Angela Merkel was born in Hamburg in 1954, but her family moved to East Germany when she was a few months old. Daughter of a Lutheran priest, she lived several years in Templin, a city not too far from Berlin, where her father was sent in order to control the loss of churchgoers in those German territories controlled by the Russians and the Communists.
Unlike her friends, the Chancellor was never involved in the fight against the regime. Although she lived restricted by surveillance and censorship, and though she didn’t feel the GDR was really her country, she was always sure that life would turn out to be fine and that, ultimately, she would find a way to escape if repression turned unbearable.
Having more propensity for academics than for heroics, she joined the Communist party youth chapter in order to write her doctoral thesis and make her way through the scientific circles. The fall of the Berlin’s Wall caught her by surprised, but she adapted quickly, maybe because she always kept in touch with her Hamburg relatives and because Lutheranism kept her connected to the dream of reunification.
Unlike the young Communists and the offspring of East Germany who were forgetting their roots in exchange for cars and American sports shoes, Merkel was a genuine nationalist. Her sense of discipline and power, together with Germany’s need to bring in young leaders from the east side, gave her the first opportunities.
Right after the fall of the wall, she joined a new party called Democratic Awakening. When the party won the elections, the only democratic minister from the GDR, Lothar Maizière, made her his spokeswoman. With the reunification of the country, Helmut Kohl made her part of his closest advisors and she was appointed to the cabinet as Minister for Women and Youth, subjects in which she has admitted not to be interested.
If Maizière prompted her to buy modern outfits when she became spokeswoman, Merkel learned to use credit cards when she was appointed minister in the first cabinet after the reunification. Back then Kohl was enjoying his best time and would introduce her to foreign leaders as “my girl” with a dangerous mix of enthusiasm and contempt; little did the Chancellor know that he had brought in his successor – or as he would say, the snake that would have to kill him.
Some biography suggests that the fact of being among the ugly girls in the classroom – even claiming she was included on those cruel lists of the “unfuckable” – made her develop discipline and silence as powerful weapons, since she was very young. Just as it happens with Mariano Rajoy, observing her political career, it’s not hard to see that the Chancellor has been very skillful when it comes to waiting for her rivals to self-destruct or to be within the reach of her knife.
Since she was a woman educated in communist Germany trying to make it on her own in a world of men cultivated in West Germany, she obtained a fundamental distance very useful with regard to the vanity and the weaknesses of her male counterparts. In order to become Chancellor, Merkel had to put out of action individuals that seemed more powerful than her, like Kohl, Edmund Stoiber, or Gerard Schröder.
Since she’s of one piece -very unusual on ambitious individuals- she is impermeable to criticisms and machinations, but, on the other hand, it has reinforced a harshness which has eroded her virtues over the years. In a country that’s still paying for the defeats of bigmouth leaders of the past century, her low profile has soothed many Germans, who only want to live in a stable country within a world becoming more insecure.
Merkel has been able to keep her party’s authority in Germany and Germany’s authority in Europe, but by sacrificing the democratic spirit of her country and, by extension, that of the European institutions. One of the secrets of her survival is that the Americans never have wanted German leaders with great principles. For Merkel, who was able to adapt to communist Germany, everything is negotiable, while there’s a minimum of freedom.
Just as it happened with Jordi Pujol, the Chancellor embodies the stereotypes about her country that seem to be coming from foreign countries. Her efficiency and her pragmatism have ended up becoming her worst enemy, because democracy is not a formula nor a method and it doesn’t work without idealism. Unable to avoid Brexit, which she could’ve prevented from happening with a firm support to David Cameron, the coalitions she has forged with the social democratic opposition in order to keep her authority have deteriorated the political debate and have reinforced the extremist parties.
The only attempt that gave a shimmer of greatness to her performance was her gesture with the refugees, but it didn’t work because it was only for show. It only connected with the do-goodist rhetoric that it was already becoming obsolete. Puigdemont’s arrest has brought the Catalan conflict home. Just a few years ago this conflict was small and easy to handle; now all bets are off and it could deeply shape Europe’s future. It’s unlikely that a leader who has largely contributed to turn democracy into a cold and dark routine is in a position to solve it.