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Angela Merkel at 65: The definer of an era

Kay-Alexander Scholz
July 17, 2019

Angela Merkel was born on July 17, 1954. She became German chancellor in 2005, fundamentally changing the country. Often praised for her calm demeanor, her time in power has nonetheless been turbulent.

Angela Merkel stands facing a soldier who salutes her
Image: Reuters/H. Hanschke

For many years, Chancellor Angela Merkel's characteristic diamond-shaped hand gesture, known in German as the "Merkel-rhombus," was the first thing most Germans tended to associate with the lawmaker's physical appearance. Indeed, her trademark gesture even featured on some of her party's 2013 campaign posters. In a sense, it symbolized Merkel's imperturbable, steadfast personality.

But things are different today. She was recently captured on camera shaking uncontrollably at public events, leaving many to wonder: Is Angela Merkel ill?

Merkel presses her hands together to make the iconic so-called Raute sign
Merkel's hand gesture, known as a 'Raute' ('rhombus') in German, has become iconicImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Schreiber

The Merkel era

Chancellor Merkel has less power than the French, Russian and US heads of government, but she has profoundly impacted Germany during her 14 years in charge. It's been a veritable Merkel era, so much so that German teenagers today have known only her as Germany's leader.

Under Merkel's reign, Germany's economy prospered, even despite the global financial crisis of 2007-08. Germany, which as recently as 2005 was still known as the "sick man of Europe," re-emerged as an economic growth engine. Over time, German unemployment fell by half, and tax revenue grew. And Germany's move in 2009 to adopt a balanced-budget provision marked a paradigm shift that literally paid off: The country has gone from public deficit to surplus.

Merkel speaks in front of Siemens chairman Joe Kaeser as they stand in front of a Siemens sign
During Merkel's time as chancellor, Germany's economy has boomed and companies like Siemens have done wellImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Kahnert

Skilled crisis manager

Merkel's power became most apparent during politically turbulent times. When the EU struggled to take decisive action during the eurozone crisis, on the Greek bailout, and after Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, Merkel stepped up to the plate. She hosted many heads of government and state in Berlin for talks. Local media has been impressed with her ability to transform the German capital into a hot spot of European diplomacy.

Merkel has proved herself to be a skilled conflict manager and been repeatedly lauded as the world's most powerful woman. She is held in high esteem by the German populace, including in the former East Germany, where she was raised. Yet despite her popularity, Merkel, the daughter of a Protestant pastor, has remained humble and unpretentious.

Herlinde Koelbl stands in front of portraits of Angela Merkel
While Merkel may not play up her fame, she has nonetheless been photographed many times, including by Herlinde Koelbl (above)Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Vennenbernd

'Mutti' Merkel

Merkel has modernized her party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU). Young, female party members were encouraged to rise up the ranks, visibly changing the party. Merkel, meanwhile, has remained true to herself, and Germans have appreciated her authenticity.

At some stage, many Germans began affectionately referring to Merkel as "Mutti," an affectionate German term for mother. But some argue that in relying on Merkel's quasi-maternal leadership role, Germans lost their appetite for healthy, democratic debate.

Merkel also transformed both her party and her governments into efficient decision-making apparatuses, sacrificing diversity of opinion in the process — and giving her quasi-maternal character a negative taint. She pushed through the abolition of compulsory military service and Germany's withdrawal from nuclear energy, thereby sidelining some of the more conservative figures in her party. Indeed, German political scientist Wolfgang Merkel (no relation) recently argued that the CDU under Merkel shifted from being a center-right to a purely centrist party, leaving a political vacuum on the right, which the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has exploited.


A poster of Merkel for the CDU is attached to a post above an AfD poster during the 2017 parliamentary election campaign
The CDU moved towards the center under Merkel, which some analysts say created space on the right, allowing the far-right AfD to gain a footholdImage: imago/Müller-Stauffenberg

'We can do it!'

Merkel will surely go down in history as the leader who, at the height of the refugee crisis in August 2015, proclaimed: "We can do it!" ("Wir schaffen das!") With these words, Merkel indicated Germany was open to taking in hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers from Syria and neighboring war-torn regions. While Merkel has since tried to remedy mistakes made during that time and after, Germany remains deeply divided over the issue of immigration and asylum-seekers.

In fact, the entire European continent is split over how to handle refugees and migrants. The EU's eastern member states reject German plans to redistribute asylum-seekers across the bloc. A new coalition has emerged with Italy joining Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary.

A refugee holds up a photo of Angela Merkel
In fall 2015 Merkel allowed hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers into Germany. The move was praised by some and criticized by others.Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Hoppe

What's next?

If Angela Merkel were an ordinary employee, she would normally retire next year. As it is, nobody knows if she will carry on until her current chancellorship comes to its scheduled end in 2021 or whether she will step down beforehand. Her current coalition, which includes Germany's Social Democrats (SPD), is considered weak, and her own party's approval ratings have hit a historic low. Right now, speculation is rife that she may resign early for health reasons, fed in part by her recent shaking episodes.

Right now, however, Merkel will probably be looking forward to her summer holiday. Shortly after her birthday, she usually heads to the annual Bayreuth Opera festival and then recharges her batteries in the mountains. And upon her return, many will be eager to know if the respite has cured her shaking spells, though there are plenty of other pressing issues to focus on in German politics.

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