BERLIN – Very serious things can sometimes happen in German politics. At present, the two main parties, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Party, which for half of a century have passed the reins of government between them with equanimity, are bleeding votes to the margins.
The Social Democrats, the more leftist of the two, is in critical condition. The entry of the populist right into the heart of establishment politics has jolted the old established order in the country, xenophobia is penetrating public discourse, and urgent issues – the climate crisis, immigration, the rise of the far right – are now on the agenda.
Germans who went to the polls in the late-May European Parliament election and saw a list of candidates from Die Partei – The Party – with such surnames including Bormann, Goebbels, Hess and Eichmann, definitely had every right to respond that this was not the time for joking around.
The Party was established in 2004 by the editorial board of the Frankfurt-based satirical monthly Titanic. Its platform calls for the rebuilding of the Berlin Wall, a declaration of war on Liechtenstein, a cap on the price of beer and the abduction of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Its activities initially stirred a combination of bewilderment, amusement and uneasiness.
Ahead of the 2005 Bundestag election, The Party auctioned off 25 seconds of the 30 allotted to it for campaign broadcasts on eBay. In 2007, it sent a delegation on an “official” visit to Georgia and signed a cooperation agreement with the opposition leader, who is head of the local Labor party there, who didn’t realize whom he was dealing with. The media called it a “joke party” and the establishment heaped scorn on it – but the number of registered members surged.
After mediocre showings in various local elections across the country, The Party scored a big success in the European Parliament election in 2014: Party leader and Titanic editor Martin Sonneborn entered that body with the promise of adhering to a policy of “yes to Europe, no to Europe,” which in practice meant voting alternately in favor of and against every issue that came up.
Since then The Party has grown in popularity, its membership has grown significantly – to about 30,000 – and it’s showing up more frequently in the media and social networks. About 900,000 Germans – 2.4 percent of all the country’s voters – opted for the aberrant slate in the recent European Parliament election, giving The Party two of Germany’s 96 seats in the European body. In some neighborhoods the so-called joke party out-polled the ruling CDU.
At the same time, deadly serious statements have begun to surface among the nonsensical messages. The Party devoted the pre-European Parliament election broadcast time allotted to it on public television to Sea-Watch, an organization dedicated to refugee rescue in the Mediterranean. It opened with the words “The European Union alone is responsible for the content of this video,” followed by a disturbing 90-second clip of a boy – who was an actor – in the process of apparent drowning. The concluding message was: “Drowning takes about the same time as the length of this clip. Every tenth person dies in the attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea.” The German media wondered if the joke was now over. Or, perhaps it had never been a joke in the first place.
The Party occupies only a marginal place in German politics. But anyone observing it with care still might ask herself if it merely symbolizes contemporary confusion and despair, or if it is a real attempt to cope with those sentiments. Can political satire have a substantive, important, meaningful agenda? Is the real joke The Party – or the system it seeks to present in all its nakedness?
“In principle, everyone in this party does what he feels like doing,” says Nico Semsrott, 33, a slam poet, cabaret artist and the party’s No. 2 in the European Parliament, in Brussels. In both his performances and in parliament, Semsrott assumes the persona of a depressive young man, with a hood pulled down to his forehead, his eyelids at half-mast and a crestfallen demeanor. In the noisy café where we’re meeting, in Kreuzberg, Berlin, he shows up without a costume.
“I can present my art on any stage, it makes no difference to me whether it’s the political stage or the hall of a satirical cabaret,” he quips.
Before becoming a legislator, Semsrott appeared in “spoken word” shows, on a popular satirical TV program and in a solo act he called “Happiness is Just a Lack of Information.” In 2017, when he ran unsuccessfully for the Bundestag, he targeted mainly people who weren’t intending to vote, asking, “If you don’t care who’s in the Bundestag, wouldn’t it be grand if you were represented by someone who doesn’t care himself about being in the Bundestag?”
Nevertheless, he asserts, taking a political stand is very important to him. “What differentiates us from other parties is first of all the form of communication, which with us is satirical, and secondly, a completely independent leadership. We cannot be bought off, because we simply don’t care whether we will be elected again five years down the line, and we don’t have a party behind us making demands. We were elected precisely to do our stuff and to do our own thing.”
Does satirical mean funny?
Semsrott: “No. Satire is exaggerated criticism. It’s always a critique by satirical means: overstatement, understatement, distortion, pointedness. But it’s not necessarily funny, it can also be bitter. We are experiencing tremendous social change at a whole range of levels, and the establishment parties, or politics in general, don’t yet have smart answers. We’re a reflection of this crisis. We are a sign of distress, it’s not something cool. I think The Party is necessary, but its necessity is not a good thing.”
One of the most acute crises today in the world, he says, relates to the media. It’s no longer profitable in its traditional formats and as a consequence is in essence leaving the realm of information, criticism and guidance for the public to the social networks, for which fact-checking is of no consequence, according to Semsrott: “Amid this transformation, people like John Oliver, Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah are trying to narrow the gap a little by means of humor and ‘counter-populism.’ I want to see myself as part of that tradition.”
Is there a moment at which you’ll say: ‘It’s serious now, I’m taking off my hood and stepping out of the character’?
“Well, it’s deliberate confusion, what we create. My vote in the parliament can’t truly be satirical – those are real votes, it’s real politics. In other words, I can sit in parliament in my satirical character, but nonetheless, I can still promote serious content. It doesn’t work otherwise, and that’s what’s interesting in this whole game, because everyone asks what’s serious here and what’s a joke, and that’s as it should be. That’s what creates the confusion and the stimulus, because it’s what motivates and engages people.”
Shedding light on the unfamiliar corners of German and European politics is perhaps what contributed most to The Party’s success. “In 2014, many people voted for us out of despair, but this time it was from conviction,” was how Martin Sonneborn explained their success, in an interview with the newspaper Der Taggespiegel, in May. “They know that we’re ensuring transparency in Brussels.”
Indeed, one of the interesting products of The Party’s first term in the European organization is a book, “Mr. Sonneborn Goes to Brussels: Adventures in the European Parliament,” which has been on German best-seller lists since its publication last March. In it, from his seat in the parliament, Sonneborn documented everyday life in EU institutions. The result is an illuminating look at their activity that is simultaneously funny, sarcastic – and dead serious.
Many Germans didn’t know, for example, that the parliament moves between Brussels and Strasbourg: “I learned that the whole business moves to France 12 times a year, 3,000 or 4,000 personnel, by train, plane or car,” Sonneborn relates, “accompanied by trucks that transfer the contents of the offices in thousands of green plastic boxes, and by the black limousines of the transportation service,” sometimes traveling empty from one city to the other so that they can be be at the disposal of legislators. These expenses alone cost the EU over 110 million euros a year, not to mention the greenhouse gas emissions, which are the equivalent of 13,000 round trip flights from London to New York, according to European Union auditors.
Sonneborn’s explanation of the EU’s political and economic principles sounds like satire, and his accounts of meetings with other legislators, office holders and lobbyists sound like bad jokes. Reading his book generates gales of laughter that eventually recede into a smile and then a frozen, irritated expression, in recurring cycles. The jokes are at the reader’s expense.
The Party’s modus operandi appears to be involvement in totally dumb (in the best case) or demeaning (in other cases) activities. But when presented in the context in which they are organized, they suddenly look logical, while everything around them seems idiotic and strange. A case in point is voting in the parliament: Sonneborn stayed true to his election promise – to vote a different way each time – but when he describes how legislative sessions in the chamber sometimes proceed – 240 votes in 40 minutes – the “one time in favor, one time against” method doesn’t sound so untenable.
Sonneborn: “Resolution ‘the situation in Ukraine,’ paragraph 34, amendment 14/2. As an independent MP, there is of course no chance that I will be familiar with amendment 14/2, the ‘situation in Ukraine’ resolution or the situation in Ukraine at all … I’m going along casting my votes comfortably, once for and once against, on Ebola, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and gastronomy in Spain… My attention is diverted when I discover that a few rows in front of me is a cheerleader dressed in pink who’s helping the members of her faction vote with thumbs-up and thumbs-down gestures.”
Sonneborn’s narrative power stems from his being completely liberated from the rules of the game and from any political commitment. To Tibor Navracsics, the incoming European commissioner for education, culture, youth and sport (whom the German-language, online Hungarian newspaper Pester Lloyd called “the brain behind the systematic dismantlement of democracy and the law-abiding state in Hungary”), Sonneborn put the following question in the plenary: “Your country has anti-Semitic authors such as [the World War II-era] Albert Wass and Jozsef Nyiro in the public-school curriculum. Can we hope that in your tenure as culture and education commissioner, books by Hitler and Goebbels will also be mandatory reading for the EU’s young people?”
The informational aspect of The Party’s work, says his colleague Semsrott, is extremely important. “The party’s aim is to arouse public awareness and to critique the system as it is. A far-center party, as we like to say.”
And your aim?
“I want to unnerve the right-wingers with what frightens them more than anything: humor, facts and public awareness. I think that the greatest enemy of those on the right is not the left, but for the public to know what they are doing.”
Is it possible to do serious political satire?
“That’s what I want to find out.”
Will you make it into the Bundestag?
“If the other parties go on like this, I’m afraid we will.”
In 2014, The Party launched a campaign to sell money. Banknotes of 100 euros were sold for 105 euros, including guaranteed delivery and two postcards. The point of the campaign was to increase the party’s revenues, which would determine – without taking profits into account – the amount of state funding it receives.
The initiative came about following the revelation that AfD was selling gold for the same reason, ostensibly to show opposition to the euro. The campaign was a resounding success – the whole of Germany learned about the bizarre funding law, and a quick reform closed the loophole – though not before The Party launched another campaign, this time to sell the same banknotes for 80 euros (“Your tax money, in banknotes of 100. Fresh off the printing press and less wrinkled than Angela Merkel’s neck, guaranteed.”)
Undaunted by the idea of plunging into the depths of German bureaucracy in their search for the absurd, The Party is also happy to disrupt sensitive political discourse and happily rob it of any semblance of correctness. For example, with regard to the conservative attitudes of the older generation in Germany – particularly when it comes to climate change and the future of the EU, both subjects of a tempestuous inter-generational debate in recent months.
In one election campaign commercial, Semsrott is seen in a hospital at the bedside of an elderly man connected to a respirator. “This old white man is already considered dead, but still retains the right to vote. Like five million other German last-time voters, he is determining a future in which he will have no part,” he declared.
After a few electric shocks, the old man in the hospital is seen voting for Merkel’s conservative party, as Semsrott sums up: “Therefore we are demanding a maximum voting age. Just as people don’t vote during the first 18 years of their life, they should not vote in the last 18 years of their life, either.”
Werner Krause, a researcher at the Berlin Social Science Center, doesn’t attribute any particular importance to The Party’s recent achievements. “The Party performed as well as it did in the EU elections because little weight is given to them, and also of course because there is no minimum electoral threshold in the voting for the parliament,” he says. “I don’t see the party succeeding in a Bundestag election. Small parties that want to consolidate themselves need a base, core voters who see their politics as meaningful, and ideally a gap in the existing parties. That was the case with AfD: No party before them represented the tough policy against immigration. But I don’t see that potential in The Party.”
Still, it’s difficult to draw conclusions, Krause adds, because no proper studies have been made of The Party and its achievements at the local level – which, by the way, are considerable. It has more than a hundred members serving in local councils and municipalities across Germany, including in Hanover, Stuttgart and Frankfurt; it has an active youth movement, the Hintner-Jugend (named for The Party’s general secretary, Thomas Hintner, but also an allusion to the Nazi-era Hitler-Jugend); and its student organization (“The List”) is represented in university student councils from Münster to Berlin.
I attend a meeting of The Party activists in the Hellersdorf neighborhood. Not long ago, this quarter in the eastern part of Berlin was a stronghold of Die Linke, the Left Party, but today it is identified with the AfD. In the streets surrounding the Grill House where we are sitting at a plastic table and sipping cheap beer, almost every third person voted for the populist right [two years ago].
“When I entered politics in 2007, I was filled with rage,” says Andrea Schulteisz, deputy chair of the party’s local headquarters – who calls herself the “queen of Hellersdorf.”
“My political experience wasn’t negligible. I had been in the Party of Democratic Socialism at the time,” referring to the successor to the Socialist Unity Party, which ruled in East Germany. “Certain things went wrong, and I was so fed up that I thought, now I’m going to do politics from the other side, satire, simply ridiculing everything. I was just on edge and wanted to destroy everything. I didn’t expect then that The Party would develop the way it did.”
In what way?
Schulteisz: “The Party’s campaign for the Bundestag in 2017 was very sexist. Afterward, when MeToo burst into the collective consciousness, women activists reported about certain incidents that happened, and a very serious dialogue began within the party. I hadn’t known before that it was possible for such serious discussion to take place amid satire.”
What part does satire play here?
“The satire is only external, that’s what’s so interesting for me. Inside, a serious discussion is taking place, but the party still has the ability to engage in satire outwardly – to maintain lightheartedness.”
You don’t see The Party as a joke party?
“Definitely not. It’s not a joke, it’s satire, and satire is deadly serious. You can make jokes, but when it becomes serious, then it’s serious, like in the case of the election campaign commercial [about the drowning refugee]. From my point of view, this is the point of this party: When it becomes serious, we know exactly where we stand, which is to the left of the right.”
Is that fair to the voters, who may not understand that?
“In the final analysis, it’s clear to the voters who we are.”
Everyone seems to be playing a role, the media gets what it needs, but behind the scenes, something serious is happening.
“Yes, a façade. Well, isn’t that the way things are in politics? The only thing we do is to show that.”
Only about 10 activists show up at the gathering. It’s the post-election period, people want to relax, I’m told. Similar meetings are held all over Berlin on a weekly basis. The atmosphere is cordial, the conversation is raucous and the fragrance of the green fields of Brandenburg, just a few streets away, helps balance out the gloom of the former East German tenements. Stickers and brochures are scattered on the table, in the corner stands one of the tools that contributed so much to the party’s popularity, its posters.
One variant of this tool is the blank poster. It bears only the logo of The Party, and activists can fill in the rest as they please – an open ideological check, as it were. The openness and flexibility regarding election messages spawned a vast range of posters that were amusing, virulent and trenchant. People hang up what they want and the discussion comes afterward, explains Pelle Boese, a computer programmer and chairman of the party in East Berlin, who had come to Hellersdorf for the weekly meeting.
“For example, activists share examples of problematic or simply ugly posters in internal Facebook groups, and then a discussion evolves. People are approached, they talk about the posters they have hung and asked whether they don’t see that they’re not ideal, or are maybe just plain sexist.” In this way, a central part of the campaign was conducted from below – by means of neighborhood cells, and with exemplary anarchistic order.
“Discussions of these issues are very stormy,” Boese says.
If everything is so serious, why not just support the serious parties?
Boese: “Because in our eyes, they are not serious. I would say that most of The Party’s activists are people who have despaired of other parties. Some voted for the Social Democrats, for Die Linke [the Left] or the Greens, but all of them have proved to be disappointing. With us things are funnier, and you don’t need sharp elbows.”
The Party has a clear but “quite superficial” hierarchy, he explains. Grass-roots activity is diverse and includes, apart from attending nonsensical activities, participation in serious events, demonstrations and campaigns. The few issues that concern national headquarters mainly deal with large issues or finances, and even in these cases, things are decided quickly – not exactly the usual situation in Germany’s partisan bureaucracy.
Boese, like Semsrott, belongs to the party’s realpolitik wing. “There are activists who do very good work and are less interested in politics than in humor,” he observes.
The party already receives a budget and salaries from the state, and some use it to make jokes. Doesn’t that bother you?
“When I look at what other parties do with the money, with their votes and their voters – it’s ‘real-satire.’ They don’t intend it as a joke, but it is a joke. We at least admit occasionally that we are putting people on. The other parties screw around, and claim to be serious. That’s why it’s a bit complicated to figure out who’s doing the satire here and who’s doing the serious politics.”