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How much should the German public know about any of Chancellor Angela Merkel's potential illnesses? She, too, has a right to her privacy — the same as every other German citizen, says Felix Steiner.
In principle, data protection is sacrosanct in Germany. Even the most trivial details — such as my address, my job or my age — are not allowed to be disclosed to third parties without my consent.
For politicians, however, an entirely different set of rules applies, Germany included. Politicians have to put up with anything (like a close inspection of the footnotes of their university dissertation) and publicly disclose everything (like every last cent of any additional incomes). And if they happen to have a health problem, many in the media would appreciate it if the Federal Press Office sent out a medical bulletin containing a comprehensive blood analysis.
But as long as this last option isn't standard procedure, charlatans of all kinds are free to submit diagnoses from afar, even if they're utterly and completely detached from reality. Let's be honest — this borders on madness.
Health as a political issue
Of course, the chancellor's health is a political and therefore a public issue – at least if it was affected to a degree that would keep her from fully exercising her duties, which are doubtlessly very demanding. But that's not the case. "I am doing well," Angela Merkel said this week, after a third bout of public tremors.
The trouble is that hardly anyone believes her, because everyone has seen those video clips. Images of the chancellor shaking as she stood next to the new Ukrainian president in mid-June, then during a welcome ceremony for the new justice minister a week later and once more this week at a public reception for the Finnish prime minister. What, for God's sake, was all that about?
Merkel isn't the first German head of government to suffer from health problems. Willy Brandt, chancellor of West Germany from 1969 to 1974, would suffer from depression and, as a result, was at times unable to make decisions. His successor, Helmut Schmidt, lost consciousness almost 100 times during his tenure from 1974 to 1982. That includes a fainting spell at the Elysee Palace in Paris.
The difference between then and now is simply that no one took notice at the time. Journalists, even if they had witnessed such events, never published images of ailing politicians. It was Schmidt himself who went public with those delicate details — at age 95, one year before his death in 2015.
Merkel entitled to privacy
So now Germany has a chancellor who, whenever she deems it appropriate, remains seated during the national anthem. Is that cause for concern? If Wolfgang Schäuble, widely regarded as likely successor to longtime Chancellor Helmut Kohl and left paralyzed in the wake of a 1990 assassination attempt, had become head of government instead of Merkel, Germans would have long been familiar with the sight by now.
"Apart from that, I'm deeply convinced that I'm able to effectively perform my job." Germans will have to accept Merkel's statement from Wednesday as reassurance for the time being. Is that a problem? No, because the chancellor, too, is entitled to a privilege all other Germans claim for themselves: the right to privacy. And that includes the specific health problem she's suffering from right now.