Welt: Ms. Wagenknecht, you are now leaving the front row of politics. How afraid are you of falling into a hole?
Sahra Wagenknecht: I don’t have that fear at all. I’m staying in the Bundestag. I now have much more time to do things that are important to me. I will read more books again. I will publish more again. I’m also thinking of a book project. Finally, I don’t have to invest so much energy in things that just wore me down.
What does this farewell mean to you?
Wagenknecht: I am saying goodbye to the office of parliamentary group chairman, where I had to deal again and again with internal attacks and unpleasant disputes. For me, politics means publicly promoting my ideas, for a fairer society in which there is more social cohesion and not just competition and selfishness. In order to make good suggestions, you need suggestions and time to think. In recent years, I have only rushed from appointment to appointment. In the end, no creative politics comes out of it.
What does freedom mean to you?
Wagenknecht: Freedom is the opportunity to shape one’s life according to one’s own ideas, develop one’s abilities, and remain true to oneself.
What is the highest form of happiness for you?
Wagenknecht: Politics is never luck, but of course, one is happy when one achieves political success. But only a great love and close partnership that catches and carries you, no matter what else happens, can make you happy.
How narcissistic are you?
Wagenknecht: A real narcissist who lacks empathy for other people. But it was precisely those who are not on the sunny side of life that were and are the reason for me to get involved politically. I find it intolerable how divided our society is and how many today no longer achieve solid prosperity despite hard work. If I had only thought of myself, I probably would never have gone into politics.
Don’t you have to be a narcissist as a politician? Why else do you do these marathon hour days? In addition, narcissism also includes the desire to be loved.
Wagenknecht: There are politicians who enjoy it when they get a hall going. It’s foreign to me. Of course, I am happy when I can give people hope when I notice that they are going along with a speech. But for me I don’t need that, I’d much rather be at home in the evening than on stage.
Do you feel something like power when you perceive that you have grabbed the audience?
Wagenknecht: I have never structured my speeches in such a way that I try to create an intoxication. First and foremost, I want to reach the head and then the stomach.
They always seemed strange to me at big performances: on the one hand able to captivate the audience, but on the other hand, distanced and introverted. Is the impression deceptive?
Wagenknecht: I don’t want to seem distant, but there is always a certain shyness, even after hundreds of performances.
Were there also moments when you were afraid of the audience? A cake once flew in your face. There were also death threats.
Wagenknecht: Yes, after the cake attack, I initially had problems being closely surrounded by many people. That may sound ridiculous, but the cake didn’t hurt me. But it showed me that I would be vulnerable if someone put it on.
They are more likely to come across as a harsh, also cool person. Why is that?
Wagenknecht: Many people experience me mainly on talk shows. But the talk show is a battleground: you are attacked, defend yourself, attack yourself. Of course, you behave differently than at a relaxed garden party. Many people who got to know me privately at some point told me that they were surprised because they had a completely different image of me.
What can you laugh about with all your heart?
Wagenknecht: Oh, about the most stupid things! Sometimes we watch failed political appearances at home, you wouldn’t believe how funny that can be. Of course, I also laugh about good cabaret or satire. And sometimes about myself.
You suffered from burnout a few months ago. Shouldn’t burnout be more aptly described as “exhaustion depression”?
Wagenknecht: Yes, I was completely exhausted and burned out. Nevertheless, I was probably still lucky. It was not a deep depression and so I got back on my feet relatively quickly.
Is a top politician allowed to show weakness? On the one hand, authenticity is demanded of him, on the other hand, a weakness is mercilessly impaled.
Wagenknecht: The higher you are in politics, the harder it is to show weakness. When Mrs. Merkel trembled at three appearances in the summer, a completely exaggerated debate began: “Can she still be chancellor?” This kind of public dealing leads many politicians to try to hide weaknesses.
Who changed whom more: Sahra Wagenknecht the Federal Republic or the Federal Republic Sahra Wagenknecht?
Wagenknecht: Well, probably the Federal Republic of Germany Sahra Wagenknecht. I have lived here all my adult life and my spiritual development took place essentially after 1990. The ideas of ordoliberalism, to give just one example, have strongly influenced my thinking. It would also be bad if I saw everything the same way at 50 as I did when I was twenty years old.
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To what extent is the frustration of having achieved too little also a reason for your departure?
Wagenknecht: Of course, I wished I could move more. That’s where the idea of founding “Aufstehen” came from. It is a misery: there are clear majorities in the population for a more social policy, for less inequality. But the parties that should stand for these goals are staggering from one electoral defeat to the next. Except in Bremen and Thuringia, this election year was a disaster for the Left Party and we don’t need to talk about the SPD. “Getting up” would have been a chance for both parties, but it was rejected. Currently, red-red majorities are more distant than they have been for a long time. But my withdrawal does not mean that I give up my political goals. We urgently need a different policy, not only socially, but also economically. The misconception that the market fixes everything has caused Germany to fall behind technologically. When it comes to digitization or green technologies, we are completely behind. This endangers our prosperity.
You moved to Saarland years ago. To what extent has this changed your view of things?
Wagenknecht: I grew up in a Thuringian village and never really liked living in the big city. That’s why I feel very comfortable in my small village in Saarland. I think the political debate suffers from the fact that far too much is thought from the big city because most journalists and many politicians come from this milieu. From the refurbished old building in Berlin-Mitte, you can confidently condemn the car or the oil heating. In rural areas or in small towns, life looks different. There are hardly any industrial jobs in Berlin, but in many places, these are the only ones that still enable good prosperity. There is too much political ignorance of such interests, not only among the Greens, but now also among the CDU.
What does friendship mean to you? Is there friendship in the life of a full-time politician?
Wagenknecht: For me, friendship means absolute trust and reliability, which means being able to open up. That’s why it hardly exists within politics, but rather with non-politicians.
If there is hardly any absolute trust in politics, how important is a partnership or marriage for the psyche of a politician?
Wagenknecht: For me, that’s existential. I wouldn’t have survived the past four years if I had lacked support at home. There are probably politicians who live only for politics and for whom the spotlight and applause replace the partner. I couldn’t live like that.
What was the biggest insult you have experienced as a politician?
Wagenknecht: The photos with the face smeared brown by the cake. And defamation as a racist and nationalist.
And vice versa: Is there a moment in which you say: Here I have hurt someone, consciously or unconsciously?
Wagenknecht: Consciously not. Unconsciously, I have certainly sometimes hurt people. Everyone wants recognition, and I have often not put myself sufficiently in the shoes of others.
To what extent does fatigue in the power game contribute to your departure?
Wagenknecht: Without the internal attacks, the last few years would not have been nearly as exhausting. I coped quite well with the exhausting election campaign in 2017. But constant calf biting wears down at some point.
Do women deal with power and power intrigues differently than men?
Wagenknecht: There are women of power who are as brutal as many men. Hillary Clinton comes to mind, or Maggie Thatcher. Mrs. Merkel has a different style, but she is of course also a skillful power politician. At some point, their inner-party competitors were all gone. Ultimately, political style is not a question of gender. Think of Willy Brandt. He was certainly not the classic power politician.
What does it mean to be a politician as a woman?
Wagenknecht: In politics today, it is not necessarily more difficult as a woman. However, one is more under observation as far as appearances are concerned. If I wear the same costume too often, I get emails: “Put on something else!”. I can’t imagine that this is also the case with men.
What would have had to happen politically to keep you in active politics?
Wagenknecht: If I had received sufficient support and been given the freedom to concentrate on what I am good at, it would of course have been easier for me. I’m not a good networker, not someone who hugs everyone or hangs on the phone at night to get the necessary support votes the next morning. Perhaps a group chairman must be able to do that.
Can you imagine an event that brings you back to the front row?
Wagenknecht: You should never say never, but at the moment I’m glad that I have new freedom and can lead a quieter life for the time being.