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Merkel and Gauck

Bernd Grässler / tm
September 23, 2015

The upper echelons of united Germany are largely populated by West Germans. But both the chancellor and the president are from the former East. Sometimes it shows. Although more in his case than hers.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Spata

At the end of August 2015, as the refugee crisis reached new dimensions, Angela Merkel remained silent. But then the public following of the riots against refugees in the Saxon town of Heidenau forced her to speak out. For the first time since taking office, she went to visit a refugee camp, and shortly thereafter, made the surprising decision to open Germany’s borders for a "one-off humanitarian act."

Even today, there are situations in which the East German (GDR) heritage of the 'most powerful woman in the world' is thought to be obvious. Psychoanalyst Hans-Joachim Maaz lists observance, caution, skepticism, and a reluctance to expose oneself to attack as East German characteristics.

Maaz, who worked in the GDR as a neurologist and who wrote a book about the consequences of repression on the psyche of East Germans, says Merkel rules with caution rather than with courage for change, and describes her as the opposite of a typical West German male politician in that she doesn’t display 'narsissistic dominance.'

Silence as a strategy for survival

Hans-Joachim Maaz
Hans-Joachim MaazImage: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Galuschka

"Having learned to be silent during the GDR era is a great advantage," writes Gertrud Höhler in one of many biographies about the chancellor. "It was one of the strategies for survival." But she also wrote that nobody really knows what drives Merkel.

Her trump is her popularity among a public that largely regards her as unpretentious and a down-to-earth exception among top politicians. But the political elite, on the other hand, view the Protestant leader with sharper eyes.

Not only does she lack the breeding of the CDU, but was a scientist in the GDR. She might be a vicar’s daughter and come from a family that watched West German television and spoke critically of the Socialist Unity Party (SED), but as she has said herself, there was not enough courage to oppose the status quo.

The peaceful revolution of the last days of the GDR washed scientists, vicars and engineers into politics. And physicist Merkel became Helmut Kohl’s token East German woman for the first all-German cabinet.

The girl from the Uckermark in Brandenburg learned from her mentor and quickly took in the rules of the West. By 2008 the woman who began her political career in an East German civilian movement was organizing a birthday party for Josef Ackermann, then CEO of the Deutsche Bank, at the chancellery.

"It's the economy, stupid", the slogan from Bill Clinton’s election campaign, could be from Angela Merkel, who once experienced an economy of scarcity and the economic collapse of the GDR.

The "all-German politician"

October 1989: Joachim Gauck
October 1989: Joachim GauckImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Wittenburg

In 2005 Merkel assured her best known biographer Gerd Langguth that although her youth was characterized by the GDR, she "fully embraced united Germany both with her heart and mind." At the time, Langguth described Merkel as the most all-German politician around. "In West Germany many people still see her as an East German. And in East Germany, many regard her as a West German."

She places particular importance on relations with the US, the country of her young dreams. And as if at pains to wipe out any doubt about an alliance with a politician who grew up in the Communist part of Germany, she supported Bush’s 2003 war against Iraq. And many are astonished at her leniency regarding the US tapping scandal.

She is braver when it comes to Russia. She speaks the language well and does what she does best: negotiate, mediate, maintain contact. Angela Merkel hitchhiked through the Soviet Union as a student and is more familiar with the Russians than with Hollande, Cameron or Obama. She likes the culture and the soul of the country, but is not fond of Putin.

Gauck is different

July 1973: Angela Merkel camping
July 1973: Angela Merkel campingImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Gurlt

No so, Joachim Gauck, the former vicar from East Germany, who was put in charge of the Stasi records, and went on to become the current president. He avoids meeting President Putin as far as is possible.

Besides the many who lament not knowing what Merkel really stands for, Gauck’s frequently cited remark about the chancellor is: "I respect her, but I can’t quite work her out."

For his part, Gauck draws authority from his personal history. He says his family broke with the East German state after his father was deported to a Soviet Gulag in the 1950s. Gauck turned to the church and became a vicar, and went down in Stasi records as an "unteachable anti-communist."

The opening of the Stasi archives after German reunification is connected with his name, and he regards himself as a travelling teacher of democracy. When the left-wing politician Bodo Ramelow ran to become state premiere of Thuringia in October 2014, Gauck warned that the SED had not sufficiently processed its past. It is an unusual interference on the part of the president in electoral matters, but it won him applause from the conservatives.

President Gauck has made Western freedom the topic of his life – although he is aware that not everyone shares his enthusiasm. In his memoirs, the 75-year-old describes the "sympathetic looks" from West German friends following the fall of the Berlin Wall. He says they thought him naïve "and looked at me as if I belonged to some primitive culture." The only ones who could understand his joy at such freedom, he said, were those who had longed for it.

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