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


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.

“We weren’t eloquent; we weren’t allowed to be in a dictatorship, but we came relatively honest out of the experience,” Krüger says. “We had learned both how to fit in while finding not quite official ways to assert oneself and get through.”

Showing flexibility in the means to achieve one’s end is more an Irish than a classic German characteristic, but it helped Merkel get ahead, first as minister for women and children and, in 1994, the environment.

It was at this time that Merkel scored her first major political success: salvaging climate talks in Bonn from disaster and securing a lauded agreement that paved the way to the Kyoto Protocol.

In her Munich atelier, Koelbl points to a noticeable shift in her mid-1990s photographs of Merkel: the insecure gaze is gone, the body language more composed.

“From the first time I met her I sensed an independence that she had, although she appeared awkward,” Koelbl says. “In the 1994 photograph you can see she had an important experience. She told me: ‘I can only count on myself and my instincts’.”

From here on, Koelbl’s portraits capture an increasingly confident politician who, in 1999, launched a go-for-broke attack on Helmut Kohl for accepting illegal party funding.

Flinging aside the decade-old camouflage on her political ambition, she made a daring play for the top job, sidelining a dazed clique of CDU princes who had carved up the party leadership between them. Some 13 years on, she remains the CDU’s unchallenged leader, commanding respect far beyond her own party.

A very senior member of the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD), famed for his public attacks on Merkel, summarised his feelings recently: “You’re looking at the first president of the Social Democrat Merkel fan club.”

Merkel is a private person, preferring to spend weekends in a cottage north of Berlin than with her political colleagues. Indeed, she has almost no politician friends. One exception is Klaus von Dohnányi, a former SPD mayor of Hamburg and nephew of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian executed by the Nazis.

The 85-year-old is Merkel’s regular companion at the opera and classical concerts. They have a golden rule not to discuss politics but, sitting in the livingroom of his elegant Hamburg villa, he shares some observations on his famous friend.

Merkel has three core political values: alliance with the US, defence of Israel and, if in doubt, to come down on the side of political and economic freedom. The rest is negotiable. This has lead to a commonly-heard criticism that Merkel is more an apolitical moderator than a classic political leader, with clear ideology and co-ordinates.

Von Dohnányi agrees with the critics’ observations but disagrees with their conclusion. Merkel’s skills allow her to push through necessary political change, such as abolishing nuclear power or compulsory military service, with the minimum of drama.

Her leadership style, underpinned by her scientific background and Christian childhood, places her above party politics and in tune with the times, he says. On her watch she has broadened the CDU appeal to ensure, unlike his own SPD, it still attracts 40 per cent voter support.

“She’s not a typical German politician,” von Dohnányi says. “Merkel has a Scandinavian temperament, she does politics the way the Swedes or Danes do. The only surprising thing about Merkel is that she is so normal yet so successful.”

At the opposite end of the country in Munich, photographer Herlinde Koelbl shakes her head when she hears the word “ordinary”.

“If she was an ordinary person she wouldn’t be chancellor. All chancellors have to have something others don’t have,” she says.

Koelbl believes Merkel appears so ordinary because she has achieved her political ends without employing the traditionally masculine attributes of power. While Thatcher armed herself for the political fray with a handbag and voice lessons, Merkel has allowed only the minimum work on her image: sober, sensible trouser suits and hairstyle.

Considering how well her image goes down with Germans is this, perhaps, the key to Merkel’s political success: the orchestration of the ordinary?

One of her advisers looks perplexed when I suggest this, saying: “There’s no production, no staging: she is as she is.”

Long-time Merkel confidantes say that, apart from losing her shyness, Merkel has not changed noticeably in office. The most common Merkel characteristics you hear from them are: cautiousness, wilfulness, restraint, lack of vanity and assertiveness.

Those are attributes familiar to leaders who have dealt with Merkel in many late-night eurozone crisis summits. It is in Brussels during the past four years where Merkel and Germany have trascended the national to achieve a European and global stature.

It is also where the German leader has triggered the most disquiet for her two-pronged crisis strategy: financial assistance conditional on tough economic and social reforms.

Her many critics accuse her of consistently offering too little, too late: driving up the final cost of rescue measures and condemning criis countries to a vicious circle of austerity and recession

Their criticisms are like water off a duck’s back at home. Instead, Merkel has been remarkably successful in presenting herself as an uncompromising and unyielding politician, even though her record shows she is anything but.

A decade ago Merkel demanded her party back a programme of radical economic reforms she said were vital for Germany’s future. Her party refused, Merkel learned her lesson and rowed back. Since taking office she has never tried to impose on her own electorate the kind of reforms she demands of crisis countries. Instead she has adopted a conciliatory, caring mother-of-the-nation persona and is dubbed “mutti” (mummy) by friend and foe alike.

The term of affection, though shot through with irony, betrays a lot about Germans’ complex relationship with their leader. The German language offers four terms for mother, in descending order of familiarity: mami, mama, mutti and mutter.

“Mutter is the most chilly,” says Dirk Kurbjuweit, a long-time Merkel watcher at Der Spiegel magazine, “but if my children said ‘mutti’ to my wife she would be insulted. Mutti is strict.”

The strict stateswoman rarely gives any insights into what she really thinks. But Kurbjuweit remembers an unguarded moment five years ago on a plane to St Petersburg when the financial crisis was building and Irish banks were in danger of collapse.

“She made it quite clear that Germany takes care of Germany and its interests first, then the rest,” he said. “Her argument was, ‘We take care of our money and the Irish can take care of theirs’.”

While Merkel has shifted significantly since then towards a European solution – all the while claiming she hasn’t moved an inch – Kurbjuweit says his blood “froze” at such a stridently nationalist tone from a German leader on a European matter.

Some fellow eastern politicians, who have known Merkel since the early days, see in her as a new breed of German politician in Europe.

She applies to EU policy a method of leadership she learned from Helmut Kohl: holding out on a decision, then leaping, at the last minute, onto whichever train is moving in the popular direction while claiming she was always aboard.

The approach is wholly unsuitable in European politics, argues Markus Meckel, an SPD politician, theologian and, like Rainer Eppelmann, member of East Germany’s first and last democratically-elected government in 1990.

“Europe is just one more thing to manage for Merkel,” he says. “She’s not stupid: she knows it’s important, just as long as it doesn’t cost Germany too much.”

While citizens elsewhere in Europe battle existential economic problems – no job, no money, no prospects – Merkel’s euro crisis narrative is tailored to German voters whose primary fear is not the present, but a Zukunftsangst, fear of a less-prosperous future.

Instead of a complex crisis of financial and political failure, Merkel’s domestic version is a parable of irresponsible and overindulgent countries who now need a radical fiscal diet.

The more popular corners of the German media have taken up and amplified the message, attacking lazy Greeks or feckless Italians and creating an atmosphere of prosperity chauvinism that Merkel doesn’t challenge. Instead she watches events, deconstructs opponents’ arguments and voter needs, then reconstructs and rebalances her politics to match.

In Germany, the jury is out over whether Merkel’s approach is refreshingly rational or cynically opportunistic. Her critics argue that her inherent caution and political wile leaves her incapable or unwilling to communicate what is required to keep the European project on the road. Like her outfits, her public speeches are sombre affairs, written in language more suited to scientific journals than the political fray.

“After three manuscripts you crave Japanese horseradish by the teaspoon just to fight the growing mental paralysis,” wrote journalist Carolin Emcke in Die Zeit after studying Merkel’s speeches. “Merkel doesn’t or can’t talk about dreams and visions. She wants to think in the feasible, not the possible.”

But Merkel’s admirers say her unflappability has been a boon in the crisis. Her confidantes in Berlin, none of whom dare go on the record, dispute the accusation that she has no clear vision of where Germany and Europe need to go. She knows what she wants – closer political ties with closer mutual oversight – but knows that communicating this would be the most effective way of ensuring it won’t happen.

Instead, Angela Merkel sticks to what she knows: an East German socialisation where it was wiser to keep your views to yourself and a scientific training where it is best to view big problems as a series of smaller problems to be solved sequentially.

This strategy has, to date, made her almost unassailable at home because it allows room for continual, minute course corrections based on changing circumstances. While her opponents look on helplessly, she steers unerringly past them to land precisely where, politically, she needs to land.

East German colleagues say the oft-heard description of Merkel – that she is interested in only achieving the achievable to stay in office – is a misunderstanding of her understanding of politics and power.

Paul Krüger equates Merkel’s political understanding with the prayer for serenity: to accept the things she cannot change, the courage to change the things she can and the wisdom to know the difference. Her much-maligned pragmatism, he suggests, is borne of a clear, cold eye for the limits of any political situation.

“She has an idea of where she wants to go, but you don’t have to reach all goals at once,” he says. “She sees power as the possibility to change things for the positive, not power for power’s sake.”

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.