They say he has been acting "just like a businessman" for years and should no longer be seen "as a statesman". They also demand that he resign. That he should resign from everything. First of all, from his membership of the German Social Democratic Party, where he held power, and then from his astronomical salaries in the Russian state oil companies, where he swells his accounts. In Germany, in his own country, the affair has been a clamour for decades, especially within what was - and is - his party. But no one seems to be able to convince him. What is more, every criticism of him reaffirms his decision to move on.
"He earns his money from his work for Russian state-owned companies, and his defence of Vladimir Putin on war crimes charges is absurd," SPD co-chair Sasia Esken told the weekly Der Spiegiel. "His attitude is no longer compatible with the party's principles. He has to decide between being an SPD activist or a Putin supporter," says Thomas Kutschaty, the Social Democratic candidate for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, who is currently on the campaign trail. Today everyone disavows his legacy, although not so long ago the German centre-left, and the political arc as a whole, closed ranks around its leader.
Much has been said and written about Gerhard Schröder, but little is known about him. It is known that he held the German chancellorship for seven years, from 1998 to 2005, and that his time in power was marked by his reformist vocation, abandoning the classic precepts of social democracy. Reducing the weight of the state and modernising the economy were the recipes of the 'new centre' coined by Schröder himself, a third way similar to that of Blair in the United Kingdom or Bill Clinton in the United States, which earned him criticism from the left wing of the SPD.
Skilful in his power games, Schöder won re-election in 2002 by the narrowest of margins after sealing a coalition with Joschka Fischer's Green Party. Three years later, however, his political stunt failed to win him a reelection victory, a failure that removed him definitively from the political front line, from where he never fully left. His withdrawal allowed the SPD to remain in a grand coalition government led by the CDU conservatives, led for the first time by a fledgling Angela Merkel, to whom Schröder would later attribute a lack of leadership.
On the international stage, the legacy of Schröder's second and final term in office was marked by a strong estrangement from George W. Bush's United States, which he came to label as fundamentalist, and by the consequent strengthening of the Franco-German axis as a result of the joint refusal of the invasion of Iraq, co-chaired by French President Jacques Chirac. But the defining decision of his foreign policy was his ironclad alliance with Vladimir Putin's Russia, whom he received several times in Berlin and with whom he concluded a close strategic partnership on energy issues that has lasted until the present day.
In his memoirs, published in 2006, Schröder lashed out at many of his political contemporaries. He had hardly any kind words for any leader, except for one: Vladimir Putin. Of the Russian president, he praised his vision, which in those early years outlined a reunion with Europe. Schröder interpreted the signals of Boris Yeltsin's successor as the beginning of a new era: "the European House, from Vladivostok to Lisbon". Two years earlier he had called Putin a 'flawless democrat', although in the light of events he toned down his praise.
The closeness between the two was such that in 2001 the Russian president addressed German MPs from the Bundestag rostrum in Dresden German, extending his hand to "a friendly European nation". Those were the times when Putin was selling a lasting peace on the Old Continent, and those were also the times when the top brass of the Teutonic parliament, including Merkel, had no qualms about giving him a standing ovation. But that legacy, those times, would soon be sullied.
Two weeks after leaving the chancellorship, as he recounted in a recent interview for The New York Times, Gerhard Schröder received a phone call from Vladimir Putin. In it, the Russian leader instructed him to finish what he had started months earlier as a representative of the German people, but this time away from his executive duties, working for the Kremlin's interests and his own. Putin's plans at the time were for Schröder to head the shareholders' committee of Nord Stream AG, the Russian state-owned company in charge of building the first undersea gas pipeline connecting Russia and Germany. The former German chancellor accepted.
Many variables came into play. Firstly, the close friendship he had developed years earlier with Putin, with whom he has since shared numerous conversations, trips, holidays, and birthday celebrations, and whom he has never disowned. Secondly, his obvious prior involvement in the project, since in his last days as chancellor he ratified a 900 million euro loan to Gazprom, the Russian state oil company, for the construction of the pipeline. And last but not least, the succulent booty: a salary of more than 270,000 euros a year on top of his lifetime remuneration of 8,500 euros as former chancellor.
The reality is that the former head of the German government took advantage of his prerogatives to profit privately just days after leaving office, and not only that, but he did so in the pay of another state led by a budding autocrat. German civil society then realised that the gradual rapprochement fostered for years by its leader was not, at least in its entirety, in the interests of the German people, but in the personal interests of the Social Democrat, who brought the German companies ON Ruhrgas and BASF Wintershall, both privately owned, into the game.
The paradox is that Ukraine was the big loser of the project when it came into force in 2011. The Nord Stream I pipeline crosses the depths of the Baltic - in the same way as Nord Stream 2, which was blocked three weeks after Russia's aggression began - and directly connects the Russian port of Vyborg with the German port of Greifswald. This allowed Moscow to bypass Ukraine for gas transport to Europe. The Ukrainian pipelines had the capacity to send 150 billion cubic metres a year to the continent and were used by the Kiev government as a bargaining chip and lobbying tool to extract political and economic concessions from the Kremlin.
Inaugurated in the middle of the Merkel era, the Nord Stream I project took Ukraine, among other European countries, out of the equation, thus losing millions of euros in transit fee revenues, but at the same time weakened Germany's position vis-à-vis Russia. Berlin became dependent on Moscow for energy, a situation similar to that of the rest of the European Union, and the decision taken by the conservative chancellor to definitively disconnect its nuclear power plants within 10 years only aggravated this dependence, which her successor Olaf Scholz is now suffering in his own flesh.
The containment policy pursued by Merkel, who has been heavily criticised in recent days for her laxity towards Vladimir Putin's regime, is by no means new. Gerhard Schröder went further, but neither can he claim to be the forerunner of a foreign strategy that Germany has been pursuing for decades. The initiator of what is known as 'Ostpolitik', the doctrine of rapprochement with Eastern Europe and Russia, was a Social Democrat, Willy Brandt, first as Foreign Minister and then as Chancellor in the late 1960s.
Schröder has a statue of Brandt in his office, a reflection of his influence. After the historic Social Democrat, several chancellors maintained close trade relations with the Soviet Union, especially in energy matters. And since then, things have not changed, despite major events such as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or the threat of intervention in Poland. Until today, when Putin's full-scale invasion has altered the German scene.
The corridors of power in Berlin are now questioning the commercial ties that have linked them with Russia, with a regime whose hands are stained with blood from the atrocities committed in Bucha or Borodyanka, and questioning a position founded on the belief that a Kremlin dependent on trade with the West, and especially with Germany, has little room for manoeuvre. Nothing could be further from the truth. Putin does and undoes as he pleases while Russian gas still gushes into Germany, financing his war in Ukraine along the way. All this with the acquiescence of the Teutonic trade unions, because Schröder is only the tip of the iceberg.
The former chancellor supported, and still seems to support, this positive view of trade. But there are few crew members left on this ship, and those who are are on board are flagging a cynical pragmatism, because they want to avoid at all costs what is expected to be the worst crisis for Germany since the end of the Second World War. Shutting off gas supplies from Russia would mean the quasi-immediate closure of much of its industry, a blow to the heart of Germany's hitherto buoyant economy. That is why Chancellor Olaf Scholz is reluctant to take the final step, because the stability of his country is at stake.
Schröder's position is immovable. In all this time he has not only not said 'mea culpa', but he has reaffirmed his decision and scorned the idea of putting Vladimir Putin on the spot. So much so that his parliamentary office staff resigned en masse, including his chief of staff and speechwriter for the past 20 years. Schröder also revoked his honorary citizenship of Hannover before his hometown could take it away and cancelled his Borussia Dortmund season ticket when the football club asked him for a condemnation of the assault.
In an attempt to improve his image, the former chancellor travelled to Moscow for an audience with the Russian president, whom he asked to make an effort to end the invasion in Ukraine. As expected, he was unsuccessful, but the refusal did not alter his plans. Although he later declared that, in his opinion, this war "was a mistake", and that "what we have to do now is to create peace as soon as possible", he responded that the facts "should be investigated" when asked about the Bucha massacre.
To date, the former head of government of the largest economy in the Eurozone and one of the visible heads of the European Union at the beginning of the 21st century continues to serve as Chairman of the Board of Directors of Rosnef, the oil company owned by the Russian government, a post from which he earns more than 600,000 euros a year. Schröder, moreover, has not yet been hit by sanctions after five batches of sanctions imposed by the European institutions.