Germany's New Chancellor Merkel's Surprising Rise to the Top

Even when she became the leader of the conservatives, few people -- including many within her own party -- took her seriously. All luck, they said. But now, Angela Merkel is set to become Germany's first ever woman chancellor and has left all her political opponents in the dust. How did she do it?


Angela Merkel hasn't had much reason to smile lately. One of them, though, was on Monday.
DPA

Angela Merkel hasn't had much reason to smile lately. One of them, though, was on Monday.

It's the middle of February in 2000 and Angela Merkel has invited her most trusted advisors, office manager Beate Baumann and spokeswoman Eva Christiansen, to a closed door meeting in her office at the Christian Democratic headquarters in Berlin. The mood in the building is grim; the party is in the middle of one of its biggest ever crises as a massive campaign donation scandal gathers steam.

The three women meet for a long time -- and the longer they talk, the more determined they become. The plan they develop is enough to frighten even themselves. They feel a bit like gangsters who are scheming to clean out the safe of the Bank of England -- it's a crazy plan, but they're going to try it anyway.

Their timing is perfect. Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl had just been forced down from the position of the party's honorary chairman a few weeks earlier and CDU leader Wolfgang Schäuble also announces his resignation -- both due to the 100,000 deutsche mark undocumented donation from arms lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber.

Angela Merkel, who has been CDU general secretary for 15 months at the time, sees her opening. If she plays her cards right, she could takeover as party chief -- and after that, the sky's the limit. In the meeting with her advisors, the idea of her becoming chancellor is broached for the first time. Merkel says she's ready -- she can do it.

Germany's most unusual chancellor

Five and a half years later and Merkel's plan has paid off in spades: She has managed to oust Schröder and she will soon become Germany's next chancellor. After seven years of SPD rule, Merkel will now add onto the 36 years of CDU governance that Germany has had since 1949.

In many ways, Merkel will be the most unusual chancellor Germany has ever had. Not only is the physicist by education the first-ever woman chancellor, but she is also the first head of government to come from former East Germany. She brings with her the experience of growing up under communism. Indeed, there is reason to believe that she will change the country more than most of her predecessors in the chancellery -- perhaps one of the reasons her election night results were so much lower than polls had predicted.

Merkel didn't make it easy for Germans to vote for her, neither from a political perspective nor from a personal point of view. She allowed her opponents to lead the way in forging her public image. And she failed to emphasize her almost heroic climb up the political career ladder: the outsider from the East who managed to rise in the face of myriad obstacles. She surely could have done more with such a biography.

But she never really tried. She isn't one for Hollywood plot lines and when it comes to her private life, she is extremely reserved even to the point of being shy. Indeed, her inability to mold her own public persona has left the door open for others -- particularly detractors from within her own party -- to do it for her. She is, they have said, a cold opportunist who has fought her way to the top with little regard for others and without any sort of emotional connection to her own party.

On Feb. 18, 2000, the first of a total of seven CDU regional conferences takes place in the Lower Saxony town of Wolfenbüttel. Despite the large group that has assembled, it is strangely quiet -- perhaps out of fear. The CDU has never before experienced such a deep-seated crisis. But after Angela Merkel's 15 minute speech, the mood in the hall begins slowly to improve. The audience applauds and seems refreshed by Merkel's unconventional style -- it seems as though a new beginning may just be possible after all.

It was all luck

When conservative CDU parliamentarians mull over Merkel's rise to the top over beers in their favorite Berlin pubs, they often come up with a rather simple explanation. It was luck, they say, that Kohl decided to invite a symbolic East German to join his cabinet in 1990. It was luck that the CDU leadership collapsed as a result of the political donation scandal uncovered in 1999. It was luck that Chancellor Gerhard Schröder called for snap new elections this spring thus forcing the CDU to quickly choose Merkel as its chancellor candidate. It's an easy and comfortable explanation for a meteoric rise that traditional wings of the CDU aren't exactly ecstatic about. But even if Merkel did have her fair share of luck, she has gotten to where she is today primarily through her well-developed instinct for power and her ability to recognize opportunities when they present themselves.

The enthusiasm of the party members at the regional conference in Wolfenbüttel and at the six subsequent regional conferences was enough to sweep away the opposition of the party functionaries -- most of whom likewise had their eyes on taking over the ailing party -- and establish Merkel as the CDU leader. The members' fervor likewise cannot be ascribed to luck; the regional conferences were a new idea, invented by none other than Angela Merkel.

Indeed, this pattern can be recognized in all of the career jumps she made: She was lucky, but she also knew exactly how to maximize her luck. Helmut Kohl had only noticed her in the first place because she had implored a CDU friend of hers to introduce her. As Kohl's minister of the environment, she began to separate herself from her patron Kohl because she sensed he was heading toward an election defeat. She didn't oppose him in public, but internally, she began to distance herself -- she no longer wanted to be Helmut Kohl's creation. Indeed, her increased distance to the party don was one of the reasons that Wolfgang Schäuble, immediately after taking over from Kohl as party head, tapped her as general secretary.

Merkel has sent Gerhard Schröder into the political sunset -- unless he decides to take a ministry that is.
REUTERS

Merkel has sent Gerhard Schröder into the political sunset -- unless he decides to take a ministry that is.

It took a long time for her opponents from within the CDU -- and there are more than a few -- to realize just how dangerous Merkel can be. At first, they only saw her as a hard-working minister -- first with the women and youth portfolio and later as environment minister -- who did solid work without necessarily overshadowing others. Few recognized the ambition that blazed within her.

Pushing Kohl aside

But Merkel's handling of political allies and opponents soon proved that she had learned her lessons well. Those she doesn't need anymore are left behind. Those who prove disruptive are forced out of the way.

On Dec. 22, 1999, Merkel published her now famous article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in which she finally went on the offensive against her political mentor Helmut Kohl. The party, she wrote, has to learn to go "its own way" without the "old war horse" Kohl.

The move was timed brilliantly and then party boss Wolfgang Schäuble was taken completely by surprise. And not without design. Merkel knew that Schäuble had kept the deutsche mark 100,000 donation quiet and that this would eventually come out. The upshot was that both Kohl and Schäuble were toppled from power -- and Merkel climbed yet another rung toward the top.

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