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  •   Home > News > International

    Angela Merkel: How a poor girl from East Germany rose to become the 'Empress of Europe'

    It's the end of an era for Germany as the woman called the 'Iron Chancellor' by her critics and 'Mama' by her fans prepares to retire after 16 tumultuous years in power.


    Perched on the edge of a 3-metre diving board, Angela Kasner was paralysed by fear.

    With her class waiting below, the nine-year-old stared down into the swimming pool for 45 minutes, hesitating on whether to take that next step.

    But as the school bell trilled to mark the end of the lesson, she finally made the plunge.

    "That's just how I am, not particularly courageous," she remarked later in life.

    "It always takes me a while to weigh the risks."

    It was the early 1960s, and Angela Kasner, later known as Angela Merkel, was within the confines of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), a communist state established post World War II.

    Tucked away in the small town of Templin, just north of Berlin in East Germany, Merkel grew up surrounded by picturesque forests and glacial lakes.

    Divided from the West and with a troubled economy, her childhood in GDR wasn't always idyllic. It was common to see people lining up in long queues for food and other goods.

    The impression it left on a young Angela would last a lifetime.

    Years later, she confessed to a habit of hoarding and buying things even if she didn't need them.

    To this day, she does her own grocery shopping. She makes breakfast for her husband every morning. 

    The girl who yearned for a pair of Levi's jeans grew into a woman who happily repeats an 18-year-old ensemble

    But Merkel has also reflected that life in the GDR, where so much was out of her control, was simple. 

    "Sometimes [it was] almost comfortable in a certain way because there were some things one simply couldn't influence," she says.

    The remarks offer some insight into the woman who would go on to earn the nickname 'Empress of Europe'. 

    Her childhood would instil a cautiousness and thoughtfulness that became hallmarks of her leadership of Germany for 16 years.

    A watcher of the West

    A quiet but studious child who excelled at school, Merkel mastered Russian.

    Like many kids, she joined the Free German Youth (FDJ) and managed her way through the communist system, but always with a whimsical eye for the West, borne out of movies and books smuggled into the parsonage by family members.

    "I was also a fan of a certain brand of jeans that couldn't be bought in the GDR, but I had an aunt in the West who used to send them to me," Merkel would recall years later, in an address to the US Congress.

    Merkel's formative years coincided with the early stages of the GDR, which had been formed just five years before her birth, according to Matthew Karnitschnig, POLITICO's Europe bureau chief. 

    "She really grew up right at the genesis of the German Democratic Republic and her own life followed the trajectory of that project, which was ultimately doomed," he said.

    As a young student, she squatted in a vacant apartment out of "desperation".

    Eventually, she chose to pursue a career in physics because as she put it, "there, the truth isn't so easily bent".

    But when she arrived for a job at a university in the 1970s, she was met by a Stasi secret police officer who came to recruit her. She declined, saying she couldn't keep her mouth shut.

    When the Berlin Wall dramatically fell in 1989, removing the artifice between East and West overnight, she did not rush to the other side like so many of her compatriots.

    Instead, she went to the local sauna, as she did every Thursday, with a friend.

    "I figured if the wall had opened, it was hardly going to close again, so I decided to wait," she recalled.

    It was quintessentially Merkel in her understated, pragmatic approach, a style that would stay with her as she made her unlikely rise to the chancellorship.

    From physicist to unlikely leader

    The collapse of the GDR in 1990 meant today's Germany was cobbled together in a hurry.

    Then a 35-year-old scientist, Merkel seemed an unlikely figure to enter politics.

    Within a year of reunification, she was an elected representative in the Bundestag and appointed the minister for women and youth.

    "Her ambition would have been to be steady, build up a kind of basis in the party — she had none remember — and she really was chaperoned all the time by the chancellor at the time Helmut Kohl," Judy Dempsey, author of The Merkel Phenomenon, told the ABC.

    "To say at the time that, 'Oh gosh, this is going to be a chancellor of Germany,' I don't think it was in anybody's mind at all."

    Back then, the Christian Democratic Union Party (CDU) was predominantly made up of Catholic men from the West.

    "They thought they could really walk over her, but she saw her male opponents off one by one," Dempsey said.

    "This was a woman, not to be pushed around, or to be insulted, or her gender to be taken for granted."

    While she was not to be strong-armed, it was almost as if she fell into higher office, Karnitschnig added.

    "She wasn't just a surprising figure, I would say that she was almost an accidental figure," he said.

    "A series of scandals enveloped the other leaders of the party, and she ended up being the last woman standing."

    Merkel became party leader in 2002, and a narrow victory of just 1 per cent in the 2005 general election led to her power. 

    "She was surprising in many ways also because … she's not the kind of person that people are automatically sort of viscerally drawn to," Karnitschnig said.

    Over time, that understated approach came to be the biggest selling point for Chancellor Merkel.

    The new chancellor, uneasy in the public spotlight, began to hold her hands together.

    It would soon be known as the 'Merkel Raute', which translates to Merkel Rhombus. 

    "It is really a sign of how shy she is at the end of the day, and again a reminder that this is somebody who is not a typical politician," Karnitschnig said.

    Sixteen years on, she remains the most popular figure in German politics.

    If she chose to run again, she almost certainly would be re-elected.

    It is a testament to her political deftness within her party and a credit to the respect she commands from the German people, despite fronting decades of crises.

    A steady hand in a tumultuous time 

    Merkel would become the ultimate crisis manager, a steady hand as her country and the world struggled with economic crises, humanitarian catastrophes, the rise of populism and the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Her style, methodical, thoughtful, and analytical, has won her praise both at home and abroad.

    Even if, to some, her approach, has been seen as overly cautious and slow.

    But the first major crisis Merkel faced as chancellor wasn't even in Germany. It was in Greece.

    In 2008, as the consequences of the Lehmann Brothers collapse in New York rippled around the world, a banking crisis threatened the European project and the common currency – the Euro.

    Countries like Greece, Spain and Ireland found themselves on the brink of financial collapse, with huge levels of national debt.

    They all turned to Germany, the biggest and most financially secure country in Europe. And although Merkel had the ability to bail Greece out, she refused unless the debt-stricken nations made significant structural changes.

    "[She] ran Europe tough when it came to the global financial crisis and the philosophy was, 'You've got huge debt problems, it's total corruption'," Dempsey said.

    "And, heavens, she did this to Portugal, she did this to Spain, she did this to Ireland and she did this to Greece."

    On the streets of Europe, anger — particularly towards the chancellor — was palpable.

    "The Greeks really loathed Merkel and accused [her] of being a kind of Nazi and so on," Dempsey said.

    "But actually, she's stuck by her policy. Her reputation was … a tough 'Iron Chancellor' who's going to clean up Europe's fiscal mess."

    If the handling of the global financial crisis defined her as a tough figure, her approach to the refugee crisis of 2015 turned that definition on its head.

    It was in the summer when 1.3 million migrants, mostly fleeing war-torn Syria, arrived on Europe's doorstep.

    Pressure was building on Germany and Europe. The 'Iron Chancellor' was widely criticised after she told a 14-year-old Palestinian teen that she may be deported.

    The clip went viral, showing a wooden and uncomfortable Merkel trying to console her. 

    A month later, after visiting a refugee camp in Dresden, she made the most iconic speech of her chancellorship.

    "Wir schaffen das!" she told a crowd, which roughly translates to "We can do this!".

    The deliberator makes a spontaneous call 

    Her decision to allow refugees to flow into Germany — more than 1 million all told — inspired and divided the nation. And the great deliberator appeared to have made a hasty, emotional decision.

    "It was a decision made at the heat of the moment that she might not make in the same way today, because at the time she believed that fewer people would come than ended up coming," Karnitschnig said.

    Merkel went on to defend her position.

    "I have to be honest, if we start having to apologise for showing a friendly face in emergencies, then this is not my country," she said. 

    But that decision became a catalyst for inflaming a side of Germany that she had worked so hard to bury.

    In her final election campaign, Merkel's CDU/CSU saw its vote share plummet by more than eight points.

    The previously unrepresented Alternative For Deutschland (AfD), with its far-right, anti-immigrant rhetoric, surged into the Bundestag with more than 12 per cent of the vote.

    The major parties formed a grand coalition to limit AfD's influence. But by doing so, they turned them into Germany’s de facto opposition party.

    "Now, politically, when the dust settled, Merkel paid a price for this, with the rise of the Alternative for Germany," Judy Dempsey said of the Chancellor’s policy on refugees.

    "But Merkel stuck to her principles."

    The rise of the AfD coincided with populism emerging around the world, from Brexit to Donald Trump, all becoming forces that Merkel was forced to confront and navigate in the later years of her chancellorship.

    "The government has to buckle up," Alexander Gauland, AfD party leader told supporters after the surprise result in 2017.

    "We will hunt them. We will hunt Frau Merkel."

    But soon, troubles at the ballot box were the least of the chancellor's worries.

    The murders of nine people in two shisha bars in Hanau, near Frankfurt in 2020 and the deaths of two others in a shooting on a synagogue in Halle in 2019 exposed a raw underbelly the country had tried so desperately to leave behind.

    The AfD’s support appears to have plateaued ahead of this weekend's national poll, but they have firmly ensconced within the German political conversation. 

    And the country Angela Merkel expertly navigated for 16 years appears to be fraying at the seams. 

    Merkel leaves behind a mixed legacy

    When Merkel came to power, George W Bush was in the White House, Tony Blair occupied 10 Downing Street and John Howard had the keys to Kirribilli House.

    As figures of that era fell away, Merkel remained.

    And, as populism ran rampant across the world, her acrimonious relationship with US President Donald Trump saw her bestowed with the title of the 'liberal West's last defender' and the 'Empress of Europe'. 

    Often the only woman in the room, she displayed a stoic weariness for the antics of some of her male counterparts.

    During one memorable G8 summit, George W Bush crept up behind her to rub her shoulders, while Russia's leader Vladimir Putin brought along his big black labrador to a meeting with the dog-phobic Merkel.

    Known affectionately by some in Germany as "Mutti" or Mama, she became the mother of a nation. 

    And while she has gained that reputation internationally, her approach to governing domestically has often been seen as slow. 

    In many ways, she remains the girl standing on the edge of the diving board, weighing up the risks and benefits of jumping in. 

    A generation of Germans, who have spent their entire childhoods with her at the helm, are itching for change.

    In recent years, the verb, "Merkeln" has found its way into the local lexicon, a verb for holding off on making decisions.

    "In the last few years, government policy in Germany has run on autopilot," Annalena Baerbock, the Greens leader who is vying to replace her as chancellor, said.

    Merkel dragged Germany, a nation once known as the "poor man of Europe" into an economic powerhouse.

    But critics argue Merkel's reign is defined by the pursuit of Germany's economic interests above all else.

    "It [Germany] hides behind the United States or other countries when it comes to a lot of these difficult questions and it's opened it to a lot of accusations that it is ultimately only interested in the health of its economy," Matthew Karnitschnig said.

    While Merkel has lulled the German people into relying on the stability of her understated leadership, voters are turning away from her party in droves. 

    By vacating her place as chancellor, it also leaves a void in Europe's leadership, which French President Emmanuel Macron clearly sees himself filling — for now.

    And whoever replaces her will pale in significance to the authority she has wielded on the global stage for decades.

    "It's definitely the end of an era," Karnitschnig said.

    While incremental change and process-driven politics may also leave with Merkel, her status as a stateswoman of Europe will remain.

    "Her legacy might be as the last dominant leader of Germany," Karnitschnig said.

    © 2021 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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