Angela Merkel - much to admire

A FEW DAYS before the recent German elections, I asked four young German citizens, all university students, all supporters of The Greens, what they thought of Angela Merkel?

A FEW DAYS before the recent German elections, I asked four young German citizens, all university students, all supporters of The Greens, what they thought of Angela Merkel?

The response was an immediate communal grimace, which told me that she was not amongst their favourite politicians.

Why? I asked, and I expected to hear a considered answer; such as that she had devoted too much time to the EU at the expense of domestic politics. Or, that there were areas of very high unemployment in Germany. Or, that some of the towns and villages, especially those bordering the old DDR, were so deprived of investment that they were becoming depopulated.

Instead, each contributed a comment. She was too grey. Too cold. Too unemotional. Her speeches were dull. She was uninspiring. Then, the four looked at each other, searching for a composite word to describe her. Although I was trying, with some difficulty, not to insert my own opinions into the conversation, I found myself supplying the word they were looking for. “Charisma,” I said. “That’s the word,” they said. “Angela Merkel does not have charisma.”

CAN WE IN IRELAND EVER FORGET THE HOODED EYES

It seemd to me that it was not necessary to be young and inexperienced in the ways-of-the-world to be seduced by charisma in politics. Can we in Ireland ever forget the hooded eyes, the suave smoothness, the lord of the manor persona of he who could charm a roomful of otherwise sensible people. Or his successor, who took the opposite tack, and played the part of the common man, hail-fellow-well-met, who loved a pint in the local and was just like us. And then came the Tribunals.

Charisma in politics, it again seemed to me, has to be handled with dollops of caution. Telling it how it is, without rhetoric or spin or colour; honesty and integrity in place of magnetism and personality; dull, grey, unemotional, the whole truth, may not always result in re-election. The shadow often presents in politics as more attractive than the substance.

But Angela Merkel was re-elected, and she stood on the platform of her record. “You know me,” she said, “and you know what I stand for.” The German media parsed and analysed that record in volumes of long-winded three and four page features in the “better” newspapers.

A THEORY THAT SHE WAS MACHIAVELLIAN

One such feature explored the theory that she was Machiavellian: that her approach to politics was cunning and unscrupulous and two-faced. The conclusion, reached after a script of a few thousand words, was that she was not.

She was not the “icing on the cake.” What you saw was what you got. Despite the best efforts of spin-doctors and image-makers, she had resisted being re-made into any image other than her own self.

She is now the most powerful woman in the world. In contrast with Margaret Thatcher, who gave little or no opportunity to women in her Cabinet, and could never be identified as a feminine icon, Merkel had appointed many talented women to important posts in her previous government and is expected to do the same in the next.

But the general media consensus was that, in understanding Angela Merkel, it is necessary to go back to her family and the circumstances and influences of her youth.

Her father was a Lutheran Minister, who could have made life easier for himself and his family by remaining in the West. Instead, he choose to serve his parishioners in the Soviet East - the DDR. It is assumed that she inherited her extraordinary sense of service from his example. Her dull-speech-making (as perceived by the young students) may also have been honed in a climate of fear. If a shut mouth catches no flies, it certainly could give little ammunition to the Stassi - the secret police. So now, she thinks before she speaks and only says what she means.

she is prussian with a protestant work ethic

She is also, it is said, a product of her geography. She is Prussian from the cold winters of northern Europe, with a fierce Protestant work ethic. Her working day starts at 7 am and finishes at 11 pm, and that does not include mammoth long-night, early-morning, sittings on specific EU business.

When the election results were finalised, one of her first comments was: “Now back to work!”

The conclusion is that all of these historical and geographical and familial influences make it difficult for her to understand the laid-back sunny Catholic/Orthodox Mediterranean countries whose citizens give themselves long holidays, and spend money they do not have.

place in history depends on saving the euro

It is agreed that Angela Merkel’s place in history will depend on her ability to ultimately save the Euro. But, in the meantime, the media concludes that fundamentally and personally she is a woman and a leader of modesty and moderation.

Modesty and moderation, admirable character traits though they may be, are not normally high on youthful charismatic Richter scales. And when I was as young as the students I talked with, neither were they on mine.