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The many faces of Angela Merkel

Stefan Dege
August 31, 2017

Who is CDU head Angela Merkel? Reuters journalist Andreas Rinke examined the German chancellor in a "lexicon." Before the German election he's traced the private and political life of Europe's most powerful woman.

Bundestagswahl 2013 Wahlkampfabschlussveranstaltung CDU Merkel
Image: Reuters

Everything you ever wanted to know about German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been compiled in a book called "Das Lexicon Merkel - Die Kanzlerin von A-Z" (The Merkel Encyclopedia: the Chancellor from A to Z).

The book offers answers to questions both private and political: Does Merkel drink alcohol? Does she get angry? What does her refugee policy look like? Where did the phrase "We'll do it," come from?

The 447-page book is set up like an encyclopedia, with entries that rarely span more than one page and supported by over 1,200 sources. It's a unique undertaking conceived by German journalist Andreas Rinke, an academic historian who has followed the chancellor for 16 years and served as the head Berlin political correspondent for the news service Reuters.

DW's Stefan Dege spoke with Rinke to see what the author found out about Angela Merkel.

DW: Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel has become quite famous while in office. Why, then, does the world need this book now?

Author Andreas Rinke, Copyright: Klampen Verlag
Historian and Reuters political correspondent Andreas RinkeImage: Klampen Verlag

Andreas Rinke: The world needs this book because it's a completely different approach when explaining the politician as it would be explaining Merkel the person. That's why I chose to write it in the style of a dictionary or encyclopedia and not as a biography, of which there are many. But as the last year has shown, there are many who are still trying to puzzle out what drives this woman and why she behaves the way she does. That was something that became even more distinct in light of the refugee crisis.

So what would you say drives Merkel?

If we look at the refugee crisis, then there would be two or three driving forces that determined her position. One was the desire to keep Europe together. Each person can decide for him- or herself if that was a good or a bad thing, but it was in any case a motivator that drove Merkel to decide not to close the borders. She thought that if she had done so, a domino effect would take place throughout Europe if the most important and central country closed its borders.

Her Christian beliefs, which she brought with her from her upbringing, also proved a driving force. Among those beliefs is the awareness that one steps in to help others. That's something she had already shown quite early in her political career, when, in the 1990s she referred to the reception of refugees fleeing the war in the former Yugoslavia as a humanitarian responsibility. Today, as in those days, she has said that while the assistance is only temporary, the wealthier countries like Germany and the EU as a whole need to be prepared to offer help.

Das Merkel Lexikon book cover
The new book is a lexicon of knowledge about MerkelImage: Klampen Verlag

Finally, there is certainly her experience from East Germany. The feeling that after Reunification, West Germany helped the country and the feeling that borders and walling-off people will not prevent them from going where they want to be.

In your book, "Das Merkel Lexikon," you begin with the letter A for Abschottung(isolation) and work your way through the alphabet to Z for Zeit(time). Which of the more than 300 words in the book do you feel characterizes Merkel the best?

It's tough to say. In the end, it's not about these individual entries but about the combination of the more than 300 words - which is why the book is in this format. As an outside observer and journalist, one cannot completely describe a person. We can only look at the person, and do so at a relative distance. And although I was able to witness many of the appointments and engagements that she had as either chancellor or as the head of the CDU, in the end it's just an approximation. The idea with this book was to gather as many of these individual aspects together in order to create a greater whole.

What I have found fascinating is that after 11 years in office, the chancellor has displayed a wide range of behaviors, some of which appear contradictory and these are sometimes welcomed and sometimes criticized. On the one side is this image of her as a pushover, or as a person who is a poor decision maker, but then on the other hand, she is considered unrepentant and loyal to her principles.

That's the image that has been shaped of her over the last year due to the refugee crisis. For me, the allure of this project was to make it clear that within Merkel, you can find all of these elements, evidenced differently in different political arenas. It depends on who is she is governing with and what the political state of the world and of Europe is in. The European aspect was very decisive throughout the 11 years of Merkel's chancellorship.

Merkel joking around with French president Francois Hollande, Copyright: picture-alliance/AP Photo/F. Mori
A rare picture of Merkel joking around with French President Francois HollandeImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/F. Mori

Recently, the most searched term for the chancellor was, "Who is Angela Merkel?" How would you answer that question?

(Laughing) I tried to answer that question in the book's 400 pages. Angela Merkel is a very complex politician who is comprised of many unique aspects, who has a strong drive for structure and for power, for whom it is not a contradiction to have principles and present oneself humanely while also striving for political power as her predecessor [Eds.: former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder] also believed. Only power offers the chance to change something in one's own mind.