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The Banality of Merkel
“In West Germany people know barely anything about thirty-five years of my life,” Angela Merkel, today the powerful prime minister of a unified Germany, said in a 2004 interview. This quote now serves as the epigraph for a new book by two German journalists, Günther Lachmann and Ralf Georg Reuth, about the East German origins of the German chancellor. The authors of Das erste Leben der Angela M. (“The First Life of Angela M.”) wish to impress upon their readers that Angela Merkel, who lived those first thirty-five years of her life in the communist German Democratic Republic, was more deeply a part of that society than had previously been appreciated.
The book has managed to provoke an impassioned discussion in Germany focused on the true nature of Merkel’s personality and political allegiances. "Only Angela Merkel herself can say how much of her old life remains stuck inside of her," a recent magazine article concluded. What the controversy reveals, though, is not that Germans understand too little about their chancellor eight years after her election but, rather, that they understand too little about East Germany’s communist past, twenty-four years after communism’s fall.
The basic facts of Merkel’s biography have long been publicly available. Merkel was born in 1954 in the West, in the Federal Republic of Germany. Merkel’s father, a Protestant minister and a socialist by conviction, moved with his family to the East shortly thereafter. He was sent there by his church, whose leadership wanted to support Christians who were subject to harassment by East Germany’s ruling Socialist Unity Party. The authors of Das erste Leben der Angela M. emphasize that, despite her father’s profession, Merkel showed little interest in theology. Russian was apparently her favorite subject. “She loved the Russian language, because it was so ‘full of feeling.’ And she learned it with enthusiasm,” they write. They describe how, in 1970, having won East Germany’s Russian Olympiad, Merkel traveled to Moscow to participate in the international Russian Olympiad. The suggestion is that her skill at learning Russian was suspicious.