Gregor Gysi, one of Germany's most popular and divisive politicians, has stepped down from the political front line. The socialist's speeches brought mischief and outrage to tedious Bundestag debates. Ben Knight reports.
"Wait, wait - you're not rid of me yet." Gregor Gysi signed off as head of the socialist Left party's parliamentary faction on Friday with a typical cocktail of rhetorical cheek and demands for social justice. But his final speech to the Bundestag - at least the last one he will deliver with the authority of leading Germany's opposition - also contained some uncharacteristically sentimental gestures of reconciliation for his political enemies.
For many years of Gysi's long parliamentary career - except for a five-year break to be Berlin's economy minister, he has been a member of parliament since 1990 - members of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) accused Gysi of having been an informant for the Stasi. Gysi successfully fought all the accusations in court, but it was a matter once taken up by the parliament's "immunity committee," which examines whether potential members have a criminal record.
It turned out that Gysi had never really forgiven his right-wing peers for these persistent rumors. "Up to now, I have never greeted the representatives here as colleagues... you probably didn't even notice," he said on Friday. "That was because of the discrimination and insults that I experienced, especially in the immunity committee."
But now, he said, it was time to let all that go. "Dear colleagues," he said as he turned to the CDU, "I wish you all the best health, wonderful experiences and much happiness... And, since you were always a challenge for me, which has doubtless helped me to develop, I also say to you: thank you."
But the farewell show wasn't all touchy-feely. There was a considerable ruffle of unrest in the CDU ranks when Gysi turned to the subject of the debate - "the state of German unity in 2015."
Offering his interpretation of post-war German history, the leftist leader suggested that the first West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer should have accepted at face value the so-called "Stalin Note" of 1952, when the Soviet leader proposed a neutral, demilitarized Germany, rather than a carved up nation under occupation. "But by then the Cold War had begun," Gysi lamented on Friday, amid vociferous CDU heckling.
Gysi's account of the reunification of Germany, whose 25th anniversary is being celebrated this weekend, is equally contentious. He was at the heart of those momentous times - five days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, on November 4, 1989, Gysi sealed his reputation as speaker and leader with a speech to an immense crowd of some 500,000 protesters on Berlin's Alexanderplatz. In the delirious weeks that followed, he was elected chairman of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) in the German Democratic Republic - and called for cooperation, rather than the reunification of the two states.
History overtook Gysi, but he still thinks his old fears about reunification were justified. In an interview with German news network n-tv this week, he talked of the many missed chances of 1990. "Of course the East was co-opted, especially its economy," he said. "They could have introduced 10 things from the East as well - for example a nationwide network of children's daycare centers or childcare at school in the afternoons. That would have improved the quality of life of people in the West too, and given them a sense of national unity."
And one more thing...
In the Bundestag on Friday, parliamentary President Norbert Lammert indulged Gysi's final bow, allowing him to go well over his allotted 10 minutes. The old leftist used the extra time to veer off the subject and present a 10-point valedictory master plan for the nation.
He called for reforms to Germany's electoral system and to parliamentary procedure (he would've liked more direct confrontation), more plebiscites, a minimum pension plan and a new and more inclusive refugee policy. "Your last speech as faction leader of the Left party almost had the character of a government declaration," Lammert joked affectionately at the end.
Though Gysi remains a Bundestag member, his abdication means he will no longer be the first to answer Chancellor Angela Merkel or Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, whom he never tired of needling - with the odd startling metaphor if necessary. "We cannot allow the wrong budget cuts because of Schäuble's sexual-erotic relationship with the balanced budget," he recently tweeted.
If the number of views his many withering and passionate diatribes have gathered on YouTube are anything to go by, he'll be missed by the German population as much as by the Left party. In fact, there are signs that his popularity has expanded a lot in the Internet age - many of his speeches, for instance on Ukraine and on the NSA, now have English subtitles.