Wolfgang Münchau

Germany’s flood disaster could trigger a political upheaval

Germany's flood disaster could trigger a political upheaval
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There is an interesting history to the politics of floods in Germany – and a possibility that history might be repeating itself. The official death toll in Germany has risen to 93 this morning, but 1300 people are still reported missing in the region of Ahrweiler, in western Germany. This is without a doubt the most extreme natural disaster that has hit Germany in living memory.

We should not at this point draw any hasty conclusions about the political impact. It is possible that it will benefit the Greens because climate change is back on the political agenda. Historically, floods have benefited incumbent governments.

In 1962, a giant storm over the North Sea lead to the flooding of Hamburg after dykes broke. The population received no warning because phone lines had been cut, and because the authorities underestimated the likelihood of a North Sea storm affecting Hamburg, which is 60 miles inland.

The flood triggered the political rise of Helmut Schmidt, who at the time was Hamburg’s senator for interior and security affairs. In his handling of the disaster, Schmidt broke constitutional law where he ordered the Bundeswehr to help with the disaster relief. He also involved US forces. 315 people died in Hamburg when the floods hit low-lying areas around the Elbe river. But the rescue operations were extremely successful. 13 years later, Schmidt was German chancellor, and remained one of the most revered German politicians until his death in 2015.

In August 2002, northern and eastern Germany suffered what was prematurely called the flood of the century, when the rivers Elbe and Oder overflowed their banks and flooded surrounding areas. One small village in East Germany completely disappeared.

Just as now, 2002 was an election year, with elections to take place in September. By early August Gerhard Schröder, who had just finished his first term as chancellor, had been trailing in the polls behind Edmund Stoiber, the Bavarian prime minister and chancellor-candidate of CDU/CSU. When the floods hit, Schröder dropped the campaign, put on his boots, and immediately put himself in charge of the disaster operations. Stoiber took several days until he even visited the affected areas. The absolute impact on voters was relatively small, but enough to put Schröder’s coalition ahead. The red-green coalition won the elections by three seats.

These stories have become part of the folklore of modern German politics. When Armin Laschet heard about the extent of the floods during a meeting with the CSU in Bavaria, he immediately left for his home state, which has been one of the two most affected. Laschet does not quite cut a convincing figure in wellies and anorak, compared to Schmidt and Schröder.

One Green MP overstepped the mark by blaming the government for the flood, and trying to extract political capital from the disaster. It is definitely too early for political manoeuvres of this kind. It is also to early for speculation on the political impact. But once the water recedes over the weekend, not only will the damage become visible, the politics will too.