Snapshot of German power at Bild summer fest

June 27, 2008

 At any one of the dozen high-powered Berlin summer parties thrown by major media outlets and the political parties in Germany each year you can count on finding a reasonable cross-section of government and industry movers and shakers to rub elbows with. But nowhere in Germany can you find as rich an assortment of A-list government, business, media and entertainment industry types as at the “Sommerfest” held by Bild newspaper.

From Chancellor Angela Merkel and Deutsche Bank chairman Josef Ackermann to heavyweight boxers, assorted actors and actresses, and people famous for just being famous, there is no more eclectic gathering of 750 people who see themselves as Germany’s best and brightest — all on fine form ahead of Germany’s cherished two-month long summer holiday season.

Many countries have their own special events — awards ceremonies, banquets or parties — that can sometimes be used to gauge the national mood. In Germany it’s the Bild fest.

“We like to party in Berlin and the Bild people know how to organise a great bash,” said Cherno Jobatey, a well-known television host for public broadcaster ZDF who said he had been to 10 such events in the last 14 days (“my fridge was always empty and the food is usually pretty good”). “But seriously, you can run into all the people you wanted to run into here. You can talk to people you’ve always wanted to talk to in a way you wouldn’t normally be able to.”

Even politicians, captains of industry or celebrities who have been bashed in the headlines of Bild, Germany’s best-selling tabloid-style newspaper, are usually more than happy to show up for the unique German-style barbecue party — it’s “informal” but everyone still wears a suit.
Bild boss Diekmann and logo

“Someone once said ‘You haven’t really lived until you’ve battled with Bild’ and I think there’s some truth to that,” Bild editor-in-chief Kai Diekmann said with a big smile after pointing to some of those who had been thrashed in his paper but still came to the party. “I’m always happy to see the people here that we’ve had rip-roaring battles with. You can really find everyone here — from the ruling coalition to the opposition and across industry. There are lots of fellow journalists here as well. There’s a cheerful atmosphere to it all, there’s nothing forced about it. You can swap ideas with just about anyone you want.”

This year’s Bild fest provided a rich harvest for anyone looking for nuances in German politics as pretty much every member of the cabinet was there. Merkel, in especially high spirits presumably due to her superb opinion poll numbers, was easily the most sought after person to talk to. And those she spend extra time chatting with (such as Lower-Saxony’s ambitious state premier Christian Wulff) are sure to be seen as rising stars in the months ahead. Conversely those she doesn’t talk with (but had in the past) are on the way down.

For her counterpart Kurt Beck, the beleaguered chairman of the slumping Social Democrats, it was not hard to overlook the body language of someone having a rough run. Beck looked particularly unhappy — more perturbed and pained than when he masks his woes by putting on a happy face on at his news conferences and party speeches. Beck also looked shockingly lonely as he sipped on a beer at a small table off on the fringes. Not a lot of people were waiting to chat with him and he was gone before the party even really got going — he may well be gone as the leader of the SPD before long too.

Almost all parties and groups were represented. But oddly I didn’t see anyone from the Left party. It might be the most popular party in the formerly communist east (it traces its roots to East Germany’s Communist party) and third strongest in Germany. But it is (still) shunned by the western-dominated establishment and considered ineligible for any role in government. Bild, founded by staunch anti-Communist Axel Springer, has been a bandleader in a campaign to keep the Left ostracised.

The newspaper’s unrivalled influence certainly plays a role in making it such a coveted ticket (I was told that demand outstrips supply by about five to one). Bild’s front page headlines can make or break a career and its heavyweight political coverage on page two strike fears throughout the halls of the Reichstag. Its succinct stories — few exceed 100 words — often set the agenda. At least 10 people said the exact same sentence about the Spanish soccer team — “It’ll be easier for us to beat Spain in the final than Russia because their style is similar to Portugal’s. The Russians are a bit too lively for us. They’d cause us more problems.” I’d remembered reading those same words in Bild’s sport section earlier in the day.

Another interesting development this year was the high number of pregnant women — I counted at least 10 women visibly in the latter stages of their pregnancies. These are high powered TV moderators, journalists and lobbyists in mid-career. Maybe a new government subsidy for working women to take time off for a child with two-thirds of their pay guaranteed by the state has really had an impact after all.

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