Merkel, Angela

views updated May 14 2018

Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel (born 1954) became the first woman ever to lead Germany as chancellor. Merkel and the party she chairs, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), formed a coalition with two other parties in 2005, and the agreement installed the former physicist as head of government. Perhaps more notable than her gender is Merkel's background: she is the first person to lead a reunified Germany who comes from the formerly Communist eastern states, a division that endured for more than four decades following the end of Germany's defeat in World War II. “My life changed completely in 1989,” Merkel said once at a rally, according to Judy Dempsey in the International Herald Tribune. “I have had many opportunities in the last 15 years. I would like to give my country back what I myself have gained in terms of the opportunities from reunification.”

Merkel was born Angela Dorothea Kasner on July 17, 1954, in Hamburg, Germany. This was one of the largest cities of West Germany, but her parents moved east just a few months later to the German Democratic Republic, or GDR, as Communist East Germany was called. The decision was made by Merkel's father, Horst, a Lutheran pastor, who was offered a job at a seminary in the state of Brandenburg, about an hour north of Berlin. Berlin was surrounded by the GDR, but had a Western sector that remained technically part of West Germany. Soviet and U.S. troops monitored the different Berlin zones, but in 1961 the East Germans, with Soviet aid, began constructing a massive wall that divided the city into East and West, like Germany itself. East German border guards patrolled the no-man's land adjacent to the Wall, with orders to shoot on sight any trespassers. Nearly all of those who died were East Germans seeking freedom in the West instead of the strictly regulated state socialism of the East.

A Prize-Winning Student

Merkel was raised as the eldest of three children in the Brandenburg city of Templin. After she became chancellor, a biography was published in Germany which revealed that her father had been instrumental in the creation of a separate Protestant church in the GDR—allowing GDR officials to keep a closer watch on its members—and his tacit support of the German Communist Party likely gave the family the few perks they were able to enjoy. These included two cars—when one automobile was an almost unheard-of luxury in much of Communist Eastern Europe—and travel visas that permitted them to visit relatives back in West Germany and even vacation in Italy.

As a youth, Merkel was nicknamed “Kasi” from her surname, Kasner, and was a studious high schooler who excelled in languages, as had her mother, who had been a teacher of English back in Hamburg. Merkel became so fluent in Russian that she even won a prize trip to Moscow. Like nearly all other college-bound East German teens, she was a member of the Freie Deutsche Jugend (Free German Youth, or FDJ), the official socialist youth organization in the GDR, but most reports of her young adult years portray her as a dutiful East German who avoided political rhetoric of any stripe. “I would have loved to have become a teacher,” she once reflected, according to a profile written by Ruth Elkins in London's Independent. “But not under that political system.” Instead she chose to study the sciences, remarking that “physics was harmless and uncontroversial,” according to Elkins.

Merkel entered the University of Leipzig in 1973. According to a German-language biography by Gerd Langguth published in Germany as Angela Merkel: Aufstieg zur Macht (Angela Merkel: Rise to Power), her father's “proregime attitude helped Angela's career,” noted Luke Harding, correspondent for London's Observer. Horst's status with GDR authorities permitted his daughter “to study at an elite comprehensive school and go on to university, at a time when the children of clergy were routinely refused places.” During her student years, Merkel worked as a barmaid in a discotheque, and a year before earning her degree married a fellow student, Ulrich Merkel. They moved to an apartment with neither toilet nor hot water in the Prenzlauer Berg district of East Berlin, and began renovating it while Merkel also went to work on her doctorate in quantum chemistry at the Central Institute for Physical Chemistry of the Berlin Academy of Sciences. The marriage ended in 1982.

Joined Nascent Democracy Movement

Merkel earned her doctorate in 1986 and remained affiliated with the Central Institute for Physical Chemistry as a researcher. In 1989 she became involved in prodemocracy groups that were suddenly being allowed to operate in East Berlin and other GDR cities. One of them was Demokratischer Aufbruch (Democratic Awakening), which had its roots in several pacifist Protestant church groups in the GDR. The pro-democracy movement escalated, leading to the opening of the Berlin Wall in November of 1989, when the wall was demolished and thousands of East Berliners jubilantly streamed through, signalling the beginning of the end for the GDR. Merkel's first mentor in politics was Lothar de Maizière (born 1940), who headed the East German branch of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The East Germany Communist Party allowed the CDU to operate as a token nod to a multiparty electoral system, but parties like the CDU had little power until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Soon de Maizière was named head of a caretaker government in the lead-up to reunification, and in March of 1990 Merkel became the deputy spokesperson for his government.

The former East German Länder, or states, were reunified with the rest of Germany in October of 1990. Two months later the first post-reunification parliamentary elections were held, and Merkel won a seat in the Bundestag (Germany's lower house) from the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. The East German branch of the CDU merged with its West German counterpart that same year, and Merkel became a rising star in the party when its powerful leader, German chancellor Helmut Kohl (born 1930), made her his protégé. Kohl had served as chancellor of West Germany since 1982, and was heralded as the architect of reunification, which just three years earlier had been considered an entirely unfeasible hope by most Germans. Kohl famously dubbed Merkel das Mädchen,, or “the Girl,” and made her a member of his cabinet in 1991 as minister for women and young people. In December of 1991, thanks to Kohl's support, she was elected deputy party leader.

Elected Head of CDU

Merkel became the first politician from the former East to become a government minister in a newly reunited Germany. In 1994 Kohl gave her a more significant cabinet assignment, this time as minister for the environment and reactor safety, but Kohl was ousted in 1998 elections and stepped down accordingly. Weeks later, she was elected a secretary-general of the CDU, the first woman to attain that post in party history, and over the next two years she distanced herself from Kohl and older members of the CDU when a series of financial misdeeds came to light. In 2000 she bested the latest CDU chair, Wolfgang Schäuble (born 1942), in a leadership contest, and became the first woman ever to lead the party.

At the time, the CDU was relegated to one of its rare periods out of power. Its main rival, the center-left Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), had won in 1998 and Gerhard Schröder (born 1944) succeeded Kohl as chancellor. Schröder and the SPD held onto power in the 2002 elections, but by 2005 the German public appeared ready to shift their political allegiances once again. In parliamentary elections that year, voters gave the CDU a small margin of victory. Schröder refused to concede power, however, and finally a so-called “Grand Coalition” was negotiated, with Merkel becoming chancellor on November 22, 2005. She agreed to form a government comprised of cabinet members from her own party as well as its counterpart in the southern German state of Bavaria, the Christian Socialist Union (CSU), and members of Schröder's SPD.

Political pundits often compare Merkel to Margaret Thatcher (born 1925), who served as British prime minister from 1979 to 1990. Like Merkel, Thatcher had enjoyed an impressive career in the sciences before becoming the first woman to head her country's leading center-right party, the Conservative (Tory) Party. The reforms enacted during Merkel's years in office also had echoes of the Thatcher era: Merkel instituted some sweeping tax cuts for German businesses and began to move Germany to a more active role as a leader in foreign policy. Her accomplishments in this realm included a reworking of the compact between France and Germany that gave both powers a shared leadership role in the powerful European Union (EU), but for the first time since the end of World War II the new arrangement meant that more decisions were made in Berlin, not Paris.

Friendly with Texan President

In other foreign-policy initiatives, Merkel has established more cordial relations than her predecessor with the United States, meeting several times with U.S. president George W. Bush (born 1946). Unlike her predecessor Schröder, she has been a vocal critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin (born 1952), despite the fact that she is modern Europe's first leader to speak fluent Russian. Political analysts have wryly noted that while Merkel was busy with the pro-democracy movement in East Germany in 1989, Putin was serving as a station agent for the KGB, the Soviet state-security apparatus, in Dresden East Germany.

In 2007 Merkel took over two temporary posts in addition to her duties as chancellor of Germany: the rotating presidencies of both the EU and the G8 (Group of Eight, an international forum comprised of the world's most powerful nations). As chair of the latter, she proposed a transatlantic free trade zone that might become known by the acronym TAFTA. “I consider it my job to express to America what's in the interest of Europe,” New York Times correspondent Mark Landler quoted her as saying about TAFTA. “And for me, the trans-Atlantic partnership, in general, is in the European interest. Europeans know that we cannot accomplish things without America,” but she added, “America must also know that Europe is needed in many areas.”

Merkel earns consistently high marks in public opinion polls, receiving the highest approval ratings among all postWorld War II German chancellors. In 2007 Forbes magazine ranked her at the top of its list of the world's most powerful women for the second year in a row. In 1993 she married her former doctoral advisor, Joachim Sauer, a chemistry professor. Like many German women of her generation, she is childless; the country has regularly posted some of the world's lowest birth rates since the 1980s. On the domestic front, this demographic shortfall may keep her in power—as the median voter age in Germany remains close to her own actual age—but may also portend disaster for the country's future. “If birthrates continue to decline, the country will one day have a workforce too small to support the social and medical programs that its elderly will need,” explained Andrew Purvis in Time International. “Previous governments have sounded the alarm about this scenario—and then done little or nothing about it …. If Merkel uses her leadership to find ways in which women can be better integrated into the economy, she will go down in history for a lot more than her gender.”


Economist, November 18, 2006; June 30, 2007.

Independent (London, England), June 19, 2005.

International Herald Tribune, October 8, 2005.

Maclean's, December 3, 2007.

New Statesman, July 25, 2005.

Newsweek International, May 1, 2006; May 14, 2007.

New York Times, October 11, 2005; January 12, 2007.

Observer (London, England), June 26, 2005.

Time International, January 30, 2006.


“Angela Merkel,” Forbes, (January 4, 2008).