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Merkel's metamorphosis

March 8, 2012

She was seen as a politician with little chance of a future: dowdy and without much of a political background. But Angela Merkel made the most of her chances and became one of the world's most powerful women.

(L-R) France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, Luxembourg's Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker and Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel
Image: Reuters

There is hardly a "homo politicus" in German post-war history who has been more underestimated than the pastor's daughter from East Germany.  Not very telegenic, undogmatic, highly pragmatic - these are some of the phrases often used to describe the German chancellor.

"Angela Merkel makes decisions based on numbers, data and facts," says her biographer Jacqueline Boysen. "She freely ignores ideological or dogmatic commitments," even in her own party. And this attitude hasn't hurt her; on the contrary, "Kohl's girl" has emancipated herself to become "Mommy" - and there are a number of good reasons for that.

Untroubled childhood

"There were no clouds hanging over my childhood," Merkel once said about growing up. Born Angela Kasner, she is the oldest daughter of a rural Protestant pastor for whom education was more important than piousness.

Angela Merkel on a trip to Prague in 1982
At school, Merkel (center right) excelled in math and RussianImage: picture-alliance/dpa

In school, young Angela was watched closely by her teachers, as were all children who came from religious families. Being careful in dealing with others would certainly have been one of the lessons she learned early on.

She excelled in mathematics and Russian and completed her degree in physics in Leipzig as one of the best in her class. She was still a university student when she married Ulrich Merkel. The marriage did not last long, but she kept the name.

There were repeated encounters with the East German monitoring and surveillance system. At her first job interview, her future employer already knew that Merkel had bought new blue jeans and that she listened to Western radio broadcasts. As much as she can get worked up about these and other Stasi experiences, it never really hurt her. She was a "studied" GDR citizen: not too opportunistic, not too unruly.

From nascent democracy to 'Kohl's girl'

Angela Merkel in 1992
Merkel chose the political path in her 30sImage: picture alliance / dpa

Merkel was not an opposition figure in the former communist East Germany. In fact, she didn't discover politics until later, and it was more accidental than planned.

As the deputy spokeswoman for the last East German Prime Minister Lothar de Maiziere, at the age of 35, she had the opportunity to demonstrate her organizational talent. Shortly before, she joined the ranks of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Germany's conservative party. Up until this point, Merkel had been diligent, but now she became ambitious. "She paid attention to where she was," said de Maiziere in a later interview.

She won her first mandate for the German parliament, thanks to Günther Krause, the CDU state chairman from Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. It was allegedly also Krause, wrote Helmut Kohl in his memoirs, who initially suggested Merkel for the post of minister for women and youth affairs.

Merkel had arrived in the rarefied air of the power elite, but not particularly in an area that really suited her, noted her biographer. In Bonn, still the capital of Germany at that time, rumor had it that she only got the post because she was "young, a woman and from East Germany."

Her first political defeat was as a candidate for the position of CDU party chairman in the state of Brandenburg. She lost out to an old political pro from the West, whom Helmut Kohl had wanted to sideline. It was her first experience as a political pawn. But in 1991, Kohl, in a pragmatic move, made her one of his deputies.

Testing the waters

In 1994 her mentor pushed her up the next rung on the career ladder, as Merkel was named minister for environment and nuclear safety, an important and fitting position for the physics expert. 

In a surprise move, she swapped out her predecessor's state secretary and chose her own number two. The decision made big waves in the media and was evidence of her growing self-confidence.

Her uncompromising nature was once again displayed when faced with the controversial question of how to deal with nuclear waste. For Merkel, nuclear power was seen as manageable and the only alternative. With her uncompromising position, "Kohl's girl" had arrived in the Western-oriented, male-dominated political establishment.

Angela Merkel (right) and Helmut Kohl
Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl gave Merkel her startImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Political career

Kohl's loss in the 1998 federal election left the CDU in a state of shock - all but Merkel. She saw this as her chance to solidify her position in the post-Kohl era, and Wolfgang Schäuble, the party's new chairman, appointed her to the position of general secretary.

By the end of 1999, it emerged that the CDU had accepted illegal donations. Schäuble and Kohl were at the center of the investigation and were deeply discredited. Merkel, however, with her East German background, remained unaffected and became the party's crisis manager – and took the opportunity to bring down the former chancellor.

"The actions of Helmut Kohl have damaged the party," she wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on December 22, 1999. Merkel's split with her mentor also served as her final emancipation.

A new hope

In April 2000, Merkel was voted in as Schäuble's successor, representing a new hope for the disoriented CDU. Untainted by the smell of deceit, she was seen as a fresh start with a lack of bias.

And though the election in 2005 only saw her party garner enough votes to form a coalition with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), she achieved her goal and became chancellor.

"She always makes sure to move the pieces on the chessboard to eliminate any chance of danger to herself," says Boysen, her biographer. As leader of the CDU for 12 years, and chancellor for seven, she has seen her adversaries come and go. Powerful regional leaders like Roland Koch from Hesse, Christian Wulff of Lower Saxony or Jürgen Rüttgers in North Rhine-Westphalia have either maneuvered themselves out of the political spotlight, or have been integrated by Merkel.

The Euro chancellor

Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy
Together with Sarkozy, Merkel has taken on the euro crisisImage: dapd

Since 2008, the German chancellor has been in demand as an international crisis manager. As part of Germany's coalition government, she developed a rescue fund for the country's banks. When Greece's financial woes began troubling the eurozone, Merkel started working together with French President Nicolas Sarkozy to try to save the euro currency.

Even today, she values pragmatism above all else. She has shown a willingness to revise previously entrenched positions, most recently following the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident, which saw the former nuclear advocate decide that Germany would eventually shut down its entire nuclear power network.

"We must examine old beliefs and find new ones," she said at the CDU party convention in November. She has proven that she can lead – but many in her party are still asking in which direction she plans to take the CDU. Even today, after more than a decade at the top, Merkel is still not seen as the "soul" of the Christian conservatives.

Author: Wolfgang Dick/Volker Wagener / gb/cmk
Editor: Spencer Kimball