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Who is the real Angela Merkel?
After close to 6,000 days Angela Merkel is leaving the Chancellery next week.
Since she assumed office on November 22nd, 2005, four British Prime Ministers, three French Presidents, three US Presidents... and seven Italian Prime Ministers have come and gone.
At four federal elections in a row the German public put their trust in the pastor’s daughter from small town Brandenburg.
Often described as the most powerful woman in the world, she is also the only Chancellor ever to leave office at a time of her own choosing.
In the history books, her name will be associated with the Euro crisis, Germany trading success, refugees and the rise of the far-right.
But who is the real Angela Merkel?
This topic has become a genre in its own right in German journalism. Many a journalist has been tasked with unveiling the woman behind the public figure.
The question is asked with such frequency that it is hard to escape the impression that the German public never really got to know the woman they trusted to hold the country’s highest office.
That seems strange. The ironic epithet given to her early in her time in power - Mutti - implies intimacy: Merkel the kindly mother. It is often described as being patronizing or sexist. Just as true though is that the epithet came to be used endearingly. What does this say about a public content to live in the role of Kind?
It is said about Merkel that, the longer she was exposed to public scrutiny, the less she revealed about herself. By that logic, we need to go back to the beginning to have any hope of getting to know her.
The earliest footage I have found is a 50-minute talk from 1991 with legendary interviewer Günter Gaus as part of his Zur Person series.
She had been in politics for just two years, but had already been promoted to Families Minister and was about to take on the role of deputy leader of the CDU. Helmut Kohl had handpicked her as the east German, female symbol of renewal within his stuffy conservative party.
The woman whom we meet on camera is not so different to the Angela Merkel we know now. Careful, unassuming, a kind face. She often seems slightly confused by the nature of the questions, unsure of why the interviewer is so interested in her as a person.
At one point Gaus asks her whether the fact that she has been lifted up the career ladder at such a young age means that she has become a tool of more powerful people. “How does that affect your feeling of self worth?” he asks.
Slightly perplexed, she repeats “my feeling of self-worth,” takes a deep breath and says “My self-worth tells me I should only do as much as I can expect to achieve.” Typical Merkel. A journalist tries to coax an intimate answer out of her and she replies with a banality.
(In her last ever interview as Chancellor, given to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the journalist asked her what she planned to do with her first day of freedom and she replied by saying that she couldn’t answer the question as she didn’t know exactly what day that would be.)
But the Gaus interview does give insights into Merkel’s inner psyche that later interviewers were rarely given.
She comes across as a woman with an ambivalence towards political ideologies, either from the left or from the right.
Talking about her father, a protestant pastor from the small town of Templin, she says that he is still a socialist at heart despite the disappointments he experienced in the GDR.
“He believes in a more just world,” she says, before correcting herself. “No I don’t mean a more just world, I mean a world in which socialism could be possible.”
Pulled up by Gaus on her own feeling towards the importance of Gerechtigkeit, she answers curtly “I don’t need that, I have a different outlook.”
She admits though that she spent her youth in East Germany working within the communist system so that she wouldn’t end up having to study theology. Her time spent in the Free German Youth was “70 percent opportunism,” she admits.
Slightly later, she adds somewhat obscurely that “I conformed then and I conform now, too.”
The most fascinating moment in the interview comes as they discuss the Bürgerbewegung in the last days of the GDR, which Merkel was not involved in.
She says that she didn’t feel comfortable among the democracy activists, whose “self-regarding” debates on political principles never seemed to involve discussion of what was politically possible. “Maybe that reveals an authoritarian side to my personality,” she concedes.
Gaus pushes back, saying that her affinity to structure and hierarchies could lead to sterility and a lack of innovation. “What if the structures become more important than the imagination which produces new ideas?” he asks.
“That is a danger,” she admits. “One must guard against it. I don’t want to be one of those who avoid debates.”
Her next comment reveals though that she doesn’t see creativity and imagination as belonging to the skills of a good politician.
“People expect from their politicians a type of Dienstleistung (service) and that service means solving problems,” she says. “I lived with unachievable promises for so many years in the GDR that I strive for the achievable.”
This exchange is a harbinger for many of the criticisms that have been levelled at Merkel in more recent years.
Even the most complementary biographies of the Chancellor concede that her rule has become stale and unimaginative in its later years.
Even the hagiographies say that she was too concerned with structures and system to anticipate abrupt change - that her lack of imagination made her too reactive.
The longer she was there, the less she spoke
Of all the later profiles that I’ve read of the Chancellor in recent months, the one that strikes me as the most honest was written by Alexander Osang for Der Spiegel.
Titled ‘Angela Merkel and Me’, the article recounts how his editors have repeatedly asked Osang, himself an East German, to write profiles of Merkel over the past two decades. But he has never come close to getting to know her.
When he first tried to dig under the surface of the persona Angela Merkel shortly after she became CDU leader in 2000, he ended up doing most of the talking when they met. After reading his piece, she observed drily that he “got more out of her father” than from her.
With every subsequent attempt he had less success. Sometimes she sent her press secretary to answer the questions, sometimes requests for comment went completely unanswered. When they met on other occasions he wasn’t quite sure if she recognized him.
By the time der Spiegel asked him to write one last profile, Osang simply said no. He’d given up on believing there was anything more he could learn about her. Anybody remotely close to her - her family, her husband, good friends - hasn’t spoken about her in over two decades.
When one reflects upon this - in a world in which some politicians think they can endear themselves to the public by buying a new dog or having a late child - that really is a remarkable thing.
Osang observes though that this discretion on private matters is coupled with an honesty in tone on politics.
“Angela Merkel looks annoyed when she is annoyed. When she laughs, she really laughs. She only seems to say what she believes is right,” he writes.
Sometimes this means that she doesn’t say much at all. But better say little than resort to empty rhetoric.
Perhaps there might not be that much to learn about the real Merkel that we haven’t already learned from the public figure. It might have been an eternal disappointment to those hoping to find something more profound beneath the surface, but Merkel is Merkel. That is the humdrum secret to her success.
*For all fans of political history, Gaus’ interviews are a great resource. They includes talks with everyone from Willy Bandt, to Hannah Arendt, to Rudi Dutschke. His interviewees often have a pipe or a cigar in their mouths as they philosophize on politics and human nature.