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Merkel era draws to its close

24 September 2021

This East German Christian re-established the church influence, says Anli Serfontein


Angela Merkel attends a service in Castle Church, Wittenberg, on 31 October 2017, to mark the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation

Angela Merkel attends a service in Castle Church, Wittenberg, on 31 October 2017, to mark the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation

THE Angela Merkel era in Germany ends when voters there go to the polls this weekend. An East German pastor’s daughter, she became Chancellor on 22 November 2005. At 51 the youngest person ever to hold that office, she was also the first woman and the first former East German.

She remains as much of an enigma as when she stepped on to the German political stage in the 1990s.

Before entering politics, she was, for 12 years, a member of the academic staff at the Central Institute of Physical Chemistry at the Academy of Sciences in East Berlin, where she also received her doctorate in 1986.

The late political journalist Tissy Bruhns once described how Dr Merkel the physicist would look at a problem and decide what the result was that she wanted, and then go back through the steps required to achieve that goal. That was why, in 2002, Dr Merkel stepped back from standing as the Christian Democratic Union’s (CDU’s) candidate for Chancellor, knowing that no one in the party supported her. The CDU candidate lost to Gerhard Schröder, and Dr Merkel emerged stronger in her party.


BUT there are three facts about Chancellor Merkel that she has, I believe, always tried to play down: that she is East German, Christian, and a woman.

“The fact that she did not speak about being an East German is exactly what makes her an East German,” an East German pastor told me recently. “The fact that she does not wear her Christianity on her sleeve means exactly that: she is an East German Christian.”

As a Christian, she was in a minority in her school class, the pastor explained; this would have meant that she had to find inner strength to survive in East German society. She was an outsider.

And that is the thread that ran through her Chancellorship: she was always an outsider. She did not fit into the then very Catholic West German CDU of her predecessors, Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl, and yet she rose to the top.

When Kohl lost the General Election in 1998, she filled the vacant position of secretary-general which all the men in the CDU were avoiding as a poisoned chalice. I believe that they saw giving Kohl’s “East German girl” the position as an interim solution: she could deal with the fallout while they regrouped.

Early in 2000, the CDU’s chairman, Wolfgang Schäuble, was heavily implicated in the CDU’s slush-fund affair. I went to several press conferences, which, in those days, were still being held in Bonn. She was at every one, and, in her quiet, unassuming way, she already impressed me. During one press conference, I was ignored by the CDU’s PR people, but Dr Merkel nodded in my direction to invite me to ask my question.

The men in her party underestimated her grit, and she played with this underestimation of her abilities. Soon afterwards, Dr Schäuble resigned as chairman, and she became party leader — on her way, ultimately, to becoming Chancellor in 2005.


CHANCELLOR Merkel’s quiet Christian convictions became apparent as soon as she took office. In the seven flamboyant years of a very male-dominated SPD-Green coalition, under Gerhard Schröder and Joschka Fischer, the traditionally strong influence of the Churches on society and politics had dwindled. In 1998, Mr Schröder became the first German chancellor to omit the closing sentence “So help me, God,” when he was sworn in. Half his ministers, including Mr Fischer, also omitted it. Dr Merkel, however, took the oaths of office every time with “So help me, God.”

She also sought dialogue with the Churches, which, despite dwindling membership numbers, are still the second biggest employer after the State in Germany, running hospitals, nursery schools, schools, and social-work institutions.

The Lutheran Bishop of Bavaria, Dr Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, has spoken of how he could phone Chancellor Merkel to discuss key issues. A few years ago, a project manager of the Protestant development aid organisation Brot für die Welt (Bread for the World) told me how there would be regular jours fixes (meetings) with Chancellor Merkel. She would walk in and say, “Ladies and gentlemen, what can I do for you today?”

Internationally, Chancellor Merkel will be remembered for opening up the German borders to Syrian refugees in 2015, and for her pragmatic phrase “Wir haben so vieles geschafft — wir schaffen das.” (“We have managed so many things already: we will manage this.”)

There has been much speculation about whether she was inspired by the parable of the Good Samaritan and by her faith, or by her pragmatism.

As an East German, Dr Merkel would have come across Syrian scientists and doctors studying and working in the GDR: there were active exchanges between the two countries. In 2015, she faced a falling German birth-rate, the baby-boom generation soon drawing their pensions, and predictions of a shortage of skilled workers. History will judge the extent to which it was Chancellor Merkel the Christian with compassion and Dr Merkel the scientist solving a problem.

Only towards the end of her Chancellorship, after she was no longer chairing the CDU, and mostly when democracy had to be defended, did she start to open up about her experiences in East Germany. During her Chancellorship, the situation for working women with children in Germany improved, although it still lags behind most Southern European countries. As a Christian, her actions spoke louder than her words.

As her time in office comes to an end, my children’s generation, now in their twenties and early thirties, cannot remember a time before Chancellor Merkel. She has made a profound and lasting mark on Germany.

Anli Serfontein is a South African freelance journalist based in Berlin.

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