Shortcuts / 16 December 2021

Angela Merkel

After 16 years Angela Merkel is no longer Chancellor of Germany. Leading Europe’s biggest economy – and in a lot of ways, Europe – through some of the most challenging times post-WWII, she has certainly left a mark on modern political history. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we delve a little deeper into Merkel’s early life growing up in East Germany, her political legacy, and what’s expected to happen in Germany post-Merkel.

Let’s kick things off at the beginning, her childhood.
Seems like a good place to start… Angela Merkel was born in Hamburg in 1954.

Wasn’t Germany split into 4 at the time?
It was. Hamburg was in West Germany, which was allied with Western democracies like England and America. East Germany was allied with Russia, or the Soviet Union which made it a socialist state, which points to the political system that believes that everything should be owned or controlled by the state. Merkel and her family moved to the East with her family as a little girl.

Was that a big deal?
Yep – because when Merkel became Prime Minister, she was the first leader to have come from the East.

So what were the differences between life in East and West Germany at that time?
Well, West Germany had all the mod cons that you would have seen in America: new appliances, modern cars, and Levi jeans, which were banned in the East because they’d banned goods that were made in America.

So if you wore jeans, you were really pushing the limits…
It’s hard to imagine now, but yes – they were seen as provocative, Western, and a way of pushing back against the people in charge.

So what was Merkel’s experience growing up in the East?
Her family moved there for her Dad’s work. Her father, Horst Kasner, was a Lutheran pastor. They were a family who believed in hard work and humility.

What was she like at school?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, little Angela was a straight-A student. Her teachers said although she possessed an inner confidence she was very quiet and did not want to stand out or seek recognition.

And the tale goes that she was always pretty interested in politics…
She was. She graduated top of her high school class – but despite that, Merkel still had to battle her way into university. That’s because it was considered an unorthodox pathway for a pastor’s daughter in a Stasi state – but she succeeded and enrolled in science at the highly respected Leipzig University, beginning her studies in 1973.

Why science?
Merkel developed a keen interest in the work of renowned scientist and pioneer in radiation treatment, Marie Curie. Portraits of Curie along with Merkel’s other role model, Catherine the Great, used to hang in her office when she was Chancellor.

Seems like a niche interest…
Yep, but it saw her get herself a PhD in quantum chemistry. She worked as a physicist at an East German science facility but grew restless around the time the Berlin wall was torn down in 1989.

So that’s when she gave politics a crack?
That’s right. She did her due diligence on several political parties, and eventually joined an opposition political movement called the Democratic Awakening in English. She became their spokesperson in 1990 and the party merged with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in that same year.

And when did she officially enter politics?
So at the first all-German elections to the German Parliament, known as the “Bundestag”, Angela Merkel won what we would call her seat and entered politics.

How did she rise up the political ranks?
At 36yo, Merkel was appointed Minister for Women and Sport. This was in Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s government. Kohl was a great mentor to the younger Merkel, later promoting her to Minister for Environment, a position she held until the CDU lost the 1998 federal election…

But his reign wasn’t to last…
That’s right. The CDU under Kohl’s leadership had essentially received and kept illegal donations. While it was never suggested he personally benefited, he had oversight of the party’s financial structures. What Merkel did was pen an op-ed to a major German newspaper calling for her party to sever ties with Kohl.

So she basically turned on her mentor…
She did. This helped neatly position her as the face of the new CDU, no longer tied to the controversial figures of the past. Merkel then became deputy leader of the CDU before taking the job of party leader in 2000.

How did she then get the top job?
It was in 2005 when the CDU made their way back into government, where Merkel was elected Germany’s first female Federal Chancellor.

And she was a popular leader…
Yep. When she became Chancellor, critics said her reign wouldn’t last beyond a year or two. But she went on to win 4 elections and is the only German Chancellor since 1949 to leave of her own volition.

She also leaves behind a huge legacy…
She certainly does. We’ll start with her first role as Minister for Women, where she was instrumental in steering the Equal Opportunities Act through parliament and ensuring each child was guaranteed a place in kindergarten. That was considered a big deal at the time.

Especially in a very male-dominated Cabinet…
For sure. Merkel also steered through policies about the need for friendlier and more flexible working arrangements especially for women in the workforce.

And wasn’t the Environment portfolio her favourite?
It was. Merkel was a driving force within the European Union for greater commitments to lowering greenhouse gases.

Gotcha. So what else did she get involved in?
There were a few crises that she had to deal with, both domestic and global… Firstly, the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 and the ensuing European Debt Crisis shook the EU to its core. But it was the fiscally conservative Merkel who reluctantly but deftly gained support from EU countries to pull together a bailout package for debt-stricken Greece.

What was the reaction to that?
Well, the strict austerity measures demanded of Greece caused great disharmony at the time, but it’s said that Merkel’s pragmatic and scientific approach in nutting out the deal can be attributed to keeping the EU together during such a precarious time.

And there was another crisis soon after that…
That was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and occupation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014. Merkel coordinated the EU response and ultimately Russia agreed to a ceasefire.

What was Merkel’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin like?
Perhaps crucially for the security of the entire region, she and Putin have what is believed to be a respectful relationship. And she has an ability to keep him in check – they speak each other’s languages although these days they apparently converse in German, as Merkel’s Russian is a little rusty.

That’s fair enough… And what about Merkel’s relationships with other leaders?
One biographer claims Merkel viewed former US President Barack Obama as quite complex and she was wary of him- which may have had something to do with allegations the NSA was tapping Merkel’s mobile phone.

What about Trump?
Well, his presidency was said to have convinced her to stay on for another term to reset the relationship with the US post-Trump…

But one of the most memorable features of her time in power was her position on refugees.
That’s right. Her decision in 2015 to allow almost 1 million Syrian refugees to resettle in Germany was certainly controversial. Merkel really had a fight on her hands both within her Cabinet and within the EU to get them to agree to Germany’s role in particular in that major humanitarian crisis.

So what urged her to act?
Commentators said Merkel’s compulsion to act was a mix of her deep Christian values and a clear-headed realisation that if Germany didn’t step up the Balkan states would be left to deal with the disaster on their own.

But as you said, it attracted a lot of criticism…
It did, both at home and within the EU. She was accused of lack of consultation with colleagues and introducing a new security threat to the region. It provided an opening for the far-right which changed the political landscape in Germany.

So like all politicians, Merkel is loved and hated…
Indeed, and it was back in 2018 that she wasn’t seeking re-election for a 5th term. So this year, she wasn’t on the ticket for the German elections that were held in September.

What was the outcome of that election?
A new German government has just been sworn in – and it doesn’t include Merkel’s Christian Democrats, which has been in power for about 50 of the last 70 years.

So it’s a big deal…
It sure is. The nature of Germany’s elections means that doing coalition deals are required to take governments, and even though the CDU came in 2nd in this year’s election, it wasn’t able to broker a deal this time around.

Who was the winner?
The centre-left Social Democrats – the SPD – emerged as the winner under Olaf Scholz as their leader. He’s done a deal with the Greens and the business-focused Free Democratic Party (FDP) to take power. And Scholz said he wasn’t willing to go into coalition with the CDU this time around because the election result showed the people wanted change.

Who is this Scholz guy?
He’ll be familiar to watchers of German politics. The SPD was in coalition with the CDU and Scholz was someone Merkel worked closely with because he was the Vice-Chancellor of Germany and the Federal Minister for Finance from 2018 to 2021.

And maybe some voters just couldn’t get their head around voting for the party with Merkel gone…
That’s one narrative doing the rounds at the moment, and of course, there is a big leadership void for the new team to fill. They will have some challenges to sort out right away, not least of which is climate change.

What’s Scholz’s position on that issue?
He has already outlined an ambitious agenda for Germany on that front. Merkel had been criticised for not making enough progress to decarbonise the very industrial German economy. But part of the new coalition’s agreement is to phase out coal and bring the nation’s economy in line with its climate policies.

So what’s next for Merkel?
There has been lots of speculation about her future plans because at 67yo she’s certainly young enough to take on a new role. Some see her accepting a guest lecturer role at a major university or a senior role at the European Union or another big international institution. But as for Merkel herself, she has remained tight-lipped about what’s next.

And weren’t there some health concerns?
Possibly – a couple of years ago Merkel was seen trembling uncontrollably on a few occasions, and while it hasn’t happened recently that we know of, many say some downtime is in order.

It’s been a long 16 years after all…
It has, and a holiday may very well be on the cards for her. Merkel and her husband – who is a chemistry professor – have previously enjoyed hiking holidays in northern Italy’s Ortler mountains. Sicily is said to be a favourite spot, and they also have a holiday home in the picturesque Uckermark region of Brandenburg, near where Merkel grew up.

So there are a few options as she rides off into the sunset…
Yep – and good luck to her.

Squiz recommends:

Waiter spills beer on Angela Merkel – YouTube

‘The Merkel legacy’The Guardian

Get the Squiz Today newsletter

It's a quick read and doesn't take itself too seriously. Get on it.