The unshakeable Angela Merkel, the pilot who weathered the storm
As she faces re-election, the signs are that Angela Merkel’s commitment to the euro stretches only so far as the maths continue to work for Germany. Andrew Gimson on the roots of a genial but ruthlessly pragmatic politician.
Sweeping vistas, rooted approach: Angela Merkel in Borkum, northern Germany, in 2004, the year before she became Chancellor
On Saturday morning, I caught a train from Berlin into the land of forests and lakes that stretches north all the way to the Baltic Sea. As soon as one gets out of the city, it feels like one is stepping back in time to an older and more modest Germany. This is a country of birch and pine, sandy tracks, cobbled roads, abundant meadows, dilapidated orchards, and unassuming houses and churches.
Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, was brought up here in Templin, in the Uckermark district, the daughter of a Protestant clergyman. A great part of her appeal to German voters springs from her provincial origins and the way she has remained true to them. There is nothing moneyed about Merkel: one cannot imagine her wishing to ingratiate herself with the super-rich. At the weekend she retreats with her husband to their house near Templin, reached by a cobbled road through the forest.
I had decided to go further north, through Brandenburg and a wonderful profusion of lakes, into Mecklenburg and Western Pomerania. Otto von Bismarck is supposed to have said that when the end of the world comes, one should go to Mecklenburg, as everything there happens a hundred years later.
I changed trains in Neustrelitz and proceeded through a series of tiny wayside halts – Gnevkow, Sternfeld, Utzedel, Demmin, Rakow – before alighting, at the end of a threehour journey, in front of the derelict station building in the small town of Grimmen, about a dozen miles short of the Baltic.
Until 1990 this whole tract of territory was in East Germany. In December that year, in the first elections held after reunification, Merkel stood, at the age of 36, as the Christian Democrat candidate for the district of which Grimmen is the administrative capital, and won. She has represented this bit of Pomerania ever since and I hoped during my visit to gain some insight into her politics.
My friend Leon Mangasarian, who works for Bloomberg News in Berlin, told me that Grimmen has a dynamic Christian Democratic mayor, Benno Rüster, who has prevented local youth from falling into the hands of the neo-Nazis by setting up a successful stock car racing club. Rüster is also anxious to develop the oil that has been discovered beneath the town: “Grimmen is swimming on a huge sea of oil. It could produce a flood of tax revenue for us. Look, we’re not going to get a Mercedes factory here.”
Merkel, with typical caution, declines to say whether she wants the oil to be exploited: she fears upsetting environmentalists, who in turn insist that oil wells would wreck the region’s tourism industry.
On the day I visited, Rüster was ill, so I was unable to ask him if he felt let down by Merkel. But I agree with him that Grimmen needs all the help it can get. Since reunification, the town’s population has shrunk from 15,000 to 10,000. The unemployment rate is 14.7 per cent and many people complain that wages are very low.
The first sight that greets the visitor walking into town along Bahnhofstrasse is a monument to Karl Marx; his genial countenance is portrayed in bas-relief on a gold medallion attached to a small boulder. A few yards further on, one comes to a small Soviet war cemetery containing 16 graves. Such memorials placed in prominent spots reminded the East Germans who was in charge.
Grimmen’s old town contains five brick Gothic structures from the 14th century: the church, three gateways and the two-storey town hall. But although it is evident that large sums of money have been spent since 1990 on restoring the fabric of the place, it still has a stunned feel. The first woman who I asked about Merkel said: “She was here last week. She was received with enthusiasm. She can make great speeches but whether she can do things is not so sure. Here, everything is closed.”
On Saturday afternoon almost everything in Grimmen is, indeed, closed. The one lively event I stumbled upon was a flea market held in a primary school. A hundred customers or so, almost all of them women, were looking through piles of second-hand clothes in order to buy things for their children – a T-shirt for 50 cents, a small pair of wellington boots for €3, a padded coat for €5.
Many people I spoke to complained at the way prices have risen since the introduction of the euro but no one seemed to think it practical to return to the German mark. Quite a few said they have given up voting. They smiled at the visitor but, like Merkel, managed in a warm, firm and non-aggressive manner to say next to nothing. They feel a certain pride in having Merkel, “the most powerful woman in the world”, as their local MP but are not inclined to expect that she will achieve very much for Grimmen.
Although people expect Merkel to win the German election on 22 September, no one supposes she will get enough votes to rule without forming a coalition. She could well find herself back in harness with the Social Democrats, with whom she governed during her first four-year term of office from 2005 onwards.
Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democrats’ candidate for the chancellorship, served as finance minister in that government. In the only televised debate between him and Merkel during the campaign, he angrily rejected the idea of going back into government with her, while she, with lethal amiability, pointed out that the voters might indicate they wanted such an arrangement.
Steinbrück is a decent man but he has no idea how to cope with Merkel, a woman of imperturbable friendliness who regards him with a gleam of amusement and has no compunction about nicking any of his policies that looks popular.
At Grimmen’s recently restored water tower, a wedding party was posing for photographs. Women wearing green shirts and carrying balloons had formed a guard of honour: I was told they were the bride’s colleagues from the Arbeiterwohlfahrt, or workers’ welfare association. Inside the tower there was a small representation of a woman publicly burned as a witch in Grimmen in 1697, one of at least seven women to suffer that fate. This was during the period of more than 150 years, from the Thirty Years War (during which Grimmen was looted) to the Congress of Vienna, when the town, along with rest of the Duchy of Pomerania, belonged to Sweden.
Nowadays, one might add, the greater part of Pomerania is in Poland, and in 1945 the population of Mecklenburg and Western Pomerania was swollen by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of German refugees who had been driven, amid great suffering, from their homes further east. Outside one of the gates of Grimmen, a modern monument commemorates the entry of French troops into the town on 4 November 1806. They kidnapped the mayor and released him only on payment within the hour of the enormous sum of 1,400 Reichsthalers. I couldn’t help wondering whether, before the euro crisis is over, the French government will attempt some similar act of extortion.
We have grown so used to thinking of Germany as a mighty economic power that we overlook the ways in which that country is weak or at least has good reason to feel weak. The history of Grimmen is not one of steady success, although in the 1960s the East German government did invest in new industries in the town, including oil. This region is Germany’s domestic version of Greece: an area with a weak economy that was wrecked by a currency union pushed through by Chancellor Helmut Kohl – in this case the currency union carried out during reunification between West and East Germany in 1990, at the politically expedient but economically illiterate rate of one to one.
By having vast sums of money spent on it, the former East Germany has been saved from bankruptcy and given a modern infrastructure and has even begun to prosper in parts. But many of its most energetic workers moved to find work in the former West Germany. In Grimmen, I met a man who had gone to Hamburg some years ago to find work and was returning to visit relatives. One should bear in mind that, as most of us would do, he wished to justify what he had done. But these were his harsh comments on Grimmen: “These are all old people here. If you look at people’s faces, there’s no Lebensfreude, no zest for life in them. Their faces seem all grey and hollow. There aren’t enough jobs where a man can live from his own labour.”
This dismal testimony (which one can easily imagine being given in parts of Greece, Portugal or Spain) was balanced to some extent by that of another man who had moved from Berlin to Grimmen in search of a quieter life and was delighted to have found it.
What does all this tell us about Merkel? First, it serves as a reminder that she grew up in a state, East Germany, that was not sovereign. Angela Kasner was born on 17 July 1954 in Hamburg, where her father had studied theology and her mother, who was from Danzig, taught English and Latin. In the autumn of that year her parents took her to East Germany, where her father began work as a clergyman but her mother was barred from teaching. Angela excelled at mathematics and Russian, studied physics at Leipzig University and did her doctoral thesis, on quantum chemistry, in Berlin. Her first marriage, to Ulrich Merkel, lasted from 1977 to 1982. She met her second husband, Joachim Sauer, a professor of chemistry who keeps out of the public eye, in 1981 and married him in 1998. She has no children.
Until Merkel was in her mid-thirties, power resided in Moscow, to which she contrived, as a gifted young scientist, to make several visits. She was not a Communist but she and her family made the accommodation with the authorities that was needed for her to get an education. She learned from a young age something about power and about the art of pragmatic compromise, and she also learned how to conceal whatever her own opinions might be. The young Merkel had no training or, indeed, interest in politics. When some of her scientific friends suggested she might like to protest with them against the regime, she laughed at the seeming futility of their proposed course of action.
Going to Grimmen reminded me of something that first struck me when I lived in the former East Berlin during the 1990s. There were many individual variations but overall the former East Germans I knew were more relaxed, and in many cases freer, than former West Germans.
The easterners had suffered severe deprivation after the Second World War, which made them less liable to feel guilty. One could make jokes with them about, say, the Nazis, which to uptight West Germans would have seemed in intolerably bad taste. The easterners had experienced living under such a ludicrous regime that many of them had acquired a deep scorn for authority and for the ideological pretensions of their rulers.
Merkel approaches politics with an easterner’s freedom. She is not a Christian Democrat by birth and in her formative years she was not imbued with the European pieties of the politicians and officials in Bonn. When reunification came she seized the opportunity, joined the party and was very soon promoted by Kohl, for whom she possessed three attractions – she was a woman, an easterner and highly competent.
In due course, she saw her chance and assassinated Kohl, at a time when Christian Democrats from the west still possessed too much residual respect for him and were too enmeshed in his system of control. A wellplaced observer told me that the Christian Democrats feel bitter at their “emasculation”. It is not just that they find themselves being led by a woman, some of whose closest collaborators are also women, it is also that as Catholic Rhinelanders they have no real idea what this woman brought up in the wild east, in a Lutheran household and a communist state, is thinking.
She wins elections, so they have to accept her leadership, but she is certainly not one of them, and every so often she shocks them by doing something they could not imagine doing. Her decision in 2011, after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, to shut down Germany’s nuclear programme, astonished everyone: she had abandoned the platform on which she was re-elected in 2009 and stolen the Greens’ main policy.
What is Merkel’s attitude to the European project? I see no evidence that she is a true believer. During the current election campaign, she has blamed her Social Democrat predecessor Gerhard Schröder for ever allowing Greece to join the euro, an accusation which confirms that practical considerations are more important to her than any general right to belong to the new currency. She has propped up the euro because it seems the pragmatic thing to do; the risks of getting rid of it have so far seemed worse than the bargaining that has been needed to save it. Merkel is a brilliant negotiator, calm under pressure, who keeps her cards hidden even from her own side. Her performance throughout the euro crisis has greatly contributed to her authority.
Although this pilot who has weathered the storm is not the prisoner of a European ideology of ever closer union, there is nevertheless a moral element in her policy. Merkel promulgates the virtue of thrift, expressed as the balanced budgets that she commends to all members of the euro, even those that have shown no sense of balance for decades.
Mario Monti, the former Italian prime minister, likes to remark that for the Germans, economics is a branch of moral philosophy. Merkel has become Europe’s moral tutor. Even the least promising pupils are expected to attain German standards of conduct. This strikes me as impossible. As David Heathcoat-Amory, a British Euro sceptic, observed when serving as a Foreign Office minister in the early 1990s, the Germans have “a weakness for rules, however unrealistic and unenforceable”.
If and when the cost of saving the euro starts to become too high, Merkel will refuse to go on paying it. Her attitude will be that of a cold-blooded pragmatist. The interests of Pomerania will be placed ahead of those of the Peloponnese.
On walking out of Grimmen, I spotted another war memorial, in a somewhat less prominent spot – a modest black obelisk, raised to Kaiser Wilhelm I and his warriors. It names the 80 men from the district of Grimmen who died in the wars of 1864, 1866 and 1870-71, when Bismarck unified Germany. Five years later, you may recall, he said that Germany had no interest in the Balkans “that was worth the healthy bones of a Pomeranian musketeer”. There are sacrifices one is prepared to make for one’s own country but not for others.
The Germans are not yet ready for precipitate measures. They are still in a phase when they prefer to think as little as possible about the intolerable cost of the fiscal transfers that will be needed to save the euro, given the accelerating divergence between its northern and southern halves. Merkel’s reticence suits them at present. The only group that is trying to change the terms of the debate is Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, or AfD), a new party crammed with professors that has a good chance of breaking through the 5 per cent barrier needed to get seats in the Bundestag.
Although the opinion polls put the party below that level, it is generally accepted, even by the pollsters, that a considerable number of Germans who might vote for AfD are refusing to say what they will actually do. AfD wants an orderly dissolution of the euro and a return to national currencies, or else to smaller and more stable currency unions.
Bernd Lucke, who leads AfD, maintains a studiously moderate tone and has indicated that he prefers David Cameron to Nigel Farage. But the party’s opponents accuse it of fomenting extremism and Lucke was attacked and pushed to the ground by far-left activists at a rally in Bremen on 24 August.
It is only fair to say that members of the German establishment do not expect AfD to win seats in parliament. They could be correct in this prediction or they could be out of touch. From time to time Merkel makes Eurosceptic noises, such as when she said on 14 August that after the general election there could be a discussion about whether Brussels should sometimes return powers to the member states: a non-committal remark about which British Eurosceptics got overexcited, given that its evident purpose was to damage German Eurosceptics.
Merkel is on track to win the election by declining to answer questions about the future of the euro that most Germans are not yet ready to ask. But if the markets pose those questions in an acute way after the election, I do not expect her or her successors to die in the last ditch for a currency that threatens to bleed German taxpayers dry.