The measure of Merkel
Her speeches are considered as uninspiring as her image but German Chancellor Angela Merkel is proving to be the right person to act as unofficial leader of a Europe in crisis – pragmatic, flexible, commanding. Derek Scally talks to friends and colleagues who have known her all her political life
Detail of Pantone Merkel by Dutch artist Noortje van Eekelen, see noortjevaneekelen.com
Angela Merkel in 1991 and 2006.Photographs: Herlinde Koelbl
When Angela Merkel needs a laugh – and there have been many such occasions in recent crisis-filled years – she pulls out a large red book from its shelf. Called Spuren der Macht (Traces of Power), it is a collection of photographs and interviews by photo- journalist Herlinde Koelbl, tracking the effect of power on the appearance and thinking of leading German politicians.
By far the most dramatic images are those documenting the transformation of Angela Merkel since 1990, from political wall-flower to arguably the world’s most powerful woman.
Germany’s first female leader is a modern political sphinx. After eight years in power, she still throws up more questions than answers: What does she think? What does she want? Who is Angela Merkel?
As she runs for a third term in the federal election on September 22nd, the 59-year-old is under observation like never before. An intensely private figure, she says only one person has ever managed to get past her defences: Koelbl.
“When I looked at Traces of Power recently I laughed a lot at some passages,” Merkel told Die Zeit newspaper in July. “That I ever agreed to the Koelbl project surprises me to this day.”
Sitting in her sunny Munich atelier, Koelbl, a youthful 74-year-old with a shock of curly red hair, smiles modestly at the compliment. What does she see through her viewfinder when she’s with Merkel?
“Merkel doesn’t ruffle her feathers in public like many men, she doesn’t play to the gallery,” says Koelbl. “Vanity is the Achilles heel of politicians but she isn’t vain and that is her strength.”
As someone who watches and writes about Merkel for a living, the most striking thing is the contrasting perception at home and abroad. While she has inspired Thatcher-like animosity towards her across Europe, it is difficult to find anyone in Germany who really dislikes her as a person.
Born Angela Kasner in 1954 in Hamburg, as a baby she moved with her family to the East German town of Templin, an hour north of Berlin, where her Lutheran pastor father headed a seminary.
She was a bright student, her maths teacher remembers; mediocre, says her sports teacher. Her family claims she was five when she held her first political speeches but it would be another three decades before she entered politics formally.
The man who opened the door to Merkel, literally and figuratively, was Rainer Eppelmann, a Lutheran pastor and civil rights campaigner in East Germany.
It was late 1989, the Berlin Wall had fallen weeks earlier and Eppelmann remembers a young woman with watchful eyes appearing at the door of the improvised headquarters of his Democratic Awakening (DA) group. The two soon realised they had someone in common: Eppelmann had studied theology under Merkel’s father, Horst Kasner, who he remembers as a strict man of strong views.
“He was a very communicative and confident person, with a brutal side and not exactly empathetic,” says Eppelmann. Like many eastern pastors, he suspects Kasner, who moved his family east while everyone else fled west, was more enamoured with socialism than was appropriate for a clergyman. He has no such doubts about Kasner’s daughter, even though she came relatively late to East Germany’s civil rights campaign.
“She came along when the first door had opened but still a lot earlier than many others,” says Eppelmann, now 70. “She told me she thought East Germany was finally far enough along that it made sense to engage politically.”
After studying physics in Leipzig, Merkel worked as a researcher in East Berlin. Critics accuse her of being an East German fellow traveller, building a comfortable nest rather than risking her position and protesting against the regime.
Merkel argues she was “never unpolitical”, but conceded in 2009 she was “just not politically active” in East Germany’s turbulent final years.
Within months, and on Rainer Eppelmann’s recommendation, she went from DA spokeswoman to deputy spokeswoman for East Germany’s first and last democratically elected government.
Merkel is still coloured by her East German background, he says: the collapse of her homeland has taught her to take nothing for granted and to have a healthy suspicion of organised structures. In a nod to an official East German anthem, Eppelmann says: “The party is not always right. A political party is a tool for her, not something to be worshipped.”
After winning a seat in the first unified Bundestag, Merkel left Eppelmann and Berlin for Bonn where, as a young member of Helmut Kohl’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU), she was promptly appointed to the cabinet.
Another eastern cabinet appointee was Paul Krüger, today the mayor of Neubrandenburg, a city two hours north of Berlin. Far from home, the two easterners or “Ossis” were soon on first-name “Du” terms with each other – a familiarity that holds to this day. Krüger’s first memory of Merkel is of her “conspicuous inconspicuousness” both in dress sense and personality. She stood out by not wanting to stand out, he says, the polar opposite of western German CDU politicians, who as teenagers were already practising their party conference speeches in the bathroom mirror.
Not so in East Germany, where the state’s collapse took with it the entire discredited political class. It fell to uncontaminated political newcomers – engineers like Krüger or scientists like Merkel – to seize the political reigns and the challenges of looming German unification.
“We had to learn the pragmatism of the time, there was no time to philosophise, and Angela learned very quickly because she can think her way into a problem,” says Krüger. The “Ossis” in Bonn soon realised that, while they lacked polish, they had talents their more western colleagues never even realised they lacked and would never learn.