December 27, 2003

German Youth Leader Urges: Let Them Use Crutches


BERLIN — Five months after he heaved a big rock into the murky water of German politics, Philipp Missfelder still professes not to understand why it set off the waves that continue to ripple through one of his country's most freighted debates.

Otto Pohl for The New York Times
"The problem with Germany is that when you are young, you are not supposed to express an opinion." PHILIPP MISSFELDER

"I didn't say anything racist. I didn't say anything unfriendly to people from other countries," said Mr. Missfelder, a husky 24-year-old who, wearing a V-neck sweater, looks like anything but a rock thrower. "I was only talking about things that are important to people in my generation."

What Mr. Missfelder said, in an interview with a Berlin newspaper, is that elderly people are soaking up Germany's financial resources, with lavish pensions and gold-plated health care plans. Such largess, he said, comes at the expense of young Germans, who he warned, will be strangled by the burden of supporting an ever larger population of retirees.

The other day, as he sat in a cafe near the Technical University of Berlin, where he studies history, Mr. Missfelder expanded on what he regards as the systemic abuse of Germany's welfare system.

"In every town in Germany, old people go to the doctor to socialize or talk about the weather," he said. "If every appointment cost 10 euros, they would say, 'It's not so bad, I'll stay home.' "

In the German paper Der Tagesspiegel, he was even less polite, complaining about 85-year-olds getting costly hip replacements. Why, he mused, couldn't they just make do with crutches, as in old times?

For a well-spoken, disciplined college student who runs the youth organization of Germany's largest conservative party, the Christian Democrats, it was a conspicuously intemperate debut. Elderly voters are a powerful force here, not to mention the bedrock constituency of his party.

"He should be ashamed of himself," said Edmund Stoiber, the conservative leader of Bavaria, shortly after the interview with Mr. Missfelder appeared. Renate Schmidt, the minister of family affairs in the federal German government, likened his remarks to something out of Huxley's "Brave New World," in which "one is expected to take a death pill at the age of 60 or 65."

Since then, nearly 2,000 angry letters, facsimiles and e-mail messages have poured into the offices of the Young Union. Mr. Missfelder even received death threats, which prompted the police to post a guard in front of his apartment in Berlin, as well as at his parents' house in the Ruhr Valley city of Bochum.

Nonetheless, it was a hugely effective foray into one of the biggest issues facing not only Germany but countries across Europe struggling to balance plush welfare benefits and the demographic realities of low birth rates and aging populations.

Rarely do young people take part so vocally in that debate. Mr. Missfelder's remarks were nothing less than an invitation to generational warfare.

Impudent though his approach may have been, he was catapulted from being a no-name upstart from the minor league of party politics to a prominent voice for the normally unspoken fears of Germany's youth.

"We've started a discussion between the younger and older generations," he said. "The problem with Germany is that when you are young, you are not supposed to express an opinion."

Mr. Missfelder's challenge was surprising enough, issued as it was from the cautious ranks of the Christian Democrats, but it was also a frankly opportunistic attempt to connect with the self-interest of younger voters. Many have been turned off by German politics, with its fitful stabs at overhauling the country's lethargic economy while preserving the ample welfare benefits that older Germans have come to expect.

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's economic reform package, approved last week by the German Parliament, was typical of those compromises. It calls for a modest cut in income taxes and somewhat looser labor regulations, but maintains a range of state subsidies. While applauded as a start, it was not enough to close the yawning gaps that Mr. Missfelder and others point to down the road.

Mr. Missfelder would like to overhaul the pension and health care systems, so they are financed with tax revenue rather than government deficits. Germany's fondness for deficits, he said, will be a millstone for future generations at a time when the labor force is shrinking. He believes people should pay more of their own routine medical expenses, and set aside money for retirement themselves.

"We have to accept that in the coming years, the situation will get worse," he said. "When I'm 85, I will get nothing from the state."

BORN in 1979, Philipp Missfelder grew up in a cosseted world. Though his father worked in a steel mill and was a member of the IG Metall labor union, the family's lifestyle was hardly blue collar. They lived in a spacious house and owned three cars. His younger brother, a student in nearby Essen, still lives at home. His mother works at an institute for the handicapped.

Joblessness was, and is, a scourge in Bochum, an industrial city blighted by abandoned coal mines. But with long-term unemployment compensation, something Mr. Missfelder fears will no longer be affordable, grinding poverty was made rare.

His political awakening, he said, came with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Though barely 10 years old at the time, he said he remembered the commanding presence of Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Mr. Missfelder joined the party's student group on his 14th birthday, and the party itself when he turned the minimum age, 16. He rose through the ranks in North Rhine-Westphalia. By October 2002 he was elected chairman of the Young Union, which claims 135,000 members.

He said the ranks had grown since he took over. Already the largest party youth group in Germany, it is an obvious springboard for Mr. Missfelder, who says he would someday like to run for Parliament.

Having spent countless evenings on the road, explaining himself to the party's older voters, and with a staff of 10 people and a constantly trilling cellphone, he already looks to be on the campaign trail.

"It's important that in 10 or 15 years, we have a country with a high level of technology and a high level of wealth," he said. "Not everybody working at McDonald's. Not everything going to China."

The gloomy prognostications are delivered in a cheerful tone. And why not? Mr. Missfelder clearly revels in his newfound celebrity, describing how he is recognized when he goes to the movies with his girlfriend.

"People will say: `Oh, you're Philipp Missfelder. I saw you on TV and you were really bad.' Or they'll ask me to go have a beer," he said. "My girlfriend is not very happy about it."

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