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

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.

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

Foto: Frank Augstein/ AP

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.

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.

Clever Strategist

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.

Comfort Zone

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
Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.
Speichern Sie Ihre Lieblingsartikel in der persönlichen Merkliste, um sie später zu lesen und einfach wiederzufinden.
Jetzt anmelden
Sie haben noch kein SPIEGEL-Konto? Jetzt registrieren
Mehrfachnutzung erkannt
Bitte beachten Sie: Die zeitgleiche Nutzung von SPIEGEL+-Inhalten ist auf ein Gerät beschränkt. Wir behalten uns vor, die Mehrfachnutzung zukünftig technisch zu unterbinden.
Sie möchten SPIEGEL+ auf mehreren Geräten zeitgleich nutzen? Zu unseren Angeboten