January 6, 2011
A former member of Chancellor Merkel's Christian Democrats has formed a party to attract voters enthralled by Thilo Sarrazin and disappointed by Germany's existing parties. Berlin politician René Stadkewitz's new Freedom Party aims to leverage fear of Islam for political ends.
The 52 men and women meeting in a conference room at the Hotel Maritim in Berlin's Tiergarten district were determined to remain undisturbed. No one else was privy to the location and time of the meeting, in a deliberate attempt to prevent protestors and journalists from showing up at the scene. The only outsider present was Daniel Pipes, an American author, critic of Islam and advisor to former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who happened to be in the city.
The Hotel Maritim is on Stauffenbergtrasse, near the Memorial to the German Resistance. It is an historic point of reference that the 52 attendees would likely have drawn encouragement from.
Like would-be Hitler assassin Claus von Stauffenberg, after whom the street is named, they too hope to protect Germany against what they perceive to be pending disaster. The group drafted a set of bylaws and discussed a 77-page party platform, which includes such statements as: "We will do everything in our power to oppose the Islamization of our country."
They gave their party a grand name, a name worth fighting for: "Die Freiheit" (Freedom).
The 52 men and women chose as their party chairman an unprepossessing man with a short haircut and melancholy eyes, the 45-year-old manager of a company specializing in alarm systems and security technology and a member of the Berlin state parliament, René Stadtkewitz.
A few weeks later, Stadtkewitz, a former member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), is sitting at the wheel of his BMW 5 Series. It is a cold November morning as the Berlin skyline gradually fades away in the rear-view mirror. At first, Stadtkewitz's most noticeable feature is his voice, the kind of warm, rich bass often found among radio announcers on classical music stations. But despite his appealing voice, the words coming out of his mouth lose their weight due to their strangeness.
"If we don't get things right demographically, we'll have Algeria in Berlin before long. Islam has always been a religion of conquest," Stadtkewitz says in his throaty bass, the voice of a smoker who fills his lungs with cigarette smoke every two hours. It's about a 550-kilometer (344-mile) trip to Wetzlar in the western state of Hesse, but Stadtkewitz plans to return to Berlin that evening.
His day will consist of more than 1,000 kilometers on the road, with political meetings and a press conference sandwiched in between the two legs of his trip.
Stadtkewitz speeds across the autobahn.
"There is a press conference, isn't there, Marc?" Stadtkewitz asks.
The question is directed at the man sitting in the back. Marc Doll, 33, is a teacher who has been a vegetarian for the last 15 years. Doll, who has an honest face and keeps his hair parted neatly on the side, is the deputy party chairman.
"Yes, René, as far as I know," says Doll.
Stadtkewitz nods in satisfaction. The event in Wetzlar sounds promising. A few members of the local chapter of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) intend to join the Freedom Party.
Stadtkewitz doesn't know these people and has only communicated with them by e-mail and phone, but if FDP members are indeed defecting to his new party, it will be a coup that "will cause a lot of hype in Hesse, even in the media," says Stadtkewitz.
'Geert Wilders Is a Great Democrat and Liberal'
It's the kind of hype that can't be bad for a new, virtually unknown party, particularly as its chairman, Stadtkewitz, is also virtually unknown: a former member of the CDU from Berlin who never made much of an impression as a politician, never held any significant positions and produced few headlines. Stadtkewitz is the classic second-tier politician. His only media exposure consists of a few stories in Berlin newspapers that have generally described Stadtkewitz as a right-wing populist.
But what does that mean?
"Well, what exactly is that supposed to be, a right-wing populist?" Stadtkewitz asks, scratching his head.
Perhaps someone like Dutch politician Geert Wilders?
"That's nonsense. Right-wing populist. Geert Wilders is a great democrat and liberal. I know him well."
But Wilders says that the Koran should be banned, just as Hitler's "Mein Kampf" was banned.
"Well, Wilders does exaggerate sometimes," says Stadtkewitz. "But you have to be able to bring things to a head sometimes. The internal rejection of Islam has long been a majority view in Germany. You can see it in the Sarrazin debate."
For Stadtkewitz the debate that broke out after Thilo Sarrazin, the former member of the board the German Central Bank, published a book claiming that Muslims would soon outnumber ethnic Germans and that they were dumbing down the country, went something like this: After reading Sarrazin's book, shortly after it was published, Stadtkewitz realized that he liked what he was reading. He felt validated and encouraged.
By the time he had finished reading the book, it had already set off a heated debate in Germany, first about the book itself and eventually about the broader issue of integration. The vehemence of that debate surprised him at first, says Stadtkewitz.
Another German Integration Debate
The book is thick and full of numbers, not exactly the classic formula for a bestseller. Nevertheless, it seems to expose a hidden undercurrent of threat and loss in the German psyche.
There have been similar debates in the past. Indeed, the German integration debate is a ritual that appears with the regularity of an outbreak of herpes. This time, however, the debate has been centered around a clear bogeyman: Muslims.
Book buyers and not politicians are the people who dominate today's integration debate. The mere act of buying the book constitutes a statement in itself, an acknowledgment that Sarrazin is right.
The fact that hundreds of thousands of people were buying the book encouraged Stadtkewitz in his belief that his fledgling party could be a success. He recognized that there was a certain mood in the country, and that all he had to do was to channel it into a political movement.
Within a few weeks of its establishment, the Freedom Party had already received about 6,000 membership inquiries. Stadtkewitz and his team were overwhelmed and hardly able to respond to all of the inquiries.
In a poll commissioned by the left-leaning newspaper Berliner Zeitung , 24 percent of Berlin residents stated that they could imagine voting for a "party directed against Islam." And a survey conducted by the Emnid opinion research firm concluded that 18 percent of Germans would vote for a Sarrazin party.
A Sarrazin party doesn't even exist.
But now there is one lead by René Stadtkewitz, a small business owner from Berlin's Karow district.
'I've Always Been Underestimated'
Stadtkewitz is surprised at how quickly the project -- the party to go with the book, as it were -- is gaining steam. The membership inquiries have come from all quarters, not just from FDP members in Wetzlar, but also from members of the CDU and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), as well as the many voters with no political affiliation, the citizens who feel disappointed, angry and afraid. All Stadtkewitz has to do is to gather them together under one umbrella.
"I've always been underestimated," says Stadtkewitz, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel of his BMW. "In the CDU, they thought: Oh, he'll never do that. That was their attitude when I left the party, when we had the Wilders event and, now, with the establishment of our party."
Michael Braun, the CDU's deputy floor leader in the Berlin city assembly, says that there was a point at which Stadtkewitz became unreachable. "He closed his mind when it came to the issue of Islam. There was some sort of an inner radicalization going on there," says Braun.
Kurt Wansner, the CDU's integration policy spokesman in Berlin, says: "In the end, René was only interested in the negative aspects of the integration issue. But those who now place him in the right-wing corner are doing him a complete injustice."
Stadtkewitz says that it was all a slow process, one that took years of searching for answers "to questions that no one could or wanted to answer."
Stadtkewitz grew up in East Berlin, where Islam was nonexistent at the time. After finishing high school, he worked in an East Berlin firm, assembling industrial robots. Stadtkewitz left East Germany in September 1989 and fled to the West via Hungary, taking his wife and their two-year-old son along. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he returned to the city and, in 1995, joined the CDU, motivated primarily by then Chancellor and CDU Chairman Helmut Kohl and a sense of gratitude for his role in German reunification.
Protests Against Pankow Mosque
Stadtkewitz became the CDU district chairman in Berlin's Pankow neighborhood and was later elected to the Berlin city state parliament. He had a reputation as a reserved, diligent politician. While in the assembly, Stadtkewitz focused on construction and urban development, until 2005, when Islam suddenly became a hot-button issue.
There were plans to build a mosque, the first in the eastern part of the city, in Stadtkewitz's Pankow district. But Pankow residents strongly opposed the mosque, staging protests, collecting signatures and holding candlelight vigils. Germany's democratic, freedom-oriented basic order seemed to have become embroiled in a battle against Islamization on the outskirts of Berlin. Stadtkewitz became the leader of the protest movement.
The mosque construction, he says, triggered a change in his life, dividing it into two parts, just as Germany is shaped by the periods before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Stadtkewitz buried himself in books. He read the Koran and concluded that it contained "more than 200 calls for the murder of non-believers." He read books critical of Islam by such authors as Necla Kelek and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Udo Ulfkotte's "The War in Our Cities," and many others. To this day, he says, he has read at least 50 books critical of Islam, and the deeper he penetrates into the material, the greater his fears become.
Stadtkewitz made several outings to the city's immigrant neighborhoods, places like Neukölln and Wedding, where he would walk into teahouses and introduce himself by saying: "Hello, my name is René Stadtkewitz, and I am a member of the state parliament for the CDU."
What did he hope to accomplish?
"I wanted to compare the image painted in the books to reality," says Stadtkewitz. "I wanted to discuss Islam and integration with Muslims in their environment."
It must have been an interesting situation: the Muslims and the Islam critic, sparring in the midst of a parallel society. "Most of them weren't particularly interested in talking to me," says Stadtkewitz. "It was as if I were entering a foreign territory."
What had he expected?
Stadtkewitz shrugs his shoulders and says: "Answers."
'I Have Nothing Against Muslims'
His fellow CDU members soon became irritated with his theories on Islam, while Stadtkewitz felt misunderstood and marginalized. He was critical of the party's shift to the left under Chancellor Angela Merkel, and when the CDU cancelled an event critical of Islam that Stadtkewitz had organized, he left the party, though he remained a member of its Berlin parliamentary group. Then he met Dutch politician Geert Wilders in The Hague.
Stadtkewitz, impressed by Wilders' approach, his political stance and his assessment of Islam as a dangerous ideology, finally felt understood. He invited Wilders to attend an event in Berlin, and Wilders accepted the invitation. Back in Berlin, the head of the CDU state organization gave Stadtkewitz an ultimatum: He could either disinvite Wilders or expect to be ejected from the CDU parliamentary group in the city parliament. Since then, Stadtkewitz has been an independent representative, with no attachment to any parliamentary group.
"I have nothing against Muslims. I make a distinction among Muslims, the religion of Islam and the ideology of Islam. The ideology is dangerous," says Stadtkewitz.
When Stadtkewitz stops at a rest stop on his trip to Wetzlar, he is already pulling a cigarette out of his red packet of Pall Malls by the time he pulls into the parking lot. Despite having had a stroke some time ago, Stadtkewitz has been unable to break the smoking habit.
Inside the rest stop, he drinks a cup of coffee from a machine while Doll eats a cheese sandwich, looking dissatisfied. Doll, who is from Heidelberg in western Germany, has been living in Berlin for a few years, where he was also a CDU member until recently. In addition to being a non-smoker and vegetarian, he is also a member of the raw food movement. He wrote the section on internal security and a short section on health policy for the party program -- probably because he was the only one interested in the subject.
"I have a doctor who wants to join our party," says Doll, chewing his cheese sandwich.
"What kind of a doctor?," Stadtkewitz asks.
"Just a normal doctor. An orthodox practitioner," says Doll. "But sometimes he does these events."
"Events?," Stadtkewitz asks.
"Well, like a barefoot run, for example. To address foot health. Shoes are bad for our feet, René."
"A barefoot run, Marc?," Stadtkewitz asks, staring into his coffee.
Then they continue their journey, the smoker and the raw foodist, through the states of Thuringia and Hesse. They arrive in Wetzlar at noon, where Sabine Merkelbach and Jörg Bader greet them at the Hotel Blankenfeld, in a room with turquoise-colored walls.
Merkelbach is a petite, tomboyish woman, and Bader is a man with black hair that looks dyed. Merkelbach chaired the local FDP organization and once ran for a seat in the German parliament, the Bundestag, while Bader was the deputy head of the FDP's district organization. Now Merkelbach and Bader are sitting on one side of a conference table, facing Stadtkewitz and Doll. It almost seems as if the two FDP defectors were auditioning for roles in Stadtkewitz's new party.
"We are frustrated," Merkelbach says. "Very frustrated," Bader agrees.
The two politicians talk about their reasons for leaving the FDP. They rattle off a long list of reasons and political disappointments: the tax abatement for hotel owners, the fatal election for the presidential post, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, the Greek bailout and, most of all, the betrayal of "all liberal principles."
Stadtkewitz nods thoughtfully, as if he had already anticipated everything they are were going to say.
"I have the feeling that, in general, things just aren't right in Germany anymore," says Merkelbach. "All we do is tweak ailing systems," Bader adds. "Things are festering everywhere. We have to figure out what our values are," says Merkelbach. "We have to get back to thinking of ourselves first," Bader says.
Merkelbach and Bader seem to be staring into an abyss into which they could fall at any moment -- and the entire country, along with them. Their words reflect German attitudes towards life in the 21st century, in which the future is uncertain, and there is a perception that things are going downhill.
"There is a certain yearning within the population," says Bader.
A certain yearning.
For what, exactly?
"We have to take countermeasures now," says Stadtkewitz, quickly jumping into the conversation and presenting the basic elements of his party program: the introduction of direct democracy based on the "Swiss model," a uniform national school system, community work instead of the Hartz IV welfare reform program, lower taxes, a new integration policy and a freeze on immigration.
For Bader, everything Stadtkewitz is saying is "very, very good," while Merkelbach seems overjoyed to conclude that she agrees with "95 percent" of his arguments. Suddenly, in this small hotel room with its turquoise-colored walls, Stadtkewitz seems to grow in stature.