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The little communist...
The little communist who grew up to be the world's most powerful woman (with the future of capitalism in her hands)
By Ian Birrell
Unlike so many modern politicians, Angela Merkel does not believe in placing her private life on public display. We know she likes to bake plum cakes, does her own shopping, enjoys the odd Wagner concert and sometimes goes hiking with her second husband.
But beyond this, she gives little away in interviews. Perhaps she declines to talk about herself because from a young age she has always worked so ferociously hard to achieve her ambitions.
Her drive and determination have, after all, taken her from a difficult background under a depressing dictatorship to becoming the dominant figure in Europe and the world’s most powerful woman.
There is, however, one anecdote she likes to tell interviewers. Twenty-one years ago, she applied for a job in the German government press office, but did not get it — a rare setback. A medical examination revealed that she suffered from high blood pressure, so her application was rejected since it was felt the stresses of the job might be too much.
Instead, she chose to become a politician, and was elected to Germany’s reunified parliament later that year. It was the launchpad for a stellar career which saw her leading her party within a decade and her nation five years after that.
‘I have to watch my blood pressure a bit,’ she told a television chat show host last month, recounting the story once again. ‘Since then, I’ve been getting good medical treatment.’
This is just as well, given the stresses Merkel now finds herself under. For all that she has achieved already in her life, she knows she will be defined in history by how she grapples with the crisis consuming her continent. (This week, the German economy came under pressure when a sale of its government bonds was heavily undersubscribed.)
Thus we find Mrs Merkel, raised under communism, fighting to salvage capitalism and walking an almost impossible tightrope amid wildly conflicting economic, political and social concerns.
So what do her fellow Germans make of her?
University professor Wolfgang Stock, her biographer, says: ‘No one loves her, no one adores her, but she is very well-respected.’ Others are more sceptical about Merkel’s ruthless pursuit of power. ‘She is like Tony Blair, but without the principles,’ remarks one party critic with biting irony.
To best understand the ‘Iron Frau’, you must travel to a small town of 13,000 inhabitants called Templin in the former East Germany.
It lies just over an hour’s drive north of vibrant Berlin through flat fields, beech forests and dour villages that still betray their communist heritage, especially on a grey day in late November.
This is the place to which a protestant pastor named Horst Kasner moved in 1957 when his daughter Angela was three. It is where she still has a home even now she leads her nation, a weekend retreat hidden in the woods, and where she came to bury her father a few weeks ago.
Just as 57-year-old Merkel’s life story might stand as a metaphor for the success of German reunification, so her spruced-up home town with its cobbled streets, colourful buildings and cosy cafes reflects the transformation of the once-blighted heartland of a miserable experiment in socialism.
Like other towns in the region, it is working hard to attract visitors, presenting a cheery face as the self-proclaimed ‘pearl’ of the Uckermark, an agricultural region once scarred by collectivised farming.
The former Friedrich Engels Workers’ Hostel — named after the German philosopher — is now a plush lakeside hotel, while there is even an American wild west theme park, something that would surely have shocked the Stasi, the East German secret police.
Speaking to Merkel’s friends, colleagues and critics this week, they all agreed that two factors in particular lie behind her success — a childhood growing up under a despotic regime, and her training as a scientist.
Claudia Crawford, a former cabinet colleague who was also raised in East Germany, says: ‘I know what it is like to grow up in an undemocratic system, something so stupid that you are not allowed to read the books or listen to the music you want to. That’s why I got engaged in politics — and the same is true of Angela.’
Merkel’s father’s move was highly unusual in that he left the thriving West German city of Hamburg to run a home for mentally disabled children in an East German town still in ruins from wartime bombing, with streets made of sand and few cars. When the Berlin Wall was built four years later, her mother — a teacher of English — sat crying in church, while her Left-leaning father was said to have felt liberated.
It remains unclear how much he colluded with the communist regime, but while the authorities in the atheist state viewed protestants with suspicion, because he was a pastor his family were allowed to watch Western TV and read Western newspapers. They even played Monopoly, the ultimate capitalist board game.
Kasner, a cold and distant father by all accounts — Angela had a younger brother and sister — drove his daughter hard, constantly telling her she had to do better than the other pupils at Templin’s local school.
As a result, Merkel ensured she was always top of the class. She even learned Russian, the language of the oppressors, showing such dedication that she won a regional prize of a trip to Moscow. She was also a member of the socialist group the Free German Youth, for whom she organised excursions.
‘Whenever she is doing something, she wants to be number one,’ says Gerd Langguth, a professor of political science and another biographer of Merkel. ‘She will always be better informed than anyone else — and now, of course, she is number one in Europe.’
Colleagues in Berlin testify that this intense work ethic, drummed into her during childhood, remains in place today. One minister complained to friends of his boredom at a recent meeting on health as she picked endlessly through minor matters in a proposed bill.
Growing up in a country where children were expected to inform on their parents if they felt they were somehow defying the authorities — and where a word out of place could wreck lives — Merkel learned like millions of others to keep her thoughts hidden.
She has talked of leading a double existence in her youth, only speaking openly in the sanctuary of her home.
This ability to hide her mind, combined with her unthreatening manner, enabled her to build a career as a scientist without joining the ruling communist party after studying physics at Leipzig University.
During her student days she worked part-time as a waitress in a disco, then met and, at the age of 23 in 1977, married Ulrich Merkel, a fellow physics student. Afterwards, they moved to Berlin, but their relationship soon fell apart and she moved into a squat.
‘It sounds stupid, but I didn’t go into the marriage with the necessary amount of seriousness,’ Merkel said later.
By the time of their divorce in 1982 she had already met the man who would become her second husband, an equally studious chemist and fellow divorcee with two sons called Joachim Sauer.
As the Cold War began to thaw, she was settled into academic life at the Academy of Sciences in East Berlin. Her first political experience came at the age of 35 when she joined a civil rights’ group four weeks before the Berlin Wall came down.
‘Always the pragmatist, she joined when there was no danger,’ says Langguth tartly. When this group became subsumed in the Christian Democrat Union, the conservative party of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, she joined also.
Kohl, the boorish father of reunification, met Merkel at a party conference the year after the wall fell.
He instantly spotted her potential as a young protestant woman from the East, untainted by communism, who could increase the appeal of a party with Catholic roots to the newly-liberated eastern electorate.
He became her mentor, promoting her rapidly through government and party ranks in a relationship that benefited both of them.
But like so many power barons in German politics, he fell for that unassuming exterior, even patronisingly calling her das madchen (‘my girl’). Then came the moment that made Merkel, revealing both audacity and brutality.
Kohl was caught in a scandal over a political slush fund 11 years ago — and while party rivals dithered over their response, his protegee wrote a front-page article in Germany’s leading conservative paper demanding his resignation.
It was a breathtaking coup, marking the moment she stepped out from her carefully cultivated cloak of blandness.
‘You could certainly say that I’ve never under-estimated myself,’ she later told an interviewer with that now familiar smile. ‘There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious.’
Although a poor public speaker, she has proved an intuitive politician with an adept feel for the public mood.
Since becoming Chancellor in 2005, she has steadily consolidated her hold on power in both her party and the country, neutering rivals to ensure her safety and shifting positions whenever necessary to retain popularity.
She is socially liberal, reportedly only marrying Joachim Sauer in 1998 under pressure from party elders concerned by their cohabitation. He is now an eminent professor of chemistry who likes his laboratory more than the limelight, and was even late for a recent state dinner at the White House.
Coming from the East, where women always worked, she had little truck with traditional values idealising the German housefrau staying at home to bring up children.
A strong supporter of equal rights, she pushed ideas such as state kindergartens that were unpopular with conservatives in her party.
Her defenders — the most enthusiastic of whom seem to be other women — portray her as a patient pragmatist, mistrustful of ideology after seeing the damage caused by communism. They say she approaches politics like the scientist she is, seeing a series of challenges to be overcome with logic.
‘If there are problems, she will solve them,’ says one friend.
But her detractors say she just muddles through, deferring decisions for as long as possible. ‘She changes her mind several times a day — you cannot believe her at all,’ said a prominent Christian Democrat Union figure.
‘You never know what she thinks, except that she wants to stay in power, and it is not enough to be in power for the sake of being in power,’ he concluded. ‘We are in a changing world and need visionaries to get us out of the crisis.’
She has, however, displayed uncharacteristic boldness in recent weeks, forcing European bankers to accept big losses on their loans to Greece and successfully facing down critics within her unstable governing coalition.
She is also pushing hard for deeper European union, despite the difficulties this causes David Cameron, with whom she gets on well. Warm and witty in private, she proved an unexpected hit with his children on her first visit to Chequers after his election as Prime Minister.
Even on this core issue of Europe, however, colleagues are divided over her true beliefs. One told me she did not really believe in closer union at all, another — a fellow East German — that she was a fervent supporter of closer ties across the continent to ensure a strong unified voice.
Whatever her real beliefs, the popularity of this enigmatic politician is rising again at home. Pollsters say Germans appear to believe that she has their best instincts at heart, and that this matriarchal figure is shepherding them through turbulent times.
Curiously, while Angela Merkel symbolises the astonishing success of German reunification, there is one region where she is viewed with suspicion: the very place that helped to mould her into such a formidable politician.
‘People in the East see her as a traitor,’ says Matthias Matussek, an author and influential commentator. ‘They see her as part of the capitalist system and heartless when it comes to unemployment and subsidies for the poor.’
Although money has poured into the east in the 22 years since reunification, with cities in particular being transformed, unemployment remains stubbornly high at twice the rate of the rest of Germany, while wages and pensions are both significantly lower.
Matussek says Merkel’s pragmatism and lack of emotion mean many people in the region fear she is unsympathetic to their problems. ‘Basically, they don’t see her as one of them any more.’
As we face such an uncertain future, with storm clouds encircling the continent, we must hope Europe’s most important politician turns out to be something of a prophet — even if she does not have much honour in her own land.
If not, if she is just the passive pragmatist hypnotised by polls and public opinion that her detractors say she is, we might all be in deep trouble.