Germany’s next coalition government, which will be sworn in on Wednesday, will come with a lineup of new faces, a new set of policy priorities and a new dose of energy. It will also speak with a distinctive accent.
Olaf Scholz, the centre-left politician who will step into Angela Merkel’s shoes, is a man of the German north not only by upbringing but by voice. When the former mayor of Hamburg recently warned in parliament that Covid-19 had not yet been beaten, he leaned into the stretched out fricatives typical of Germany’s second-largest city: Scholz pronounces the word besiegt as besiecht.
Meetings of his cabinets will be more likely to open with a casually mumbled Moin Moin than the Servus greeting exclusive to the states of the south. In Scholz’s chief of staff, Wolfgang Schmidt, (also from Hamburg), the vice-chancellor, Robert Habeck (from Plön in Schleswig Holstein), the foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, and the labour minister, Hubertus Heil, (both from Lower Saxony), several leading voices around the table hail from the northern third of the country.
Regional representation is a matter of utmost importance in Germany’s decentralised political system and governments work hard to give each of the 16 federal states their due share of the seats of power in Berlin.
But a shift of balance under Scholz is already discernible. For one, his cabinet will be the first in the country’s postwar history without a minister from Bavaria. Germany’s largest and southernmost state ended up “on the subs’ bench”, the general secretary of Bavaria’s ruling Christian Social Union grumbled this week.
In many ways the northward drift of German political power goes against the grain. The south dominates the country in economic terms: it has most of the big companies registered on the German stock exchange, provides homes to more start-ups, employs more IT professionals and registers more patents than the north. It reigns supreme in German football, where traditional northern clubs like Werder Bremen and Hamburg SV have fallen into decline while Bayern Munich wins trophy after trophy.
But in politics the centre of gravity has been quietly shifting north ever since the seat of parliament was moved from Bonn in the Rhineland to Berlin. After the Hamburg-born, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern-raised Merkel and the Hanoverian Gerhard Schröder, Scholz is the third northern chancellor in a row; the last four deputies have all come from northern states.
To an extent the strength of the north is a result of the weakness of the south and south-west, where the conservative party bloc is particularly prone to infighting. Had the Christian Democratic Union overcome its complicated relationship with its Bavarian sister-party, the Christian Social Union, the Bundestag may well have seen the CSU leader, Markus Söder, sworn as chancellor on Wednesday.
Tom Mannewitz, a political scientist at the Federal University for Public Administration, said: “With festering inner-party factionalism and the historic split between the CDU and CSU, the conservative bloc has a strategic disadvantage in Germany’s south.”
Even so, accents play a surprisingly important role in German politics. Scholz’s speech, while still displaying distinctive northern markers, is a far cry from the strong Hamburg dialect of his idol Helmut Schmidt. As with Merkel and Schröder, most Germans would be likely to identify his accent as standard German or Hochdeutsch, lending him an everyman quality that politicians from south of the so-called Uerdingen line, separating “high” and “low” dialects of German, can struggle to attain.
“We are increasingly seeing that the northern German type of politician who speaks in high German enjoys more acceptance across the country as a whole,” said Jürgen Falter, a political scientist at the University of Mainz. “Southern politicians, by contrast, often struggle to shake off an air of provincialism.”
The last two contenders who fell short in their run for the top job, the Social Democrat Martin Schulz in 2017 and Merkel’s designated successor, Armin Laschet, at this September’s election, both hailed from Aachen, close to the old power centre of the Bonn republic, and sounded that way when they spoke.
Their folksy appeal, a boon at state level or in the European parliament, became a burden as they tried to storm the national stage, evoking stereotypes of jolly but unserious carnival jesters: Laschet’s ratings dived spectacularly after he was filmed laughing at a joke during a sombre event in a town hit by summer’s flash floods.
Michael Elmentaler, a professor of linguistics at the University of Kiel, said: “After the second world war, there was a series of strong German leaders whose regional accents were accepted as part of their identity, from Konrad Adenauer and Ludwig Erhard to Kurt Kiesinger and Helmut Kohl.
“What we are seeing now, however, is that the tolerance towards regional dialects is waning. If a German politician spoke like Adenauer today, people would laugh at him.”
Linguists like Elmentaler have charted the disappearance of regional dialects not just from the German national parliament but also town halls and television networks, where the language of news presenters has become more casual but also more standardised. Linguistic quirks associated with specific cities or towns have made way for broader “regiolects”.
If Scholz’s northern identity helped him claim the chancellory, will it also shape his management of the country?
“There’s a powerful cliche of a certain type of northern German politician, the Hanseat,” said Christoph Strupp, a historian at Hamburg’s Research Centre for Contemporary History. “They are supposed to be sober pragmatists, humble in their public appearance, with an independence of mind suitable to a city state, and with a knack for finding compromises.”
While large states like North Rhine-Westphalia have different power centres whose interests can be hard to reconcile by a single politician, in Hamburg “there’s a closeness of politics, business and the media that can make it easier to build a consensus”, said Strupp.
“Scholz certainly lives up to many of the Hanseatic cliches,” Strupp said – both in the negative and the positive sense. “He proved himself capable of holding together a red-green coalition that wasn’t short of conflicts. He managed to find decisive and workable solutions to festering problems in the city, such as the over-budget Elbphilharmonie concert hall or the shortage of housing.”
Hamburg’s town hall lies adjacent to the city’s chamber of commerce, with a skyway bridge connecting the two buildings – a symbol, some say, of a proximity between political and business interests that has created a culture of backroom deals. Running for the Hamburg mayorship in 2011, Scholz simply recruited the president of the chamber of commerce as his business senator – and won.