by Melissa Evans
East German. Woman. Scientist. Pastor’s daughter. Angela Merkel is a complex political figure, but every time she takes us by surprise, stereotypes of the different pieces of her identity are conveniently waiting for us. Her frugality has been compared by Der Spiegel to that of a “Swabian Hausfrau,” and her cool calculation of opportunity costs is frequently attributed to her scientific background. Unfortunately each time she wins an election, people are incredulous, because East Germans allegedly know nothing about democracy.
Her geographical background is the only piece that cannot be crammed into the puzzle of her success. Although Merkel is often cited as the world’s most powerful woman, her eastern roots resurface alongside her victories. It is often suggested that she was underestimated, but nobody seems to know why. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) calls her “puzzling und inexplicable,” and Fox News dubs her rise to power “the Merkel mystery.” She has an “otherness” that nobody can seem to put their finger on – so they point to East Germany.
Merkel’s rise to political prominence was swift, and people are still wondering what happened. Her fast track in German politics started with Helmut Kohl. Despite being inexperienced, he handpicked her to be Family Affairs Minister. In the BBC’s documentary “The Making of Angela Merkel”, Andrew Marr states that Kohl appointed her to try and fill a German Democratic Republic (GDR) quota within his cabinet. If this speculation is accurate, Kohl realized early on that to gain approval he needed to get on the united- Germany bandwagon. This is interesting considering that politicians today are still having trouble with this concept.
It is clear that at least Kohl underestimated her. His famous pet name for Merkel: “Mädchen” (girl) speaks volumes about his opinion of her. He brought her into the political spotlight, supported her career, but when she was powerful enough, she had no problem disposing of him. In 2000, she publicly called for his resignation in the FAZ after an embezzlement scandal. What seemed like a betrayal was met with widespread approval; only three months later Merkel was elected CDU (Christian Democratic Union) Chairperson. After such an incident, one would think that her political prowess was unquestionable.
Yet, Merkel’s past is frequently presented as an obstacle she has to overcome. Even in the 2013 election, her opponent Peer Steinbrück tried to defame her through pointed remarks about her Eastern background. During an interview with the Tagesspiegel, Steinbrück made the claim that Merkel lacks passion for Europe because she “experienced a different personal and political socialization up until 1989-1990 than those who have experienced this European integration since the 1950s.”
Steinbrück was immediately chastised from all sides of the political spectrum; in response, some stated that he would be incapable of leading a united Germany. According to Der Spiegel, in 2011 Helmut Schmidt also remarked along a similar vein that “Merkel can’t give a pro-Europe speech because passion for Europe isn’t inherent to her.” It would seem that Merkel is far better at manipulating the West-dominated system than the western politicians are at understanding their former communist bloc counterpart. Her efforts to prevent the Euro from going under show that she does have pro-European interests at heart. The real question then becomes: why does her Eastern-ness make her success so unbelievable?
It has been twenty-three years since the fall of the Berlin wall, and the citizens of the former GDR are still viewed as an “other.” Recently, Der Spiegel made a claim that an East-West divide is nonexistent, but popular opinion would seem to prove otherwise. German literature, film, and television shows still focus regularly on the subject. Famous authors from East Germany are still writing about the reunification of Germany, the public broadcaster ARD’s drama Weissensee which revolves around the Stasi’s inner-workings, and award-winning films like The Lives of Others give a narrow portrayal of life within the GDR.
These examples show that the West still views the East in terms of its past, not present. Unfortunately, this pop-culture obsession with communism and the Stasi means that they’re not taken seriously as a group. In a recent opinion piece for Der Spiegel, Alexander Osang points out that “former East Germans head only one television network and one of the 50 companies listed on Germany’s blue-chip DAX index, and there are no former East Germans at the helm of any national newspapers, magazines or Bundesliga teams.” In 2010, a woman from the former East Germany won a lawsuit settlement on the basis that she was discriminated against by a potential employer because of her East German heritage. Although it was not specifically mentioned to her when she was denied the position, her application had a large minus sign and the word Ossi written on it—a slang term for “East German” that is often meant pejoratively.
This cultural debate underlines how the political elite choose to perceive the East, and as a result, underestimate Merkel’s political abilities. Nobody could believe that Germany had reached a point where someone from such a politically different system would be widely accepted. However, the opposing parties clearly miscalculated many variables, including the large voting population of the former East Germany.
Other politicians from the East face similar issues. Regardless of their accomplishments, their origins are always a topic of discussion. Usually they try to spin it as an asset: if it has to be a topic, let it be providential. Johanna Wanka, Education Minister, talks about her experience as a socialist-resistor. In Die Zeit she says that in the GDR she “learned to compete with majority opinion” and is a stronger politician for it. Merkel claims in an interview with Die Welt that she is “just as convinced of the wisdom of democracy as on the first day [she] was allowed to live in one,” while her opposition touts this late exposure to democracy as inexperience. Whatever former East German politicians do, they feel that they have to justify their interest in democracy.
Merkel’s own quiet, seemingly unassuming personality is likely a factor in her underestimation, but it would be a sweeping generalization to characterize everyone from the former GDR that way. Wanka, for instance, is chic and self-confident — not characteristics that Merkel was prized for initially. It’s ironic that West Germany, a capitalist country that values individual freedom, is stereotyping people based on the society where they grew up, and in this case, a society that has not even existed for more than twenty years. The political success of Angela Merkel and other former East Germans shows what a mistake it would be to underestimate them by pigeonholing them as politically inept.