The mind of Angela Merkel
By Sara Miller Llana, CS Monitor, September 20, 2013
Berlin—As a child growing up in East Germany, Angela Merkel dreamed of becoming a figure skater. The country at the time was an athletic powerhouse, and the young girl was fascinated by the agility and elegance of the sport.
Yet there was something else, according to biographer Margaret Heckel, that made her want to perform pirouettes on ice: She couldn’t do it. Ms. Merkel, who was physically awkward as a child, had trouble crossing a balance beam. Landing on the edge of a blade, after an aerial spin, would have been an almost unimaginable feat for her.
Even though figure skating turned out to just be a childhood fantasy, the idea of conquering what seemed impossible was a recurring theme in Merkel’s youth. In school, she was always at the top of her class, with one notable exception: She once failed physics. Yet it was physics that she went on to choose as her first career.
Merkel’s determination to do what she seemingly couldn’t, or what others perceived she couldn’t, is a telling side of a person who has risen to become one of the most powerful German leaders in the postwar era—and arguably the most powerful woman in the world today.
Now the politician whom many Germans call “Mummy” looks poised to win a third term as chancellor and cement her position as the de facto head of Europe during its greatest challenge in more than a half century.
For all her power and prominence, Merkel is an intensely private leader. Her family and advisers are so loyal that, even after two terms in office, most Germans—allies and foes alike—say they still don’t really know what the woman who sits in the chancellery in Berlin really thinks. For as often as she’s called flexible and pragmatic, she’s called hardheaded and opportunistic.
But clearly most Germans like what they do see: “a simple girl,” authentic, a bit frumpy, someone who has always tested her limits—in the classroom as well as in the male-dominated world of German politics. Leading into national elections Sept. 22, Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, is polling more than 15 points ahead of its leftist rivals. Her party is not expected to win an outright majority, so the central question for political analysts is with whom the CDU will have to ultimately form a coalition. Still, Merkel maintains remarkable support after eight years in office during a turbulent time when fellow incumbents across Europe have fallen.
Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is quoted as once asking: “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” As Germany’s export-driven economy continues to outpace the rest of Europe and as the CDU dominates in the polls, the answer for now is unequivocally Angela Merkel.
It is an amazing rise for her and for a country whose very participation in the European Union was intended to prevent it from ever becoming too powerful again. The EU, with its open borders and common currency, has certainly been a stabilizing and equalizing force for years. But today, as the EU struggles economically and as the political split between northern and southern Europe continues to divide, the question is where a newly elected Merkel might lead the Continent. Will she “save” Europe or drive it apart?
Merkel’s supporters say she is uniquely positioned to confront what would be anyone’s challenge of a lifetime. She has a “fundamental self-confidence in herself,” says Ms. Heckel. Merkel moves slowly and cautiously. “Step by step” is her mantra. She eschews ideology and is prone to switching course. Her allies say this is a scientist’s method of trial and error, caring about the goal, not about how one arrives at it.
Outside the country, her influence has been hugely controversial. Her effigy, dressed up in Nazi uniform, has been burned across Greece, where the eurocrisis has hit hardest.
The parallels with Adolf Hitler are grossly wrong—flashes of anger that speak to Europe in the depths of crisis. But they do remind us of how far Germany has come from the shameful shadows of Nazi atrocity. If postwar Germany by reflex acquiesced to the EU—its ticket to redemption—it no longer puts Europe’s stability ahead of its own, says Markus Meckel, a German politician and theologian and former foreign minister of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). “German stability is the priority, and that’s a shift [under Merkel],” he says.
And this might be what voters find most appealing about her: She reflects what Germans feel is their role in the world today. “She’s identified herself with the hopes, fears, and ambitions of the German voter in a way that no one else has been able to do,” says John Kornblum, a former American ambassador to Germany. “She embodies their sense of caution, their sense of stability, their sense of self-righteousness…. She and the society have become virtually the same.”
Merkel was born in 1954 in Hamburg, West Germany. But when she was 6 weeks old, the family moved east, to the GDR, because her father, a Lutheran minister, was asked to head up a congregation there. As the family moved in one direction, it faced a wave of Germans moving west to escape communism. Eventually, the family settled in Templin, East Germany, in 1957.
Templin is a picturesque town of 17,000, still enclosed by medieval brick walls and watchtowers, with an old district of timbered houses and cobblestone streets that amble among baroque churches. An hour from Berlin, it lies in the Uckermark, a rural region of forests and glacial lakes. The area is soothing and somnolent—not the kind of place that readily spawns power. It is here that Merkel has said she feels most at home.
Templin was closed off from Western Europe in the 1960s, at the height of the cold war. Its citizens, especially outsiders like Merkel’s family—Protestants from the West—were tracked by the East German secret police. There was little liberty and no freedom of expression. The constant surveillance was why she learned to be wary and careful in dealing with others, says Stefan Kornelius, international affairs editor at Süddeutsche Zeitung, who has covered Merkel since 1991 and recently wrote a book about her. It also contributed to what has become her almost sacred sense of privacy.
The young Angela Kasner (her family name) excelled in school, particularly at math and Russian. According to Alan Crawford, a journalist for Bloomberg in Berlin who co-wrote “Angela Merkel: A Chancellorship Forged in Crisis,” she rose to be No. 1 in her class, which was perhaps fitting for the daughter of bookish parents: Her father was a pastor and theologian, and her mother taught English and Latin.
When she went off to university, she chose science, at the University of Leipzig, in part because she has said ideology could not interfere with the laws of nature. It was also during her university years that she married Ulrich Merkel, another physics student. The marriage lasted only five years, but she has kept his last name.
Merkel later worked and studied at the German Academy of Sciences at Berlin, where she earned her doctorate in quantum chemistry. While there, in her 30s, she became increasingly interested in politics, although her precise motivation for and evolution into politics—almost inexplicably for a world leader today—are ambiguous.
Most experts speculate that the real impetus for Merkel getting into politics was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which was a tumultuous moment for everyone living in East Germany. Everybody at the time went to the demonstrations. Factories halted production. Jacqueline Boysen, in her book “Angela Merkel,” says that Merkel checked out various political groups and went to events after the wall fell. She ended up joining the Democratic Awakening party, which later merged with the CDU.
Democratic Awakening was not well organized at the time, and Merkel helped with office management, including hooking up computers in the party’s headquarters that no one else knew how to use. Leaders soon elevated her to be the party’s press manager.
Later she would briefly become a spokeswoman for the pre-reunification government of the East and also, at this time, was elected to the Bundestag from the region in northern Germany that she still represents today.
Merkel is famously determined and hardworking. Her sheer intelligence helped vault her through the party ranks in those early years. “Underestimated,” in fact, is what foes and allies most often answer when asked how she rose so rapidly throughout her political career. Yet timing also helped, as did her background as an understated scientist from small-town East Germany.
After German reunification, then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl needed a representative cabinet, and Merkel, a Protestant woman from the East, was a perfect fit for a party whose leaders were mostly Roman Catholic men trained as lawyers. Mr. Kohl mentored her through two cabinet positions, calling her at one point “my girl.”
Author Crawford says that Merkel is an “atypical politician,” which is one reason he says Germans like her: She is modest. She does her own shopping at supermarkets. She lives in the apartment in central Berlin that she occupied before becoming chancellor.
Her private life is devoid of paparazzi. Her second husband, Joachim Sauer, a chemistry professor whom she married in 1998 (they have no children together), has never once given an interview to a journalist. He is rarely seen in public, except for an annual Wagner music festival that the two attend each summer. So little is known about him, in fact, that when she mentioned in August that her husband prefers more “crumble” on the crumble cake she makes, it became something of a national sensation. The Internet exploded.
Behind a scowl that’s often captured at meetings at the EU headquarters in Brussels, Merkel harbors a sense of humor that those around her call legendary. She’s known to mimic the leaders she deals with, from former US President George W. Bush to Russian President Vladimir Putin. When she was once asked to say what Germany, her homeland, evoked in her—clearly a journalistic query to elicit a rare sound bite—she answered, deadpan, “I think of well-sealed German windows.”
While she is stern in public, especially at the European level, those who interact with her in smaller groups call her warm and inclusive. At meetings with campaign staff, she asks for all opinions, says Lutz Meyer, the founder of Blumberry, which is running her advertising campaign. “She’ll say, ‘OK, now this person is speaking, no one interrupt,’ ” says Mr. Meyer. She digests all information. If she doesn’t like an idea, she’ll never dismiss it outright. She is never late. Meyer says she’s always impeccably prepared.
She not only wants the opinions of those around her, she peppers experts with questions, unafraid to appear unknowing about any subject. “She doesn’t suffer from the affliction of vanity,” says Heckel. That was clear in her early career when she wore no makeup, despite relentless derision, believing her words mattered, not what she looked like. But it trickles into her management style, too, Heckel says.
Merkel doesn’t make grand speeches laced with romantic visions of Europe in 100 years, but speaks plainly. Analysts describe her as steady. Many Germans feel she is protecting them from falling into Europe’s abyss. They see her as safeguarding not just their savings but their values, their cautious approach to life, and prudent nature.
"She is more self-confident, but not too much," says Mr. Blome, a prominent German journalist. "She takes risks but doesn’t put all her eggs in one basket. This is how 80 percent of Germans manage their lives."
While Merkel’s cautiousness and fealty to thrift may play well in Germany, the bigger question is what it means for the rest of Europe. One of the few anecdotes Merkel herself has shared from the past is that of standing on a three-meter diving board in grade school, unwilling to jump. It was only after 45 minutes of weighing the risk, when the bell was about to ring, that she took the plunge. The story has been told over and over as a metaphor for her hesitation on Europe’s sovereign debt crisis.
Although it is the EU and the International Monetary Fund that technically steer fiscal policy, Germany’s economic clout puts its hand on the wheel. And so far, Berlin has moved slowly and cautiously in dealing with the Continent’s fiscal crisis. From the first Greek bailout in 2010, through to the most recent emergency package for Cyprus, Germany demanded first that governments reform and enforce austerity measures to slash budgets.
To Merkel’s supporters, Germany’s actions fit into a long-term vision to create a stronger Europe that can compete in a globalized world, especially with the rise of China. Merkel knows that Germany can only stay relevant as an economic power within the context of a bigger union. To get there, she takes incremental steps.
Critics say her “step-by-step” approach is actually just patching up the problems as they arise, without the commitment to structural change needed to transform the EU—from a currency union to a true fiscal and political one. While calling for deep reforms from other nations, Germany has consistently blocked initiatives like a banking union or “eurobonds” to collectivize debt.
Today, as Greece enters its sixth year of recession, unemployment in Spain affects more than a quarter of the working population, and the Portuguese flee to their former colonies of Brazil and Angola in search of work, many in these countries say Merkel’s hardheaded focus on austerity has gravely exacerbated Europe’s problems. For them, she is a woman on a diving board not daring to jump.
At home, while most Germans don’t want to underwrite the rescue of Europe, some do question her commitment to the EU. Merkel’s main challenger in the current election, Peer Steinbrueck of the SPD, recently caused a stir by saying Merkel lacks passion for Europe because she grew up in the communist East. It echoes criticism by rivals who say she is not guided by history or the notion of how important Europe is.
Most dismiss the accusations as nonsense, and say that if anything informs her views on Europe, it’s her age: She’s the first German chancellor born after World War II. “She and the younger generation, we are strong believers in European peace but we are not as burdened with an historic mission or German guilt that guides the way we think about Europe,” says Michael Wohlgemuth, an economist and director of the think tank Open Europe Berlin.
Merkel has been a clear defender of maintaining the integrity of the euro, saying that if the common currency fails, Europe does, too. But her vision ends at the eurocrisis, says Meckel. She’s not about to push political or economic reforms that cede all power to Brussels.
When she first came to power, Merkel was often called Germany’s “Margaret Thatcher.” The two women, both conservative and trained as scientists, rose to the top of traditional, male-dominated parties, in large part on sheer smarts. But the late Mrs. Thatcher was an ideologue who believed she was right and who was willing to take to the streets, so to speak, to prove it. Merkel, says Mr. Wohlgemuth, is the opposite: She measures the mood on the streets and governs by it.
In Merkel’s office hangs a portrait of Catherine the Great, the longest-ruling female leader of Russia. Kornelius says that Merkel plays down the portrait—in fact she calls no one a role model—not attributing any larger meaning to the choice of office décor than simply liking the painting.
Still, under Catherine the Great, Russia grew larger and stronger—just as Germany has under Merkel—emerging as an undeniable world power.
"What [Merkel] brings from previous experience is to know how a system can collapse," says Kornelius. "In very dark moments, she is extremely worried that the system might not be stable…. She fears our democratic system is not entirely safe and especially in Europe. We have this wonderful union, but it’s not a given that it will stay forever, that old resentments won’t boil up again."