Angela Merkel′s shaking changes how Germany′s leaders discuss their health | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 11.07.2019
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Angela Merkel's shaking changes how Germany's leaders discuss their health

When Angela Merkel shakes, the whole of Germany worries. But, comfortably seated on Thursday, the chancellor got through a state reception untroubled. Politicians revealing health issues is no longer taboo in Germany.

Watch video 01:33

German public baulk at coverage of Merkel's health

Why hadn't someone already thought of such an obvious solution? During the new Danish prime minister's visit to Berlin on Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her guest, Mette Frederiksen, were seated in chairs. Merkel sat calmly through military honors and listened to both countries' national anthems without shaking.

On Wednesday, Merkel, 64, suffered a third bout of shaking within the space of a few weeks while standing in the courtyard at the Chancellery. But, before long, she seemed her usual self again — the chancellor whom many have long come to know: calm, matter-of-fact, emotionally restrained but with a slight smile.

"I am doing well," Merkel said just an hour after she was seen shaking uncontrollably again. "As I have recently said, since the military honors with [Ukrainian President] Volodymyr Zelenskiy, I have been in a processing phase. That is apparently not yet completely finished, but progress has been made. And I have to live with it for a while now. I am fine."

Is the chancellor unwell? Is she running out of steam? The day following the latest shaking spell, the front page of Germany's mass-circulation Bild newspaper read: "It just doesn't stop."

A shot of the front of Bild with a photo of Merkel and the headline: It just doesn't stop (Bild/Foto: DW/P. Hille)

'It just doesn't stop' read the headline of the Bild newspaper

Merkel's health began making headlines after she was seen shaking during a reception for Zelenskiy in mid-June in the courtyard of the Chancellery. But, nine days later during a farewell ceremony for the departing justice minister, Merkel was seen shaking again — this time holding her hands in front of her body. But, once moving, she was back to normal.

Case of dehydration?

For the incident beside the Ukrainian president, the official line was that Merkel was not sufficiently hydrated. Indeed, temperatures in Berlin were scorching that day. After the second spell, German media reported that the shaking might possibly be psychological.

Though health issues are a fact of life, German politicians have long treated them as if they were state secrets. Only a few minutes before Merkel publicly commented that she had to live with the occasional shaking, her spokesperson, Ulrike Demmer, went on a reassurance offensive, emphasizing that all is well with the chancellor: "In the past three weeks, she not only attended all appointments but also made great achievements." And this is true, Merkel has not canceled a single meeting, and she negotiated well into the night at the G20 summit in Japan after having declared that "I am fine!"

Read more: What causes uncontrollable cramps or shaking?

Germany: Unaccustomed to leaders falling ill

The resulting frank discussions on how the chancellor is faring and the fact that Merkel is taking a stand in openly addressing her health are signs of an evolving German political landscape.

In the past, reporting on the health of chancellors has been the exception rather than the norm. In the 1970s, Chancellor Willy Brandt, of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), experienced long periods of depression unbeknownst to the public. Similarly, in 1989, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Chancellor Helmut Kohl survived an attempt by his fellow Christian Democrats to oust him at a party conference while he was in excruciating pain from a prostate illness. No one knew that Kohl was unwell at the time.

Evidently these chancellors knew what they were doing: Germans, who view dependability as a great asset in politicians, do not like it when their leaders show signs of weakness. And, usually, they do not want to know about it either.

Watch video 00:19

Merkel after third shaking spell: 'No need to worry about me'

Politicians in Germany are also afforded more privacy than in other democracies where the topic of leaders' health is dealt with differently. In France, it is not improper to discuss the president's health; likewise, in the US, the press even reports on the president's bloodwork. But that level of transparency hasn't always been the norm. Presidents such as Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were seriously ill while in office, but the public were provided few, if any details.

Changing times

The way that the illnesses of public figures are viewed is changing in Germany, and certain individuals have contributed to this shift. The popular Social Democratic state premier of Rhineland-Palatinate, Malu Dreyer, has always been open about her battle with multiple sclerosis.

In the more strictly controlled states around the world, this topic becomes difficult. Dictators and autocrats rarely fall ill — at least not officially. Instead, images such as those of Russian President Vladimir Putin riding a horse shirtless through the wilderness reinforce the perception of a strong leader.

Merkel has since diffused some of the drama surrounding her health, telling reporters: "You don't have to worry about me." In doing so, she's set about getting on with it.

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