Stealth at the Helm: The Manifest Destiny of Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel

As the Greek debt crisis inches to its climax, the euro’s guardians soften their tone of voice; not quite so sure any longer that contagion – and financial Armageddon – may yet be avoided. Over the past few weeks, the assurances that Europe will be fine, should Greece decide to drop out, have been gradually replaced by appeals to common sense. Jeroen Dijsselbloem, president of the Euro Group of finance ministers, spoke to no-one in particular when he asked all concerned not to play a game of chicken to see who can hold out longer.

Mr Dijsselbloem also stressed the need for a quick deal on Greece. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) chimed in as well with its managing director, Christine Lagarde, calling on the European Union to relax its demands on the struggling country.

Meanwhile back in Berlin, where real power resides, German Chancellor Angela Merkel intervened decisively to stop a rift between Greece and its creditors from developing into a break. She invited Prime-Minister Alexis Tsipras for a face-to-face talk, signalling her determination to keep the wayward nation aboard and the euro intact.

However, the world’s most powerful lady has so far been unable to defuse the time bomb ticking away in Athens, opting instead to periodically set back the clock. It is the Merkel Way: wield soft power to keep the flock together but ignore the larger issues that cause sheep to wander off.

The Decline of Vision

Angela Merkel (60) leads a generation without leaders. Her peers in contemporary Europe’s concert of nations and supranational entities – François Hollande, David Cameron, Mariano Rajoy, Matteo Renzi, Jean-Claude Juncker et al – have but limited appeal to voters and utterly fail to inspire the people whose destiny they hold. Mere pragmatics who favour technicalities and formalities over ideas and visions, the current crop of European presidents and prime-ministers administers the continent, rather than lead it.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s remarkable rise to power – and her tenacity at clinging to it – may perhaps be ascribed to Europe’s singular success in forging unity and prosperity – the twin pillars of political stability. In politics it is an accepted truth that comfortable nations, those at peace with themselves and others, do not usually bring forth politicians of great stature. Mutti Merkel essentially rules by default.

“The shifting sands of German diplomacy – cajoling a reluctant continent to embrace financial prudence, keeping the American cowboys at arm’s length, and taming Russian irredentism – all show a country looking for a role to assume and an identity to embrace.”

Contrast Europe’s present ruling class with the one holding the reins of power just a single generation ago when Helmut Kohl, Margaret Thatcher, François Mitterrand, and Felipe González set the agenda in Western Europe while Václav Havel, Lech Wałęsa, and Mikhail Gorbachev reshaped the map east of the Oder-Neisse Line. Each of these titans was inspired, and propelled, to greatness by a vision or an ideal.

For all her power, Chancellor Merkel is but an administrator, albeit an exceptionally conscientious and skilled one. The Germans like it that way. Only Konrad Adenauer, Germany’s first post-war chancellor in office from 1949 to 1963 and architect of the wirtschaftswunder, has ever commanded a standing comparable to that of Angela Merkel.

Even after almost a decade in power, Chancellor Merkel is nowhere near the end of her career in domestic politics. She is widely expected to run for a fourth consecutive term in 2017 and has stoically refused to entertain ideas regarding international high office. She has been tipped as future president of the European Council and secretary general of the United Nations.

No Fig Leaf

Chancellor Merkel would much rather save the euro and with it, the European Union. As British Prime-Minister David Cameron discovered to his own detriment, Mrs Merkel is fully committed to the European project and will not tolerate – and ruthlessly deal with – anyone even considering moving the EU goal posts. Mr Cameron’s whimpering about the burden imposed on Britain by freedom of movement – one of the four foundational freedoms on which the entire union has been erected – received little, if any, sympathy in Berlin. The PM’s proposed tinkering with that freedom resulted in a rotund “nein” from the chancellor – end of.

While Prime-Minister Cameron, prodded into action by Nigel Farage and his UK Independence Party, takes on a quixotic fight he cannot possibly win, Chancellor Merkel tries to keep Europe together for her own ends. Hers is a particularly challenging – and thankless – task: holding the continent’s purse strings and heading its largest – and arguably most successful – nation, she also has to refrain from resorting to power politics when imposing her will.

As long as Germany sticks to defending the European Union, the country is allowed to employ its considerable might for the common good, as Mr Cameron found out when he was sent home without as much as a fig leaf to cover his failure. Good Germans are good Europeans – and nothing more. However, when Berlin attempts to suggest EU member states follow its exemplary lead on economic, financial and other affairs, howls of indignation immediately rise up, often accompanied by thinly-veiled references to a few less savoury aspects of Germany’s past.

The Greek are not the only ones still harbouring anger over unfortunate events now covered by seventy years of peace: scratch the civilised outer surface, and the façade of many a European nation takes on a different look. So far, and perhaps understandably given the country’s sorry plight, the Greek are the only ones openly venting their frustration by reminding Germany of its past. France, a veritable depository of wisdom regarding Germany and its role as European powerbroker, opts to just play along while steadfastly doing its own thing – politely ignoring any and all ukases emanating from, or inspired by, Berlin.

Do Mention the War

While it is quite ok to mention the war, the question is which one? As her handling of the crisis in the Ukraine shows, Chancellor Merkel seeks precedent in the lead-up to the First World War rather than in events such as the 1938 Sudeten Crisis – the prelude to the Third Reich unleashing its power for destruction. Taking a cue from 1914, Chancellor Merkel has tried – and succeeded – to stage the second act of Germany’s famed Ostpolitik (Eastern policy) of the 1970s that preferred engagement over confrontation when dealing with a recalcitrant Moscow.

Mrs Merkel is known to have been deeply impressed by reading Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, an exhaustive study by Australian historian Christopher Clark, professor in Modern European History at the University of Cambridge. Prof Clark argues that the First World War was primarily caused by a breakdown in communication between the great powers. Skirting that pitfall, Mrs Merkel wants to keep talking to the continent’s current antagonists.

A debate organised in March 2014 by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier between Prof Clark and his colleague Gerd Krumeich, retired from a professorship at Heinrich-Heine University in Düsseldorf, concluded that diplomatic dead ends – and a monumental failure of diplomacy coupled to a dialogue interrupted by the incessant rattling of sabres – caused a localised conflict in the Balkans to ultimately drag an entire continent into war.

At the end of the debate, which took place in the jam-packed atrium of the German Historical Museum, Foreign Minister Steinmeier emphasised that, back in 1914, there was nothing inevitable about war breaking out: in fact, it could have been stopped at any time had the protagonists decided to keep talking instead of mobilising their armies.

Shielding Putin from Himself

While most the entire world was screaming abuse at President Vladimir Putin of Russia for ordering the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, Chancellor Merkel kept the lines with Moscow open. Though the Russian president’s conversational tone was reportedly blunt, and quite unlike that of a gentleman, Chancellor Merkel delivered her missives nonetheless – appealing to both reason and calm even when, during a meeting at his summer residence in Sochi, Putin failed to restrain his outsized black labrador knowing full well of the chancellor’s fear of dogs. She was badly bitten by a dog in 1995.

It certainly helps that Mrs Merkel is fluent in Russian and Mr Putin speaks impeccable German which he picked up while stationed in East Germany as a KGB agent. While by no means a cheerleader for the Russian president, Chancellor Merkel insists that his country must not be pressed into a corner or be made to suffer economic and social chaos: sanctions are fine as an expression of severe displeasure but may not cripple the nation. At the same time, Mrs Merkel has little patience with Mr Putin’s empire-building exercise which she considers an atavism that has no place in modern Europe.

Threading a fine line between the need to contain Russia’s expansionist tendencies and the necessity to keep that country diplomatically engaged and economically alive, Chancellor Merkel needs to draw on her capacity for stealth – brawn must give way to brain. And that is precisely the game she has been playing all along.

The Power of Stealth

As it happens, most people never saw her coming. Angela Merkel’s rise to power equates to a fastball out of left field, arriving with pinpoint precision at the plate to the surprise of all and sundry. After all, Angela Merkel was not destined for success. She had three strikes against: she is a woman (divorced, remarried, no children) in Germany’s still male-dominated society; a scientist (quantum chemistry) and thus somewhat of a nerd; and – most damaging of all – an Ossie, the product of a state that failed to produce anything of note but for a silly little car.

The oldest of three children, Angela Merkel – née Kasner – spent her childhood in Templin, a small town in the heavily-forested Uckermark District of Brandenburg, just north of Berlin. Here, she lived with her family at the Waldhof, a seminary and care home for mentally and physically disabled people maintained by the officially-sanctioned East German branch of the Lutheran Church.

Born in Hamburg in 1954, Angela Dorothea Kasner was only a few months old when her stern and demanding father Horst moved the family eastwards across the border to take up an ecclesiastical position in the German Democratic Republic – then colloquially known by its German acronym DDR. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of East Germans were fleeing in the opposite direction.

Horst Kasner made a name for himself as an exceptionally pliable minister, faultlessly adhering to whatever instructions were handed down from party headquarters in Berlin. According to Joachim Gauck – a fellow Lutheran pastor and a dissident who in 2012 became the country’s last president after the only free multiparty elections ever celebrated in the DDR – people knew Horst Kasner as the Red Minister: “Most in the Lutheran Church preferred to stay well away from him.”

All Work, No Play

As a teenager, Angela seemed utterly uninterested in nice clothes, outward appearances, or boys. She also steered clear of politics. Former classmates remember her as exceptionally intelligent, but always colourless and unfailingly serious. There was no flirtation with life or any other sign, however dim, of joie de vivre.

Academically, Angela did get ahead smoothly: she studied physics at Leipzig University. Not running afoul of the strictly enforced party line, the local branch of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) recommended the pastor’s daughter be allowed to pursue her studies and obtain a graduate degree at the Central institute for Physical Chemistry of the Berlin-Adlershof Academy of Sciences. Here, she received a doctorate in quantum chemistry (aka molecular quantum mechanics) and was promptly kept on as a researcher. Subsequently, Mrs Merkel churned out a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers.

It was only after the wall had come down in 1989 that Angela Merkel displayed any interest in politics. She joined the Demokratischer Aufbruch (Democratic Awakening) Party during the last hectic days of the DDR’s existence and soon became deputy-spokesperson for the Christian Democratic caretaker government of Prime-Minister Lothar de Maizière who voters had put in charge of the state’s dissolution and its absorption into a unified Germany.

Receiving less than one percent of the vote and only four seats in parliament, Democratic Awakening merged in 1990 with the East German Christian Democratic Union which was, in turn, absorbed into its Western counterpart CDU. Mentored by Mr De Maizière, Mrs Merkel soon worked her way up the CDU hierarchy without ruffling feathers or calling attention.

Seizing the moment, she acted fast. The German reunification process was more akin to an outright annexation of the east by the west which meant that – if only for appearance’s sake – a fair number of ossies needed to be awarded top functions in government. By now a member of the Reichstag for the constituency of Stralsund-Nordvorpommern-Rügen, Angela Merkel was an obvious choice. De Maizière arranged for Chancellor Helmut Kohl to meet the young Mrs Merkel and the next day suggested he appoint her to a cabinet post.

The Antechamber of Power

Much to her own surprise, Angela Merkel was immediately named minister of women and youth affairs. However, surprise soon turned into frustration: she was not the least interested in feminism. Youth affairs could only marginally pique her interest. Nevertheless, Mrs Merkel applied herself with characteristic vigour and discipline to the task at hand.

Though the new minister seldom spoke during cabinet meetings, she soon caught the eye of the ever-jovial Helmut Kohl who began addressing her as “mein Mädchen” – his girl. As such, Chancellor Kohl introduced her to visiting foreign dignitaries: a curiosity from the east. Mr Kohl never failed to mention that “his girl” even had to be taught how to use a credit card when she first arrived at the ministry.

Diligent, observant, hard-working, and an eager student, Mrs Merkel soon learned plenty more than just swiping a card: she discovered how the play the political game. Her secret weapon was not belonging: though part of the CDU – the Christian Democratic juggernaut of German political life – for a long time Mrs Merkel used the party as merely a temporary shelter – its social-democratic counterpart being perceived as less welcoming, and fitting, to ossies.

“Until quite recently, she was strange to everything in the party. It was only a function of her power, nothing else,” says parliamentary correspondent Karl Feldmeyer of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Alan Posener of Die Welt agrees: “The issues that motivate the CDU – single mothers, gay marriage, divorce, etc. – for the most part did not mean a thing to her.” Mr Posener adds that most of Chancellor Merkel’s opinions stem from learned attitudes: “Her knowledge regarding Germany’s transatlantic alliance with the United States, the country’s democratic system and institutions, and even more recent events that shaped the nation such as the 1960s counterculture, and the violence perpetrated by the Baader-Meinhof Group, stems from books, manuals, and briefings. Her upbringing was not shaped by these developments. In that sense, she remains an outsider.”

Spoiled Brats

Mrs Merkel still has difficulty grasping the vast cultural divide between what were formerly East and West Germany. The upheavals of 1968 – the 68er Bewegung which marked the birth of contemporary Germany – were to Angela Merkel’s mind but tantrums thrown by spoiled children. At first, she could not recognise the need of a generation to tear down the societal edifice that had served the Third Reich and to bring morals-preaching parents, teachers, and other figures of authority to task for their complicity with the Nazis.
It was only in 1968 that Germany managed to break out of the straitjacket the nation had been lashed into by the hypocrites and cynics who, in the post-war years, smoothly switched allegiance from Hitler to the Allied Occupying Powers. It was also in 1968 that Germany first dared look in the mirror and face up to its past.

Mrs Merkel failed to relate. Her upbringing was quite different. It had focused on self-discipline, will power, and silence. The DDR made Merkel – and millions of others – into human automatons: success was attained only by those who made absolutely no errors and kept quiet all the while.

That stealthy and ruthlessly efficient approach served her well when in November 1999 the CDU became enmeshed in a major scandal over illicit campaign donations. Both Helmut Kohl and his successor as party chairman Wolfgang Schäuble – the country’s current minister of finance – were implicated and had their reputations tainted.

Power Grab

Without warning, Mrs Merkel struck a deadly blow. She submitted an opinion article – more akin to an oedipal war cry – to the Frankfurter Allgemeine. The piece, as blunt as venomous, called on the party to dump Kohl and the other old warhorses in order to wipe its slate clean. Kohl’s mädchen had stepped out of the shadows, no longer content to dwell in the curiosity cabinet.

A few months later, Angela Merkel was elected to the chair of the CDU. Asked at a dinner party what made Merkel turn on him, Helmut Kohl is reported to have answered with a single word: “power.” He then went on to lament bringing Mrs Merkel into his cabinet: “I brought in my own killer. I put the snake on my arm.”

Over the years that followed, Angela Merkel smartly outmanoeuvred her rivals inside the party; stepping back to let others suffer defeat at the ballot box, keeping quiet while they fought over the meagre spoils, and administering a slight push whenever a challenger wobbled. Former US Ambassador to Germany John Kornblum has no room for doubt: “If you cross her, you end up dead. There’s nothing cushy about her. There’s a whole list of alpha males who thought they would get her out of the way, and they’re all now in other walks of life.”

Unpretentiousness, patience, and stealth are Angela Merkel’s weapons of choice. They brought her to power in 2005 after an electoral showdown against two vain old boys – Gerhard Schröder and Joschka Fischer, political streetfighters with a penchant for wine and women – who made the fatal mistake of underestimating their opponent and, as a result, were summarily relegated to the wastelands of German politics.

Running the Show

The same qualities that made her chancellor, allowed Mrs Merkel to fend off opponents and to steer the continent. Keeping her options open to deal with both Moscow and Athens as she sees fit, Chancellor Merkel at times may seem aloof or even opportunistic. Her former defence minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, has the impression that the chancellor hides behind a “cloud of complexity” so that she can seamlessly change her mind on any given issue without suffering politically for it: “Almost no-one sees this happening.” The approach has its advantages: “It sows confusion amongst opponents and antagonist alike while allowing policies to adapt to changing realities.”

Chancellor Merkel’s unwavering support of a united Europe – one of only a few constants throughout her time in office – is born out of German self-interest rather than an ideal or even a sense of history. Europe makes Germany a world power. Thus, it negates Henry Kissinger’s truism that “Germany is too big for Europe, yet too small for the world.” However, now that the country has taken the lead and moved onto the world stage, Germany seems paralysed by Chancellor Merkel’s mixed messages and a mild form of existential angst.
Russian advances on the Crimea and the Eastern Ukraine rudely disturbed the sense of peace and prosperity Germans had come to hold so dear. Suspended in between American talk of military intervention and the roar of Russian tanks and artillery on the roll, Chancellor Merkel had little to say or offer. She ruled out any and all military options and timidly called Moscow’s offensive attitude “unacceptable.”

However, most Germans couldn’t care less about the Ukraine, or its plight, and are uncomfortable confronting the country with which they share terrible memories of over twenty million dead. Germany’s symbiotic relationship with Russia is based on that of perpetrator and victim – Germans will not move against Russia, ever. Chancellor Merkel is much aware of the nation’s unwillingness to defend its Western values against Russian aggression, whatever form the latter takes. She has no option other than to wait for her opponent to self-destruct.

Turning the Tables on Putin

That, however, confers more power upon Germany than would seem at first glance. After Mr Putin, in May 2014, came out in support of the referendum organised by Ukrainian separatist in the Crimea – something he had promised Chancellor Merkel he would not do – she refused to take the Russian president’s phone calls for a week. Russians diplomats, stunned by the unspoken rebuke, promptly switched into panic mode: Germany was the last of the western powers they could talk to and the one country they could not afford to lose. Using backchannels, Moscow got the word to Berlin: “We went too far. What can we do to make amends?” The tables had turned.

While estranged in public, behind the scenes Chancellor Merkel and President Putin remain engaged with a modicum of civility. With the United States, the relationship is precisely the other way round. While over time Merkel and Obama established a reasonable rapport, the revelations of whistle blower Edward Snowden on US spying activities in Germany introduced a sour note.

When it became known that the Americans had been listening in on Chancellor Merkel’s phone calls for over a decade, the sense of betrayal turned into a nationally trending topic. The sour note had become an overtone. With President Obama refusing to publically apologise for the eavesdropping, and the Americans declining to sign a bilateral no-spying agreement, insult was added to injury and Berlin-Washington relations went into the cooler where they have stayed ever since – public displays of affection notwithstanding.

German Role & Identity

The shifting sands of German diplomacy – cajoling a reluctant continent to embrace financial prudence, keeping the American cowboys at arm’s length, and taming Russian irredentism – all show a country looking for a role to assume and an identity to embrace.

Taking a hint from Thomas Mann – who in 1916 interrupted his writing of The Magic Mountain to compose Reflections of a Non-Political Man, a collection of essays on the German national character – the contemporary Germany of Chancellor Merkel slowly drifts back to its conservative, slightly authoritarian, and apolitical roots. As a unified Germany – with an economy that dominates a continent – gains strength, the country becomes more German and less Western, shedding the skin it received from the victors and rediscovering its own roots.

Back to Greece and the time bomb ticking away in Athens. While bordering on the insignificant in the grand order of things European, Greece’s plight will ultimately not be allowed to endanger, let alone derail, the European project: the stage Germany needs to ensure its peace and prosperity. For all the posturing and lecturing, it is likely that – when the clock can no longer be turned back and hard reality needs to be faced – Mutti Merkel will offer just enough succour to keep Greece solvent.

Chancellor Merkel knows that her continued reign, the fourth term in office, will only be possible if her administration manages to perpetuate the nation’s feel-good times. Joschka Fischer of the Greens, a former foreign minister and vice-chancellor, explains: “Mrs Merkel is governing Germany at a time when the sun is shining every day. Germany under Merkel is akin to the Biedermeier Period between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the revolutions that began in 1848. Central Europe was at peace and concerned with amassing wealth and living in style. However, then as now, there was almost no intellectual debate. Such periods usually end with of clash of some sort.”

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