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How celebrities influence German elections

September 16, 2021

The election campaign is entering the final phase — and culture is again playing a leading role. Artists are crusading for their parties, including "Ärzte" drummer Bela B.

Bela B. playing a drum set during a concert in Cologne.
Drummer and singer of the band 'Die Aerzte', Bela B., supports the Green PartyImage: Rolf Vennenbernd/dpa/picture alliance

"Vote for Willy!" chanted many artists, writers and cultural icons in the 1960s and 1970s in Germany. Prominent thinkers such as Nobel Prize winning-novelist Günter Grass outspokenly beat the election drum for Social Democratic Party (SPD) candidate, Willy Brandt. 

Three decades later in 1998, a number of figures in the cultural scene publicly supported SPD politician Gerhard Schröder, who sought to replace long-term Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Chancellor Helmut Kohl to take the helm of the German government.

Schröder even received international support in the form of ex-Beatle Paul McCartney and film director Martin Scorsese, among others. In advance of this year's election on September 26, prominent names from Germany's cultural scene have joined in the election campaign.

A press conference during the German election in 1976 with Willy Brandt and Günter Grass.
Writer Günter Grass (left) was a prominent supporter of the SPD party during the 1976 electionImage: picture alliance/Dieter Klar

Going green

Climate change is one of the most important issues in this election, so it's no coincidence that cultural figures are increasingly speaking out in favor of the Green party and their candidate Annalena Baerbock. Drummer and singer Bela B. from popular Berlin punk rock band Die Ärzte, published an election statement that was signed by more than 30 other artists, including singer Judith Holofernes of pop rock band Wir sind Helden, Sven Regener, author of the bestselling book Berlin Blues (originally titled Herr Lehmann), and many more.

"Mankind is facing the greatest challenge in its history. The climate catastrophe due to man-made global warming is not a threat — it is happening," writes Bela B. in a Facebook post that has been shared over 6,000 times and liked almost 12,000 times to date. Classical pianist Igor Levit also recently announced that he wanted to get involved with the environmental party during this year's election campaign, but didn't specify in what form.

Other parties also have prominent supporters in the arts world. Author Juli Zeh, a German Book Prize winner, sympathizes with the Social Democrats, as does the popular German actress Iris Berben. Actress Uschi Glas, who gained fame for her roles in German comedies of the '60s and '70s, is a CDU voter, as is fellow actor Heiner Lauterbach, who has appeared in numerous German films.

There have also been a few surprises this time around, such as techno DJ Paul van Dyk's entry into the FDP (Free Democratic Party). At first glance, his image doesn't exactly fit the party, which is more associated with lawyers and dentists than creative types.

Van Dyk playing music from behind a turntable.
Paul Van Dyk pledged his support for the FDP party, to the surprise of many.Image: DW

A new debate

Nonetheless, Germany's tradition of cultural figures leading election campaigns, such as successful novelists Günter Grass and Martin Walser — or even graphic designer Klaus Staeck with his influential political posters — no longer seems to exist in the same form as it once did. Increasingly, campaigning is done online, as well.

These days a new group of internet stars have stepped up to support their favorite candidates, including German YouTuber, Rezo. His video "The Destruction of the CDU" made waves in Germany in 2019. In the clip, he criticizes the country's current ruling party, the CDU, for its environmental and education policies. The video garnered over 18 million views, making it the most-viewed video on YouTube in Germany in 2019.

"The cultural voices stepping in now are not necessarily great writers, but bloggers or influencers, such as Rezo, who was extremely influential when it came to tearing apart the CDU program on climate change, for example," says Joachim Helfer, a writer and publicist who covers politics.

Portraits of the three chancellor candidates: Laschet, Baerbock und Scholz.
How the 2021 federal election will turn out is anyone's guess Image: SvenSimon/dpa/picture alliance

Helfer notes a general reluctance among those working in the arts in Germany to affiliate themselves with a particular party. "In the golden days, the 1970s and 1980s," he says, campaigns were basically debates between a very limited number of people that took place largely in the pages of major newspapers: "It was a national debate. And everybody read it," he said.

Now, however, there is a division in society, which has also given rise to a multitude of niche political issues, such as the debate on gender in language, he said. "What is missing now is an election campaign that is really about content, about competing programs within Germany, in which intellectuals from all strata, from all sub-systems of society participate equally," Helfer continued.

Doing it differently in the USA

In the United States, stars are much less reticent to speak up in support for their candidates. George Clooney, for example, campaigned for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, while conservative actor Clint Eastwood backed Mitt Romney, then Donald Trump. Pop star Ariana Grande campaigned for Bernie Sanders in 2020, while singer Cher backed Joe Biden.

Clint Eastwood stands at a podium with the American flag in the background.
Actor Clint Eastwood was politically active himself and has publicly supported many candidatesImage: Reuters

This same level of star power backing candidates doesn't exist in Germany today. Helfer says this is largely due to differences in the electoral systems in the US and Germany. In Germany, the party that wins is the one that achieves an absolute majority, i.e. more than half of the votes. In the USA, it is enough if the candidate wins the most votes in the electoral college in each state. So it can happen — as with Donald Trump — that a candidate who has not received the most votes in terms of percentage still wins in a particular state.

"Because of this system, many citizens in the US feel that if the other side wins, they really cease to be citizens of their own country," Helfer said. "When you have this brutal polarization of the electoral system, it becomes a question of survival."

This election in Germany may also become a question of survival for the CDU, Chancellor Angela Merkel's party, which has recently slumped in the polls.

Since the outcome of the election seems increasingly uncertain, it's possible that more artists and musicians in Germany will speak out for their favorite parties in the last stretch of the election campaign, following the the tradition of cultural figures like Günter Grass.

This article was adapted from German.