A grim-faced Angela Merkel visited “surreal” flood-wrecked regions of western Germany on Sunday and promised locals her full solidarity, hours after her would-be successor was spotted joking and laughing amid the ruins of a western German town.
With the death toll of Germany’s floods now at 158, with many people still unaccounted for, German meteorologists are still struggling to explain what many say was the worst flooding in centuries.
“There are no words in the German language for this devastation ... it is a surreal, eerie situation,” said Dr Merkel. She told locals: “We stand at your side. Germany is a strong country. We will face down this force of nature.”
Flash floods ripped through the town of Schuld late on Wednesday night, tearing down historic half-timbered buildings and washing away others’ foundations, leaving many of the 700 residents homeless.
Local woman Margret Rademacher said her house was now uninhabitable, filled with flood water and mud.
“We simply don’t know how to go on. It’s a helplessness, impossible to grasp,” she said on Sunday.
The chancellor’s visit, with huge police presence and helicopters buzzing overhead, took place hours after Armin Laschet, leader of her ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU), was filmed and photographed sharing jokes and laughing with aides . Metres away, an ashen-faced president Frank Walter Steinmeier addressed the media, unaware that cameras were focused over his shoulder.
Two months before Germany’s federal election, Mr Laschet’s jovial expression – surrounded by ruined buildings and shocked locals mourning 16 local dead – was splashed across the German media and took on a life of its own on social media with the hashtag #laschetlacht (Laschet laughs).
North Rhine-Westphalia’s state premier, CDU leader Armin Laschet. Photograph: Marius Becker/Pool/AFP via Getty
The incident in North Rhine-Westphalia is particularly damaging given Mr Laschet is the minister president of the state, which lost at least 46 people in the floods.
The CDU leader took to social media to offer an apology, which some rivals suggested compounded the situation.
“The fate of those affected is close to our hearts ... all the more reason that I regret the impression that was created by a conversation situation,” he wrote on social media. “This was inappropriate and I am sorry.”
By Sunday afternoon, his apology attracted 8,400 replies, many unprintable. One popular response on Twitter “corrected” his statement, deleting the “impression” sentence, to read: “I regret my behaviour.”
While senior CDU allies were silent on Sunday, political rivals said his behaviour spoke for itself.
“I’m speechless,” said Lars Klingbeil, party secretary of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), later adding an observation by former SPD chancellor Helmut Schmidt: “Character reveals itself in a crisis.”
Hours after the Laschet gaffe, SPD chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz gave a sombre television interview from the wreckage. As federal finance minister, he promised to rush through billions in emergency aid at this week’s cabinet meeting to at least match funds paid out after Germany’s last major floods.
“There will be no shortage of money,” he told ZDF public television. “The worst is the number of dead we have to mourn. The level of destruction is harrowing.”
Mr Laschet’s gaffe appears to have ended a brief, tacit agreement between German politicians not to politicise the flood.
While Mr Scholz presented himself to television viewers as a crisis manager in contrast to the laughing CDU leader, the Green Party was hoping voters would look at the devastation and vote in their favour – for more climate change protection measures – next September.
‘Under my skin’
Green Party leader Annalena Baerbock cancelled her holiday on Saturday to visit devastated towns, without any accompanying press.
“The conversations I had went under my skin,” she wrote afterwards on Twitter. “Climate protection is now, it needs to be bolted on to every area.”
As floodwaters in west and southwest Germany began to recede, exposing the full devastation, Alpine regions in southern Germany and Austria were on red alert after heavy rain caused flash floods.
Floodwaters were reported in the regions around Berchtesgaden and Salzburg, with flash foods in the Austrian town of Hallein on Saturday night. Mayor Alexander Stangassinger said the local river swelled up with no warning, sending floodwater racing through town, filling cellar and flipping over cars.
Mr Stangassinger told Austrian broadcaster ORF the flash flood had caused millions of euro worth of damages, with dozens of locals now homeless.