Helicopter flight revives attacks on German defense minister as key election looms

BERLIN — German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht’s political opponents are circling, using reports that she took her adult son with her on a government helicopter for a holiday trip.

The furor has added to previous criticism of Lambrecht’s handling of the defense ministry, which she took over in December, and has turned up the heat on Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD) ahead of a big state election this weekend.

Business Insider first reported the trip on Monday, revealing Labrecht’s 21-year-old son accompanied her last month when she flew to the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein to visit German troops and then traveled on to the North Sea island of Sylt for a holiday.

The Defense Ministry has said Lambrecht acted legally over the trip — properly notifying officials of her plans days ahead of time and covering the costs for the private travel out of her own pocket.

But opponents of Scholz’s government and media commentators have lambasted Lambrecht over the trip, saying it was politically unwise to use government transport to take a private holiday. They have noted the train from Berlin would have taken less than six hours, and that the helicopter runs at a cost of €5,300 per hour.

On Wednesday, Lambrecht sought to draw a line under the affair. She told ZDF television that she understood the criticism and suggested that, in retrospect, she might have handled the trip differently. But she stressed she had done everything by the book and also asked for understanding that she wanted to maintain a close relationship with her son in the midst of a demanding ministerial job.

The uproar has reopened a national debate over Lambrecht, a senior Social Democrat who has struggled since her surprise appointment to shake off a reputation that she’s not well-positioned to run Germany’s defense policy with war raging in Europe.

The attention on Lambrecht, a former justice and family minister under Chancellor Angela Merkel, comes at a bad time for Scholz’s SPD.

His party is coming off a crushing defeat in a northern state election last week and now faces a tight race this weekend in North Rhine-Westphalia, where the Social Democrats are looking to unseat an incumbent conservative state premier from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Germany’s main opposition party. According to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls, the two parties are polling neck-and-neck.

Political tussle

German politicians have spent the week sparring over Lambrecht.

“By the way, a trip to Sylt by train takes less than six hours from Berlin … If a 21-year-old can’t be expected to go through that, then I don’t know,” tweeted Dorothee Bär of the Bavarian conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) which makes up the largest opposition group with the CDU, its larger sister party.

The CDU’s Thorsten Frei said Lambrecht “ought not to confuse the Luftwaffe with Lufthansa,” accusing her of “bad style.”

The Ministry of Justice later confirmed to the Bild tabloid that Lambrecht had also taken her son with her on seven trips abroad during her time running the ministry.

Perhaps more worrying for Lambrecht, criticism has also come from coalition partners.

Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, the head of the parliament’s defense committee and a member of the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), called Lambrecht’s behavior “politically imprudent” although she also defended the minister’s right to go on a holiday every once in a while.

Meanwhile, Michael Roth, the head of the foreign affairs committee in parliament who is himself an SPD politician, on Wednesday said that “there are a few unanswered questions that will have to be clarified,” but at the same time dismissed calls for Lambrecht to resign as unjustified.

Ralf Stegner, another SPD politician, was less critical, arguing the opposition is trying to “gain a few cheap points” just four days before Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, heads to the polls.

Lambrecht has described the media stories and resulting attacks as part of a “campaign” against her. But the damage may already be done.

Reopening a debate

The helicopter ride has resurfaced conversations in Germany about Lambrecht’s qualifications for her job.

For weeks, she has faced criticism for not getting the German military up to speed quickly following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Opinion polls also show Germans aren’t satisfied with her performance. According to the latest polling from German weekly Der Spiegel, Lambrecht ranks last among Scholz’s Cabinet in approval rating.

Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, Lambrecht was ridiculed for announcing Germany’s shipment of 5,000 protective helmets to Ukraine, a move in line with German policy at the time but also one that many felt could have been communicated better.

And since Germany made its historic decision to provide Ukraine with weapons — repealing a long-standing ban on sending arms to war zones — Lambrecht has shouldered much of the blame for slow shipments, even if some of the problems were linked to decades of miserly defense spending.

But for Lambrecht’s defenders, much of the criticism directed at the defense minister is tinged with sexism.

In April, Bild lambasted Lambrecht for wearing pumps during a military reception in Niger, quoting a colonel as saying, “She just doesn’t learn. With high heels in our most dangerous mission — embarrassing!”

The article was criticized as misogynistic by some at the time, with one SPD lawmaker calling it “pure sexism.”

This week, Stegner, the SPD politician, revived the subject, accusing the opposition of having “nothing else to do but to talk about [Lambrecht’s] fingernails or her high heels instead of what she’s done so far.”