Updated: October 6, 2021 3:00:27 pm
Recently, Chancellor Angela Merkel, in a rare display of emotion, urged the German electorate to embrace the country’s diversity to forge a common future. With party leaders unlikely to form a coalition government anytime soon, Merkel will hold her position until a consensus has been reached. However, for all intents and purposes, her time in active politics has come to a protracted end.
Merkel leaves office as Germany’s second longest serving post-war Chancellor having overseen many defining global and national events during her 16 years in power. Amongst the world’s industrialised economies, only Vladimir Putin has endured for longer. Merkel was Germany’s chancellor during the 2008 financial crisis and proceeding Eurozone debt crisis, she oversaw the country’s shift away from nuclear energy, welcomed over a million Syrian refugees into Germany, dealt with intense right-wing extremism in the aftermath of that, saw the rise of China and Russia, with the latter invading both Georgia and Ukraine during her tenure and made the controversial decision to suspend civil liberties in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Her report card from office is comprehensive if not illustrious and she can be credited for her stability if not her ambition. Voted Forbes most powerful woman for ten consecutives years, Merkel will be remembered for her commitment to democratic values and her pragmatic leadership in an era of strong-men and political in-fighting across the globe.
This two-part series will dig deep to find out who Merkel is, both the person and the politician. The second part will take a closer look at Merkel’s handling of different challenges but first, we will explore her life, personality and methods in order to better understand her approach to politics.
Merkel was born in Hamburg, West Germany in 1954. Her father, a Lutheran minister, moved the family to communist East Germany just a few weeks after Merkel was born. At the time, hundreds of thousands of people were fleeing from East to West, so his unusual decision was looked upon with significant suspicion, with some even going as far as to call him “the red minister”. Angela, the oldest of three children, grew up in a seminary in the suburbs of Templin, home to several hundred physically and mentally disabled people. Merkel’s family was considered wealthy but due to their association with the church, were also subject to scrutiny from the state.
Merkel went on to become a physicist, working at an academic research institute in East Berlin. When the Wall fell in 1989, Merkel was a divorced, childless, quantum chemist, an anomaly in German politics and society. During a 2019 speech at Harvard University, Merkel described how growing up in a divided Germany impacted her mindset. “The Berlin Wall limited my opportunities,” she said. “It quite literally stood in my way.”
However, while the Wall may have delayed her political debut, it certainly didn’t hinder it.
Merkel’s pragmatism and adherence to rationality was shaped by her early experience in East Germany. She was already accustomed to being constantly watched and consequently learned how to regulate her behaviour and not act in a way that would draw attention to herself. Even after all of these years of being a public figure, Merkel tends to shy away from reporters and has addressed the nation only once on television. She is also famously tight-lipped about her personal life and is known for her long, technical, and passive manner of speaking.
Merkel has never explained her decision to enter public life, but those who know her have attributed it to political opportunism.
Early days in politics
The reunification of Germany meant annexation of the East by the West and opened the door for East German politicians to occupy top government positions. In turn, Merkel’s gender, youth and East German background made her a prime candidate for leadership roles. While working at the University, Merkel had been a member of the now defunct Democratic Awakening, a minor political party which drew its membership primarily from church groups.
In 1990, when party chairman Wolfgang Schnur admitted to being an informer for the Ministry for State Security, the oppressive intelligence agency in East Germany, Merkel was elevated to party spokesperson and in that capacity, oversaw the party’s merger with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). In October 1990, Merkel won her first seat in the Bundestag and was soon introduced to then chancellor, Helmut Kohl, who made her his Minister of Women and Youth.
In 1999, the CDU was engulfed in a campaign finance scandal which implicated both Kohl and his successor as party chairman, Wolfgang Schäuble. Kohl was so revered in German politics that no one within the CDU was willing to criticise him. However, Merkel, who rarely backs down from a fight, made the daring decision to write an op-ed asking the party to distance itself from Kohl. Her move was seen as uncharacteristically radical but also helped her gain the trust of the people and established her reputation as a straight shooter. Within months, she had been elected as Party chairman.
In 2005, Gerhard Schröder, who was chancellor at the time, called an early election, believing that he would win in a landslide. On election night, he even boasted on live television that he would continue to remain as chancellor and urged Merkel to end her political career. However, after that display, when many viewers believed that he was drunk, his outburst eventually ended up costing him the election. Two months after election night, Merkel was sworn in as Germany’s first female chancellor.
Merkel’s willingness to go head-to-head with powerful men continued throughout her tenure as chancellor. As a fluent Russian speaker and the de-facto leader of Europe, she has often clashed with ultra-masculine figures such as Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. In a famous anecdote regarding the former, Putin, who knew that Merkel was scared of dogs, unleashed his large Labrador Koni, in Merkel’s presence. Expecting the chancellor to flinch, Putin was lambasted by the international press when Merkel sat perfectly still, her face impassive and her body-language steady. When later asked about the incident, Merkel said she understood why Putin felt the need to intimidate her. “He’s afraid of his own weaknesses,” she explained and therefore has to “prove he’s a man.” Unlike her companion that day, who once released a photograph of himself riding a bear shirtless, Merkel knew how to navigate the egos of powerful men and used that ability to silently stand her ground throughout her career.
In most staged photographs, Merkel can be seen maintaining her trademark pose in which she stands with her hands in front of her ribcage with the tips of her fingers touching. When asked about it, she explained that doing so helped with her posture and gave her something to do with her hands.
This perhaps better than anything encapsulates how Merkel’s mind works. In a country that still contends with the atrocities of its past, Merkel’s stability and practicality is preferred over radical gestures and ambitiously lofty ideals. Her traditional calm and competence distinguishes her from the likes of Putin, Trump and Boris Johnson, while her work rate and cerebral approach to politics shields her from scrutiny.
With the Kardashianisation of politics over the last decade, Merkel’s style can often seem boring and plain. She is frequently witnessed shopping for groceries near her modest apartment in Berlin and is known as ‘Mutti’, the German word for mother. While her approach means she rarely sees the type of feverish devotion that her contemporaries do, her muted style and efficiency has endeared her to the German public.
On her methods of governing, Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, underlines three distinct features, in an essay for Foreign Affairs Magazine.
The first, her “anti-oratorical speaking style, which anesthetises commentators and diplomats alike.” This in turn allows her to depoliticise politics and prevents her opponents’ supporters from going to the polls. Drawing on her background as a scientist, Merkel’s often boring and usually over-complicated speeches have shielded her from excessive criticism and debate. Her ability to nullify a tense political situation through her rambling style means that people often fail to understand her political decision-making process and struggle to hold her accountable for ideas she has expressed in the past.
The second, the way she manages power is by maintaining a small team of loyalists whom she has worked with for years, and whose “discretion and discipline” she can rely on. Everyone else is kept at a distance and subsequently, Merkel has not had any high-profile falling outs within her team, nor has she courted the support of politicians who could potentially turn against her. This understated, deliberate approach to governance is a testament to her reliability and a large reason behind her ability to navigate the complexities of German politics.
The third feature of Merkel’s approach according to Stelzenmüller, is her ability to respond to public sentiment. From her decision to transition away from nuclear energy following the Fukushima disaster in Japan, to her willingness to take in Syrian refugees, hardly any of her political positions have been overwhelmingly unpopular amongst the general public.
Called “the leader of the free world” by the press, Merkel has enjoyed a resurgence in international support over the last five years. However, if her reign was stable, it was also far from revolutionary. There have been many successes over the years, but one would also be forgiven for thinking that there was a lot more than could have been done. Additionally, some of Merkel’s policies, while humanitarian, were also self-serving. Her bail-out of Greek Banks after the Eurozone crisis is one such example. By ‘rescuing’ the Greek economy, she preserved the deflated Euro (which helps German exports), imposed a set of strict austerity measures on the Greeks which protected her from accusations of weakness and attached conditions on the bailout that ensured that German and other European banks would be the first creditors to be paid back.
In Part 2, we will take a closer look at her other policies in areas such as immigration and climate change to properly assess both her strengths and weaknesses. Merkel can certainly boast a host of successes but many of them have come at a cost. Her ability to negotiate at length, and her knack for understanding the technicalities of complex legislation make her a skilled politician, who steered the German economy back to life and established the country as the leader of Europe and the European Union. However, her passivity also opened her up to criticism on grounds that she was too easy on rising powers like Russia and China, and that her humanity was more calculated than intrinsic.
Merkel is very much like the tortoise in the famed Aesop’s Fable, the tortoise, and the hare. Her slow and steady approach may seem bland and unexciting, but it’s also what ultimately won her the race. Unlike every other German chancellor who were all either voted out of office or resigned in disgrace, Merkel managed to endure. She leaves with a complicated legacy but does so on her own terms.
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