A Summer Day in the Monarchical Democracy Bavaria 2020
A “monarchical democracy”1 welcomed German Chancellor Angela Merkel last summer. What looks like the reception of one head of state by another is actually Angela Merkel’s visit to the Bavarian Cabinet and its Minister President Markus Söder. Why would a domestic political meeting be staged like that? And what insights can this image of the visit in stately surroundings provide about Markus Söder and his pictorial power strategies, especially since it was published by himself on his Twitter account? An examination of power and myth with Max Weber and the Cultural Studies in several acts.
The guests between mirrors & gold
This landscape-format image shows the Bavarian Cabinet at a meeting in Herrenchiemsee Palace on July 14, 2020, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a special guest. Situated in the palace’s large, magnificent Hall of Mirrors, 17 cabinet members are sitting across from each other at a sufficient safety distance at two long, very long rows of tables, separated by three tables in the back and two tables in the front. The latter are the seats of the host Markus Söder as Bavarian Minister President in the right half of the picture and to his left of Angela Merkel as German Chancellor present for the first time at a Bavarian cabinet meeting.2 On the far left, at the beginning of one of the rows of tables, Steffen Seibert, the government spokesman, can be seen, while the other people present are blurred in the middle and background and are only partly looking into the camera. The focus of the camera is unmistakably on Merkel and Söder, who are each facing the camera inward and both have friendly expressions on their faces. The Chancellor is wearing a bright mint green blazer, Söder a classic dark blue suit.
This moment, captured in central perspective, shows the two most important protagonists of the day in sharp focus in the foreground, embedded in the magnificent wall and ceiling decorations of the 75m-long Spiegelsaal3 (Hall of Mirrors). The mirrors are precisely aligned on a vertical axis that originates at the highest ceiling point of the barrel vault. The neo-baroque decorations include both colored murals and borders of gold, as well as two columns of semi-circular arches on the long sides. The recessed house mirrors on the one hand enlarge the impression of the room, and on the opposite side they act as glazed windows, letting generous amounts of light into the hall. The central vertical axis, strictly considered by the photographer, is further emphasized by several projecting chandeliers and is continued even at the lower edge of the picture by the distance between the two front tables. Massive golden candlesticks with crystals are also positioned on each lateral column on both sides, further intensifying the stately overall impression of the prestigious room, as if bathed in gold, and thus placing a meeting of the Bavarian Cabinet, regular in content apart from the Corona pandemic, in a much weightier setting.
The prestigious and calculated choice of location for the meeting with high-ranking visitors sets the stage in an extraordinary way for the good relations between the so-called sister parties CDU and CSU on the one hand, while on the other hand something can be deduced from it about the host himself: Why did Markus Söder choose Herrenchiemsee Castle of all places? Why was it important to Söder to have Angela Merkel travel from Berlin especially for the occasion, despite Corona restrictions, when especially in times of crisis nationwide decisions weigh far more heavily than the regular meeting of a single federal state?
The most prevalent feature of the picture is certainly the scenography of the New Palace at Herrenchiemsee. The Bavarian Cabinet is meeting in the palace’s Hall of Mirrors, a not quite exact replica of the hall at Versailles – it is larger than the one there. The palace was erected for Ludwig II of Bavaria in 1878 and never completed. After being opened to the public a few months after his death in 1886, it has become a world-class tourist destination, along with Ludwig II’s other castles, Neuschwanstein and Linderhof. As a backdrop for political events, however, Herrenchiemsee is an ambiguous symbol:
On the one hand, it evokes the personalised rule of absolutism – it is a homage to Louis XIV -, on the other hand, the New Palace lacks what made Versailles so powerful – an absolutist sovereign.
As a matter of fact, Ludwig II of Bavaria was a constitutional monarch famously and controversially declared mentally ill and deposed by his ministers. Therefore, no ruling monarch ever inhabited the New Palace, no power was wielded from there – Herrenchiemsee is not only a copy, but a politically dysfunctional representation of power.4
So why would Markus Söder choose a symbol of failed power? The New Palace and Ludwig II cannot be understood solely in terms of representation. Instead, one could call Herrenchiemsee as well as his other castles a phantasy, a stage by Ludwig for Ludwig, he his own actor and audience. It was built on a small island in the middle of a lake, a private retreat cut off from the world.5 A dream of absolute power in complete isolation, shared by many who have visited the palace since. As Robert Kohler says, “The politically ’empty’, not to say ‘pure’ form of stately representation is much more popular than a representation of power still truly exercised.”6
In a way, the myth of Ludwig II and his castles that attracts so many visitors each year can be seen as a yearning for a fairy-tale king shared by the failed king and today’s visitors.
It is this myth that has led to a strong identification with Ludwig II’s castles in Bavaria. And the CSU in turn strives to embody Bavaria, its history, identity and folklore. “The party that invented the beautiful Bavaria,”7 as Herbert Riehl-Heyse called the CSU, owes part of its success to this connection – or rather equivalence – of party and country.8 So perhaps Herrenchiemsee as the backdrop for Merkel’s visit is intended less as a symbol of power per se and rather as an expression of the CSU’s, of Söder’s power as the cradle of Bavarian culture.
Through the visually imposing backdrop with historical radiance, pictorial strategies of power – i.e. of representation of rulership – become evident: These concern Söder as a person and his conception of power. Apart from that, the CSU as a party is “often attested the unconditional will to power”9 – is this therefore even more true for Söder as its president and chairman?
Max Weber understands power “as an asymmetrical relation between at least two subjects of action (A and B), which can also be groups […]. The behavior of B depends on the initiatives, desires, or mere appearance of A. Without its relatedness to A, B would not act as it does.”10 On the political level and in terms of the possibilities of exerting influence, Söder is clearly below Merkel in the hierarchical relationship. Following the core concept of Weber’s definition, Söder as subject of action B would allow himself to be influenced in different aspects by Merkel as subject of action A. In this respect, it is also understandable that the Bavarian prime minister attaches particular importance to good and close relations with the woman known to be not only the most powerful woman in Germany, but also the one of the most influential politicians in the world. But in the picture published on his own Twitter channel, this actual inequality becomes not only an encounter at eye level, but even a reversal of the power relationship: “Honor to whom honor is due”11, writes Daniel Hornuff in his analysis of the tweeted court curtsy of government spokesman Steffen Seibert, thus pointing out what the picture suggests – here, the Chancellor is ostensibly being courted, but to whom does this metaphorical court belong? With such a literally powerful concession, Söder would certainly feel vindicated, since he is purposefully deploying the power resources at his disposal and thus initiating a mutually dependent relationship between the subjects of action within power structures in the first place.12 But for subjects of action A and B to influence each other, this means that one of these subjects must assert itself over the other – another central aspect of Weber’s understanding of power theory:
Power, according to Weber, “means any chance to assert one’s own will within a social relationship, even against opposition, regardless of what this chance is based on.”13
Although this framework does not necessarily refer to Söder’s relationship with Merkel since she obviously is the alpha leader in this relation. The Bavarian premier can only try to increase his impact within certain limits. Apparently, he is absolutely willing to use his power resources in a publicity-effective manner. In addition to that, Söder allows himself to appear more influential by stepping in front of the cameras with the most prominent guest at the federal level, and then distributing the image on his own channels. One can also draw many parallels to Söder’s political career and the long, biting showdown with Horst Seehofer when they were battling each other for the post of party chair and prime minister.14 Alois Glück, former president of the Bavarian parliament, sums up the regicide spectacle this way: “We (the CSU) have sometimes fostered the impression that politics is above all the management of one’s own power.”15
The rulership gestures
But Weber’s concept of power remains too vague for a further analysis of Söder’s expensive16 one-day spectacle, which is why the term “domination” is supposed to help: “Domination is a permanent, institutionalized, rule-bounded and at the same time intensified exercise of power. Compared to the universally widespread, stretchable and mutable, often chance-dependent product power, the state of affairs referred to as domination is more unambiguous.”17 In order to rule, power resources or means of power – whether material, infrastructural, social, or symbolic – must be employed.18 Accordingly, a central means of power is self-representation through the public display of prestige, demonstrative consumption, and cultural capital19: With the New Palace of Herrenchiemsee, Söder thus uses enormous representative cultural capital, whose images already assure him attention due to the ostentatious construction, only heightened by Angela Merkel’s mere presence as a representative of an even higher entity – the entire country.
The picture of the two generated plenty of media attention in Germany and adorned not only Söder’s Twitter feed but also many front pages of newspapers such as Bild, Frankfurter Allgemeine and Die Welt.20 Most commentators hailed the occasion as well as the photograph as a symbolic sign of peace between the CSU and its sister party, the CDU, but also as a signal Markus Söder might have ambitions – and considering that Angela Merkel accepted the invitation – also prospects as a future chancellor candidate. Bavarian opposition politicians, however, criticised Söder’s staging and its presumed cost, as BR24 reports.21 Those criticisms were renewed months later when the costs of Merkel’s visit were revealed as amounting to nearly 120,000 euro.22 Whilst media outlets were not hesitant to point out Söder’s megalomania on the choice of location, they did cater to his obvious plan and reproduced the images he had carefully set up, complementing them with speculations about a possible chancellorship. The irony escaped most commentators but Zeit author and professor of cultural studies Daniel Hornuff, who wrote about the “stately iconography” showing the two top politicians as equals.23
Thus, even according to Weber’s concept of power and the definition of rule as well as means of power, one can prove how the carnival lover24, occasionally dressed up as Fairytale King, Shrek, Homer Simpson or blackfaced as Mahatma Gandhi, uses the Bavarian resources to purposefully stage his political relations far beyond Bavaria and with a clear direction – namely upwards in the hierarchical ranking. Is this blatant? Perhaps. Probably even. Or else a dream come true of the self-proclaimed admirer of Ludwig II – his “favorite Bavarian hero”25; who wouldn’t want to be a prince once in one’s life and invite to one’s humble court?
1 Söder, Markus, in: Deininger, Roman. Die CSU. Bildnis einer speziellen Partei. München: C.H. Beck 2020, 80.
2 Hornuff, Daniel, 17 Spiegel, sie alle zu binden, 15.07.2020, in: ZEIT ONLINE, https://www.zeit.de/kultur/2020-07/schloss-herrenchiemsee-angela-merkel-markus-soeder-cdu-kanzlerkandidatur.
4 Kohler, Robert. Legitimationsprobleme erfolgreicher Rauminszenierungen. Die Schlösser Ludwigs II. von Bayern. in: Sykora, Katharina (ed.). “Ein Bild von einem Mann”. Ludwig II. von Bayern. Konstruktion und Rezeption eines Mythos. Frankfurt/Main: Campus Verlag 2004, 140-145.
5 Kohler, Schlösser Ludwigs II., 155.
6 Ibid., 147.
7 Ibid., 140.
8 Deininger, Die CSU, 22.
9 Ibid., 109.
10 Reinle, Christine, Was bedeutet Macht im Mittelalter? In: Mächtige Frauen? Königinnen und Fürstinnen im europäischen Mittelalter, Heidelberg: OJS Journals 2015, 35-72, 43.
11 Hornuff, 17 Spiegel, in: ZEIT ONLINE.
12 Reinle, Christine, Macht im Mittelalter, 46.
13 Ibid., 39.
14 Deininger, Roman; Wittl, Wolfgang, Warum Söder und Seehofer sich nicht ausstehen können, 23.11.2017, in: https://www.sueddeutsche.de/bayern/machtkampf-in-der-csu-warum-soeder-und-seehofer-sich-nicht-ausstehen-koennen-1.3762590.
15 Glück, Alois, in: Deininger, Die CSU, 126.
16 Jerabek, Petr, Merkels Besuch am Chiemsee kostete rund 120.00 Euro, 09.09.2020, in: BR24, https://www.br.de/nachrichten/bayern/merkels-besuch-am-chiemsee-kostete-rund-120-000-euro,SA64ywd.
17 Reinle, Macht im Mittelalter, 43.
18 Ibid., 43f.
20 Niggemeier, Stefan, Sein Schloss, sein Schiff, sein Himmel, unser Aufmacherfoto, 15.07.2020, in: Übermedien, https://uebermedien.de/51235/sein-schloss-sein-schiff-sein-himmel-unser-aufmacherfoto/#kommentieren.
21 Heim, Maximilian, Jerabek, Petr, “Sonnenkönig Söder?” – Reaktionen auf Merkel-Besuch in Bayern, 15.07.202, in: BR24, https://www.br.de/nachrichten/bayern/sonnenkoenig-soeder-reaktionen-auf-merkel-besuch-in-bayern,S4o6mZR.
22 Jerabek, Merkels Besuch am Chiemsee kostete rund 120.00 Euro, in: BR24.
23 Hornuff, 17 Spiegel, in: ZEIT ONLINE.
24 Die vielen Gesichter des Markus Söder, 02.02.2018, in: Süddeutsche Zeitung, https://www.sueddeutsche.de/bayern/faschingskostueme-die-vielen-gesichter-des-markus-soeder-1.3384647.
25 Söder, Markus, 24.01.2016, via @markus_soeder in: https://www.instagram.com/p/BA63E8XkZko/.
Written by E.K. and Magdalena Baader. Short intro:
– What do you identify as? she / her
– What is your guilty pleasure? Fonts – a graphic designer’s real treat.
– Which book do you recommend? Jaron Lanier: Dawn of the New Everything – a journey through virtual reality, London 2017.
– What do you identify as? she / her
– What is your guilty pleasure? Re-watching Downton Abbey just for the costumes
– Which book do you recommend? Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archeology of Human Sciences, 1966.
In all fairness and admitting that all above is correct, still AKK was the main person since she was inaugurated…