Acclaimed historian and author Giles MacDonogh asks where Angela Merkel stands in the pantheon of powerful German leaders from Frederick the Great, to Adolph Hitler and asks whose mantle is she carrying?
A friend has written to ask me if I think Angela Merkel can be compared to any or all of the following: Frederick the Great, Otto von Bismarck or Adolf Hitler. Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, was a Calvinist king turned Deist who set out to avenge his father and seize one of Austria’s richest provinces, using the excuse that a woman should not inherit the Holy Roman Empire. He was a pursuer of glory, a misanthropist, a lover of all things French, a homosexual, a philosopher and a flautist. Later in life he took part in a joint venture, which brought him a large slice of Polish cake. To be honest, I don’t see much of Angie there.
And there’s Otto von Bismarck: a member of the Lutheran Prussian gentry, a great guzzler and a hysterical man who unified Germany under Prussian hegemony and who fought socialists and the Catholic Church; a man who was brilliant, but lazy, vindictive and mildly corrupt and who ended up being sacked as a result. Angela Merkel is Lutheran at least; she has a slight potbelly and is known to drink a glass of wine, but there the comparison ends.
Adolf Hitler was a Catholic Austrian who had trouble getting out bed in the morning. He was neither a king nor a nobleman, but one who worshipped Frederick (for all the wrong reasons) and pretended to honour Bismarck. Hitler was a man who sought to create a huge German Empire in the east and promised to eradicate what he considered to be inferior races of Jews and Slavs. At home he attempted to militarise society, and bent his people to his will by using every possible instrument of terror. Somehow I don’t see our Angie there either.So it’s worth asking who is Frau Doctor Angela Merkel née Kasner because we really know very little about what makes her tick. She was born in Hamburg in West Germany in 1954, and was carried into the East as a tiny child. She is Prussian on both sides. Her father Pastor Horst Kasner was from Berlin-Pankow, later home to the Party elite of East Germany. Her mother Herlind is from Danzig in West Prussia, now Gdansk in Poland. This Prussian-ness she has in common with both Frederick and Otto. Her father was a left-leaning man of the cloth like countless Prussian worthies.The Prussian-ness expresses itself in a certain style – or lack of it. The Elder Moltke whose military victories laid the keel for the German Empire of 1871 said you needed to be ‘mehr Sein
The Prussian-ness expresses itself in a certain style – or lack of it. The Elder Moltke whose military victories laid the keel for the German Empire of 1871 said you needed to be ‘mehr Sein als Schein’ – more reality than appearance – and that would seem to sum Angie up. A doctor of physics, she is a little woman – just 1.65 metres tall, who allegedly keeps a portrait of the Anhalt-Zerbst princess, Catherine the Great in her office (true, Hitler had Frederick in his bunker).
She wears lipstick now, and has a collection of shapeless jackets, but when it comes to ‘doing her hair’ someone whips out a pudding bowl. She doesn’t live in the washing-machine-like Chancellery but with her second husband, Professor Horst Sauer in his small flat on the Kupfergraben opposite the Pergamon Museum. The last time I walked by a lone policeman stood in the doorway mounting guard. She drives her own little car and does the shopping locally, allegedly in a modest grocer’s shop in the Friedrichstrasse. When she fancies a night out, she and Horst repair to an unglamorous restaurant on the Prenzlauer Berg in the old Soviet Sector, shunning Borchardt in the Französische Strasse where most other politicians gather. If she boasts a péché mignon it is opera: she goes to Bayreuth to see The Ring.
That we don’t know what Angie is actually thinking much of the time is probably a result of the fact she spent the first thirty-five years of her life in a totalitarian society, shuttling between her father’s Uckermark vicarage and the demands of an austerely secular state. She ran adeptly between the hare and the hounds: ‘my life was not as grey as the DDR/GDR was a state.’ She can deal with bullies and is firm with Putin, whom she addresses in fluent Russian – she visited Moscow first at fifteen after winning a Russian language ‘Olympiad’ – and she did her best with a sulky Trump. For most of the time she administers pragmatically, but there is little legislation that bears her stamp, which might be further evidence of her Prussianism.
She supports the EU with a Franco-German alliance as its fulcrum. Germany is a giant frightened of its own strength – remove the EU, and it becomes a potential evil genius – or so many Germans believe. It is therefore in German interests to make Europe strong and unified. Angela’s most controversial act in her twelve-year reign has been to admit a million or so refugees from Asia and the Middle-East. Some were Syrians, others claimed a right to asylum because they hailed from war zones. Frederick the Great didn’t do this, but his father allowed the Protestant Salzburger’s to settle in East Prussia and his great-grandfather welcomed the French Huguenots after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Frau Merkel justifies her open-handedness with reference to Germany’s dwindling birth-rate and the need for regeneration. It may well be that her real motivation was compassion, however, and that after all the misery Adolf caused, Germany could make a gesture of unstinting generosity. She is a clergyman’s daughter after all.
Unfortunately there was a knock-on effect. In Germany there has been culture-shock with immigrants boggling at the liberal world about them and helping themselves a little too eagerly to its fruits. Germany, spared until now, has become a home to Islamic terrorism. The effect has been to inject life into far-right parties like the AfD and Pegida, although I suspect that they will find it hard to capture even 25% of the vote: Germans are taught to atone for their guilt without complaint. The knock-on effect was felt in Germany’s neighbours too. Poland and Hungary have crept into their right-wing shells and Austria has suffered and disassociated itself with Germany. In Great Britain, Angela’s gesture may well have swayed the electorate on 23 June 2016 to vote to leave the EU. Images of bedraggled middle-eastern migrants marching on Germany were every propagandist’s dream.
If Angie had a role model it was the gourmand Pfalzer, Helmut Kohl, who provides us with a parallel to Bismarck. Fritz couldn’t give a hoot about Germany, but Bismarck united it, Hitler rent it asunder and Kohl put it back together again in 1989. Unfortunately Kohl had to step down as the leader of the Christian Democrats, Angie’s party, after it was revealed that he was complicit in a scandal involving millions of Marks in undeclared donations from dodgy businessmen. Angie protects his legacy. She was born the personification of a divided Germany, and she must have felt the need as much as anyone to bring the two halves together. When Kohl engaged her in 1990, he called her ‘das Mädchen’, not so much in a pejorative sense, but as ‘the girl’ who got things done. Angela Merkel has shown her determination to maintain that unity, not least because the moment the two Germanys became one she was able to throw off the shackles of her youth. Kohl was Bismarck’s heir, Angie, Kohl’s.