the Stammtisch

The Stammtisch – One of the Most Powerful Opinion-shaping Institutions in Germany

It is election time in Germany. Actually, with 16 regional parliaments and tens of thousands of town and local administrations, with European elections and works council elections, the voting never seems to stop in this country.

Plainly, voters need guidance and they get it not so much from newspapers and television talk-shows, as from friends and colleagues. One of the most powerful opinion-shaping institutions in Germany is made of dark, stained oak and is covered in beer-mats: the Stammtisch, the table in a pub that is reserved for regular and often influential customers.

Politicians puzzle over the views that are exchanged at these pub tables across the country. German politics ticks according to a regional clock (most Germans live in towns of between 20 and 50,000 inhabitants) and no amount of opinion surveys or focus groups can really capture the sudden shifts of mood that can suddenly swing the outcome of an election. So the nagging and usually unanswerable question for the political class is: what are they chatting about around the Stammtisch? What is the popular pulse of Germany?

A creative place

The Stammtisch is at its most influential in the countryside, in villages where the pub is still the focal point of social life. Here, typically, the Mayor, the forester, the pharmacist – even in the days of Wilhelm Busch there was an “Herr Apotheker Pille” sitting at his cartoon Stammtisch – the owner of a local building company, will sit together after church on a Sunday (known as “Frühschoppen”) and on at least one weekday evening to play cards and discuss the affairs of the village. Their table is marked with a metal sign marked “Stammtisch” – sometimes soldered on to a now-redundant ashtray – to signal the unsuspecting visitors that they should sit elsewhere. This is where the annual village festival is planned; this is where the problems, financial and sporting, of the local football club are analysed. It is largely a male activity though women often have their own Stammtisch. In cities, women come together on Wednesdays, secure in the knowledge that their husbands are glued to the television sets watching Champions League soccer.

But the discussion usually goes beyond the local and strays into national politics. And the views of the Stammtisch percolate into the community. Social Democrats suggest that the traditional Stammtisch is deeply conservative, that it will always come out in favour of tougher policies on law and order (a village Stammtisch sometimes has the local police chief as a member), strong politicians and against immigration. In my experience of Stammtische, in the Rhineland and Berlin, that is a not strictly fair judgement. That table in the corner of the pub (always the warmest corner, and never close to the toilet) can be a creative place where ideas are bounced around before they officially reach the local political agenda. The doctor and the pharmacist might – in between rounds of skat – discuss ways of helping people with rheumatism in their part of town, or moan about the failures of national health reform, or jointly persuade someone from the Rathaus to launch an AIDS Awareness week. Perhaps the town surveyor is sitting at the table with a businessman and they can trade ideas as to how the town’s rubbish should be disposed of; or developments in property prices, or new government proposals on corporate taxation.

The basic principle of a Stammtisch is that the participants can speak freely; it therefore almost always has a positive impact on the community, unblocking bureaucratic logjams.

Bastions of grassroot opinion

Nowadays, it is Stammtisch talk in Düsseldorf and Cologne that sets the political contours of the carnival seasons, long before they are raised in the more public platform of the Karnevalsverein. This is not trivial. Can one, should one, make fun of Islam on a carnival float? Can one mock Barack Obama during the procession – which routinely pokes fun at German leaders – without appearing racist? To the outsider, the Stammtisch drinkers (it doesn’t have to be beer or even wine; I have been to one where we drank nothing but Coke) may seem like political amateurs. In fact, these bastions of grassroots opinions often have a high degree of political sophistication. And just because they are practical people does not mean that they are resistant to change. Remember that one of the most historically rooted Stammtische was the so-called “Verbrechertisch” which brought together former 1848 revolutionaries in Leipzig. And that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were members of the Berlin Stammtisch “Die Freien” before 1848.

Sociologists talk about the increasing importance of the Internet, weblog and twitter, in the steering of voting behaviour. How, they ask, can the political parties ever adopt their methods to take in these new ways of passing on politically relevant information? But, of course, the Stammtisch long pre-dates Internet chatrooms. And it remains a riddle to mainstream politicians. The routine visits of local delegations to national parliaments are viewed by politicians in most countries as a tiresome chore. Not in Germany – because parliamentarians are hungry to know what is being discussed on the Stammtische. What is bothering the grassroots voter? Blogs and chatrooms speak for only a very narrow segment of society. The Stammtisch speaks, in provincial Germany, for a significant chunk of the electorate.

Since politicians cannot have eyes and ears in every pub, they have to rely heavily on guesswork. If they want to directly address these grassroots opinion-leaders, politicians give interviews or arrange to appear in the tabloid press. That is a safe way of transmitting their policies directly to the people in the pub – and explains the power of a newspaper like Bild Zeitung which claims a readership of around 12 million. But it is still a mystery to politicians as to what kind of impact they are making. Are they setting the agenda – or missing the point?

Important barometer

The weekly Die Zeit recently visited several Stammtische in Germany and at least some of their findings match my own observations at my Berlin pub. Kajo Wasserhövel, the Social Democrat election manager, was predicting that people – made insecure by the economic crisis – would want to see the state as a saviour. That was what the opinion pollsters were saying. “Er lag falsch”, said Die Zeit, “He was wrong”. The European elections of June 2009 seemed to show that Germans wanted less state rather than more state. This view had been somehow hidden from the media. “What is electorally decisive is personal conversation”, he told Die Zeit. “In the family, among friends. And at the Stammtisch” (“Wahlentscheidend ist das persönliche Gespräch. In der Familie, unter Freunden. Und am Stammtisch”, August 6, 2009). Given the long historical tradition of the Stammtisch, it is perhaps not surprising that there is a wariness about the swelling role of the state in society. Certainly most members of my Berlin Stammtisch – decisively influenced by a car dealer (nicknamed “Auto-Peter”) – were against the saving of Opel. The Americans, they believe, were right to let General Motors fall.

The Stammtisch has a long memory: the raising of value added tax, for example, is still held to have been one of the cardinal errors of the Grand Coalition government. Will the outcome of the next German election be decided in the television “duels” between leading politicians or by the subtle trickle of opinion from Germany’s small town pubs? The unemployed, young men and women, German Turks: all these people are under-represented at the Stammtisch (and are often not properly assessed even by the professional pollsters). The Stammtisch doesn’t speak for everybody. But it does act as an important barometer. Not for the first time, the advice of the “Typisch deutsch” columnist is clear: if you want to understand society, go into a pub, buy a beer and keep your ears open. This time I offer the same advice to politicians who want to survive in their noble profession.

Roger Boyes
is Germany correspondent for the London daily newspaper "The Times". He has been living in Germany for twenty years and is author of the column "My Berlin" in the "Tagesspiegel". In his book "My dear Krauts" he describes the peculiarities of everyday life in Germany with typical British humour.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
August 2009

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