The Grimmen Bitter Truth: Helmut Kohl Promoted Angela Merkel Because She Is Female, Competent and East German. It Is the Last of These That Is Essential to Understanding Why One Day Even She Might Be Prepared to Ditch the Euro

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On Saturday morning, I caught a train from Berlin into the land of forests and lakes that stretches north all the way to the Baltic Sea. As soon as one gets out of the city, it feels like one is stepping back in time to an older and more modest Germany. This is a country of birch and pine, sandy tracks, cobbled roads, abundant meadows, dilapidated orchards, and unassuming houses and churches.

Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, was brought up here in Templin, in the Uckermark district, the daughter of a Protestant clergyman. A great part of her appeal to German voters springs from her provincial origins and the way she has remained true to them. There is nothing moneyed about Merkel: one cannot imagine her wishing to ingratiate herself with the super-rich. At the weekend she retreats with her husband to their house near Templin, reached by a cobbled road through the forest.

I had decided to go further north, through Brandenburg and a wonderful profusion of lakes, into Mecklenburg and Western Pomerania. Otto von Bismarck is supposed to have said that when the end of the world comes, one should go to Mecklenburg, as everything there happens a hundred years later.

I changed trains in Neustrelitz and proceeded through a series of tiny wayside halts--Gnevkow, Sternfeld, Utzedel, Demmin, Rakow--before alighting, at the end ofa three-hour journey, in front of the derelict station building in the small town of Grimmen, about a dozen miles short of the Baltic.

Until 1990 this whole tract of territory was in East Germany. In December that year, in the first elections held after reunification, Merkel stood, at the age of 36, as the Christian Democrat candidate for the district of which Grimmen is the administrative capital, and won. She has represented this bit of Pomerania ever since and I hoped during my visit to gain some insight into her politics.

My friend Leon Mangasarian, who works for Bloomberg News in Berlin, told me that Grimmen has a dynamic Christian Democratic mayor, Benno Ruster, who has prevented local youth from falling into the hands of the neo-Nazis by setting up a successful stock car racing club. Ruster is also anxious to develop the oil that has been discovered beneath the town: "Grimmen is swimming on a huge sea of oil. It could produce a flood of tax revenue for us. Look, we're not going to get a Mercedes factory here."

Merkel, with typical caution, declines to say whether she wants the oil to be exploited: she fears upsetting environmentalists, who in turn insist that oil wells would wreck the region's tourism industry.

On the day I visited, Ruster was ill, so I was unable to ask him if he felt let down by Merkel. But I agree with him that Grimmen needs all the help it can get. Since reunification, the town's population has shrunk from 15,000 to 10,000. The unemployment rate is 14.7 per cent and many people complain that wages are very low.

The first sight that greets the visitor walking into town along Bahnhofstrasse is a monument to Karl Marx; his genial countenance is portrayed in bas-relief on a gold medallion attached to a small boulder. A few yards further on, one comes to a small Soviet war cemetery containing 16 graves. Such memorials placed in prominent spots reminded the East Germans who was in charge.

Grimmen's old town contains five brick Gothic structures from the 14th century: the church, three gateways and the two-storey town hall. But although it is evident that large sums of money have been spent since 1990 on restoring the fabric of the place, it still has a stunned feel. The first woman who I asked about Merkel said: "She was here last week. She was received with enthusiasm. She can make great speeches but whether she can do things is not so sure. Here, everything is closed."

On Saturday afternoon almost everything in Grimmen is, indeed, closed. The one lively event I stumbled upon was a flea market held in a primary school. …