Angela the Great or Just 'Mom?' Merkel's Dream of a Place in the History Books
Part 2: Combining Respect, Subservience and Insult
And how does Merkel feel about all this? What are her views on her role model and her nickname? When asked in a German television interview what she thinks about Mutti, the nickname she can't seem to shake, she first had to come up with an appropriate facial expression for the situation. She rolled her eyes, grimaced and paused before answering, with the slightest trace of a smile, that there was "something affectionate" about the word.
Sources close to Merkel point out that there are worse monikers than "Mom." The genuinely spiteful nickname Zonenwachtel ("East German quail") also made the rounds within the CSU at one time, but it didn't catch on. The word Mutti, however, manages to combine respect, subservience and insult in one.
The small portrait of Catherine the Great was a gift Merkel received when she was still the CDU's floor leader. She has read the Russian empress's biography and discussed her with the former Russian president and current prime minister, Vladimir Putin. On the other hand, she doesn't exactly talk about Catherine much; she doesn't wear her role model on her sleeve. Instead, her heroine makes her presence felt through her silent, insistent presence in Merkel's office, which otherwise reveals very little about the chancellor's personality.
Merkel was once asked on a German talk show what she found so "exemplary" about Catherine. Merkel said that the tsarina "was very courageous and accomplished many things under difficult circumstances in Russia," and that she was a "clever strategist." There is no doubt that Merkel herself is a clever strategist when it comes to power. In the former grand coalition government with the center-left Social Democratic Party, she positioned herself so that she would remain electable while the SPD fell out of favor -- even though the general mood in the country favored the social democratic approach.
But there can be no talk of Merkel being "courageous," let alone "very courageous." In the grand coalition, Merkel heeded the wishes of voters, as expressed in opinion polls, and she heeded the wishes of her Social Democratic coalition partners. She never put her job on the line to assert her own ideas. A role model can also highlight one's own shortcomings.
The deeper significance of a role model like Catherine the Great has to do with historical motives. Merkel herself has just gone down in history, in more ways than one. It's true that her election as chancellor in 2005 was already a historic event; Merkel was both the first woman and the first East German to assume the office. But for the chancellor, her reelection is the crucial achievement, confirming as it does her ability to endure.
A chancellor who does not manage to be reelected is more or less written off by historians as a mistake. Kurt Georg Kiesinger, chancellor in Germany's first grand coalition government in the late 1960s, is largely forgotten. Ludwig Erhard, who was chancellor from 1963 to 1966, is only remembered because of his achievements as economics minister, where he played a key role in Germany's post-war "economic miracle." Merkel has now surpassed these men in terms of time spent in office, and if she survives until the end of this legislative period, she will also be ahead of former Chancellors Willy Brandt and Gerhard Schröder.
A Beautiful Future
Merkel certainly has an appreciation for history. As she was sitting in the German parliament, the Bundestag, last Wednesday, listening to the -- somewhat underwhelming -- results of the chancellor election, she was apparently not thinking about the nine members of parliament in her coalition who had declined to vote for her. Instead, she was thinking that she, a former East German, was being confirmed as chancellor 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She saw herself as an historic event, as a resident of the same universe occupied by the likes of Catherine the Great.
Perhaps that would explain her state of excitement. First she tore the protective cap from the microphone she used to accept the vote. Then she forgot to raise her hand while taking the oath of office. It seemed as if her thoughts were no longer in the Bundestag, but in an even more beautiful future.
For Merkel, the sweet double life that is only granted historic figures, who live both in the present and in the future, has now begun. The present is the -- not particularly heroic -- daily routine of the politician. It is the constant struggle over the minutiae of power -- in other words, vague coalition agreements, resentful state governors, shoddy compromises and journalists on the constant lookout for the slightest inadequacies.
Merkel's present life can be summed up with a word like Mutti. Her nickname epitomizes the entire banal present, the constant irritations, the trivial little jobs and the daily chore of cleaning up the children's rooms -- whereby the children themselves only help out with the greatest reluctance. A mom finds it difficult to see herself as a historic figure.
Merkel's role model, on the other hand, represents her anticipation of the role she would like to play in the future. She is not so presumptuous as to envision herself going down in history as a Catherine III. She is living in the wrong period for that -- after all, the German political system does not need to be reinvented. But Merkel probably does get something of a warm and fuzzy feeling when she thinks about what future generations will write about her in the history books. What she could imagine reading there is not what she reads in the newspapers and magazines of today. For politicians, the future is a comfort zone.
Journalists are usually the historians of the immediate present, of the days or weeks gone by, which are filled with those constant irritations and those trivial little jobs. But for the historians who will later write the history books, this daily routine is almost irrelevant. They are more interested in the big picture, and the long-term effects of policies.
Even Catherine's daily routine was not heroic. She was disappointed and abandoned by her lovers, she suffered setbacks with her reforms, and her court was filled with intrigues and malicious gossip. But this hardly plays a role in the condensed historical memory, in which Catherine is seen as the man-eating great reformer.
Catalogue of Achievements
Meanwhile it has become noticeable how fond Merkel's confidants are of making a great leap into the future and looking back from there, with the eye of the future historian. When that happens, the banal world of today's Mutti disappears, replaced by a Catherine-like catalogue of important achievements in the fields of climate change, integration, family, health care and -- just imagine! -- the national budget.
The latter is another example of how one can view something from the perspective of two separate time frames. Money is being squandered in the present, with the federal budget practically bursting at the seams. But one can take comfort in the fact that the recent "debt ceiling" amendment to the German constitution, under which the federal government will have to limit its structural deficit to 0.35 percent of GDP, will come into effect in 2016. That is already being seen as another beautiful memory for the history books.
This habit of regarding the present through the lens of an imaginary future historian sometimes makes it difficult for Merkel's contemporaries to engage in dialogue with their eternal chancellor. She already sees herself as an historical figure. Ordinary citizens, on the other hand, are exposed to the inadequacies of her current policies. Historians, for their part, are not that easily impressed: It takes at least a few courageous acts to secure a comfortable spot in the history books.
It is also conceivable that the chancellor's hopes of mild treatment at the hands of tomorrow's historians are deceptive for another reason. When they are asked to pony up and pay back the debts that Merkel is racking up today, they could prove to be merciless.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: Merkel's Dream of a Place in the History Books
- Part 2: Combining Respect, Subservience and Insult