State and Politics in Germany

Satire is the best Taskmaster – How to Launch a Political Party and Gain Power

Coverausschnitt „Das PARTEI-Buch“; © KiWiCover of “Das PARTEI-Buch”; © KiWiNever before has the story and rise of a political party been exposed in such a telling way – the satirist, Martin Sonneborn, describes how he campaigned for votes for his party – the “PARTEI”. At the same time he gives us the low-down on how political propaganda works.

They had come to rebuild the Wall. And there they were, these men in their polyester suits, spade in hand, standing in the middle of nowhere on a green meadow somewhere between Thuringia and Hesse. Unfortunately the first thing to go wrong was the fact that the spades were no good for digging with; secondly there was nothing to dig for anyway as a kind of makeshift wall has already been built – made of Ytong blocks piled on top of each other. What we were seeing was an event organised by Germany’s new political party – the “PARTEI”. Re-erecting a new Berlin Wall was one of the main points of their campaign program.

In his PARTEI” Book - How To Launch A Political Party And Gain Power, the “Federal Party Chairman”, Martin Sonneborn, aged 44, looks back at the beginnings, the launch and rise of his party (the “PARTEI”) during the German federal elections of 2005. The aforementioned event – the attempt to rebuild the Wall – gives us some insight into the tactics of his party. Spades, suits and the Wall – they were all just props. Fake accessories just like the ones used by the real party big wigs and dignitaries. It was a virtuoso performance, showing how easy it is to use certain symbols to produce statesmanlike images.

“That is democracy”

Party Leader, Sonneborn, visiting the Social Democratic Party of Georgia; © DIE PARTEIMartin Sonneborn – a phenomenal egghead with a red nose and thinning hair – could not be more unassuming. His appearance however is his best asset. Sonneborn is in fact something like Germany’s top political debunker. For years he was editor-in-chief at Germany’s leading satirical magazine, “Titanic”. And then in 2004, almost right off the bat, he became the founder and Federal Chairman of the “PARTEI” party. “PARTEI” and the staff of “Titanic” are more or less one and the same thing. On reading the “PARTEI” Membership Book, one is confronted with a discourse on the workings of our media democracy that is both humorous, yet at the same time deadly serious. “If people commission us to reduce the principle of democracy to absurdity via democratic means, we cannot refuse,” explains the author right from the start. “That is democracy.” Then there is a markedly enlightening exposition on how Sonneborn and his comrades in all earnestness run a “sleazy, populist, low-brow election campaign” for the “PARTEI” – the Party for Arbeit (work), Reisefreiheit (freedom of travel), Tierschutz (animal rights), Elitenförderung (gifted programs) and basisdemokratische Initiative (bottom-up democratic decision-making).

Party uniform – a grey single-breasted suit for 49 euros; © DIE PARTEIIn their mousy, 49-euro single-breasted suits the “PARTEI” campaigners lead the voters a merry dance along a path on which the borders between reality and fiction are quite blurred. Whether they are on the stump in German pedestrian zones, sabotaging other parties’ campaigns with slogans like “We are giving up. Yours, the SPD” or “Try FDP eggnog with its more than 18 per cent” (The FDP party’s election target is 18% +), the “PARTEI” campaigners seem to stop at nothing, if it helps them to achieve their political aims. In the run-up to the 2005 elections the devotees of “Titanic” all the same managed to gather the necessary number of signatures to be able to register as the “right” candidate for the German Bundestag. This meant that they could also make four party political broadcasts on TV. In the end Sonneborn and his comrades-in-arms were able to rejoice quite professionally over, what they called, their “best election result since the end of the war”.

Aggravating reality

Cover of the book by Schlingensief about his party project “Chance 2000 – Elect Yourself”; © KiWiThe whole thing is splendidly silly, yet at the same time an expression of a protest culture that takes existing rites and symbols and uses them subversively “against the system”. It was similar back in 1998 when the artist, Christoph Schlingensief, set up his “Chance 2000” – the party of the unemployed – or the “Front Deutscher Äpfel” (German Apple Front) under the leadership of “Führer” Alf Thum, whose aim was to thwart every form of (anti)fascist activity with what seemed to be neo-nazi ravings. On an international level we have the “Yes Men” – two guerrilla artists from America, who succeeded in appearing live in an interview on the BBC as alleged corporate spokesmen for the Dow Chemical Company, in which they claimed all responsibility for the Bhopal chemical accident in India.

The “Titanic“ crew has also had a lot of experience in aggravating reality. Their project during the run-up to the World Cup soccer championships in 2006 was legendary. When the FIFA dignitaries all met in Zurich to decide on the venues, mysterious faxes with promises of sausages and Black Forest cuckoo clocks, if Germany were to be given the venue, suddenly started to be slid under the doors of the hotel rooms the people in charge were staying in. The German football association screamed blue murder, but this attempt at bribery, instigated by the “Titanic” editorial team once again revealed just how thin the line can be between ridicule and reality.

Using product placement to fight product placement

The “PARTEI” membership book is particularly enlightening on the role played by the advertising industry and the media in the propaganda machinery of politics. On the one hand there are the snippets from the press that Sonneborn has generously sprinkled over the pages of the brochure as commentaries – some of them play along with the game almost smarmily, others are outraged, saying that these disciples of “Titanic” have “no taste whatsoever”. And then came the “PARTEI” masterpiece – the party political broadcasts on public TV. Unmistakably sponsored by a budget airline, the Federal Party Chairman explains to the electorate that his party – the “PARTEI” – is the only party that consistently names and shames product placement on the two German public stations, ARD and ZDF.

The advertising agency that did the spots and is closely affiliated to the “PARTEI” had cold feet for a while, but in the end it was rewarded with a prize from the advertising sector itself.

Martin Sonneborn: Das Partei-Buch. Wie man in Deutschland eine Partei gründet und die Macht übernimmt, (The PARTEI Book - How To Launch A Political Party And Gain Power In Germany), Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch 2009, 234 pages, 8,95 euros.

Anne Haeming
is a free-lance author for the print and online media. She lives in Berlin.

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion

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July 2009

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