Why you should care

This bold, media-savvy mother of seven is not just Germany’s first female defense minister — she may also be its next chancellor.

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Pundits like to point out that German Chancellor Angela Merkel keeps a network of women near her at the top, but her recent cabinet rejig now has them wondering if she’s turned from alliance building to succession planning.

Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s new defense minister, is Merkel’s most forward-looking female promotion to date, and the move is being heralded not just because she is the first woman in the role, but also because it may well signify Germany’s future.

Von der Leyen, in addition to cultivating a successful political career and earning a doctorate in medicine, somehow found time to raise seven children.

With the German media wondering out loud whether the chancellor will stand for election again in 2017, this canny move was considered nothing short of an elevation to chancellor-in-waiting, with some anointing her as a crown princess.

The odds on the 55-year-old’s running for chancellor for the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) have shortened significantly. “She has this aura — that she, after Merkel, is the one,” Ulrike Guérot, senior associate for Germany at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told OZY.

In many ways, Merkel and Von der Leyen represent different ends of the CDU spectrum. Merkel tends to be as conservative as the party she leads. By contrast, Von der Leyen, despite growing up at the heart of the CDU (her father is Ernst Albrecht, state premier of Lower Saxony from 1976 to 1990), belongs to the more progressive wing of her party. In fact, she once admitted that if it hadn’t been for her father, she may have joined the Green Party.

Von der Leyen, in addition to cultivating a successful political career and earning a doctorate in medicine, somehow found time to raise seven children, and her family is an essential part of her public identity. That’s partly because her political career is something of an act of defiance in a country where mothers are often encouraged to stay home.

Germany’s chancellor-in-waiting once suggested that family is a good training ground for politics. “No one gets things 100 percent their own way, either in their company, their family or their party,” she told Die Welt newspaper. It seems her personal experience helped her become the most popular and effective family minister Merkel has had, with Von der Leyen making the “work-family” policy her specialty. In 2007, she introduced a new parental allowance benefit and pushed to triple the number of day care spots.

Since 2002, Von der Leyen’s political career has been on a steep trajectory: She won her first elected position as state MP that year and was appointed federal family minister three years later. In 2009, she was promoted to run the labor department. Now, with her ascension to the elite inner circle, Von der Leyen points to her speedy climb as a source of strength.

Close headshot of Ursula looking left of frame smiling

Defense Minister, Mother of Seven, Next German Chancellor?

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“I know I lack the classic party career,” she told Die Welt. “But then I only started 12 years ago. And it does the party good to integrate lateral recruits.”

Her unusual path may also explain why Von der Leyen is more of a risk taker than Merkel. Germany’s Defence Ministry has been a poisoned chalice in recent years, with its last three ministers dogged by scandals including civilian deaths in Afghanistan, plagiarized doctorates and the scrapping of the costly Euro Hawk drone program.

Von der Leyen knows she has taken on a tricky brief, but if her past is anything to go by, she is likely to be proactive. It was during her term at the Labor Ministry that she took a risk that could easily have left her sidelined by Merkel. Already considered independent amongst the CDU’s ranks — respected but commanding no discernible faction of political allies — Von der Leyen came out in favor of introducing a women’s quota on Germany’s executive boards.

For a notoriously cautious leader like Merkel, Von der Leyen’s appointment was a major risk.

This progressive policy was opposed by business elites, coalition allies and, once she was persuaded to come down from the fence, Merkel herself. And there’s no better illustration of Merkel’s faith in Von der Leyen than the fact that she allowed the minister to maintain her independent stance on quotas.

Nevertheless, for a notoriously cautious leader like Merkel, Von der Leyen’s appointment to the defense department was itself a major risk and, therefore, may signal future planning. Von der Leyen has zero military experience, and has mainly focused on social issues such as blocking Internet child pornography or improving workplace conditions for older workers. There were plenty of reasons why Merkel might have opted for continuity rather than change — and with a novice to boot.

Germany’s military, for example, is in the midst of two logistically complex upheavals — the withdrawal of the Bundeswehr from Afghanistan and its transformation into a wholly professional army following the abolition of national service. These complex trials make the brief a test case. “If she can do defense, then she can perhaps do chancellor,” Guérot said.

Risks aside, Merkel’s decision may have been a political masterstroke. The army’s switch to being fully professional required a minister who knew how to make the military an attractive career option for young people, and who better than a popular, prominent figure who previously managed government policy in the family and labor ministries? Only a few weeks into her tenure, she has already embarked on a major project: creating a family-friendly military. With her husband, who’s also a doctor, minding their kids much of the time, she knows a bit about structuring family life around careers.

And Von der Leyen’s influence could potentially extend beyond Germany’s borders. The use of drones is a particularly hot topic in Germany, and so far she seems to be leaning in favor of them. “This is a hugely sensitive issue. You will probably not be able to argue that German soldiers die while Americans are flying drones,” said Guérot.

While three more-seasoned defense ministers failed to rise to the occasion, this multitasking, overachieving mom might be just what her country needs. After all, her biggest criticism to date has been that she’s too good — intimidating her colleagues with her discipline, her popularity, her media savvy and her air of independence.

One thing is clear — if Ursula von der Leyen does indeed succeed Angela Merkel in 2017, Germany will have a far more audacious leader at the helm.

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