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Angela Merkel is a German politician and stateswoman who has been the leader of the Christian Democratic Union since 2000 and the Chancellor of Germany since 2005. Not only that she is the first female German chancellor, but she is also the youngest German chancellor since the Second World War. Her background in natural sciences also distinguishes her from her predecessors who had mostly come from the field of law, history, or business. She was named the most powerful woman in the world ten times by Forbes Magazine and she was also featured on Forbes Magazine’s list of The World’s Most Powerful People as the second most powerful person in the world, in 2012 and 2015.
Early life and education
Angela Dorothea Merkel, nee Kasner, was born on July 17, 1954, in Hamburg, Germany. Her father, Horst Kasner, was from Berlin, while her mother, Herlind, was from a Polish city named Danzig (now Gdansk). Both of her parents had Polish ancestry, as her paternal grandfather, named Ludwig Kasner, was a German national of Polish origin whose name was changed from Kazmierczak to Kasner in 1930. Merkel’s mother was a teacher of English and Latin, a political activist, and member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany. She was even appointed for a short time as a member of the municipal council in Templin, after the reunification of Germany. In general, the Kasner family was less interested in politics, preferring to be involved in the religious life of their community. While Angela’s father was born into a Catholic family, he converted to Lutheranism and studied Lutheran theology in the renowned universities of Heidelberg and Hamburg. Upon the completion of his studies, Horst Kasner was appointed as a pastor in a neighborhood of Brandenburg, which was part of East Germany at that time. The family moved to Templin, 50 miles north of East Berlin, where Merkel and her two siblings grew up.
In the socialist and atheist society of East Germany, where thousands of Germans were fleeing to escape the rigors of the Marxist-Leninists, Merkel’s father was a pastor with a solid reputation, in whose house intellectual debates were a common occurrence. The Lutheran Church was slowly growing into a counterbalance to the atheist ideology. However, Horst Kasner was never persecuted as he was a fervent socialist himself, dedicated to social activism.
Angela excelled at school and was attracted to the outdoors, yet her teachers remember her as shy and almost invisible, always trying to avoid attention. She had an endless curiosity and an intellectual diligence worthy of a scholar, which she later successfully fructified as a scientist. Despite the common habit in East Germany of having a coming-of-age ceremony, Jugendweihe, Merkel was confirmed. During her youth, as most other people of her age, Merkel became a member of the Free German Youth (FDJ), the official youth organization sponsored by the Socialist Unity Party in power. While officially the membership was voluntary, the reality was that only members of the organization had access to higher education. As a student, she was often dreaming about traveling so she journeyed across other countries from the Eastern bloc, such as Romania and Bulgaria.
According to her academic reports, Merkel was a mediocre student in the Marxism-Leninism course and only managed to obtain a minimal passing grade. She was, however, a highly intelligent student who spoke Russian fluently and often received prizes for outstanding proficiency in languages and mathematics. After graduating from high school in 1973, she enrolled at the University of Leipzig, where she spent four years studying physics. During her time at the Academy of Sciences, Merkel was promoted as a member of the FDJ district board and appointed secretary for the department of Agitation and Propaganda, a biographical episode which she later denied by claiming she was a secretary for culture. Her claims were not, however, supported by the former district chairman. Following her graduation, she continued to study and work at the Central Institute for Physical chemistry of the Academy of Sciences in Berlin-Adlershof between 1978 and 1990. After obtaining her doctorate with a thesis on quantum chemistry, Merkel was involved in research and published various scientific papers.
Early political career
In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, Merkel became interested in the emerging political movements and joined the new party Democratic Awakening. After the first election of East Germany, Merkel was appointed deputy spokesperson of the new government led by Lothar de Maiziere, debuting thus in the politics at the age of 36. One year later, after reunification, the Democratic Awakening was taken under the wing of the East German CDU and became further on a part of its western counterpart.
After the reunification, Merkel became increasingly more interested in a political career. She participated in the 1990 federal election and was elected for the Stralsund-Nordvorpommern-Rugen constituency, for which she would be re-elected at all six federal elections that took place ever since. Immediately after the election, she became Minister for Women and Youth with Helmut Kohl as Chancellor. Four years later, she was appointed Minister for the Environment and Nuclear Safety, a position which increased her visibility on the German political scene and offered her the opportunities to build a solid reputation as a politician. Soon after being assigned as a Minister, she visited California where she had the chance to shake hands with American president Ronald Reagan, whom she admired for standing up against the Soviets. While shy and quiet, Merkel was acknowledged for her energy and for an inner strength that pervaded her calm demeanor. Male politicians were often dismissive of her, underestimating her political flair, yet she was driven enough to prove them wrong. During her time as an Environment Minister she organized a major global conference on climate change and was overall very dedicated to her job. She was obviously one of Kohl’s protégées and was the youngest person in his Cabinet. However, the Kohl Government lost the 1998 election and Merkel had to switch positions. She became Secretary-General of the Christian Democratic Union, an important role since the party had recently gained independence from the federal government.
The Christian Democratic Union grew in power after a series of election victories in 1999, yet a funding scandal discredited many of the party’s leaders, including Kohl and Wolfgang Schauble, Kohl’s favorite as a successor. Merkel was no wary of criticizing her former mentor and she publicly promised a new start for CDU, without Kohl and the other compromised members. On 10 April 2000, she became the first female leader of a German party, after winning against Schauble. The election caused a wave of surprise and confusion, as Merkel was a centrist, divorced Protestant from the Eastern bloc coming to lead a socially conservative party rooted in the Catholic west. However, her rise within the party met little resistance over time. Moreover, since becoming the CDU leader, Merkel’s popularity only increased among the Germans and several polls indicated that she was seen as a great fit for Chancellor. Despite the expectations, in the 2002 election, the candidate from the CDU who had to challenge Chancellor Gerhard Schroder was CSU Leader Edmund Stoiber, who lost the election by a close-call. Stoiber’s loss consolidated Merkel’s position and she became Leader of the Opposition in the Bundestag, along with being the CDU Leader.
A Short Biography of Angela Merkel
Leader of the Opposition and Chancellor of Germany
In 2005, Merkel had for the first time the opportunity to challenge the Chancellor Gerhard Schroder in an election. While her party was popular in the polls, the support for her personally was less significant. Her campaign, focused on an economic agenda of reforms, suffered when Merkel confused basic economic concepts on a televised debate. Prior to the election, the polls suggested a strong tie between the main candidates from the Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Party. However, neither one of the parties obtained the necessary votes to be able to form a majority in the Bundestag. Schroder and Merkel disputed the results, each one claiming victory. After weeks of negotiations, a deal was settled and Merkel was elected Chancellor in the new Bundestag, with an impressive majority of votes from the delegates. The newly formed coalition had as an agenda a mix of different, often contradicting policies, yet Merkel declared as her main interest the reduction of the unemployment rate and promised to take Germany to an even greater path of prosperity.
On 22 November 2005, Angela Merkel became Chancellor of Germany. The coalition with the SPD was dissolved in 2009, when Merkel’s party was re-elected with a stronger majority. The CDU formed another coalition with the Free Democratic Party and in the next election, on September 2013, even though CDU was a winner, decided to form another coalition with SPD since FDP didn’t manage to obtain the 5% votes needed to enter parliament. Merkel’s first Cabinet was thus sworn in 2005, the second in 2009 and the third in 2013, when Merkel’s victory was one of the most impressive in German history, with CDU/CSU obtaining all but five seats of the Bundestag. During her second term, Merkel’s popularity severely decreased, causing massive losses to her party in the country’s elections. If on 2011, the poll suggested her coalition’s support was of only 36%, Merkel raised her popularity with her impressive management of the euro crisis. Her approval rating was 77% in 2012 and again in 2014. However, the European migrant crisis caused another downfall, with an approval rating of only 54% in October 2015. In 2007 Merkel became the President of the European Council.
As a politician, Merkel always had a reformative agenda on her mind. She envisioned changes in both the economic and social systems and was highly supportive of the pro-market. One of her top priorities was making Germany a more competitive country, thus she promoted various labor law changes to increase the legal number of work hours per week and to allow managers to lay off employees with less hassle. Merkel’s speeches often took controversial turns as she addressed some of the most prominent issues in the German society, which are immigration and multiculturalism. In a meeting from 2010, she declared among members of the CDU that the attempt to create a multicultural environment in Germany has failed and that immigrants have yet to adopt Germany’s values.
Concerning other domestic affairs, besides her focus on strengthening the economy, Merkel provided new health care policies and worked on future energy development. During the past few years, Merkel’s policies have lean more towards the left-wing ideology, including measures such as establishing a minimum wage in certain sectors or choosing to abandon the pursuit of nuclear power. She has also become an advocate for fiscal austerity, often promoting strict supervision by the EU towards the southern European countries that struggle economically, such as Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Her authoritative speech during the tough economic crisis has led to a wave of hostility from people in these states and several other European politicians have dismissed her policy of austerity considering it just a longer route to a recession. A common occurrence in Merkel’s speeches is the idea that Europe, even though it has only 7% of the global population spends 50% of the global social expenditure while producing only 25% of the global GDP. She often emphasizes the need to raise the competitiveness in Europe, yet her ideas are widely disputed by the financial press and leading economists. However, the Germans value Merkel’s struggle to ensure a low unemployment rate.
Merkel is known to use extensively the term alternativlos ( “without an alternative” in German) for describing her policies during the European sovereign-debt crisis. The word created great controversy and was even chosen the Un-Word of the Year 2010 by a committee of linguists. The term coined the name of the opposing political party Alternative for Germany, a right-wing party with a strong anti-migration agenda.
Regarding foreign affairs, Merkel’s primary goal was to maintain and strengthen the relations with the United States, whom she considers Germany’s most treasured ally. In 2007 she attended the Transatlantic Economic Council and signed an agreement with the White House for the removal of trade barriers in an attempt to create a larger free-trade zone. She wanted to secure a powerful transatlantic partnership and to establish cordial relationships with the United States. Merkel proved her loyalty in 2003 when she publicly accepted the USA invasion of Iraq as unavoidable, despite the general opposition from the German population. Her attitude towards the United States hasn’t changed even with the discovery that her smartphone had been tapped by the US. She often criticized former Chancellor Gerhard Schroder for his anti-American views and for promising to Turkey access to the European Union. She has declared during a visit from the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu that Islam is part of Germany, a statement which brought her constant criticism from her party members.
Merkel also met the 14th Dalai Lama in 2007 in her office in Berlin, an event which caused strong negative reactions in China. In 2008, Merkel participated in a joint press conference with Vladimir Putin. She also visited Israel several times and spoke before Israel’s parliament. While she has been a supporter of Israel she condemned some of the Israeli’s government actions. In 2014, Merkel received the highest civilian award from the Israel’s President Shimon Peres, in the honor of her commitment towards the Israeli cause and for her fight against anti-Semitism. Merkel also made an agreement with India, in an attempt to boost cooperation between Germany and India in the areas of science, technology, or energy. She also visited China multiple times and received the visit of China’s President Xi in Germany. Her insistence on creating an EU banking union, which means a transfer of power to the European Central Bank, led to a tense relationship with French President Francois Hollande and other European statesmen.
The Refugee Crisis
Germany is the largest country in terms of population in the European Union, as well as the most prosperous. It has the fourth largest economy in the world and one of the healthiest. During Merkel’s over ten years in the office, Germany has grown even more prosperous. However, as the leader of the most powerful country in the European Union, Merkel had to fight two severe crises. The first crisis was economic and was caused by the weakening of the euro as a result of Greece’s bankruptcy, while the second was a social and cultural crisis caused by the influx of Middle Eastern refugees to Europe.
Merkel decided to allow Syrian refugees to seek asylum in Germany and as a result of her decision, over 1.1 million refugees from Syria but also from other Middle Eastern and North African countries arrived in Germany. Many people started to question Merkel’s approach, condemning her for the “Islamisation” of Germany. The anxiety grew during the 2015 New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne when aggressive crowds of men with North African origin robbed and sexually assaulted hundreds of local women. The situation led to the formation of a new anti-migration party The Alternative for Germany (AfD), who has won already seats in five regional parliaments between 2014 and 2016. Merkel’s acceptance of the asylum seekers led the right-wing parties to call her a naïve and to take advantage of the situation to consolidate their positions. This manifested in weekly anti-immigrant rallies in many places in Germany. When criticized for her choice of allowing thousands of migrants from the Middle East to come to Germany, Merkel insisted that the country is strong enough, economically and culturally, to cope with the situation. She was accused, however, by political analyst Arno Tausch of underestimating the effects of the mass migration that happened since 2015 onwards, with more than 2.6 million Arabs coming into Europe.
Despite the controversy, Merkel is one of the few leaders who became proactive during the refugee crisis and who offered help in the name of their country. She received tremendous support from many German residents who even volunteered in refugee camps all over the country.
Leading up to the September 2017 elections, there had been a growing sentiment in Germany that was opposed to the additional immigration with a pro nationalist agenda. Germany has been coping with arrival of more than 1 million refugees into the country and frayed the nerves of the working. In 2013, a right-wing populist party called the Alternative for Germany (AfD) was formed under the platform that is anti-EU and anti-immigration. This new group attracted voters from almost all of the other parties, especially among lower income households.
On Sunday, September 24, the German people voted once again for Angela Merkel as their chancellor. Her victory was overshadowed by the entry of a far-right AfD party into Parliament for the first time in more than 60 years. The strong showing by the AfD was attributed to voter anger over immigration and inequality. Ms. Merkel and her center-right Christian Democrats won, but is was weakened victory, as it proved that far-right populism was far from dead in Europe.
Angela Kasner married Ulrich Merkel, a colleague from the physics department, in 1977. While the marriage ended in divorce five years later, Angela kept her ex-husband’s surname. In 1981, she met her future husband, Joachim Sauer who is a quantum chemist and professor. The two formed a couple a few years later and married in 1998. They never had children together, but Sauer has two sons from his previous marriage. Merkel’s husband rarely appears in media as he prefers to preserve his privacy.
Merkel was hardly able to build the public image of a charismatic and beloved leader, even though she is valued for her competence and resilience. She often declared that she still feels unable to deliver a satisfactory speech, yet her honesty in discourse has been widely appreciated in Germany, where performers are not encouraged or tolerated. Because of feeling uncomfortable during speeches, Merkel started to use a specific hand gesture which became a trademark for her as a politician and which caused criticism and led to accusations from her opponents of trying to create a cult of personality.
Many colleagues and friends described her as a very entertaining and open person, despite her stoic public figure. She grew more confident over time and even adapted her outfit to show more style. However, Merkel has remained completely authentic in her lifestyle, an attitude which brought her tremendous sympathy from Germans. She lives in a modest apartment and can even be seen doing her own grocery shopping.
Merkel is known and appreciated for her intellectual rigor, unstoppable drive, pragmatic vision, and patience. While some have accused her of being too slow to react, others appreciate her for taking the time to reflect upon important decisions.
It is arguable whether Angela Merkel will decide to become a candidate in 2017 for a fourth term as Chancellor since the refugee crisis led to a decrease in popularity all over Germany, as suggested by several polls. Yet she remains “Mutti”, as the Germans called her, meaning mother of the nation. A pragmatic, yet prudent leader, she is still, maybe for years to come, one of the most influential political figures on the planet.
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© 2016 Doug West