The Merkel era ends after 16 years – who is the person behind the politician?
She got through it. Angela Merkel was Germany’s Chancellor for 16 years. She never showed any airs, but always remained aloof. Who is the 67 year old? An approach.
It is hard to imagine a Germany without Angela Merkel. I have been observing political and social events in Germany for almost nine years. Much has changed in these years, an enormous amount in fact. The world has changed. Europe too. And Germany anyway.
But there has always been one constant over the years: Angela Merkel worked in the Chancellery of Berlin, with a view of the flag waving in the wind with the white cross on a red background on the roof of the Swiss embassy. When she wasn’t in Brussels, London, Paris, Washington or Moscow. She worked around the clock. That was the impression. It was probably exactly the same.
Nine years ago the newspapers and people still called them “Mutti”. Today nobody says that anymore, although there is something benevolent about “Mutti”. «Mutti» will fix it. The word stands for a basic trust that people have in their Chancellor.
But in “Mutti” there is also something belittling about it, as if Merkel was not being taken for full in her actual role as head of government, but reduced to her role as a woman – or almost as a being. That doesn’t do justice to the most powerful woman in the world.
Society has changed there. If you want to call Merkel «Mutti», you have to be able to call Wolfgang Schäuble Opi. Fortunately, nobody comes up with the idea, even if the President of the Bundestag probably actually has grandchildren.
Merkel remains a mystery after all these years. As a Swiss journalist, it is quite difficult to approach the now 67-year-old. Impressions of the Chancellor can be obtained at press conferences.
With a few exceptions, it always seems factual. It doesn’t matter whether it is next to Putin, Trump, Macron or Johann Schneider-Ammann. She rarely gets emotional. 2015, at the end of August, was one of those moments when she gave her “We can do it” without considering the consequences for society.
Or this April, when she apologized for the chaos she caused around the Corona Easter rest. Most recently during a speech in the Bundestag when she spoke about victims in Afghanistan.
From the Chancellor’s point of view, the relationship between Bern and Berlin is probably too unencumbered, too unspectacular, too harmonious for direct interviews with Swiss journalists. Sure, there were a few discrepancies in between. But they hardly mattered.
At that time the dispute over the tax data CDs. And the long-running airport dispute and the gossip about the Neat north connection. And of course the Swiss relationship with the European Union. The people’s yes to the mass immigration initiative also caused irritation at Merkel.
And yet Swiss-German problems are ultimately minor compared to what has happened and is threatening to happen in the world.
Not even the failure of the framework agreement between Switzerland and the EU caused a great deal of excitement in Berlin and Angela Merkel. Merkel regrets that Switzerland is tending to move away from Europe, that is. But in Berlin people are now somewhat resigned to the fact that Switzerland is taking a somewhat solitary course from a German point of view.
Although Merkel has always fought for a united Europe, for believably higher motives. The Nazi terror eight decades ago is still the great German trauma today. For Merkel, the EU is a peace project that she defends with all her might.
For Merkel, Switzerland has moved away from Europe
It has not always succeeded in holding Europe together. By going it alone in the refugee crisis of 2015, it even contributed to a split in the European Union. The myth was refuted that Merkel, the scientist, thinks politics from the point of view of its end. Perhaps she doesn’t think everything from the perspective of the end, but rather acts intuitively.
Merkel also implemented the nuclear phase-out overnight. The energy transition also has consequences for the country and its people, which Merkel barely had in mind.
For Merkel, Switzerland has moved away from Europe in recent years, while Germany has risen to become a global player. When Merkel took over the helm in the Chancellery in 2005, Germany was plagued by the concern of several million unemployed. Today the engine of the largest industrial nation in the EU is humming, but above all, Germany has risen to become an international power under Merkel. Also pushed by the developments in the USA.
Even under Barack Obama, the USA withdrew from the world political stage to some extent. It was Merkel who took the lead in the Ukraine conflict. Observers are convinced that the Chancellor actually wanted to resign in 2017. But Barack Obama has pleaded with the Chancellor to continue in a world of Trumps, Bolsonaros and Orbans – so that pragmatism lives on in the heart of Europe.
Back to the Merkel mystery. How does the studied physicist, who grew up in a pastor’s family in the East German Uckermark, tick?
Little is known about Merkel as a person. In 16 years of government, the Chancellor has remained free of scandals, and she has never succumbed to the temptation to allow the boulevard to glimpse into her private life in order to have a more popular impact on the voters. The physicist Merkel and her husband Joachim Sauer, a quantum chemist, enjoy hiking in South Tyrol, in winter they go cross-country skiing in the Engadine, and at Easter the couple regularly relax on the island of Ischia.
When Merkel once revealed to a newspaper that she likes potato soup, the news spread through media portals across the country. In lockdown, she was seen on a video link in her office in the Chancellery. In the background a sofa. Newspapers then asked psychologists what the establishment of the control center of Berlin power reveals about the Chancellor. Merkel private!
But how is she otherwise, the Chancellor? It should have humor, charm, irony. She is lightning smart anyway. And the Chancellor has an incredible amount of stamina. Yes, the almost superhuman gift of getting by with very little sleep. Merkel do not seem to mind meetings that last until four in the morning. It holds out until the other conference participants, exhausted, consent to Merkel’s plans, the main thing is that the meeting finally comes to an end.
That’s how people tell it in Berlin. And what characterizes Merkel: She apparently never takes political attacks personally. Taunts from political opponents or party friends roll off her. An offended Chancellor could not enforce her policy. However, it is not as if Merkel would forget the attacks. At some point the return coach will come.
Who can decipher the Merkel mystery?
But privately? Merkel is a power politician, without a doubt. And yet it seems unpretentious to this day. She lives near the Museum Island in Berlin-Mitte, with a view of the Pergamon Museum. On Saturdays, the head of government goes to the nearby supermarket when she gets around to it. The appearances seem so unglamorous and normal that one could forget that the woman who pushes wine and household paper in her shopping cart to the cash register is the most powerful woman in the country.
Merkel is also a connoisseur. In Prenzlauer Berg, for example, there is a charming French restaurant where the Chancellor occasionally stops. There are fine wines, good cheese, lobster and ox chops. Good quality but not an exquisite store with exorbitant prices.
I cannot decipher the Merkel mystery and ask about it. With a long-time companion of the Chancellor from the CDU, for decades in the party. When asked who Merkel really is and what makes her tick, he answers succinctly:
In a few months, Merkel will step down from the big political stage. It may still be a while before a new government really takes up its role in Berlin. That is how long Merkel will continue to govern on a provisional basis. Merkel will withdraw politically, she has repeatedly assured her. Perhaps she will be a visiting professor at universities. The lecture halls would definitely be packed.
Whether the Germans will miss Angela Merkel is in the stars. The Chancellor’s strengths were above all on the international stage. Domestically, a lot has stood still in Germany. Digitization, open questions about pension security, the excessive bureaucracy. If your successor has the courage to undertake important reforms, the grief over your departure will soon subside.
Merkel is already sure of a permanent place in the history books. Not only because she was the first woman to head Germany. Also because it shaped an entire generation. And a country. And Europe.
The author has been CH Media’s Germany correspondent since 2013. He is 47 years old and lives in Berlin. (aargauerzeitung.ch)
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