Who's Afraid of Angela Merkel?: The Life, Political Career, and Future of the New German Chancellor

Article excerpt

Many believe Angela Merkel's political masterpiece to be a surprisingly short article that appeared on 22 December 1999 in the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung. This article was to pave her way to the top of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), a right-of-centre party, and eventually to the German chancellorship. Yet, at the turn of the 21st century the CDU had to cope with the deepest crisis since its founding in 1945. A few days before Merkel's article was published the former chancellor, Helmut Kohl, who had led and dominated the CDU between 1973 and 1998, had publicly confessed to have illegally accepted financial donations. To make things worse, he refused-and still refuses-to reveal the name (or names) of the donator(s), stating that he had given his word of honour never to do so. Kohl's confession threw the party into turmoil. The CDU not only had to fear legal consequences (it was later fined to more than euro40 million), but it was on the brink of losing an essential asset of a party: its credibility. Some thought the very existence of the CDU in jeopardy.

The party was thrown into shock. Neither the then-party leader, Wolfgang Schauble, who used to be one of Kohl's closest allies, nor other party heavyweights could convincingly symbolize a new beginning. They all had been part of the so-called "Kohl system." It was only Angela Merkel, a maverick from East Germany and the then-general secretary of the CDU, who dared to make the inevitable break and envisage a way out of the dilemma. After consulting a few people she trusted, Merkel decided to publish the aforementioned article without informing her chairman beforehand. In the article she harshly criticized Kohl, the man most responsible for her political ascent since 1990. Yet in 1999 Merkel demanded that the "Kohl era" end and urged the CDU to move on. Shortly after the article was published, Wolfgang Schauble was also accused of having accepted money and abstained from running for réélection as chairman of the CDU. Merkel succeeded him in April 2000 when she received 96 percent of the votes at the party convention. She was the first woman ever to lead the CDU, the first from East Germany, the first with a degree in the natural sciences, the first who was divorced-but not the first protestant. Her predecessor was a protestant, too.

The story highlights some of the most important political qualities of Angela Merkel. She has a strong-some claim an absolute-will to power and is a most adept political strategist. She learns quickly, never repeats a mistake, and is able to adjust easily to new circumstances. On numerous occasions she has shown that she knows when to take risks and how to keep her cool under pressure. And the risks were high at the time. In 1999 Merkel could neither rely on a significant power base in her party, nor was she integrated into the political network of the established West German party elite of the CDU. As a divorced protestant woman with no children (remarried in 1998), she did not at all fit into the party culture of the CDU in the first place. The party is still dominated by catholic male politicians with strong family values. Hence, neither her personal background nor her political past destined Merkel for a leading role in the CDU. On the contrary, in 1990 she seemed the least likely of all to become the first female chancellor of Germany. This might be one reason why she still is regarded as a sort of sphinx or enigma.'

ANGELA MERKEL BEFORE THE REVOLUTION

Born 17 July 1954 in Hamburg, West Germany, Angela Merkel grew up as the oldest daughter of a protestant pastor in East Germany (she has two siblings, a brother and a sister). Three weeks after her birth her mother, Herlind Kasner, followed her father "out of love" to the GDR, first to Quitzow and in 1957 to the small town of Templin some 90 km north of Berlin. Her father, Horst Kasner, believed the East Germans to be in greater need of pastors than the West Germans. …