German Chancellor Angela Merkel is an unusually private and reticent politician – there is no exhibitionism and grandstanding.
Even for Germans, Angela Merkel is a hard woman to know.
Angela Dorothea Kasner was born on July 17, 1954, in Hamburg, West Germany. Her father Horst Kasner, a Lutheran pastor, moved the family to Templin, East Germany, in 1954 when Angela was just a few weeks old.
As a politician, Angela Merkel has never been overbearing when it comes to her religious views, but it’s clear that her father’s position in the church had a deep influence on her – creating a powerful moral compass.
Her childhood was also shaped by the Cold War – Angela Merkel’s Socialist father held politically charged gatherings at his seminary and as she grew up, vigorous debates rang around the dinner table. The young Angela had to learn to keep her cards close to her chest for fear of drawing the attention of the Stasi, the secret police.
Being unable to openly express your opinion in East Germany affected people in different ways.
An old school friend of Angela Merkel’s, Hartmut Hohensee, compared it to lapsing into “a sort of paralysis, just hoping winter will pass and the flowers will begin to grow eventually”.
Angela Merkel’s political flowers would begin to grow – but not until 1989, after the Berlin Wall was toppled.
The fall of the Wall produced a maelstrom in German politics. Cafe conversations became street protests; movements became political parties; individuals tried to take control of their country for the first time. It was this world that Angela Merkel decided to enter, aged 35.
Angela Merkel, who has a doctorate in quantum chemistry, stood out from the rest in that political world.
“She didn’t seem to care about her outward appearance at all,” says Lothar de Maiziere, who went on to be East Germany’s last prime minister.
“She looked like a typical GDR scientist, wearing a baggy skirt and Jesus sandals and a cropped haircut.”
To the surprise of many, the East German woman brought up under Communism joined the overwhelmingly male and patriarchal Christian Democrats. In late 1990 Angela Merkel became a member of the Bundestag for the CDU, the largest party in West Germany, and began her rise to the top.
Germany’s Chancellor Helmut Kohl wanted someone female, quiet and a former East German for his first post-reunification cabinet. Lothar de Maiziere recommended Angela Merkel. Beginning as minister for women, she moved slowly up the ranks, becoming minister of the environment.
But in 1999 the quiet girl from Templin stunned everyone. It emerged that Helmut Kohl, who used to call her his “Maedchen” or little girl, had been putting donations into a secret slush fund which he’d used to reward his friends.
Nobody seemed prepared to confront Helmut Kohl but Angela Merkel refused to follow the pack. In a front-page piece in a leading conservative newspaper, she denounced her former mentor and called upon him to resign. It was a stunning act of political patricide and set Angela Merkel on a trajectory towards the top of German politics.
“One of the things people doesn’t always understand about her is she’s… actually a ruthless political operator,” says Jonathan Powell, who got to know her when he was chief of staff to the UK prime minister.
“The way she dealt with all of her rivals in the CDU was extraordinarily Machiavellian from that point of view. She would get rid of them in a switch of an eyebrow.”
Angela Merkel became chair of the CDU in 2000 and Germany’s first woman chancellor five years later.
The defining moment of Angela Merkel’s eight years as leader so far came with the eurozone financial crisis. Greece revealed an enormous – and unmanageable – public debt. And it soon emerged that other countries were in similar dire straits. But as Europe waited to see if Germany would agree to bail out the struggling members of the eurozone or force them to sort out their own problems, Angela Merkel was criticized for reacting too slowly.
Caution and consensus, however, have always been hallmarks of the Merkel machine.
“You can only manage such a crisis if you take a lot of people along the way,” says Ursula von der Leyen, who has worked in every one of Angela Merkel’s cabinets since 2005.
“Angela Merkel always knew where she wanted to end up, but she took time to find a way which everybody could go along with.”
Quite a lot about her story seems to echo Margaret Thatcher’s. Angela Merkel comes from the edges – East Germany, rather than Lincolnshire – and was brought up by an abnormally self-certain and pious father. Something of a loner, she became quite a serious scientist before choosing politics.
Inside her party, Angela Merkel was picked up as a useful female talent by a somewhat patronizing mentor – Kohl, rather than Edward Heath – and surprised everybody by her ruthlessness in ousting him, and eventually taking power herself. Like Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel is a ferociously hard worker, excellent on the detail and a wily political operator.
Yet the differences matter much more than the similarities. Coming from her East German background Angela Merkel believes in social solidarity and working with trade unions; in a coalition-based political system, she is a mistress of consensus and, when it suits her, delay.
Angela Merkel has mattered much more to us and the full European story than perhaps we’ve realized.
The results from the imminent German elections can’t be guaranteed but if Angela Merkel is successful, as many have predicted, she’ll have another chance to secure her legacy.