Angela Merkel: The Authorized Biography, by Stefan Kornelius, Alma Books, 300 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1846883071
This is not an easy book to read. It is perhaps the hagiographical style, or the somewhat turgid prose – a product, it might be, of a clunky translation from the German. It is also not quite up to date, its subject having since won another general election victory last autumn, making her Chancellor for the third successive time and placing her for the second time in a “grand coalition” with the Social Democrats. Perhaps it is just that there are some truths about how Merkel has handled the euro crisis and about the prospect of German economic hegemony in Europe which make for uncomfortable reading. It is difficult not to feel a little wary when the term “master plan” is used in relation to the euro zone countries (in fairness, it is a coinage of Kornelius which he does not attribute to Merkel). Is it possible that the translator – whatever about Kornelius himself – was not aware of the resonances of this phrase?
Stefan Kornelius is the leading foreign correspondent with Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung and has had access to Merkel and her inner circle since the fall of the Berlin Wall when she was the then virtually unknown spokeswoman for the church-based opposition group Democratic Awakening. She was subsequently an important source for him as a relatively junior member of Helmut Kohl’s cabinet when he served time as a political reporter in Bonn. Unfortunately, he does not offer a satisfactory account of her meteoric ascent to the higher levels of German politics nor satisfactorily chronicle her part in the dramatic toppling of Kohl, her mentor.
He does however trace the story back to the Chancellor’s origins as a Lutheran pastor’s daughter in Templin, in what was then the German Democratic Republic. Indeed it would be impossible to understand Merkel’s psyche and her various approaches without reminding oneself that she spent the first thirty-five years of her life as a citizen of country ruled by a deeply repressive regime, a country which no longer exists. A classic account of the GDR is Stasiland, by the Australian Anna Funder, according to The Sunday Times “a journey into the bizarre, scary, secret history of the former East Germany”. A more populist insight into that grim history can be found in the award-winning film The Lives of Others. Angela Merkel was exposed to that culture and environment for the greater part of her life. Indeed, Kornelius writes, she was actually invited to join the Stasi on her graduation as a physicist but evaded the invitation by telling her would-be employers that she would be of no value to them as a spy as she couldn’t keep secrets. The recruiters backed off.
To survive and prosper modestly, initially as a scientist, in that difficult world, it was necessary for the young Angela Kasner to be cautious, non-demonstrative and incrementalist. These characteristics have remained with Merkel throughout the ups and (so far very few) downs of her political career. Arguably too, it was her East German and Lutheran upbringing that embedded what were to become the leitmotifs of her political career, the imperatives of freedom, tolerance and responsibility, even if latterly, in response to the euro zone crisis, the emphasis has been more on responsibility.
With the exception of a chronicle of Merkel’s early life in the GDR, leading on to the fall of the Berlin Wall and her entry into firstly East German and subsequently federal politics, Kornelius eschews a chronological retelling, opting instead for a mostly successful thematic account of the life and times. He opens the account with a key chapter entitled “Questions of Belief: What makes Merkel tick?”, which serves as a kind of overarching framework for his thesis. We are told of her non-ideological approach to politics – both practical and theoretical – and given a very limited insight into the private person. In a commentary that has some considerable relevance to the difficulties that have faced the European Union since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, Kornelius notes that, for Merkel, “thinking things through [surely an analogue of incrementalism] is a basic principle that she shares with her Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble. Merkel hates it when events become inevitable or inescapable. She doesn’t want to be driven, she wants to control and influence the course of events.” Put more succinctly and in answer to his own question as to “What makes her tick?” Kornelius replies with the “hardly exciting” bald Americanism: “What you see is what you get” or “Merkel shapes her world in an analytical way.”
In this chapter too, we get a very modest insight into the private Merkel. She likes theatre and opera, especially Wagner, notwithstanding the fact that that composer’s overblown romanticism is the antithesis of her own character and style. She is a devotee of association football, having supported the East German side Lokomotive Leipzig in her younger days. Irish soccer fans will recall her presence in the stand supporting – with some considerable enthusiasm – the German national team during what was not a memorable occasion for us, Euro 2012 in Poland. Finally, as a very private and even shy person, we learn that Merkel likes to retire to her rented apartment in Berlin and her cottage in the country.
In the chapter with the curious title “Necessary Evils: the Chancellor and her Coalitions”, Kornelius delineates Merkel’s “presidential” focus on foreign policy and her relationships, often difficult, with her coalition partners, firstly in a grand coalition with the Social Democrats and, in her second term as Chancellor, with the Free Democrats (who suffered a disastrous result in the September 2013 federal elections). Kornelius identifies explicitly as “the most important principle of [Merkel’s] foreign policy” the following:
Germany cannot solve its problems alone: the country is part of several confederations and alliances. Europe and the European Union, the United States, the transatlantic alliance in the form of NATO, subordination to international law under the United Nations Charter and an acute sense of duty towards Israel – these are Merkel’s main prerogatives. Everything else stems from them: friendship with France, the importance of Poland, the balance of interests in Europe, the euro and being prepared for military intervention.
While most of this will not come as a surprise, many will find the last element a challenge: it is perhaps not widely known that Bundeswehr troops serve in Afghanistan and elsewhere. If some might find this feature of German foreign policy unwelcome, it is comforting to know, for example, that Merkel deliberately uses the words “glad to be German” rather than “proud” and has commented that “I like living here. I have confidence in this country, I am part of its history with all the pain and the good things.”
The chapter “Pacific Dreams: Yearning for the USA” details Merkel’s private and public attitudes to the United States, the former involving a kind of love affair, with the latter becoming, in recent years in particular, more doubtful and questioning. In her youth, Merkel believed she would never, on account of the restrictive travel policies of the GDR, set foot in the United States until after her sixtieth birthday ‑ which in fact falls this year. In the event, she went there with her second husband (then partner), the retiring Joachim Sauer, a year after the fall of the Wall. The private Merkel endorsed the American Dream which, as she put it in a speech to Congress many years later, gave “everyone the opportunity to succeed, to get somewhere by their own efforts”. She continued: “I loved the vast American landscapes, where the air is full of the spirit of freedom and independence.” However, the public Merkel is more sceptical and currently perceives America to be weak America, particularly in its struggle for hegemony with a rising and autocratic China. Nevertheless, the relationship remains firm and abiding. On receiving the presidential medal of freedom from Barack Obama at a glittering reception in the White House, she requested that the singer-songwriter James Taylor provide the after dinner entertainment. Taylor himself afterwards recalled that the White House had specifically asked that he include “You’ve got a friend” in his performance.
“On the Defensive: Angela Merkel and War” provides an insight into Merkel’s military and defence policies, for obvious reasons a sensitive area for all postwar senior German politicians, military leadership and policy-makers. Like all her predecessors, Merkel has had a sceptical attitude to foreign operations by the Bundeswehr, even when sanctioned by the United Nations. For example, she alienated her closest allies by abstaining at a vote in the UN which ultimately led to the no fly zone over Libya. This was regarded as mistake by her allies, but was also the subject of much criticism in Germany itself. Kornelius, in one of his few criticisms of his subject, concurs with this view. However, Merkel’s stance was consistent with that pithy statement of German foreign/defence policy articulated by the doyen of postwar German foreign policy, Hans Dietrich Genscher: “I will be happy to give anyone in search of adventure the telephone number of the French Foreign Legion.”
Nevertheless, it is the case that the German military has served recently or continues to serve in Somalia, on the coast of Lebanon and in Afghanistan, and has been involved in the Balkans, although it might be thought that the latter was a particularly sensitive deployment. The commitment to Afghanistan, where German troops serve in the relatively less dangerous northern part of the country under the aegis of NATO, was made by Merkel’s predecessor as Chancellor, the Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder. Merkel, until German troops were killed there, was relatively lukewarm about this commitment. However, by the time of her third visit to German troops in that country, she was able to formulate this curious phrase while addressing some troops: “You are engaged in combat of the kind found in war.”
That defence policy in Germany is still a sensitive subject in Germany was clearly illustrated when the German president, Joachim Gauck, at the 50th anniversary Munich Security Conference at the end of January, urged his fellow citizens to show greater confidence in themselves and demonstrate greater willingness to engage in efforts to solve military conflict. Like Merkel’s father, Gauck was an East German pastor and so he has some moral standing in this debate. At the time of writing, Merkel had still to respond to or comment directly on this demarche.
In some respects, the most poignant and difficult of Kornelius’s chapters is “The Light of Zion: The Fascination of Israel”, in which he states bluntly that “Merkel’s relationship with Israel is a wholly emotional one”.
Israel forms the basis of her foreign-policy axis – comparable in significance to the European Union and the USA. It is Merkel’s deeply held conviction that Israel is part of Germany’s raison d’être as a state … She has developed a profound connection with Israel and the Jews. Her understanding of German history, and thus the historical context of the direction taken by her policies as Chancellor, is inextricably bound up with the Shoah, the annihilation of Jews by Germans … Merkel is unequivocal on the subject: she loves the country [Israel], and in Germany’s historical involvement with Israel she sees a national duty that goes beyond anything envisaged by her predecessors.
Kornelius has a telling anecdote about Merkel’s exposure to the Shoah (a term she uses in preference to the Holocaust and which is now the preferred usage in Israel and elsewhere) in her teenage years in the GDR. He recalls her experience of a school visit to Ravensbrück concentration camp where the official narrative only related to the Communist and Social Democrat victims incarcerated and murdered there. There was no mention of the fate of the Jewish prisoners – this subject was only broached when the schoolchildren themselves raised the issue with their guides.
It is not surprising then that this product of the GDR and its historical revisionism could say in a speech in German to the Knesset: “In a very particular sense, Germany and Israel are and will remain forever linked by the memory of the Shoah.” According to Kornelius, whenever Merkel speaks of the Shoah, two lines of argument appear: “Never again” and “What is to be done?” Merkel’s view is that the lesson we have to learn is that xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism must never be given space to happen again – a salutary lesson indeed.
Notwithstanding her emotional connection to the state of Israel, Merkel can also be a critic of Israeli policy, not least in relation to new settlements in the occupied territories and, particularly latterly, of Netanyahu and his attitudes to those settlements and to peace talks. Significantly in this context, Germany did not oppose Palestine’s acquisition of observer status at the United Nations.
There are two relatively brief chapters on Merkel’s responses to China and Russia –she is a fluent Russian speaker, who visited the Soviet Union during her school years, and also something of a Russophile. (She is also a relatively fluent English speaker) That is not to say that she is close to Putin – at best their relationship could be described as workmanlike – and she has little time for his macho posturing. Her political relationships with Russia and China are rather defined by another of her essential characteristics – pragmatism. Her involvement is embedded in business and engagement, with the occasional nod towards human rights issues: she deeply angered the Chinese by inviting the Dalai Lama to the chancellery in Berlin.
The hyperbolic “The Great Crisis: Angela Merkel’s Battle for Europe” is a forensic account of Merkel’s engagement with what became popularly known as the euro or sovereign debtcrisis, a crisis that some feel is merely stalled not over. Kornelius divides his narrative into four parts, mostly on a chronological basis, but with a considerable amount of recapitulation. He begins with the dramatic discovery of a parcel bomb addressed to the Chancellor from Greece, a criminal act which nevertheless illustrated the kind of hostility engendered by the German response to the euro crisis. Images of Merkel as a protagonist of the Third (or even Fourth) Reich became commonplace in both Greece and Spain during the most heightened periods of the crisis. The Irish response seems to have been milder.
For Kornelius, the timeline of the crisis can be presented as a preamble followed by three subsequent phases. The preamble is the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008. In October 2009 the focus shifted to the budgets of European states, in particular that of Greece, where the newly elected, Papandreou-led government discovered that the true Greek deficit was 12 and not 6 per cent of GDP. As a consequence, in a pattern that was subsequently to become all too familiar to Ireland and other euro zone members, borrowing on the unforgiving markets became prohibitively expensive. Kornelius notes – it seems almost in passing – that Greek banks were closely linked to other banks in Europe, including Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank and that foreign banks were holding vast amounts of worthless Greek loans. The possibility of a Greek exit from the euro zone and, even, from the EU itself was a live one, but Papandreou, with EU law on his , rejected it out of hand.
The second phase of the crisis involved Greece in its first of three applications and, subsequently, Ireland and Portugal seeking IMF/European Bank/ EU bailouts in 2010 and 2011. It was at this stage that Merkel came under pressure for the sharing of European debt through the issue of eurobonds – a pressure she continues to resist on the grounds that in practice the issue of such bonds would require a common economic policy across the euro zone and equal competitiveness across the member states.
The third phase, which overlapped considerably with the second, was the creation of the two rescue mechanisms, the temporary EFSF and the permanent ESM. Inherent in these creations was the necessity for rigour in national budgets and the much debated “austerity” policies that followed from that. The creation of ESM could also be seen as the beginning of the fourth and so far final phase of the crisis. In tandem with the institution of the ESM was the inauguration – at Merkel’s behest ‑ of the fiscal compact, dealing, for example, with levels of national budget deficiting, an instrument designed to ensure that a similar crisis would not arise again. These creations were instituted at an EU summit in Brussels on June 29th, 2012 and Merkel insisted on that occasion that the ESM did not apply to old cases only to future problems, and the liability would not apply retrospectively, although some wriggle room – now much, if apparently futilely, argued about – seemed to be allowed as regards Ireland, or so Taoiseach Enda Kenny argued in his press conference after that summit.
Merkel’s reaction at all these phases was consistent – it was cautious, it involved making progress (at least by her lights) step by step, incrementally, and being strictly analytical. Her guiding principle was to protect and sustain the European Union in her fashion and, to some extent to her and Germany’s liking. In what is undoubtedly a telling, if succinct, phrase which perhaps sums up best Merkel’s responses, Kornelius notes that her basic principle as regards aid to Greece (although it can be seen to apply to the other debtor nations as well) was money only in return for results.
In his final chapter – “The Prospects for Merkel?: The Post-Political Chancellor’ – Kornelius makes one startling and unexpected criticism of his subject when he says: “she prescribed a drastic remedy for the whole continent which Germany itself might not have survived”. But he soon reverts to the script, noting à propos of Merkel’s relationship with Francois Hollande:
She prefers to play her now familiar game: weighing up the pros and cons, making demands, exerting pressure and finally making concessions if she has gained something in return. She pins her hopes on time, which has become her closest ally.
He does however also question this weighing up of risks approach and asks has this post-political Chancellor not perhaps missed “a decisive shining opportunity” that she might have enjoyed shaping – or which she could use as a launch pad. After all, the crisis is wearing people down; few events in postwar history have tried public patience for quite so long.
There are a few unfortunate glitches in this otherwise well-produced book which must be put down to poor editing. For example, Thomas de Maizière, nephew of Merkel’s original East German mentor, Lothar de Maizière, is referred to variously as defence minister and foreign minister. He was never the latter. And Merkel’s paternal grandfather’s death is given as occurring in 1939; in fact he died in 1959 when Merkel was five.
But these are minor grumbles. Reading Kornelius’s book, it is hard not to admire and respect Merkel, if equally difficult to have much affection for her. Her incrementalist and analytical approach and her willingness to compromise on occasion have advantages and disadvantages. As a former civil servant, I was pleased to see Kornelius heap praise on the coterie of excellent young civil servants around Merkel on whom she relies heavily. Indeed, the thought occurs that had similar levels of excellence been evident in the upper levels of the Irish civil service, rather than the pusillanimity displayed during the heyday of the Celtic Tiger, the subsequent catastrophe just might have been mitigated.
Merkel’s emphasis on national responsibilities in euro crisis may have been overstated and the “Swabian housewife” approach, with its belief in order and good housekeeping, overvalued. However, with a third and very convincing general election victory behind her, perhaps, as Kornelius suggests in his final chapter, one of the most powerful politicians in the world will depart from her previous habits of caution and make that major imaginative contribution. Such a contribution might, for example, involve support for the creation of a carefully calibrated Eurobonds mechanism, which would leave a definitive mark on 21st century European history. Angela Merkel, her career and her impact on Europe, is still a work in progress.
Liam Hennessy is a former history teacherand senior civil servant and currently works in the mental health field.