spaniards to task for caving in to terrorism with their election results. (Still, I hope you don’t think I’ve slacked off – there was plenty of on-line coverage that I presented you above – even some that was less-than-brilliant – before finally coming to this press review.) That’s “European,” not just German: the Dutch Algemeen Dagblad (misspelled à l’allemande, by the way, as “Allgemeen”) is quoted here as denying that what happened in Spain should be allowed any influence as the Netherlands decides whether to keep its own troops in Iraq. Le Figaro, the conservative French newspaper, concludes glumly that, whether the Spanish results were the result of some sort of fear or of anger over being misled by the government, in the end the terrorists have won. And the Austrian Kurier notes that, whatever the reasons for what happened in the Spanish elections, the terrorists behind the Madrid attacks are surely now celebrating their ideological victory, since many now conclude that Aznar is somehow co-responsible for the Madrid deaths, due to his engagement of Spain in Iraq.

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