Here’s a story from Paraguay. The head of the country’s biggest party took an envelope full of cash from a particularly shady arms dealer in exchange for political favours. He was later caught, and apologised. But he didn’t end up in prison, or even in court. Instead, he was promoted and became economics minister and then head of the parliament. What a corrupt country!
Except: that’s not Paraguay. That’s Germany. The politician is named Wolfgang Schäuble and he is currently president of the Bundestag. He got at least 100,000 D-Mark from the arms dealer Karlheinz Schreiber in 1994. That barely made a dent in Schäuble’s career.
Germany likes to think of itself as a country with very little corruption — it ranks ninth on the Corruption Perception Index from Transparency International, with a score of 80 out of 100. (Paraguay, for comparison, is ranked 137.) That’s why the corruption scandal enveloping Merkel’s conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union, has been a bit of a shock to the public.
As Spiegel International reports in English, two conservative MPs, Georg Nüßlein and Nikolas Löbel, have been caught on the take. The former has resigned from the CSU, while the latter has left both his party and the parliament.
At the start of the pandemic, when everyone was desperate for masks, a whole swath of politicians thought that they could lend a hand to price-gouging companies. Nüßlein, for example, took €660,000 as a “commission” from dubious companies selling medical masks to the state at around four times the normal price. That money was delivered via a shell company in a tax haven.
In German, corruption is referred to as Filz, or “felt.” The idea is that, just like the fibres in a piece of felt are pressed together so tightly that they can’t be pulled apart, corruption ties politicians and capitalists together with endless threads.
In its print edition, Der Spiegel refers to Löbel as an example of a new generation of conservative politicians who don’t seem to have any political beliefs at all – beyond the desire to get rich. The CDU got walloped in state elections last weekend in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, with the worst results in the party’s history. Conservative leaders are therefore trying to place the blame on a few bad apples.
But corruption in Germany is not a new problem. It’s not a conservative one, either. For another recent example: Tönnies became the largest meatpacking company in Germany by relying on ruthless exploitation of workers from Eastern Europe. At least 1,000 workers at the slaughterhouses were infected with Covid, making Tönnies one of the original super-spreaders in Germany. And who is on the payroll of this seedy corporation until May 2020?
Sigmar Gabriel of the SPD, who was Germany’s vice-chancellor until 2018. He was collecting €10,000 a month from Tönnies to serve as an “advisor.” Gabriel claimed he was doing nothing illegal. “I’m no longer a politician,” he said, and €10,000 is “not a very high amount in this field.” Gabriel is an “advisor” to countless companies, and he’s probably correct that he’s on the right side of the law — he was responsible for writing the laws, after all.
Jens Spahn of the CDU worked as a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry while serving on the health committee of the Bundestag. It appears that this is legal, too.
But just because something is legal, does that mean it’s not corrupt?
Politicians already earn enormous salaries. Members of the Bundestag get over €10,000 per month, alongside all kinds of privileges. Ministers make above €15,000. And yet it seems like most politicians, as soon as they leave public office, feel the need to go for the big books.
Look, for example, at Gerhard Schröder of the SPD and Joschka Fischer of the Greens, who led Germany’s red-green government starting in 1999. Both came from working-class backgrounds. After a career in politics, they are now unabashed multi-millionaires. They get enormous sums for “advising” and “speaking” — but what advice or speech could possibly be so valuable? Aren’t they just selling their influence to the highest bidder?
Or another example: Germany’s criminally incompetent health minister, Jens Spahn of the CDU, worked as a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry while serving on the health committee of the Bundestag. It appears that this is legal, too. And that’s not all. Spahn, after becoming a minister, was apparently involved in a dodgy deal to buy a condo from a manager in a pharma company. But it’s only after he leaves office that the real money will start flowing.
What about the state officials that were tasked with regulating the financial industry, and somehow missed that the billion-euro company Wirecard was a giant house of cards? Of course they were trading Wirecard stocks and profiting on the side. Again, it appears this is all completely legal.
And we haven’t talked about the far-right AfD yet. That party likes to claim it stands up for the “little guy” against corrupt elites. But hardly a week goes by without new reports of illegal donations from realty speculators or billionaire heirs. Like right-wing populists all over the world, they somehow manage to build a brand opposing “the swamp” while simultaneously being even more corrupt than everyone else.
I could go on for pages and pages, but you get the idea. Which politician or state functionary, knowing that such a lucrative career awaits them, would refrain from making deals with future employers? Corruption in Germany has basically been legalised — the only rule is that you have to wait a couple of years to collect your money. Then you don’t even have to keep it a secret, just make sure you pay taxes on your “earnings.”
Lenin wrote that in the democratic republic, corruption is “developed into an exceptional art.” And German politicians appear to be true maestros.
I remember speaking to a Bolivian intellectual. A minister in that country had just been caught taking a suitcase full of cash. Germans would say: such a thing could never happen in our country. And it’s true, this Bolivian said. Because the amounts of money being paid to politicians in Germany would never fit in a suitcase.
Red Flag is a weekly political column by Nathaniel Flakin.