The Girl of the Golden East


“We can manage this”, claims Angela Merkel, an immigrant herself 25 years ago from the GDR and now considered the most powerful woman in the world.

It seems like a document from a lost and distant world: the colour photograph shows Angela Merkel a quarter-century ago. On 2 November 1990, a few weeks before the general election in which she would first enter Parliament, the 36-year-young politician is sitting in a fishing hut on the island of Rügen.

The woman who would become chancellor wears a denim skirt and a cardigan; her hair is short and straight. She is in her district where the fishermen are potential voters. Sunlight falls through the window at an angle; the scene is reminiscent of a fairy tale. We see a different Angela Merkel than the one we know today. She looks like an apprentice, a schoolgirl, shy and withdrawn. There is something almost anxious about her, certainly not powerful. Her gaze is tinged with sadness. How is it that 25 years later she has become, as the media calls her, “the most powerful woman in the world”?

A second, more careful look at the photograph provides a clue. By examining Merkel’s countenance more closely, we sense that this woman has stamina and is strong and unshakeable. Even back then, she exuded tranquillity, not the blustering manner of Helmut Kohl, not the noisy style of Gerhard Schröder but a different tone altogether – quiet, relentless.

How did she pull off her meteoric rise? One must assume she has a pronounced desire for power – although for her, power is not evil. The element of surprise also helped. She is a woman from the East, where women with such insistent, natural desires for power were not familiar figures. Her male political competitors were clueless when dealing with her. Thus, she marched up the ranks rather effortlessly.

And because she came from the East, the political culture of the West was foreign to her. She migrated into it. In this sense, she possessed the advantage that all immigrants have: they don’t belong – heart and soul – to the new world, so they can deal with it in a more functional manner. This made it easier for Merkel to recognize her assets and to make the right moves at the right times. Many “Easties”, who were not intimately familiar with the West, proved to be at a disadvantage in the reunified Germany. For Angela Merkel, however, this lack of familiarity was a decisive edge.

Another defining characteristic of Merkel is her flexibility. She has governed with the Social Democrats as well as the Liberals and, if necessary, would certainly also govern with the Greens; she is open to all sides. Under her leadership, the Christian Democratic Union has almost completely thrown off its conservative inheritance. The fact that the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has not grown during Merkel’s reign is partly a result of her usurping its political issues and making them her own. She has stripped ideology from German politics as no one before.

Angela Merkel is not passionate about domestic policy. Germany has a strong economy, not thanks to her but rather to Schröder and his Agenda 2010. Merkel does not like to commit herself, preferring to leave all options open. In nautical terms, she navigates by sight (critics might say in the fog). At the same time, she is capable of making dramatic decisions and thoroughly changing course. After the tsunami and ensuing reactor disaster in Fukushima, Merkel radically altered her position overnight, declaring an “energy revolution” in Germany and advocating for the quickest possible phase-out of nuclear energy, without consulting any other EU member states.

Thus the obverse of her wait-and-see attitude is a considerable sense of self-importance, one might even say lack of principles. When she deems it appropriate, Merkel will ignore rules, and even laws, without hesitation. She works slowly and quickly at the same time. Her ideological indifference mirrors the general trend toward shapelessness in German politics. For her own part, she has powerfully reinforced this trend – which ultimately threatens to lead to political parties that are mere empty husks.

The “mantel of history” that Helmut Kohl liked to contemplate is foreign to Merkel. She would never admit that she wants to make history. But thanks to her all-around openness and tenacity, she has cultivated an important international role for herself. We can tell that this courageous person likes to perform on the international stage. And that is, to some extent, where Merkel finds herself. Moreover, she can now do on a larger scale what she has always done at home: employing the relentless power of discussion that seems to be open to alternatives in order to reach decisions that feel inevitable in the end.

Where will Merkel be in five years? If she is still chancellor – which, if she wants to be, is likely – she will have been in office for 15 years, just one year less than Helmut Kohl, the current record-holder for longest chancellorship. A case can be made that Merkel will be the first German chancellor to leave office voluntarily, i.e., not to be voted out or overthrown.

Faced with the enormous influx of refugees into Europe, Merkel astounded the whole of Germany by saying, “We can manage this”. Many criticized the statement as rash; others accused her of “moral imperialism”; and still others suspected that, at the expense of other EU nations, Merkel wanted to attract as many well-educated migrants into her country as possible. As the old song goes: “Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles”.

But surely these are all false accusations. Coming from the East, Merkel knows what it means to harbour a burning desire to flee. When she said, “We can manage this”, it was perhaps the first moment in her political career that she took a stand, showing a readiness to accept profound changes in Germany and Europe in the name of a greater good. And, moreover, throw herself into those changes to help shape them.

Refugees are coming to Europe and will continue to come. Although the problems in so many countries in Africa, the Middle East and other regions are self-inflicted, Europe bears its share of responsibility. And the problems are so extensive that it is unrealistic to assume the mass exoduses (and arrivals in Europe) will simply stop.

We have to come to terms with the fact that immigration will substantially change the face of Europe in the coming years and decades. We will no longer be a Judeo-Christian community. We can reject this idea, although such a rejection is futile. Or we can accept it, desire it and shape it. It seems that Angela Merkel, the Protestant physicist from Brandenburg, has chosen the latter. If she wishes to accomplish her goal, she must do everything in her power to mould the European Union into a political entity that lives up to its name – a structure that exhibits all the characteristics of a nation state.

That would be a beautiful punch-line: a postnational Europe that cultivates a democratic form of Islam is substantially promoted and established by a politician from the GDR. That is to say, from a small, oppressive, failed country that wanted nothing to do with the world, migration and the churning currents of globalised modernity.