After 16 years as Chancellor of Germany, Frau Merkel will depart politics with little fanfare and much mixed populace feeling. Love her or hate her, Angela Merkel was Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir rolled into one. Born in 1954 in the northern German city of Hamburg to a student of theology and a teacher of Latin and English, Angela Merkel became the first female and East German Chancellor in modern day German history. Stoic, unapologetic, resilient, pragmatic, and determined, she shaped Germany into one of the strongest economies in Europe and the world. Who is Angela Merkel?
As soon as Angela was born, her father received a pastor ship and moved the family to Brandenburg, in East Germany. In 1973, after finishing High School, Angela entered Karl Marx University (renamed University of Leipzig) in Leipzig to study physics. She met and married fellow physic student Ulrich Merkel in 1977. A year later she earned her diploma and became a member faculty of the Central Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Academy of Sciences in East Berlin. Her marriage only lasted five years and she divorced in 1982 retaining her married last name. In 1986, she earned a Doctorate on her thesis on quantum chemistry.
Like most children and youth growing up in the former Eastern Bloc and in the former DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik), Merkel participated in state owned youth organizations. However, as she grew older, she never opted or applied to become a member of the Socialist Unity Party. It’s interesting that at one point in time, the State Security Service (Ministerium fur Staatsicherheit) or STASI approached her to become one of their informants. Angela refused. The STASI were close “relatives” to the KGB.
In 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, Angela joined the Democratic Awakening party and eventually became their press spokesperson. In February 1990, the Democratic Awakening party joined with the Alliance for Germany, which formed a coalition with the German Social Union (DSU), and the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). In August 1990, Angela joined the CDU and found herself in the position of Deputy Spokesperson for the government of Lothar de Maizière of the same party. These parties were counterpart to similar parties in the west. Maizière’s CDU formally joined with its western CDU on October 2, 1990, on the eve of Unification Day.
Angela Merkel caught the eye of then Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and in January 1991 Kohl appointed her minister for women and youth. This earned her the nickname of “Kohls Madchen” (Kohl’s child). She became his protégé, and when Maizière resigned as Deputy Chair of the CDU in September 1991, Angela was elected to replace him. Maizière’s resignation was compelled by accusations that he was allegedly a STASI collaborator. In 1994, Angela was elected as Minister of environment, conservation, and reactor safety. She also presided over the first UN Climate Conference held in Berlin in 1995.
When the CDU lost to the SPD (Socialist Democratic Party) in 1998, Angela was elected Secretary General of the CDU, and in that year also married a long-time friend and chemistry professor Joachim Sauer. But 1999 was not kind to the CDU. The once popular and revered Helmut Kohl became embroiled and implicated in an illegal campaign contributions scandal which divided the party into Kohl loyalists and those who wanted change. In December 1999, Angela wrote an open letter to the CDU encouraging a fresh start and accountability. Her charisma raised public focus and approval. Inadvertently, in April 2000, Angela Merkel was elected as head of the CDU. She was the first woman and the first non-Catholic to lead the party. Although facing division and hostility from Kohl supporters, and Kohl’s financial scandal, Angela continued to lead the party in the hope that she would be selected to run for Chancellor in 2002. But that role was given to Edmond Storber of the Bavarian CDU counterpart, CSU (Christian Social Union). In 2002, the CDU-CSU lost the election to Gerhard Schroeder (SPD) by a very slim margin, and Angela was elected as leader of the opposition. In 2005, Schroeder’s popularity plummeted, and he called for early elections. The CDU-CSU won by only 35.2% of the votes and settled for a coalition with the SPD. In November 2005, Angela Merkel became the youngest person to become Chancellor of Germany at the age of 51. She was also the first woman and the first East German.
Angela’s Chancellery had its moments. The Eurozone financial crises almost saw Greece out of the zone with a close possibility of Italy following. Years of government mismanagement and unchecked spending brought these two countries to their knees. Angela’s determination in forcing austere financial demands slowly and eventually stabilized the union. But when Ukraine ousted its pro-Russian Prime Minister Yanu Korych, Russia quickly annexed Crimea in retaliation. A move that brought anger in the west and prompted Angela to lead efforts in sanctioning Russia. But Angela’s love hate relationship with Putin drew both admiration and criticism. While sanctioning Russia for Crimea she was later negotiating a pipeline. The 2015 European refugee crises brought approximately one million refugees to Germany, a move that angered some Germans, especially those in the former eastern states, where unemployment remains the highest. This gave rise to the AfD party (Alternativ fur Deutschland) which in 2016 placed second in regional elections ahead of the CDU. 2016 was the year when global nationalism resulted in Brexit and Donald Trump.
Throughout her political tenure, Angela tried hard to remain a centralist. In 2017 she reversed her opposition to same sex marriage legislation and the measure was approved. This won her overwhelming support among the majority of Germans. However, her CDU-CSU and SPD coalition had their worst electorate results in 70 years. Minor parties like the Greens and AfD gained enough votes for parliamentary representation. Angela reached out to conservative voters who were leaving the CDU-CSU party in favor of the AfD which gained votes in the former East German states. Angela’s immigration policy alienated the CSU which resulted in her Interior Minister, Horst Seehofer’s resignation. This threatened to topple her government, but diplomacy and tenacity held the coalition together albeit huge losses for the CSU and CDU in both Bavaria and Hesse. In 2018, Angela Merkel announced that she would not seek reelection as either CDU leader or the Chancellery in 2021.
Where is Germany heading to? What’s next? Who is the next Merkel? Is there a next Merkel? Several polls and pundits have determined that the German people are not really enthusiastic by any of the candidates. The flavor of the month word is “uninspiring”. Three candidates are leading the pack. Armin Laschet, governor of North Rhine Westphalia for CDU, Annalena Baerbock, a relative unknown and the Green’s hopeful, and finally, Olaf Scholz, Germany’s Finance Minister & Vice Chancellor for SPD. “Uninspiring” describes these candidates to a tee. They are either politically bland, inexperienced, or intellectually deficient.
Armin Laschet, governor of North Rhine Westphalia lost most of his credibility and points when flooding in his State took life and livelihood. His response to the disaster was often flippant and disconnected, leaving his constituents angered. Unprepared and overwhelmed, the region watched in awe as homes, property and people were lost in uncontrollable flooding. Reports of poor evacuation and non-functional alarm systems added to the malcontent and loss of confidence.
Annalena Baerbock at 40, is the youngest candidate and the Greens’ hope that they might finally have a chance at the Chancellery. Educated in Hamburg and London, she earned a degree in International Law, and for a while worked in Brussels for an MEP. She is charismatic and energetic, but inexperienced. She has been accused of allegedly beefing up her resume and of plagiarism. Most Germans find her fake and out of touch.
Olaf Scholf, fondly nicknamed “scholzmat” has the habit of repeating himself and is regarded as intellectually silent. A former Hamburg Mayor and Federal Labor Minister, he is SDP’s lead candidate to replace Angela Merkel. To avoid gaffes, which he is prone to make , he is said to answer all questions virtually the same. As it has been reported: “…not saying anything seems to be his main achievement.”
A few minor party candidates have also thrown their hats into the ring. Christian Lindner of the centralist Free Democratic Party (FDP) runs for free market and social economic reforms. Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupala, the hard right AfD, are mostly popular in the former east German States. Janine Wissler and Dietmar Bartsch of the Linke (left) party espouse government run economy and withdrawal from NATO. It is not surprising that the majority of pollsters agree that German voters are skeptical and opting for “none of the above”.
Germany is prepared for the prospect of several months without a government until a viable coalition is formed. The Merkel magic of forming governments even during stalemates and rocky alliances seems to be absent in this lack luster collection of candidates. Angela Merkel provided stability and dependability even during the worst of times. Her appearance seemed to provide comfort, confidence, and resiliency. The pending election is bringing jitters to a nation used to a “mother” figure that speaks with authority but also with empathy. This was apparent during the pandemic, when borders were closed, and lockdowns and restrictions were implemented. Her appeal to the nation were heeded, and although some protests were held in large cities like Berlin and Munich, most Germans remained attentive and appreciative of her guidance.
While writing this blog I had the opportunity to discover the woman behind the Chancellor. Few women would I consider leadership quality let alone intellectually superior. Very few public figures would I want to meet. My list has always been extremely minimalistic. My women’s Hall of Fame includes Mother Theresa for her courage, Margaret Thatcher for her tenacity, and Golda Meir for her intelligence. Angela Merkel will be added to the list for resiliency and leadership. A quantum chemist raised as a communist lived to lead one of the strongest economies in the world with strength and determination.
My admiration for Angela Merkel is on several levels. As a woman she went “mano a mano” with the likes of Putin and Trump and remained unfazed. She exuded confidence without arrogance. She ran against a historically paternal and patronizing establishment and managed to part the seas of doubt through four terms in office. Her strength lies in her ability to maintain equilibrium in the midst of chaos. Qualities so hard to find in current politicians and world leaders.
Angela Merkel led Germany for 16 years through the good, the bad, and the ugly. She was mutually admired, disliked, and respected. She was the lone woman ranger at world summits and conferences. Her steady stride never faltered. In 2011, Angela Merkel was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then President Obama. The first time a foreigner received the prestigious award. But ironically, and only two years later, in October 2013, she accused the NSA and the Obama administration of tapping her phone. During a European summit she openly rebuked the US by saying that “spying among friends is never acceptable”. That show of defiance pushed her into her third term in office. Such is the character of one of the most important women politicians in history. Such is the reason why Angela Merkel will be missed by most Germans and Germany. Such is the reason why I admire Angela Merkel. Frau Merkel, auf wiedersehen und viel gluck!