There’s a big election coming up soon, in no less than Germany, where on 22 September all 598 members of the Bundestag will be elected anew, meaning that the exact composition of the national government will be deternined as well. The Germans like to go away for vacation in August just like most of their European brethren, but as public life now straggles back to activity the election campaign is now getting started in earnest.
In a quite clever sneak attack operatives for the main opposition party, the SPD, managed to gain control over the URL of Chancellor Merkel’s own name and put a site stuffed full of their own party propaganda behind it. Undeterred, Chancellor Merkel’s own people merely turned to another, very close URL (sticking a dash between her first and last names) to set up her own site, filled with old family photos to provide a soft-tinged, nostalgic focus to her public image.
All well and good, and deliciously naughty. But it holds no candle to this:
Nelke, German for “carnation,” as in the flower. But it was also allegedly the Stasi code-name for Peer Steinbrück – who is merely the SPD’s candidate now running against Chancellor Merkel!
(And the “Stasi,” for those of you who need reminding, the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit or “Ministry for State Security” (cf. “Department of Homeland Security”) was the monstrous Communist East German secret police and spying organization.)
Here is the deal. According to this Die Welt piece by Dirk Banse and Michael Behrendt, Steinbrück had relatives in East Germany whom he liked to visit starting from around the mid-1970s, even though by then he had already taken up influential positions within the West German federal and/or state governments. Specifically, he liked to visit his (female) cousin in the town of Meiningen, very near the inter-German border, whose husband was one Lutz Riemann – a well-known actor in East Germany, but also, unfortunately, someone working secretly as a Stasi informer. (But pretty much everyone in the East was doing that back then – you couldn’t swing a monkey by the tail without hitting a Stasi informer.)
So far we have Stasi informer + high-up West German government official who is visiting East Germany: well, the obvious thing happened and an attempt was made to recruit Steinbrück as a spy. Whether that attempt was successful or not – and nobody really knows about that, except those directly involved – the cover-name Nelke was born, with the accompanying Stasi file on Steinbrück. Ah yes, that file: standard Stasi procedures dictated that it be consigned to the archives within nine months if such an attempt to recruit a spy was unsuccessful, but this did not happen with Steinbrück’s file. Rather, it found its way to higher and higher offices within the Stasi until it ended up at the office for foreign intelligence, in the very department assigned to monitor (and to infiltrate) the SPD, Steinbrück’s party.
Steinbrück himself, of course, claims ignorance of his cousin’s husband’s secret job, and denies doing anything for the Stasi. Then again, there is the curious history of his Nelke file, and Banse/Behrendt come up with a delicious paragraph weighing the various possiblities:
Several explanations are conceivable. [Now quoting "Stasi-expert" Hubertus Knabe] “Either the Stasi had grounds for further hope. Or they wanted to take care that no other Stasi-official occupied himself with Steinbrück – for example, because the KGB was interested in him. Or it was just sloppiness, that they did not keep to their own regulations.” But that was “for the Stasi, organized with the usual German thoroughness, rather improbable.”
All credit to Steinbrück that he intends to go the full-transparency route right away: what the tweet says, as well as the piece’s headline, is that he is moving to get hold of his Stasi file and to put it on-line as soon as possible, for inspection by everyone who is interested, by the week after next at the latest. But he really can do nothing else: the DDR may be long dead, but it’s a fair assessment of the German electorate that they would recoil at electing (even if indirectly, as it works here) as Chancellor anyone who secretly worked in the past for the East German Stasi. Chancellor Merkel seems to be cruising for re-election anyway as things stand now (although the sort of new coalition she would probably have to form remains unclear); if anything substantive arises out of this Stasi file, then either the SPD will have to find a new Chancellor-candidate quick, or the vote will be a real snooze-fest.
Come to think of it, though, how was it possible for Steinbrück’s people to grab http://www.angelamerkel.de right from under the nose of the Bundeskanzlerin? That’s some pretty nifty, audacious work – a trick you would think some of that ol’ Stasi expertise would be necessary to pull off!