Editor’s note (December 8th 2021): This article has been updated.
TEN YEARS ago Christoph Holstein received a summons to the office of Olaf Scholz. Mr Scholz had just led the Social Democrats (SPD) to a stunning election win in the city-state of Hamburg, and Mr Holstein was to be his government spokesman. Mr Scholz offered two pieces of guidance: “We are never offended, and we are never hysterical.” Mr Holstein, now on Hamburg’s state council, found the advice so useful that it remains pinned up in his office under the words: “Scholz’s first law”. Germans and others who learned to appreciate the calm demeanour of Angela Merkel during her 16 years in office will find reassurance in Mr Scholz, who replaced her as German chancellor on December 8th.
Talk to those who have got to know the 63-year-old Mr Scholz throughout his career, and several leitmotifs emerge. Reliability is one. “He only ever promises things he can achieve,” says Dorothee Martin, an SPD MP from Hamburg. Campaigning for election this summer, he boiled down his offer to a handful of modest proposals, all of which are in the coalition deal agreed by the SPD with two smaller parties: lifting Germany’s hourly minimum wage to €12 ($13.50), maintaining the state pension and building 400,000 housing units a year. Other colleagues praise Mr Scholz’s Hanseatic work ethic and his pragmatism.
Another thread is impatience. Mr Scholz shares Mrs Merkel’s air of serenity and competence. Unlike her, he struggles to mask his disdain for those he considers ill-briefed, a trait that can infuriate antagonists. In Hamburg, his aides would shut down dissenters by exclaiming “ OWD”, short for Olaf will das! (“Olaf wants that”). Colleagues swear that Mr Scholz can be hilarious company. But his circuitous, convoluted style of public speaking will hardly satisfy those craving a more direct mode of communication from their chancellor. When challenged on his robotic persona earlier this year, Mr Scholz said he hoped to become chancellor, not a circus ring master. His press conferences are deathly.
Mr Scholz was raised in Hamburg, and trained as an employment lawyer. Like many of today’s ageing social democrats he dabbled in radical leftism before, in his words, “detoxifying” himself into moderate social democracy in his 20s. He bounced between party, city and federal politics for decades, suffering reverses (being booted from a senior SPD role in 2004, the G20 riots in Hamburg in 2017, losing a party leadership bid in 2019) as well as victories (two huge election wins in Hamburg, this year’s triumphant national campaign). In 2018 he pushed his reluctant party to support Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democrats in yet another “grand coalition”. He became her vice-chancellor and finance minister, a role that served as a finishing school for the office he has now achieved.
A prolific reader, Mr Scholz turned his finance ministry into a brains trust of sorts. His emphasis on “respect”, by which he means a society with equal regard for binmen and CEOs, is inspired by Michael Sandel, an American theorist sceptical of meritocracy. Too little of the stuff, Mr Scholz argues, breeds populism and illiberalism. “He is often portrayed as a social democrat in conservative clothes, but that’s wrong,” says a colleague.
Mr Scholz also imbibed a lesson offered by previous SPD election-winners: that Germans are a centrist bunch wary of visionaries. Unloved by SPD members who wanted more red meat in their politics, Mr Scholz nonetheless almost single-handedly led his comrades to an unexpected, if narrow, election win in September. If this hardly represented a great renaissance of the European left, it did wonders for a party that had long been in the doldrums.
The pandemic had a hand in Mr Scholz’s own recovery. He spent his first two years as finance minister dismaying those who hoped a Social Democrat might end Germany’s excessive fiscal prudence. But when covid-19 struck Mr Scholz cast aside Germany’s fiscal rules to splash hundreds of billions on furlough and corporate-support schemes. He helped design the EU’s €750bn ($845bn) recovery fund, and earlier this year helped push through an international corporate-tax deal.
Foreign and European policy will command much of Mr Scholz’s time. His domestic ambitions will focus on climate. He calls the transition to a carbon-free future Germany’s biggest industrial test in a century. It will be a political challenge, too. The coalition deal commits the new government to exacting targets, including an 80% share of renewables in electricity generation by 2030, but is vague on how to finance the required investments. That riddle could trigger rows between Mr Scholz’s governing partners, the tax-cutting Free Democrats and the left-leaning Greens.
Managing clashes inside his coalition will test Mr Scholz’s celebrated mediation skills. So could soothing the inevitable frustration of the Greens, some of whom emerged disappointed from the coalition negotiations, as well as potential restiveness in the SPD’s own ranks. To manage disputes Mr Scholz will rely on a handful of trusted aides, chief among them Wolfgang Schmidt, an ebullient figure whose reward for decades of service to Mr Scholz will be the job of running his chancellery.
Mr Scholz’s quiet bearing may belie serious ambitions for Germany. “He thinks that under Merkel Germany failed to live up to its potential, and now needs a progressive renewal,” says Dominic Schwickert of Das Progressive Zentrum, a left-leaning think-tank in Berlin. Yet despite her original reform plans Mrs Merkel will be remembered mainly as Europe’s crisis-manager-in-chief. Unexpected events will prove at least as testing for Mr Scholz. He takes office amid a brutal fourth wave of covid-19 and the prospect of renewed conflagration in Ukraine. For now, a surprisingly heady air of optimism surrounds his new, untested coalition government. Olaf will das. But the new chancellor may not always get what he wants. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “Enter the quiet man”