To „sinn“ or not to „sinn” – that is the question

Since the old Babylonians looked up to the stars, man has been thinking about the future, trying to read it from tea leaves, from the livers of sacrificial animals or derive it from the stars of the zodiac. Nowadays, we tend to be more modest: at most we ask what will happen in the next ten to twenty years – for example, how people will judge the Merkel era after her successor occupies her position.

A climax in German post-war history?

We may assume that many will see the chancellorship of this remarkable woman as a political climax in German post-war history. Angela Merkel stood for predictability, the ability to decide difficult questions in such a way that nobody lost his or her face. Nothing in her political style was reminiscent of that boasting or exaggeration which critics like to see as a typical German defect. On the contrary, Merkel was rather prone to understatements. And she displayed an astonishing ability in successfully taming the male fighting cocks and rivals surrounding her. Nobody managed as well as this political shooting star from the former GDR to quietly dispose of opponents or power rivals – among them great names. Public figures like Helmut Kohl, Laurenz Meyer, Wolfgang Schäuble, Friedrich Merz, Edmund Stoiber, Günther Oettinger, Roland Koch, Christian Wulff and last but not least the opposing SPD party were pushed into political isolation or at least into a subordinate position.

Merkel represented a new type of personality

And yet with her this instinct for power has never unfolded in a rough, let alone in a rumbling way, as is the rule among men. Politics under this woman became a business of good will, where everyone was allowed to represent his interests, but in such a way that a balance acceptable to everyone could at last be established. We should not forget: The older generation of Europeans grew up with an image of Germany that had been shaped by bragging heads of state like Wilhelm II, a raging fanatic like Adolf Hitler, a berserker like Franz Josef Strauß and an egomaniac like Gerhard Schröder. Angela Merkel represented the type of factual and functional person that is mostly found in the sciences and on the executive floors of industry. She knew how to avoid and control emotions because these so easily ignite conflicts and misunderstanding. She knew that a modern industrial state can only be understood and managed with sober expertise. Who could be better prepared for this insight than a woman whose original field of activity had been physics? Yet she was anything but naive. The heads of state who negotiated with the German Chancellor knew that she could not easily be taken for a ride. This earned her respect abroad and prestige among her own people, who knew that their fate was in good hands. Under her direction, Germany revealed itself to the world as an undoubtedly democratic country that wisely refrained from overemphasizing its economic strength as this would jeopardize cohesion in Europe. On the other hand, it is the unemotional sobriety of her governing style which forbids to regard her as charismatic, in the way defined by Max Weber. Extreme sobriety and charisma – these notions somehow exclude each other. Angela Merkel was a reliable craftswoman, not a visionary.

In ten years

a majority of commentators and historians will, I suppose, formulate their verdict on Angela Merkel’s chancellorship according to the above-mentioned observations. Some will perhaps put her at the same level with Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt. So why take up this topic at all? Is it worth talking about the obvious?

Angela Merkel – the greatest break in post-war history

However, in ten years, but at the latest in twenty years, the verdict could be completely different. I am even convinced that this will happen. In all probability, commentators and historians will see her chancellorship as a misfortune for Germany. It is not her political opponents who are to blame for this turnaround, let alone the fanatics from the ranks of the AfD. Nor is it likely that men like Friedrich Merz or others, whom she had pushed to the sidelines, will take revenge on her. In the worst case her picture would get a few scratches, but it could not be really damaged. The instinct of self-preservation will rather induce the two Christian parties to immortalize Sant’Angela by putting her on a pedestal after the end of her reign. That is, after all, the usual way.

No, the attack, a devastating one at that, comes from a completely different and completely unexpected side, far removed from all political ambitions. It initiates from Hans-Werner Sinn, the former president of the Munich ifo-Institute. If the figures calculated by the economist are correct, figures, according to which the simultaneous renunciation of fossil fuels and nuclear energy is bound to destroy the industrial state of Germany, then the German Chancellor has dealt the German economy a harder blow than the worst enemies and competitors of Germany have ever been able to do.

I myself have written a book on the energy revolution (Energiewende)

For until recently I saw in this turning point the greatest achievements of the German Chancellor. The farewell to fossil fuels is, of course, self-evident as climate change has turned into acute threat. But the farewell to nuclear energy seemed to me indispensable as well and this is what a majority of Germans believe still today, as the dangers bound up with this technology are difficult to deny. In the Chancellor’s decision, triggered by Fukushima, to abandon nuclear energy altogether, I therefore saw a courageous step that would make Germany the pioneer of a sustainable, environmentally conscious policy.

Admittedly, this did not happen. Apart from Austria, Germany remained the only country that resolutely abided by this policy. That may even be admirable if the chosen path is the right one. But Hans-Werner Sinn’s careful calculations prove that Germany not only isolated itself but is on the way to endanger its position as an industrial state. Sinn’s calculations initially shocked me but subsequently I was convinced.*1* The main argument of the Munich economist does not even concern the huge amount of land needed for wind turbines. Volker Quaschning has already shown that in the most favorable case, i.e. if we significantly reduce our energy consumption, the area required for wind turbines would have to be at least four times larger than it is at present. These calculations are in accordance with those provided by a group of researchers led by Jessica Lovering.  They calculated that we would have to cover an area the size of the United States (including Alaska) together with the inhabited areas of Canada and Central America with wind turbines and solar modules in order to provide the entire energy demand of mankind as projected for 2050.

This is not the main argument of the ifo economist. Sinn is concerned with costs. Storage facilities indispensable for smoothing out the ups and downs of electricity supply would devour money at an astronomical rate: unaffordable even for a rich industrial state like Germany.

If the figures are correct and that is what I assume in the following

then Angela Merkel has made a fateful decision, because “The energy revolution will lead to nowhere” (Hans-Werner Sinn). To insist on an unaffordable supply exclusively from renewable sources – wind and photovoltaics – deprives the economy of its energy basis and is bound to have devastating effects on the German standard of living. As the “energy revolution” must come to a standstill and must ultimately be cancelled as unfeasible, the German economy has no choice but to expand its use of coal and gas once again and thereby forfeit any claim to climate-friendly sustainability, or it has to turn back to nuclear energy – the most likely option.

Nuclear energy won’t, of course, become any more sympathetic just because we can’t manage without it. But mankind, with its population of seven, and soon even ten billion people, all striving for a Western standard of living, has maneuvered itself into a situation where it can only survive with the help of such large-scale high technologies. The idea of a decentralized energy supply, where everyone sets up his wind turbine in his own garden and installs a solar module on his own roof, is nothing better than a romantic but hopelessly unrealistic self-delusion when applied to the productive part of the economy.

Twice during her career at the head of German politics

the German Chancellor acted according to her own feelings instead of following her usual sober reflection. When she told an Afghan child in tears that “Germany could not possibly take the poor from all over the world “, she gave expression to a rational insight. The media immediately condemned her words as psychologically hard-hearted and unfeeling. They were so, indeed, but they corresponded to a correct assessment of the situation: Who will seriously doubt that Germany cannot take in all the poor?

When, in 2015, tens of thousands of people suddenly knocked at the gates of Europe, Mrs Merkel was no longer the same: she did what was not her normal behavior. All of a sudden, she gave way to her feelings. When she suspended the Schengen treaty the consequences were at once breathtaking: a whole million refugees were finally admitted to the Federal Republic. To be sure, for a moment the Germans were just as touched by this act of generosity as was the Chancellor herself. Observers from abroad did not trust their senses. Were these still the same Germans as three-quarters of a century earlier? Germany had accomplished an overwhelming act of neighborly help which, at least during the first period of the refugee wave, made many people all over the world symphasize with the German Chancellor.

But this happened only during the first few months, because even in Germany there are broad strata of globalization losers whom nobody had asked beforehand for their opinion. These are people who see the most urgent task of government in improving their own living conditions instead of caring for hundreds of thousands of strangers. Had Germany, as was the case under previous Chancellors, moderately restricted the influx of foreigners, then the “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) and the xenophobia it nurtured could never have become such a powerful movement. In a moment of emotional exuberance, Mrs. Merkel had wanted the best and achieved the worst – at least in the long run. Herself averse to all extremes and all kinds of fanaticism – an essential reason for her popularity – the German Chancellor cannot be cleared of the accusation that the political polarization of Germany – the emergence of an extreme right-wing camp – undoubtedly belongs to her legacy.

A second time Fukushima triggered an emotional reflex in the Chancellor’s mind

As Max Weber already knew, politics consists of persistently drilling very thick boards. High-tech industrialized countries are extremely complex wheelworks, where any careless intervention may put the correct function of the whole in jeopardy. Novelists, poets, critics, political commentators, but also economists and sociologists are allowed to transform the world within their minds as they like – I myself have sometimes indulged in this pastime – but politicians are likely to cause great disaster when playing with thoughts and people. In a state like Germany, politics therefore usually amount to nothing more than dreary acts of administration – an activity as monotonous as any routine work in large business companies. Real challenges only come from unexpected events such as the sudden wave of migration from the Middle East and the awful nuclear accident at Fukushima.

The Chancellor reacted to both events in the same way, namely with an emotional reflex that immediately won the approval of large parts of the population. Apparently, there were no experts in the German government able to predict the long-term consequences of the decision to abandon nuclear energy, let alone to predict them. Or perhaps these experts existed, but nobody wanted to listen to them. The Chancellor herself is a physicist, and as such she must have known how important reliable figures are in view of such a momentous change of direction, but a second time Mrs Merkel relied on her gut feeling when she resolutely proclaimed a complete withdrawal from nuclear energy. Assuming that Hans-Werner Sinn’s numbers do not finally turn out to be nonsense (Un-Sinn), this probably was the most expensive, the most careless and inconsiderate decision ever made by any post-war German chancellor.

The tragic era of Angela Merkel

I have always been one of the admirers of this great woman. Amongst all that usually so agitated, often so disgusting hustle and bustle characteristic of democracies, where each of so many conflicting voices wants to be heard, her person was a synonym of consistency and deliberate calmness that gave a good measure of dignity to her leadership. That makes it all the more deplorable that she ultimately failed, indeed, that she is likely to go down in history as a tragic figure. People cannot be re-educated or brainwashed from one day to the next. Anyone who has been enthusiastic about the so-called energy revolution will be appalled when learning that Germany and, in its wake, Austria will have to make a U-turn leading them back in the opposite direction: back to the atom. And anyone who considers hatred of fellow human beings – wherever they may be born – to be a terrible aberration (malicious ghosts from the past) will be frightened by the aggressive xenophobia now again to be found in German speaking countries. Mrs Merkel wanted the best for her country – no unbiased critic will contest this evident truth – but twice she was carried away by her feelings, and twice this resulted in an avalanche of evil. This is where her tragedy lies and her failure.

1 Siehe