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The Steinbrück Sound

Research project at Freie Universität Berlin studied rhetoric used by Social Democratic candidate for highest German government post

Oct 30, 2012

Peer Steinbrück spricht 2008 als Finanzminister im Bundestag. Wissenschaftler der Freien Universität untersuchen, welche rhetorischen Stilmittel er einsetzte.
Peer Steinbrueck in 2008 as the Federal Minister of Finance, speaking in the German parliament. Scholars at Freie Universität investigated what rhetorical means he employed. Image Credit: Istockphoto / EdStock

Peer Steinbrück, unlike many other German politicians, is considered a good speaker. Steinbrück, who is running for the German chancellorship on the Social Democratic (SPD) party ticket and previously served as Federal Minister of Finance, a cabinet-level position, from 2005 to 2009, has a distinctive rhetorical profile, say literature scholars Nina Peter and Oliver Lubrich. As part of the “Emotions in Economic Crises” research project, the two of them studied the imagery with which policy makers and the media described the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009.

“It was a new situation, and one that was still hard to comprehend, but suddenly it was necessary to find the words for it,” says project manager Lubrich. “There were no reliable models or examples, so politicians experimented with various images.”

Lubrich, who until 2011 was a professor of rhetoric at the Peter Szondi Institute at Freie Universität Berlin and has now been named a professor of German language and literature and comparative literature at the University of Bern, was in charge of the inter-university project, which was completed as part of the Languages of Emotion cluster and looked at metaphors as “symptoms of the crisis.” As part of the project, speeches made by then-finance minister Steinbrück were analyzed and compared with reporting in the newsmagazine Der Spiegel.

As finance minister, Steinbrück was “the political body responsible for handling the crisis,” says project participant Peter. That was fortunate for the scholars, since hardly any other politician uses visual imagery as daring as Steinbrück’s. Peter, a doctoral candidate, points out that Steinbrück generally uses simple comparisons to present complicated situations clearly. “By doing so, he tries to create a close rapport with the audience.”

There is also a distinctive “Steinbrück sound” that became especially clear in the crisis situation, Lubrich explains. And Steinbrück is now also using that sound in his bid to become chancellor. His rhetoric of “calculated roughness around the edges” gives him extra leeway, both in speaking terms and politically. “It means he can say things that would be criticized more sharply if people thought they were scripted, and not off the cuff,” Lubrich says. A laconic style is a particular mark of Steinbrück’s rhetoric; he gets to the point in short, punchy sentences. He is also fond of provocative, high-impact exclamations. Steinbrück is also known to switch back and forth between registers, shifting from deliberate use of technical terms from the world of finance to bolster his professional credentials to a folksier style that even incorporates slang expressions.

Steinbrück uses provocative, daring irony, the researchers say, unlike many politicians, who are afraid they may be misunderstood. One example of this kind of provocative rhetoric was the black humor on display in Steinbrück’s comment comparing the German-Swiss dispute on tax evasion to the “Wild West.” On the one hand, the remark exacerbated political tensions, but on the other, it could also be understood as a dry joke.

But with regard to the financial crisis, the scholars say, Steinbrück’s speeches were much less provocative or alarmist than reports on related topics published in Der Spiegel. Articles in the magazine used a wide range of metaphors to portray the crisis, calling it “a financial tsunami” and “a nuclear meltdown in the financial markets.” The magazine’s reporting frequently used metaphors based on the natural world (“turbulence,” “storm”) – images that stressed the unpredictability of the crisis and the powerlessness of political measures.

And those were the kinds of images Steinbrück avoided in his role as finance minister, Peter explains. “He tried to keep emotion to a minimum, calming people’s fears by putting the available actions front and center.” He made use of metaphors that stressed how much impact people could have (“ground rules,” “rules of traffic”). The overall theme was clear: Just as the crisis had been caused by a certain kind of conduct on the part of economic players, it could also be overcome through political intervention and regulations. Steinbrück, who had previously served as the Federal Minister of Transportation, was especially fond of images drawn from traffic. “Setting up guardrails” is one example (“whether the guardrails will need to be shifted somewhat over time depends on economic development”), and he also made frequent use of terms such as “brake,” “accelerate,” and “navigate.”

Lubrich and Peter say that the goal of their scholarly study is to trace a kind of “fever chart” showing public discourse surrounding the financial crisis. The aim is to find out in what situations and contexts especially many, diverse, or frightening metaphors were used.

To manage the huge body of texts involved in the study, the scholars not only used rhetorical methods of text interpretation, but also encoded the metaphors with a computer program. Over 7,000 different metaphors were identified and assigned to different imagery categories and codes. This allowed the researchers to analyze and interpret the breakdown of imagery used by Steinbrück and in articles in Der Spiegel in statistical terms – a method that has seldom been used in literary studies, Peter says.

Both scholars believe Steinbrück’s rhetorical management of the crisis in 2008 and 2009 was a major factor in the SPD’s decision to nominate him as candidate for the chancellorship. In his speeches, Steinbrück presents himself as capable, direct, and focused on action. The fact that his unusual and sometimes daring imagery can have explosive effects is something the party accepts, Lubrich says, and perhaps even embraces. As he said, “Nominating Steinbrück, with his forceful rhetoric, is a declaration of war.”

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