Angela the Great or Just 'Mom?': Merkel's Dream of a Place in the History Books

By Dirk Kurbjuweit

Angela Merkel may just have been reelected as German chancellor, but she is already thinking about how she will be viewed by future historians. She dreams of emulating her role model, Catherine the Great, but her contemparies prefer to nickname her "Mom."

Angela Merkel is already thinking about her place in the history books. Zoom
AP

Angela Merkel is already thinking about her place in the history books.

When Angela Merkel left the Bundestag on the day of her reelection as chancellor by the German parliament, she ran into her former economics minister, Michael Glos, at the door. He wasn't wearing a coat, and she suggested that he dress more warmly to protect himself from the cold. She was perfectly serious, even slightly stern, and during the brief exchange that followed, Glos remarked that Merkel had always had his best interests at heart. Merkel got into her limousine, and Glos gave her a smile as she was driven away.

Glos, who belongs to the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union, had resigned in the spring because he felt poorly treated by the chancellor. He is also said to be the source of Merkel's nickname "Mutti" ("Mom"). The brief encounter with Merkel last Wednesday may well have left Glos feeling validated in his assessment of the chancellor, especially in the face of her maternal scolding, which was both condescending and an expression of her concern for his welfare. Glos, who is almost 10 years older than Merkel, was suddenly the young boy who was foolishly ignoring the risks of catching a cold.

Mutti was also the buzz word of last week, which marked the beginning of Merkel's second term in office. It appeared frequently in newspapers, and in Berlin's government district there was hardly a conversation among men in which Merkel was not referred to as "Mom."

Strange Tension

Merkel is, of course, aware of this. It must feel strange to her, as she sits in her office in the Chancellery reading the papers, occasionally glancing up at the portrait of the Russian Empress Catherine II which hangs on the wall. Merkel sees Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great, as a role model.

But there is a peculiar tension between the role model and the nickname, between Catherine the Great and Mutti. While Merkel's role model symbolizes the desire to live a heroic existence, her nickname is an expression of the banal reality. Ideally, in the case of a successful life or, in Merkel's case, a successful chancellorship, the two would not be far apart. But Merkel cannot claim that this is in fact the case. Indeed, Catherine the Great and the über-German image of the Mutti have very little in common.

At first glance, Merkel has chosen an appropriate role model. Catherine II was born in the city of Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland) on May 2, 1729, as Sophie Friederike August, Princess of Anhalt-Zerbst. At 14, she went to Russia after being chosen to marry Peter, the heir to the Russian throne. From then on, the parallels between her life and that of Angela Merkel are uncanny. Both women had to establish themselves in an unfamiliar world, the German princess in Russia, which bore little resemblance to Europe, and Merkel, who grew up in the East German system, in unified Germany. Both women engaged in power struggles with the male establishment, and both prevailed.

Catherine deposed her husband and assumed the throne; he died in the process. Merkel pushed aside former Chancellor Helmut Kohl and others in her rise to the top, although they managed to escape with their lives. Both women were prepared to change their identities for the sake of power. Sophie changed her name to Catherine, which was more appropriate for Russia, and converted from Protestantism to the Russian Orthodox faith. Merkel, for her part, converted from neo-liberalism to social democracy.

No Matron

On the surface, the nickname Mutti doesn't seem to fit. Merkel has no children, nor does she conform to the image of the warm-hearted matron who, conservatively and somewhat simple-mindedly, devotes her life to the well-being of her loved ones. The word Mutti is really more of a reference to an idealized mother type from the 1950 or 1960s. It's a word which is frowned upon by modern mothers these days.

At second glance, however, there is a certain arrogance to Merkel's choice of a role model and a certain aptness to her nickname. Catherine the Great was a reformer who brought backward Russia closer to Europe. She modernized the administration and the judiciary, and she balanced the national budget. Catherine II left behind a great legacy, something only Merkel's most ardent fans would say about the German chancellor.

Which is why Merkel's approach to governing -- Mutti politics, if you will -- has more to do with her nickname than her role model. It involves an all-encompassing embrace of everyone and the constant search for the formula of universal happiness with which society can be kept cheerful. In this respect, Merkel is truly "Angela the Great."

She is the self-appointed "chancellor for everyone." Even during the economic crisis, she distributes tax breaks as if she were ladling out soup, despite the burdens this will impose on the federal budget for years to come. She sends anything that smells like significant reform through commissions and waiting rooms, so that no one need be concerned that there will be any upheavals in the foreseeable future.

However, there is some overlap between the role model and the nickname. The Mutti figure is not always harmless. She is the family's absolute ruler, just as Catherine was Russia's absolute monarch. When politicians from Merkel's CDU refer to Merkel as Mutti during off-the-record chats with journalists, they usually do so with a mixture of two expressions on their faces: an expression of glee over their ability to belittle the more powerful politician -- and an expression of concern over the possibility that she could find out.

Merkel's supporters reason that the nickname helps older male chauvinists like Michael Glos come to terms with her dominance. For them, it seems intolerable to be dominated by a woman, unless she is the type of woman who naturally assumes this role: the mother. Politicians of Glos's sort find some consolation in the thought that even men like Julius Caesar and Winston Churchill were dominated by a mom, at least as children.

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Merkel's role model Catherine the Great



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