Germany has eased its lockdown, so last week I exercised one of my reinstated freedoms by leaving Berlin for the first time since February to visit relatives in Franconia. On my train south, masks were obligatory, the restaurant was shut and inspectors checked tickets without touching them. The carriages were fairly full but oddly quiet. No one played board games or chatted with their neighbours and all used hushed tones, as if the masks were there to restrict social intercourse as well as the viral sort.
It was restorative to get away to the countryside. Germans talk of the Eisheilige, the “ice saints” Boniface, Pancras and Servatius, whose days fall on 11, 12 and 13 May and are said to coincide with the last late frosts. Sure enough, a severe chill on Pancras’s night had killed off the first tentative leaves on the grape vines (Franconia, a culturally distinct northern part of Bavaria, is as much a wine region as a beer one). But now new buds were emerging. The window-box geraniums and primroses on the steep-eaved houses were in bloom. Minds were, and are, turning to the summer holidays.
Those will, like my train ride, be an uncanny mix of the normal and the unusual. In Bavaria, hotels and campsites are reopening from 30 May, but with new distancing rules. Big gatherings are banned: Bayreuth’s annual Wagner festival is off; the Bundesliga is holding matches in closed stadiums; and most summer Kerwas, the Franconian parish fairs, are cancelled. The border with the neighbouring Czech Republic reopened on 26 May, but not to tourist traffic.
Franconia has long been a liminal zone. Coburg, an ancestral home of the British royals, had been part of the duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. After the abdication of the reigning duke, the people of Coburg voted in 1919 to join Bavaria (rather than neighbouring Thuringia); a retrospectively wise move that put it on the West German side of the border when the country was divided three decades later. The village of Mödlareuth was cut entirely in two along a brook. One of my lockdown pleasures has been watching Tannbach, an engrossing series on German Netflix telling a loosely fictionalised version of the story. More than 30 years after the fall of the Wall, the region has been knitted back together and people criss-cross between the Bavarian and Thuringian sides for work, shopping and socialising without thinking about it.
Covid-19, too, knows no borders. But government does, especially in a federal country such as Germany where health policy is devolved. Of its 16 states, Bavaria, under the minister-president Markus Söder, of the Christian Social Union (CSU), imposed the strictest lockdown. Thuringia by contrast has been more relaxed and its leftist minister president, Bodo Ramelow, is now mooting lifting all mask and distancing requirements from 6 June. That possibility had caused a local political storm, with politicians in Coburg – a coronavirus hotspot – calling him a “wrong-way driver” poised to let a new wave of infection surge through the border region.
Amid such difficulties, however, Angela Merkel is at the height of her powers. The latest polling puts her approval rating at 68 per cent, far ahead of any other politician, and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its CSU partners on their highest polling in years at 39 per cent. Germany has been fortunate in its experience of Covid-19, and its decentralised health system has performed well, but the chancellor deserves and is getting some credit for her clear and consistent tone; a contrast with her under-communicated and last-minute decision-making during the refugee crisis five years ago this summer. One recent commentary in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung used an old advertising slogan for the VW Beetle car to describe her almost 15-year chancellorship: “It runs, and runs, and runs.”
Some in Berlin’s political district are now asking whether it might run all the way to an unprecedented fifth term. Merkel has ruled out seeking that at the next federal election, due in autumn next year, and I expect she will stick to that refusal.
That serious voices are asking the question is an illustration not just of her stature but of the lack of an obvious successor. Her “crown princess”, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, proved a flop as general secretary of the CDU and resigned in February. The frontrunner in the race to succeed her, the right-winger and long-time Merkel rival Friedrich Merz, has had a bad corona-crisis; his small-state credo does not match the political mood and he has fallen in polling. Armin Laschet, the moderate minister-president of North-Rhine Westphalia, did himself few favours by criticising lockdown measures; some reckon he should swap places with his erstwhile junior running-mate, the federal health minister, Jens Spahn, who has come through the crisis well.
Then there is one more, intriguing possibility: Söder. The Bavarian minister-president is from the CSU, so cannot run for the CDU leadership, but the two parties always put up a joint chancellor candidate, and twice that candidate has come from the CSU side of the alliance: Franz Josef Strauss in 1980 and Edmund Stoiber in 2002. Aware that both Strauss and Stoiber were unsuccessful at translating their popularity in Bavaria into federal election wins, Söder says he does not aspire to the chancellery. But he is famously ambitious and, as the voice of firm lockdowns, he has soared in popularity during the crisis: 53 per cent of German voters now consider him a good candidate, up 22 points since February. Do not entirely rule out this wily Franconian beating a path northwards next year, all the way to the door of the chancellery.
This article appears in the 27 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The peak