Celebrity revelations or just old news? Those are the two extremes taken by reviews of the new book about German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In the biography "The First Life of Angela M." co-authors Georg Reuth and Günther Lachmann looked at a sensitive chapter of the top politician's career path.
The book focuses on Merkel's time in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), where she is said to have worked on "agitation and propaganda" for the communist youth organization Free German Youth (FDJ). While such position would not be unusual for many in the GDR, it is certainly a source of annoyance for the current chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany.
The 336-page book, which is scheduled to be published four months before September's elections to the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, aims to close the gaps that previous Merkel biographies have left open, Lachmann told DW. That includes the question of whether Merkel was FDJ secretary for propaganda.
The federal government doesn't see this as a spectacular revelation. According to Georg Streiter, the deputy government spokesman, Merkel already commented extensively and personally on the issue in 2005, in an interview book titled "Mein Weg" (English: My Path). "I would simply recommend reading it," Streiter commented.
However, Lachmann disagreed. He pointed out that in "Mein Weg" Merkel noted that she couldn't remember whether she was involved in agitation and propaganda. Lachmann, on the other hand, claims to have proof in the form of two witnesses, he said. The two are reportedly good friends of Merkel who she used to work with and who were frequently involved with her privately. Both of them were FDJ secretaries at the Academy of Sciences.
Another of the chancellor's past positions is also presented prominently in the book, says Lachmann. Merkel allegedly worked in the board of the GDR's Free German Trade Union Federation, where she is said to have been responsible for youth work.
What can a FDJ secretary really do?
Lachmann and Reuth's book leaves readers in the dark as to what all this really means - how Merkel fulfilled her roles and what consequences her work had for her fellow citizens. They admit as much: "There is no information about the extent to which Angela Merkel had ideological influence," Lachmann said. "All we know is that she was a member of these organizations and what she was in charge of."
But that is precisely the kind of information that is relevant under the circumstances, especially for people who have so far had little contact with the GDR system.
This is a system where political mechanisms followed their own rules, says Klaus Schroeder, scientific director of the Research Association on the SED State at Berlin's Freie Universität.
He said the fact that Merkel was a member of the FDJ and held office doesn't really mean much. Schroeder said in the GDR people had to get involved in such organizations.
"The title of FDJ secretary for agitation and propaganda makes it sound as if small Goebbles were at work here," he said, adding that the reality could have been much different.
According to Schroeder, FDJ members were in charge of disseminating official statements among the students and organizing events. "You have to examine each case individually," he said.
Schroeder said he believes that the key to understanding Merkel's ideology and political activism lies in the fact that she never became a member of the East German Communist Party (SED), unlike 2 million of her fellow citizens. He said it was impossible for someone to evade all forms of activism in the GDR. "People were pushed into taking active roles in mass organizations, but the threshold into politics was crossed when you joined the SED or a factional party," Schroeder said.
"I wouldn't interpret too much"
The authors of Merkel's latest biography would have loved to get this kind information from the chancellor herself. "What matters is not so much the fact that she was secretary for agitation and propaganda," Lachmann said. "What's important is that Merkel has been hiding things."
Lachmann said numerous questions came up and went unanswered during his research. Government spokesman Streiter, however, put this into perspective: "I wouldn't interpret too much into it. Many people who write a book about the chancellor and ask her questions might end up a bit disappointed."
Merkel herself emphasized recently that she has dealt openly with her past in the GDR. The chancellor said she has never concealed anything, but also admitted she might not have addressed certain issues because she was never asked about them.
No true revelations?
Merkel's previous biographer, Jacqueline Boysen, said the chancellor's reserved behavior might stem from negative experiences in her past. "She once tried to speak very openly to members of her party's youth organization, the Young Union, about her time in the GDR. But she was completely misunderstood," said Bosyen, adding that this might be a reason for Merkel's reluctance to speak about the subject.
Boysen was critical of the new book's revelations.
"I think it is somewhat absurd to keep bringing up this story, especially when it has become evident from the preprints that nothing new has been come up," she said.