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Martin Schulz in profile

September 22, 2017

A year after he was unanimously elected to head Germany's Social Democrats, Martin Schulz has stepped down from his post. DW takes a look at the former European Parliament president's rise and fall within the SPD.

Martin Schulz announces his resignation as SPD head
Image: Reuters/F. Bensch

Martin Schulz, the former head of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) is no stranger to the vagaries of political fortune.

The man who once failed to graduate from high school, only to rise to the European parliament presidency, led his party to historic lows in the German opinion polls. Bowing to party criticism after reaching a coalition deal with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives, Schulz  abandoned plans to become the next foreign minister, before ultimately resigning as party chief earlier than he had initially intended to.

Schulz has deep roots in the small city of Würselen just north of Aachen in the far west of Germany. He served the city of 38,000 as mayor for 11 years from 1987 until 1998, and still has a home there today. After gaining a qualification in bookselling in his youth, he also ran a bookshop with his sister, and once described reading as an "elixir of life" that helped him through a dark period in his youth. 

Read more: New members in Germany's SPD may play pivotal role in coalition deal's success

But despite his local public service, Schulz was always known more as a European politician than a domestic one. He joined the European Parliament in 1994, rising to leader of the SPD's national group in Europe and the head of the EU socialists' block. He was the socialists' leading candidate in the 2014 European election, and ended up serving as the president of the European Parliament from 2012 to 2017.

It was only after this precipitous rise that he returned to Germany early last year to accept his party leadership and the candidacy to challenge Merkel in September's election.

Read moreOpinion: Merkel challenger Martin Schulz too desperate, too soon

Martin Schulz wearing the mayoral chain of Würselen
Martin Schulz became the mayor of the small town of Würselen in 1988 at the age of 31Image: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Sevenich

'I was a pig'

Born in 1955 as the son of a policeman, Schulz was the youngest of five children. He dreamed of a career as a football player, but a knee injury put an end to those aspirations — a blow that led him to alcoholism in his late teens and failure to complete high school. In the mid-1970s, at 20, he was unemployed for a year.

Today, Schulz speaks openly about his past: "I was a pig, and not a very nice student," he once said.

But he was also active in the SPD throughout, and rose to become his city's mayor at the age of 32 — the youngest city leader in all of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Schulz has also been a member of the SPD's national party leadership since 1999, serving on the executive board and executive committee. He has been known to proudly stress that his 18 years there make him the party's "oldest serving member."

Read moreThe SPD: Germany's oldest political party

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Not one to mince words

Schulz rarely avoids a confrontation, a trait that initially made him appear vibrant and appealing to voters bored with the compliant SPD that had served as junior coalition partner to Merkel for her third tenure. Shortly after he assumed the mantle of the SPD's savior, polls showed him eating into Merkel's seemingly unassailable lead. It was a golden moment, when he was celebrated in the media and by his party with a fervor that, in hindsight, looks a little hysterical.

After his nomination in January 2017, he told the German Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper that Germany had entered a period when fairness and democracy were being called into question. "Desperation threatens democracy," he said. "When people have the feeling that they are doing something for society but that society isn't doing anything for them, doesn't respect them, then they become radical. When people are not being protected by democracy, they look for alternatives."

Schulz spoke bullishly on confronting the spread of right-wing populism, too: "I am often accused of being too impulsive. But you won't get anywhere with right-wing extremists if you use finely crafted arguments. Sometimes a rough block calls for a rough chisel."

In 2016, he called a pre-presidency Donald Trump a problem "for the whole world," and linked his election success to that of far-right populism in Europe. He called Trump an "irresponsible man" who "boasts about not having a clue."

Martin Schulz kicking a ball in the Cologne football stadium
Martin Schulz has always had a passion for footballImage: picture alliance/dpa/M. Becker

Schulz's fall from power

Over a year later, Schulz found himself in a rut, with a series of setbacks behind him. He peaked at 50 percent in the polls in February 2017, while Merkel languished at 34 percent. But by the time September came round, the numbers had reversed: with Merkel at 52 percent and Schulz at 30 percent.

Political observers have suggested that Schulz's election may have gone differently had he centered his campaign on the EU's future.  Be that as it may, his disastrous election campaign was depicted in painful detail in an infamous insider feature in a September issue of Der Spiegel magazine, in which the candidate appeared on the verge of despair in the final days ahead of the election.

He reacted immediately to the SPD's car-crash of a result by rejecting another Merkel-led coalition on election night, to the approval of party members and political pundits. The unanimous perception was that the four-year alliance with Merkel's deadening centrism had drained the SPD of ideas and political identity. On top of that, going into opposition meant the party would hinder the insurgent far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), from the privilege of leading the opposition.

But the subsequent failure of coalition talks between Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), the Free Democrats (FDP), and the Greens left the SPD leader facing an awkward decision. With fresh elections the only other option, Schulz decided that the center-left party ultimately had a duty to govern the country in such circumstances — and led the SPD into new coalition talks after all. As a result, the SPD — now at the mercy of a new internal party split over what to do — dropped even further in opinion polls, to below 20 points.

At a special party conference in January, when 600 SPD delegates voted narrowly to join formal coalition talks with Merkel's party, Schulz must surely have wondered whether his political time was up. If the party had voted no, he would likely have had no option but resignation. The SPD did then agreed a coalition deal with Merkel, but Schultz had promised to let party members have the final say. The results of the ballot will be announced on March 4.

Read more: Martin Schulz to let grassroots decide

After agreeing to the deal, Schulz said he would step down as party head in order to become foreign minister in a future Merkel cabinet — a move he had categorically ruled out ahead of September's election.

The backlash that provoked — and with his party's poll ratings in freefall — meant Schulz gave up on the plan. He withdrew his bid for foreign minister and stepped down as party head a few days later, sacrificing his political ambition amid growing grassroots skepticism.

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight