The SPD is in a quandary. While Sigmar Gabriel is committed to a moral condemnation of Edathy, the latter is defending himself in strictly legal terms.
He has a problem that he won’t be getting rid of anytime soon: SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel. Photo: dpa
Sometimes silence says more than many words, even in conference calls. Monday morning, the most important Social Democrats in the republic discuss the issues of the week. One after the other, members of the executive committee join the conference, and SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel takes over.
Item after item is ticked off. The results of the local elections in Bavaria. The dire situation in Ukraine. The minimum wage, which is finally being voted on by the ministries, is also on the agenda. One piece of news, however, is left out of the internal discussion: the Edathy case and its latest, unpleasant turn. The silence is significant.
The SPD leadership would prefer not to talk about it at all. Gabriel and Co. know only too well that Edathy’s name is damaging the SPD. It doesn’t matter whether the former SPD member of parliament and interior politician was acting legally when he downloaded nude pictures of children from the Internet. Every mention of Edathy brings the SPD into connection with abysses, Gabriel knows. With dirt and with child abuse. Unfortunately, Edathy doesn’t go along with it. He does not let himself be silenced.
Now the Social Democrat, who is in a secret location in southern Europe, has told the current Spiegel how he sees things. It is his first detailed statement on the accusations. So far, Edathy has only spoken out in a few sentences in selected media, or he posted short comments on his Facebook page. And one thing is clear: He is using his appearance for a broadside.
One interview, four days
Edathy describes the SPD leadership’s treatment of him as "unscrupulous". He denies being a pedophile. He describes himself as an opponent of child pornography. And he defends ordering videos of boys from the Canadian website Azov Films. "In the history of art, by the way, the male nude, including the child and youth nude, has a long tradition."
Spiegel reporters had met Edathy on and off for four days for this interview, talking for hours in a small-town cafe. Edathy carefully weighed every word, every syllable is proofread and authorized. It is: his defense on his own behalf, a harsh attack on the SPD leadership and an unmistakable announcement. Edathy wants to fight. For his reputation, which has long since been destroyed. Probably also for his membership in the SPD, which would prefer to get rid of him as quickly as possible. And that’s where the problems for Sigmar Gabriel and the SPD really begin.
Thorsten Schafer-Gumbel is the first to have to respond to Edathy. Schafer-Gumbel is party vice president at the federal level and state leader in Hesse, a calm, deliberate type. The SPD secretary general is ill, so he is doing the Q&A session with journalists in Berlin’s Willy Brandt House. The phone shift was only a few hours ago then. "I was irritated by the interview," Schafer-Gumbel says when asked. "It is characterized by self-defense. I would have wished for a more self-critical approach."
Children, says Schafer-Gumbel, also have a right to their own image. And he adds, "I think the accusations against the party chairman are absurd." With that, he is aiming at Edathy’s sharpest sentence. The SPD leadership had seen itself on the defensive because of Friedrich’s resignation, and it was kicking someone who was down anyway, the interior politician said in the interview. "That is tactically unproblematic if you are sufficiently unscrupulous." Unscrupulous? Such attacks from one who expresses no word of regret are seen by many Social Democrats as a tremendous provocation. And as an almost presumptuous reinterpretation of the affair.
"This portrayal is ungrateful and wrong," says SPD parliamentary group deputy Karl Lauterbach. "The party leadership trusted Sebastian Edathy, and it entrusted him with important offices. It wouldn’t have done that if it had known that he had ordered nude photos of children." Lauterbach is alluding to the NSU investigative committee, which Edathy headed until the summer of 2013.
Edathy was once considered by many in the party to be a young talent in domestic politics. In Lauterbach’s reading, Edathy has severely disappointed the trust that the party placed in him. Why does someone in a party strive for ever-higher office when he knows he is balancing on an abyss in his private life? "I can only advise that he not try to style himself as a victim," says Lauterbach "Sebastian Edathy has damaged the SPD. There’s no denying that. And he continues to do so." Lauterbach says the interview alone shows that a party expulsion would be the right thing to do in his case.
Edathy’s defense also infuriates many SPDers because they know he is providing ammunition against the party. His reference to art history in particular earned outrage on social networks – and in politics. "Edathy buys nude photos of children according to his own statements not because he is a pedophile, but only interested in art. Unbelievable …", tweeted Union faction leader Michael Grosse-Bromer. That’s what many people think. Social Democrat Lauterbach also sees it that way. He comments tersely, "A lover of art history can go to the museum. He doesn’t need to order pictures from a windy child porn dealer from Canada."
Edathy remains guilty of evidence
When you talk to Social Democrats, you often hear one interpretation. Edathy evades in the conversation and takes refuge in protective allegations, they speculate. Didn’t he have to know that the Canadian Internet portal supplied pictures of abused children? And that they are usually used by customers to satisfy themselves sexually? Edathy avoids such considerations in the Spiegel interview. He merely states that in the case of the material in question, he can rule out "that persons depicted were abused for other, non-legal recordings." He does not provide any evidence for this claim, not least because the interviewers do not ask about it for once.
In the SPD, however, the interview is causing an uproar for another reason. Edathy’s arguments are strictly legalistic; he does not want to have done anything wrong in the eyes of the law. And he emphasizes that he did not deliberately act in a way that was harmful to the party. But this is precisely the question that will be the subject of the party order proceedings against him. And it could get party leader Sigmar Gabriel personally into trouble.
The party leadership made its position clear weeks ago: it supports such proceedings, which could result in Edathy’s expulsion or at least a reprimand. The Executive Board has unanimously backed this. Ordering such pictures disregards the dignity and personal rights of children, which violates the principles of the SPD, according to the general reading. And: The board is of the opinion that Edathy has severely damaged the party with his behavior. However, this question can be answered either way.
The arbitration commission of the Hanover SPD district is responsible for the proceedings. And it recently sent a different signal. The comrades ordered the suspension of the proceedings because the public prosecutor’s office is still investigating Edathy. The arbitration commission reasoned that "the presumption of innocence anchored in the principle of the rule of law also applies in party order proceedings." So there are already signs of an internal SPD conflict in the Edathy case: on the one hand the morally arguing Federal Executive Board, on the other the legally arguing District Arbitration Commission. If Edathy is determined to fight for membership in the SPD, that is not a bad starting position for him. And SPD leader Gabriel faces years of wrangling in which the SPD is repeatedly mentioned in the same breath as child pornography.