The Merkel Paradox

During my time at Amherst, I have heard many people applaud Angela Merkel as a remarkable politician, yet I feel very few people truly understand just how remarkable the current German chancellor is. Mind you, this article is not about her politics, nor written as a letter of pure adoration to Angela Merkel. In fact, I will openly acknowledge that I have rather mixed feelings towards her, but this does not influence my recognition of her extraordinary position as a politician with an incredibly uncommon background, but most of all a woman in politics. Many of those who admire her from an international distance, calling her the “mother of Europe” for her economic and international successes, are missing the obvious. Angela Merkel is the impersonation of most attributes that are unlikely to succeed in politics, and yet she is incredibly successful. I am not sure I am quite able to point out exactly what it is about her that makes this unquestioned acceptance so natural, but this lingering question has definitely been shaping my experience of American political life.

When Germans turned on their televisions to listen to Angela Merkel’s New Year’s Eve speech about a month ago, the prime topic was not who designed her suit (Merkel is not very much into dresses), who did her hair or how she should or should not lose those last extra pounds. Some might argue that she just does not have the “usual female traits” and hence is not perceived in that light, but I can assure you that she is not the exception. A very similar treatment is given to an array of German female politicians from different age ranges, some of which are very influential German ministers. But then I remember Hilary Clinton’s speeches, the endless comments afterwards by journalists about her dress (or oh dear, it is a suit), the crying-incident in New Hampshire, back to the dressing question. Both Hilary and Angela are well educated, powerful women, but for some interesting reason, Hilary is only rarely defined outside of her female qualities, which is truly a pity.

Now I ask you to imagine a Barack Obama that was divorced and had refused to marry his new girlfriend of 7 years, Michelle, for the longest time. I am not sure whether this Obama would have been elected so easily. This was not true for Angela Merkel, with exactly that story. Not one of her election speeches had to justify her relationship status. An interview with a famous German women’s magazine, Brigitte, was one of the rare exceptions during which she talked about more private matters once her campaigning was finished. The magazine asked her about why she chose to wait so long before she finally married her second husband. She revealed, “I did not want, under any circumstances, to have others say: She is only marrying because she is a member of the CDU [one of the most conservative parties in Germany], and she could not be the Federal Minister for Women and Youth [1991] without being married… Once we had become the opposition, nobody was able to say that I had married for my career.” In other words, she actively fought against common stereotypes in politics and succeeded; she became a divorced minister and went on to become Germany’s first female chancellor in 2005, after having married for the second time in 1998.

Still today, very little is known about Angela’s husband. He is a rather mysterious figure; according to his very brief Wikipedia page, he does not share the same last name, nor was he personally present at any of Angela’s public events (including her inauguration). Rumor has it that he watched the ceremony on TV from his chemistry lab at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Her message is clear: She does not let herself be defined through her husband and his official support of her. I frankly cannot think of an American comparison to this; imagining an empty spot instead of Michelle Obama in front of the American flag just seems very odd.

Further defeating stereotypes, Merkel did not follow the common path to become a politician, such as acquiring some kind of social science degree. On the contrary, she studied and worked in the field of physical chemistry, achieved her PhD, became proficient in Russian and enjoyed the study of mathematics, until shortly before the German unification. Frankly, she was a 35-year-old with a steady profession that could not be further from politics, who suddenly took an interest in actively participating in German political life. Again, successfully so, having recently been re-elected to the highest political office known to the country.

More than being an intellectual stranger to the field of political science itself, she was also unfamiliar with Western German politics. Until the German unification, she had spent most of her life in Eastern Germany, physically separated from learning much about the democratic political life of Western Germany compared to that of the Soviet-style Eastern Germany. It seems even more of a paradox that she would learn so rapidly and become one of the most powerful leaders of democracy Europe, having only experienced German Communism during her youth. Nevertheless, the acceptance that has been granted to her is extraordinary. There is very little criticism of her persona on the basis of her Eastern experience, nor any serious doubts of whether she should even qualify for such a democratic position as the German chancellor. Her past did, of course, raise some questions — about her role in the FDJ (a German Soviet youth organization) for instance, but most of these thoughts were voiced long after her first election as chancellor. Even then, historical accounts were quickly able to settle the matter, and no word has since been spoken about it. None of her political decisions have ever been criticized in mainstream media on the basis of her personal past or her early exposure to Communism, nor have any of her speeches or her political encounters with presidents or representatives of other nations.

There will always be exceptions, people who do view her differently, but from my experience growing up in Germany, I feel that the above reflects the main attitudes of Germans towards Angela Merkel. She is an example of many things I have come to value greatly about German politics; how the open attitude allowed for such an outstanding personality to overcome the obstacles imposed by traditional expectations and grant her such great political agency. The opposition does little to dispute her on a personal level through stereotypes or her past. That is not to say that German politics are better than those of the US per se, simply that because of this professional attitude of German politicians and journalists, many people abroad cannot see how special Angela Merkel really is as a person.