The Mark Fortress is an old Prussian bulwark that crouches in a depression in the north of Magdeburg's old town between parks, high blocks of flats and the Elbe. There was drill, administration, work, now it is an event center and on Thursday evening the chancellor speaks there. He came to the civil dialogue. And there are moments when you're glad it's taking place in this defiantly fortified brick building.
Germany is not divided, said Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) a few months ago. How little that is true can be experienced on this evening. In front of the fortress are those who are full of despair, full of anger and some full of hatred. Quite a colorful bunch.
There are grim-looking, tattooed men in baggy T-shirts with slogans like "Freedom is not right" and placards that say "Traitor to the people". Which means Olaf Scholz. And then there are girls with culturally appropriated dreadlocks, who are also against Scholz's weak climate policy. The AfD has announced actions against the chancellor's visit, but also Fridays for Future or the left-wing youth. They whistle, blow horns and shout, each group for itself, in protest at the chancellor.
And while angry citizens rage outside, hand-picked courageous citizens in the fortress praise the chancellor for explaining his politics as he does, for doing so much against inflation, the war in Ukraine, and all the insecurity. They do it politely, thank you for the invitation, in freshly ironed short-sleeved shirts and friendly summer dresses.
Outside, in front of the police barrier, stands Jan, 53, a small business owner from Köthen and says: "If energy prices continue like this, I'll soon be broke. Democracy, the whole system, is completely broken." Inside, behind the police cordon, Gunter sits a few arm's lengths away from the chancellor and says: "You can see how well democracy works at this meeting with the chancellor, by the way he does it speaks to the citizens and explains his policies.”
Even if the Chancellor sees it differently: Germany is divided. The rift no longer splits the land through a large barbed wire swath. There are now many rifts running through regions, towns, villages, neighborhoods, even families. cracked opinions. Jan and Gunter are men of a similarly advanced age. One from Magdeburg, the other from nearby Köthen.
Jan has a company that coats metals, five employees, he needs 30 liters of oil an hour for the operation. "I can still pass on the cost of higher oil prices, but for how much longer?" he asks. He feels left alone by the government, abandoned. Nothing of the relief had reached him. He chooses AfD, stands near the throng from which they yell "Get lost" or "Ashamed of you", "warmonger" and "traitor to the people". The Chancellor would no longer reach them there, with no argument.
That's why the 150 citizens are handpicked for a dialogue with the chancellor, selected by drawing lots from Magdeburg University after applying. People like Gunter, who says he hasn't received an answer from the chancellor as to why no excess profit tax is being introduced to finance the billion-dollar relief package. "But the chancellor is looking for a conversation, he turns himself in," he says. A few others around them nod. "I think Olaf Scholz's North German serenity spreads calm," says an elderly man with glasses. The others nod again.
The people in the fortress have - so it seems at first - other problems than those in front of it. A young man wants to know what's next for the nine-euro ticket and for rail transport in general. A grey-haired gentleman worries about the German forest and how it should be managed. A woman who introduces herself as a “mother from Halle” worries about the future of the language day-care centres, a younger man teases whether Scholz would again, as in his time in Hamburg, administer emetics if there was a suspicion of hidden drugs – which the chancellor, of course, didn’t do would do more – another urges rapid release of cannabis.
It's not the case that the invited citizens didn't want to know a lot more precisely, but after two dozen questions in 90 minutes nobody can dig deeper. The presenter guides the chancellor through the evening on a gentle cycle and asks the toughest question of her own: "What did you want to be when you were a child?" And even then Olaf Scholz didn't answer clearly - the citizens didn't find out that evening.
Olaf Scholz competes with a double net, a kind of safe room. Like in a kind of television studio without journalists who probe and harp on statements. The presenter prefers to speak of the "relaxed atmosphere" under the great super parasol in the fortress courtyard, which seems like an island in a raging sea of noise, whistles and screams.
Meanwhile, the chancellor is playing a well-protected home game, the Scholz tactic consists of three elements: repeating known statements, going into details in such a way that many switch off. And finally knocking the ball out of the penalty area in a tricky moment. Nobody can do it like Scholz.
The jumble of provisions in the relief packages? "There are so many that no one can remember," says the Chancellor. "The relief on payroll accounting is so complicated that nobody understands it." Regarding the question of the different VAT rates: "I don't think anyone understands this system. Every attempt to adjust that ended in disaster,” explains Scholz.
The taxes on pensions? To the dismay of politicians, the Federal Constitutional Court decided, says the Chancellor: "No one can run away when the Constitutional Court decides something."
Of course, Olaf Scholz is right about that. But with all this, the impression is created that politics, the rules for our lives, are made somewhere far away, far away from Olaf Scholz, who has been in politics for decades in top offices. If you listen to the Chancellor, politics is something depersonalized, anonymous, abstract
But the longer this civil dialogue lasts, the clearer it becomes that the people under the parasol also have very real fears and worries. At some point the questions will arise as to how the relief packages are to be financed. Whether it is good to supply heavy weapons to Ukraine. Why pensioners don't get an energy allowance. Whether Germany hits the sanctions against Russia harder than the Russians.
But Olaf Scholz is far too much of a professional and still enough of a Scholzomat not to let any details and definitions be elicited that you would not already know.
Citizen dialogues like that evening in Magdeburg are what he appreciates most about his work as a politician, says Olaf Scholz. "The range of opinions is broader, it covers reality more than what you can read," the Chancellor told the media. In fact, people bring a wide range of issues to the chancellor. They don't really get any new answers. But the guests in the fortress are mostly satisfied that evening. Olaf Scholz hasn't lost it yet. Unlike those standing in front of the fortress.