Merkel's Human Side Iron Angie Is Only Half the Story

Angela Merkel often seems like a bureaucratic machine -- cold and unapproachable. But she has quite a lively disposition, even if she rarely shows it. That would explain why German democracy seems so arid and why her policies on Europe seem to be missing a certain level of emotion. If she opened up more, it would be better for everyone.


When German Chancellor Angela Merkel gets up in the morning, she doesn't start her day by saving the euro. She doesn't behave like a woman who dominates Europe, dominates Germany and dominates the European Union, nor does she behave like a woman who supposedly shunted aside former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and Friedrich Merz, the former chairman of the parliamentary group of her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). When Angela Merkel gets up in the morning, she makes breakfast for her husband Joachim Sauer. She wants to make sure that he has a decent meal in his stomach before he leaves the house.

This breakfast tale was part of a story she recounted on a flight from Nigeria to Berlin in July of this year. During a lunch with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, Merkel asked him whether he cooked at home. Jonathan laughed. He, the president, and a man to boot, cook? She likes to cook, Merkel replied, and said that she even makes breakfast for her husband. Jonathan stood up and made a toast, saying that Nigerian women should follow the example of the German chancellor and make breakfast for their husbands every morning.

Merkel was amused when she told this story on the flight to Berlin. Obviously her intentions had been different. She had addressed Jonathan as a human being, as a person who could conceivably cook at home, just as she likes to cook and make breakfast. Instead Jonathan turned it into a political message, namely that women should be obliging to their men.

An Incomplete Picture

It is, in fact, difficult to imagine Merkel making breakfast in the morning, starting a pot of coffee and putting jam on the table, still a little drowsy and perhaps with the first vague thoughts about the euro forming in her head. As the German chancellor, she is constantly accompanied by the aura of her office, which can easily outshine the human side of a person who behaves just like anyone else.

Merkel has acquired the image of a bureaucratic machine, cool, eternally composed and unapproachable. Her standard outfit, trousers and a buttoned blazer, underscores the impression of aloofness she conveys. What this picture says about her is that she is not a person who makes breakfast.

It's the role she plays in public, the image she conveys to the world. But it's also an incomplete picture. I have spent many years accompanying Merkel on her trips, have participated in almost all off-the-record conversations and have often observed her during her press briefings. She was cool and composed, and while not unapproachable, she was usually somewhat aloof. And yet Merkel is no bureaucratic machine. There have always been moments, here and there, when she was different, moments when Merkel revealed a spirited, lively side to her nature. In fact, her behavior in small groups is often completely different from the way she behaves in public.

Disposition is the operative word here. What sort of disposition does Merkel have, and how does it affect her policies, especially her fight to save the euro? A disposition is made up of emotions, the ones that are evident and those that are hidden. Emotions move within a spectrum between the two extremes of love and hate.

The word "loved" appears once in my notes. The topic was conscription in Germany's Bundeswehr army, which Merkel said she loved. But that love didn't stop her from suspending compulsory military service at the drop of a hat this year. Apparently it wasn't a great love. Hate was something that doesn't figure prominently in her world, at least not audibly or visibly. But beyond these extremes, Merkel is someone who exhibits a broad range of emotions: anger, boundless exhilaration, affection, displeasure, joy and sadness.

Tears? I've never seen them, except tears of laughter. When a close advisor who spends a lot of time with Merkel was asked if the chancellor ever shed tears of sadness or rage, he replied: "There is the entire spectrum of emotional forms of expression."

Including tears?

"The entire spectrum."

Is this relevant? Critics accuse the media, including SPIEGEL, of excessively personalizing politics and not paying enough attention to the issues. Of course issues are important, but the disposition of a political leader, the human element, is also important. It makes a huge difference whether Merkel is Germany's chancellor or someone like the Social Democratic Party (SPD) politician and former Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück, not because of things like programs, ideologies and visions, which don't play such a huge role anymore, but because of personalities. The human being at the top echelon of politics is politically relevant in all of his perceptions, because it's the level where every aspect of a person plays a role.

Paradoxically, it is all the more difficult to write about a German chancellor the more access one has to her. Access means acquiring information that cannot be used in print. I have had dozens of conversations, but all have been off the record, meaning that reporting on those conversations is off-limits. The absurd thing about all this is that we don't take part in these off-the-record conversations for our own good, but for the benefit of our readers, and yet what transpires in the conversations cannot be divulged to them.

When Merkel was in Mongolia, the president received her in the official yurt, a tent set up in the government headquarters building in the capital Ulan Bator. She was offered mare's milk, which is traditionally given to guests in Mongolia. On the return flight to Berlin, a journalist asked government spokesman Steffen Seibert whether the chancellor had tried the mare's milk. Seibert answered the question, but then said that it was "off the record." In other words, the question of whether Merkel had tried the Mongolian mare's milk, absurdly enough, had suddenly become a state secret.

Almost everyone involved in Merkel's off-the-record conversations -- mainly the heads of the Berlin offices of major media organizations -- tweaks this system. Journalists drop hints, or they print quotes either without citing sources or while cautiously doing so. There is a gray zone.

This is a report from that gray zone. It digs deeply, but without revealing state secrets, at least not any important ones.

Merkel's Human Side

Merkel is laughing. She is standing in the government plane, laughing uncontrollably. In fact, she is laughing so hard that she can no longer speak. Her eyes are shiny with tears and her entire body is trembling. She would like to keep talking, but her words are quickly swallowed up by a snort and she keeps laughing. She is practically chortling as the tears run down her face.

She is on her way home from Lithuania, and she has just mentioned that the Lithuanians are worried about a nuclear power plant the Belarusians are building at the border. One day the Lithuanian prime minister apparently decided to cycle to the construction site with his family, disguised as tourists. Merkel is already looking rather amused at this point. But then, she says, the Belarusian police decided to detain the cycling prime minister. Merkel starts chuckling and, before long, she is laughing uncontrollably.

The German chancellor can be exuberant. She tends to be a cheerful person, and one of her main emotional states is one of amusement. She finds many of the minutiae of being chancellor amusing, especially all the things that can go wrong in her surroundings.

The laughing incident also reveals an awareness of status. Only someone for whom it would be inconceivable, as head of state, to cycle to a nuclear power plant construction site in a neighboring country could find this story so incredibly funny. Merkel's laughter is in fact similar to Nigerian President Jonathan's reaction to her story about making breakfast for her husband. In both cases, a country's leader is expressing sheer amazement at another leader's somewhat relaxed approach to the dignity of his or her office. Each leader has an understanding of the extent to which he or she can remain human, and yet in the end each leader also recognizes a line that cannot be crossed. In Merkel's case, that line was only shifted slightly in the direction of being a stateswoman.


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