Published on 20.10.2021 | By Ella Banic, Caitlin Chiam and Bella Hosking
Rise to power/early career
Like many phenomenal women, Angela Merkel's rise to power is not a linear journey. Merkel’s formative years in, then communist, East Germany left an impression on her. As a young girl she joined the Free German Youth (FDJ) and conformed within the communist system but later spoke about her curiosity with the West, referencing an aunt in the West who would send her over a particular brand of jeans that was not obtainable in the GDR. Merkel studied physics in Leipzig before earning her Ph.D at the Eastern German Academy of Sciences and going on to be a quantum physicist in a state-run research center, a far cry from the political posts she would come to hold. In 1989 a historic global shift took place with the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The collapse of the communist regime ignited Merkel’s passion for politics and prompted her to move into the field. However, unlike many of her peers she did not rush to the other side of the wall stating that “I figured if the wall had opened, it was hardly going to close again, so I decided to wait,”. Her thinking was in true Merkel style, a pragmatic and sensible approach which would hold her in good stead as she rose through the political ranks.
Merkel was not just an unlikely figure but also an accidental one. She was an elected representative in Bundestag and appointed by the West German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, to be the minister for women and youth within the year of reunification. Her journey was not easy, newspapers called her “Kohl’s girl” in an attempt to highlight the token easterner who the chancellor protected. But Merkel refused to be pushed around or have her gender work against her and as Judy Dempsey, author of ‘The Merkel Phenomenon’, explained “she saw her male opponents off one by one,”. When Kohl was caught up in a slush fund scandal, Merkel stepped up and became the new face of the party. In 2002, Merkel let Edmund Stoiber, the chairman of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, run in the national elections instead of her but when he lost she emerged as the real champion. In 2005, with a narrow margin of just one percent, Merkel won the general election leading her to power. According to Matthew Karnitschnig, POLITICO’s Europe bureau chief, "a series of scandals enveloped the other leaders of the party, and she ended up being the last woman standing", indicating the way in which her rise to dominance happened almost incidentally.
Image credit: G. Bergman
No figure has loomed as large in German politics as Angela Merkel. Not only was she the Chancellor of Germany, but she was arguably the most powerful voice in the European Union. Merkel was in no way a traditional Chancellor - she is a woman, an Easterner, a devout Lutheran and a trained quantum chemist. Being deeply informed by her religious faith and her scientific background, she has built an image of being able to call on both her strong sense of morality and an objective, logical approach to fact that guides her policy decision making. The dialogue between austerity and altruism are hallmarks of her Chancellorship.
Her chancellorship will largely be remembered by two key decisions - to bail out struggling European nations in the financial crisis of 2009 and the welcoming of Syrian refugees in 2015.
The financial crisis of 2009 left many Eurozone nations gasping for air. Namely Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland were poised on the brink of an economic collapse. Germany was faced with a choice - to bail out these nations at great cost, or let them collapse and potentially bring the Euro down with them. Guided by her famed quote “if the Euro fails, Europe fails” Merkel made the decision to bail out these nations and save them from economic collapse. However, this bail-out was filled with clauses. The austerity measures imposed on the bailed out nations restricted their public spending in an effort to minimise debt. Further, the measures made these nations bow to the German manufacturing industry ultimately turning Germany a profit. For example, Germany has earned 2.9 billion euros from Greece alone since the austerity measures were implemented. Although at the time Merkel was lauded for her cosmopolitan bail-outs, in retrospect the German national interest was always at the forefront of her decision making.
Another moment that will define her career in public memory was the decision to open German borders at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015. In response to the humanitarian crisis that loomed over Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and North Africa, Merkel decided not to turn a blind eye. Over the course of the year, more than 1 million refugees were admitted across the German border. The decision was controversial, especially within her centre-right party and voter base, however Merkel defended to German Newspaper Welt am Sonntag that “it was an extraordinary situation and I made my decision based on what I thought was right from a political and humanitarian standpoint”. Further, she was not afraid to point the finger as she asserted that nations that have not welcomed refugees “contradict the spirit of Europe”. Her slogan “Wir schaffen das!/We can do this!” still echoes through the chambers of governments around the world as proof that welcoming refugees can be done, and it can be done in the national interest.
Her monumental influence over the EU and the global agenda was perhaps proven most flagrantly in 2016. At the dusk of President Obama’s final Presidential term, there were rumours that Angela Merkel would not contest a fourth term. As the dust settled on the US election and it became clear that Donald Trump would win the election, Obama’s response was quite remarkable. His last phone call as President of the United States was to Angela Merkel, to thank her for her “strong, courageous, and steady leadership”. On his final visit to Europe as President, Obama stopped in Germany. It is also rumoured that in his meeting with Merkel, he asked her to stay on another term - as the liberal world order’s last line of defence.
Image credit: Getty Images
Throughout her sixteen-year chancellorship, Angela Merkel has been a lifeboat for European politics, and a role model for women around the world. Her sobering reaction to the 2008 financial crisis, and the European debt emergency shortly thereafter guided the European Union through its darkest years. Her acceptance of almost one million Syrian refugees in 2015 demonstrated to the rest of Europe, ‘wir schaffen das’. She was a thoughtful and pragmatic leader, often stepping from the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party line, like in 2017, when she supported the same-sex marriage bill through parliament.
During uncertain times, we need stabilising leaders. Angela Merkel defended the liberal international order in the face of rising nationalism and political polarization. Throughout Mr Trump’s presidency, Merkel was described by Boris Johnson as a ‘titan’ of democracy. Merkel stomached the damage of rising populism, which has threatened to poison EU politics. According to Time, without Merkel, ‘the EU might have lost much more than Britain.’ Her legacy will continue to guide the union through its next chapter.
Merkel was Germany’s first female chancellor, and since her rise to power, we have seen improvements in the lives of women around the world. In Merkel’s Chancellery, there were more women in office positions than ever before, including four female ministers, several female advisors, and the first female Defence Minister. This has created ripple effects in the recent German election, where two transgender women were elected to parliament, and Berlin earned its first female mayor.
Historically, the CDU has aligned itself with a traditional view of the family, where men are the primary earners and women reside within the home. During Merkel’s chancellorship, new policies were introduced that helped to reshape this view: extended parental leave, financial allowances, and expanded childcare to name a few. Above everything else, Merkel’s chancellorship shows that women can lead a country through crisis, dispelling the mystic belief that when push comes to shove, men get things done. Her image challenges the rigid ideas of masculinity that underpin world politics. Merkel has shown us that women can be rational and pragmatic, rather than just empathetic, she is a role model for women around the world. This is her legacy. In 2018, Merkel said:
However, despite the undoubtable progress of the past 20 years, we still have a long way to go. Homophobia and Islamophobia were fanned at the flame of German politics in the recent election, and uneven policies persist. Perhaps supporting women in positions of power will help us to recognise Merkel’s legacy and reframe our society with an equal lens.
Image credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images