Private life of German politicians
“Politicians are there to solve problems”

The political scientist Prof. Dr. Karl-Rudolf Korte
The political scientist Prof. Dr. Karl-Rudolf Korte | Photo (detail): Karl-Rudolf Korte

The political scientist and expert on the Berlin political establishment, Professor Dr. Karl-Rudolf Korte, on the private life of German politicians and why it so seldom appears in the media.

Professor Korte, by comparison with the United States, the private life of politicians in Germany doesn’t play much of a role. Do the Germans simply not want to know about those who govern them?

In German political culture there’s something like old middle-class reservation. We like to distinguish between the private sphere and work. Politicians should be hard-working, address problems and find solutions – but what they do in private doesn’t in fact interest most people in Germany. This sober view has a tradition and is remarkably alive. Political offices have a function; they aren’t there to provide entertainment.

The separation between public office and private life is protected in Germany by law.

Yes. German judges have repeatedly laid down that the private and intimate spheres are fundamentally taboo and may become the object of reporting only in very exceptional cases. And judges in Germany are very popular. They are looked upon as standing above parties and oriented to the general good. People accept the framework prescribed by law and the media too on the whole keeps within these limits. So the political and private spheres seldom mix – either in newspapers or on TV or on radio.

Like porcupines in winter

Is perhaps too great a closeness of some media people to politician one reasons that nothing embarrassing or questionable is reported? The close relationship is after all often described by journalists as a symbiosis.

Naturally there’s a mutual dependency between politics and media, but no more in Germany than in other countries. Politics in democracy is dependent upon the public and needs its approval. To this extent, politics is dependent on the media, which ideally in turn gets circulation and quotas out of politics. Media control of politics is a hallmark of democracy. It’s like the parable of the porcupines in winter: if they come too close, they injure one another; if they are too far apart, they can’t transfer warmth.

In Bonn many journalists knew of then Chancellor Willy Brandt’s affairs. Nevertheless, they weren’t made known, although society then was certainly more conservative in its views of these things. Was there formerly a fixed code to the effect that the media shouldn’t report about matters in the private sphere?

Certainly there was such an agreement. But the media equally had the tendency to demolish politicians. This is no different today in our society, where the forms in which you appear and what you can say have multiplied. Yet many things today receive as much respect as before. One example: all the media stick to the tacit agreement not to show Wolfgang Schäuble getting out of a car into his wheelchair. There’s still a code concerning what is done and what not done. I can’t detect any tendency of the media today becoming more curious or even more shameless, including in the downscale market, whether newspapers or television.

The pendulum has swung back again

When is the private life of politicians nevertheless interesting for them?

When a politician tries to profit from it. When he opens wide his front door and means to exploit the look into his private life for his career and so to gain votes. There have been cases like this in recent years in Germany, but now the pendulum has swung back again. Domestic stories with the family at the kitchen table, on the terrace or in the garden – that’s no longer on to the extent it used to be a few years ago. When some time ago politicians began bringing their families with them to the party headquarters on election night and highlighting it, many journalists thought this American model would catch on here – but it didn’t. The vast majority of politicians now show up alone, or perhaps with a partner, but certainly not with the whole family.

Why is that?

The politician that lets the media see him close up is setting foot on thin ice. He loses a bit of control: he can never again get rid of images he has created of himself as a politician, he can’t plan how he’ll perhaps be seen and evaluated in a few years. Politicians are cautious people and most of them can count: the risks are great, the benefits rather small.

A few years ago it became known that the German people magazine “Bunte” had hired a photo agency to spy on politicians. The breaking of a taboo?

In a sense, yes. But it is a breach that has remained fairly inconsequential. Many observers asked themselves: why bother? Revelations about politicians don’t rate particularly high among the public. As we’ve already said, most people think a politician is there to solve problems. Those that do this well can divorce and re-marry as often as they like. But those that put themselves too much at centre stage collect more minus than plus points.