There are a few things about Europe that many Americans will never quite understand: pay toilets, compulsory Speedos, collective risk sharing. And when it comes to European politics, there is perhaps nothing more bewildering to an American observer than Germany’s indecipherable chancellor, Angela Merkel.
Fiercely private, lacking in charisma, plain-spoken, an occasional flip-flopper: Merkel’s defining characteristics top every U.S. presidential candidate’s “AVOID” list.
Yet the former quantum chemist, who has presided over Germany since 2005, has arrived at a persona and an approach to governance that has made her not only Forbes’ most powerful woman in the world during eight of the last 10 years — but the very embodiment of her country’s values and temperament.
As was said of “the Dude” in the classic Coen brothers’ film The Big Lebowski: “Sometimes, there’s a man — well, he’s the man for his time and place.” And in early 21st-century Germany, that man is actually a woman: Angela Merkel.
Growing Up Behind an Iron Curtain Will Make You Steely
U.S. politicians know the value of a good “origins story.” Having spent the first 35 years of her life in communist East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Merkel has the benefit of a true origins experience.
Merkel’s experience with German reunification, and the collapse of the East German economy alongside a hasty currency union with the West, perhaps also explains her cautious but ruthless approach to the current euro crisis. Lambasted by critics at home — the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has accused her of “dozing on a volcano” — and hung in effigy elsewhere in Europe, the “high mistress of austerity” has been assailed for doing little to address the underlying structural issues with the currency union while enforcing crushing reforms upon the citizens in the struggling economies of Southern Europe.
Born Angela Kasner in 1954, Merkel grew up in a picturesque village called Templin, 50 miles north of East Berlin. Her family had emigrated from West Germany after her father, a Lutheran pastor, was assigned to a congregation behind the Iron Curtain. Growing up in a surveillance state during the height of the Cold War no doubt contributed to the chancellor’s “sacred sense of privacy.” A sense that helps explain her original angst — and ongoing tensions with Barack Obama — over NSA spying, and which is one of many reasons why the U.S. surveillance of Merkel’s cell phone was more impolitic than a pat-down of Mitt Romney’s magic Mormon underwear.
Still, the chancellor’s experience with a foundering communist state has also steeled her resolve and suggests that she will not, as others in her Cabinet might prefer, abandon the European reclamation project anytime soon. “I know what living in a collapsing system feels like,” she has observed, “and I don’t want to go through that again.”
Lessons in Political Science From a Political Scientist
For many American politicians, science is a cudgel, or even a punching bag. For Merkel, who grew up idolizing Marie Curie and who has a doctorate in quantum chemistry, it is an ethos.
“Angela Merkel is both a natural scientist who thinks rationally and systematically, and a Lutheran pastor’s daughter with strong moral underpinnings,” Andreas Kraemer, a policy analyst and the director of the Ecologic Institute in Berlin, tells OZY. “That is why she comes across as a cool-headed leader not easily swayed by self-serving arguments you find so often in politics.”
When the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, Merkel, a 35-year-old divorcée and research chemist, began her transition into politics, winning a seat in the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, in 1990 as a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). And as she climbed the political ranks, serving as minister for women and youth and then the environment before becoming leader of the party in 2000, Merkel’s pragmatism — some would say opportunism — and understated, scientific approach to her new profession served her well.
As Kraemer puts it, the main ingredients for Merkel’s political ascent were “stealth on the rise, and patience and a certain ruthlessness once on top.”
Critics warn that Merkel’s tendency to govern by political expediency has been inadequate for addressing the issues facing Germany.
Not to mention one rather ruthless act to get on top. In an act of true Bismarckian realpolitik, Merkel engineered her own big break in 1999, when she publicly condemned her boss and mentor, former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, over a party-funding scandal. The act not only cleared the way for her rise to power, but with with her atypical background — not to mention her oft-mocked dress, haircut and style — established her as a new breed of politician. While the alpha males in her party jostled for position, the unassuming Merkel emerged as the ideal compromise candidate to the lead the then-opposition CDU.
Since becoming Germany’s first female chancellor in 2005, Merkel’s pragmatic, experimental leadership has been on full display. Part of this has been dictated by context, including a proportional representation system (Merkel has always headed a coalition government) and a polity that is understandably wary of aggressive, charismatic leaders.
The political scientist has shown that she’s willing to abandon her own failed policies and proposals — from supporting nuclear power to a rise in sales tax — and embrace those of the opposition (and current coalition partner), the Social Democratic Party (SPD), from increasing family benefits to ending military conscription.
Critics, however, warn that Merkel’s tendency to govern by political expediency has been grossly inadequate for addressing some of the major domestic issues facing a country with a rapidly aging population and growing gap between rich and poor. Despite a low unemployment rate, one-fifth of German workers hold low-paying, insecure “mini-jobs” without benefits — a situation that should change next year, when a new minimum hourly wage of $11.60 is introduced — the product of a recent power-sharing deal between the CDU and SPD. Score one for political expediency.
The Good German & Her Dudeness
In America, politicians wear their patriotism on their sleeves — preferably pinned on their lapels. Being German, by contrast, is to go about one’s business, and not for the purpose of being seen doing so. Once prompted by a reporter to pay homage to what she most admired about her homeland, Merkel, whose wry sense of humor is another underestimated quality, replied, “I think of well-sealed German windows.”
But Merkel has come to embody her nation like no other politician. As one might expect of an archetypal German, the chancellor is diligent, hardworking, ever-prepared and punctual. The leitmotif of both her personal and political life is modesty — from her rather monotonous wardrobe to shopping for her own groceries and living in the same Berlin apartment she’s had since before becoming chancellor.
For a country that is a “reluctant hegemon” on the world stage, Merkel is the aptly circumspect captain. And in a time of great economic uncertainty, she has been a reassuringly stable presence, particularly in a nation with a dire fear of debt and inflation.
It is perhaps no surprise then that 71 percent of Germans approve of the chancellor’s leadership, and when it comes to pressing issues such as a reluctance to impose stringent sanctions against Russia for its actions in Ukraine, Merkel and her compatriots largely see eye to eye.
An overachieving East German square like Merkel may seem worlds away from a Californian hippie slacker like Jeffrey Lebowski, but there is a Dude-like Zen and authenticity to her —the sort that American politicians would be hard-pressed to pull off.
The chancellor does not appear overly concerned with what others think of her; she’s not out — in the parlance of our time — to win hearts and minds.
The chancellor abides.
Why you should care
She may be a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a Bettina Schönbach pantsuit, but the enigmatic German leader is redefining how a successful politician looks and acts.