Merkel's Next Move
JONATHAN STEINBERG is Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Modern European History at the University of Pennsylvania.See more by this author
On Monday morning, when Germany awoke to find that Angela Merkel had been re-elected as German chancellor, the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel printed the following commentary on its front page: “What do we need parties for when we have Merkel? That’s the attraction. Mommy is the best. We know ourselves. She won’t change much and doesn’t have to. Just because Merkel is so unspectacular, so hesitant, so apparently indecisive, she is very near to the way Germans actually are. The Germans elect their own image.”
The paragraph catches the essential mystery of Merkel as a politician. In Gerd Langguth’s 2007 biography of her, he writes that “there is something sphinx-like about her … Nobody is supposed to see behind the self-constructed protective shell.” She turns personal questions away with a self-deprecating joke: When a journalist recently asked her how she managed to look so fresh despite the grueling campaign, she replied, “By spending a fortune with the German cosmetics industry.” She also shuns the slightest hint of charismatic oratory. Her victory speech was characteristically low key. She refused to say anything about possible coalitions or future plans; her most specific directive to her supporters was simply to celebrate. It wasn’t clear on election night whether she preferred to keep her political plans for the next four years to herself or whether she simply had no political plans to share. It has always been that way with Merkel -- not that Germans seem to mind.
Merkel is widely recognized as one of the success stories of German reunification. Originally from the East German town of Templin, in Brandenburg, she chose to go to university in Leipzig, because, she notes, “I wanted to get away from the small town.” But her ambitions were not originally channeled toward politics. She majored in physics and, after earning a doctoral degree in physical chemistry, she spent 12 years in the Central Institute for Physical Chemistry in Berlin. Her lab companion described her as “a young scientist with no illusions … the only enthusiasm which affected her had to do with lonely bike tours in the Brandenburg countryside.”