Big in Berlin - This week: The Senator for Finance

Article published on March 3, 2008
community published
Article published on March 3, 2008
In “Big in Berlin”, Babel journalists look back on an issue that stirred the German capital over the past week. The approach is subjective and analytical, in commentary style – yet always informative. Let us know what you think by adding your comments below.

By Matthias Jekosch

If Thilo Sarrazin (of the Social Democratic Party, or SPD) goes on like this, he’ll soon be bringing out a book with all his best quotes. He’d certainly have enough material for it: Berlin’s Senator for Finance does not mince his words – indeed, that’s precisely what he is renowned for. However, in the last few weeks, his comments have been piling up, infuriating many around him.

As recently as mid-February, he showed those on state benefits (the so-called “Hartz IV” system) how to feed themselves on just 4 euro per day. Bread rolls, spaghetti and liver sausage all featured on his example menu, thus damaging what no doubt forms the largest vote for left-wing parties of Berlin. Around 600 000 people living in the capital depend on state support. Even for his own party, Sarrazin’s comments went too far. The city’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit, called the menu listing “completely unnecessary”.

But Sarrazin would not be Sarrazin if he were to become discouraged by the current barrage of criticism. Speaking at the embassy of the state of Rheinland-Pfalz, he maintained that pupils from Bavaria who hadn’t graduated from high school were more able than Berlin pupils who had. When this was reported in the “Main-Post” a week ago, the entire Berlin press jumped on the bandwagon, with the tabloids even suggesting giving the Finance Senator a muzzle. SPD leader in the Berlin House of Representatives, Michael Mueller, in front of the press, claimed he was “astonished and angered”. Sarrazin simply kept referring to his remarks as a joke.

The commotion had barely subsided when Sarrazin made the headlines once more. In a TV programme, he actually tried to apologise for his “Hartz menu” and admitted that it had been wrong “to pour his calculations” onto a menu. Yet he then commented in an astonishing way – for a Finance Senator – on illegal workers, saying: “Rather than having someone sitting on the 20th floor just watching TV all day, I’d be almost relieved to have him do a bit of illegal work.”

Admittedly, the 63 year-old also receives encouragement from the commentary pages of the newspapers. Even Wowereit said he thought he was “a sort of political Guenter Netzer (editor’s note: a famous German football player from the 1970s, now also known as a TV expert). Sometimes brilliant, he could even speak out more, just not a team player every day.” Indeed, if the basic political statements underlying his pithy remarks were revealed, then many more people would certainly agree with the Senator. Raising benefit payments does not get people into work. The quality of teaching in Berlin is poorer than that of Bavarian schools. Someone who works illegally on a building site does more for the economy than someone who does nothing at all. One could easily agree with the statements. One doesn’t have to, though.