Analysis & Opinions - Harvard Gazette

Angela Merkel, The Scientist Who Became a World Leader

Written by: Christina Pazzanese

World War II was at a critical juncture when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill traveled to Harvard in September 1943 at the urging of his ally and friend President Franklin D. Roosevelt 1904, L.L.D. ’29. Taking a rare respite from the war, Churchill came to accept an honorary Doctor of Laws degree recognizing his international leadership that “turned back the tide of tyranny in freedom’s darkest hour.”

In 1947, as Europe’s vast devastation from that war had become clearer, U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall accepted an honorary Doctor of Laws degree for his success as the five-star Army general who had overseen much of the U.S. war operations in Europe. Marshall used his Commencement appearance in June that year to deliver a landmark speech pledging $13 billion for a new, U.S.-led aid program for Europe. That effort became known as the Marshall Plan and revitalized the continent.

Now, as national-populist forces again threaten to overtake much of Europe and undermine relations between the U.S. and the continent, Harvard again welcomes a pivotal democratic figure, a woman widely regarded as the most respected leader in the world, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. On Thursday, Harvard will award Merkel an honorary Doctor of Laws degree during Morning Exercises, and she will address the annual meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association during the Afternoon Program at the 368th Commencement.

Trained as a quantum chemist, Merkel spent her first 35 years living in Soviet-controlled East Germany working at a state-run research center until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. That historic shift prompted Merkel to abandon scientific work and embrace a lifelong interest in politics, steadily ascending the ranks of a newly unified German government.

Elected chancellor in 2005, Merkel is the first woman and the first East German to hold her nation’s highest elective office. When she steps down in 2021, she will be Germany’s second-longest-serving leader of the modern era, after her former mentor, Helmut Kohl, who spoke at Harvard’s Commencement in 1990.

In advance of her visit, the Gazette spoke with current and former Merkel colleagues, diplomats, scholars, and journalists about her life, her rise to political power, and her extraordinary influence on Germany and the world. Here are their reflections.

A figure of hope

She is extraordinary. She knows who she is. She does not try to be anything other. She is an authentic leader, which is critical. She has a set of strong values, and she understands Germany’s history exceedingly well, in part because she comes from East Germany. So she has a certain humility that comes from her particular biography. She fights for her country and for her people. She is analytical, she’s fierce, she’s a very skilled politician. She didn’t start out that way, but she certainly has become that. And she knows how to operate on the world stage — no easy task. - Wendy R. Sherman

The most dangerous issue in the West is that democracy is under siege. It’s being challenged by Russian cyberattacks, by divisive politics here at home, by the rise of the anti-democratic populists in Europe, and by Donald Trump. And for a lot of us who think that the West is important, the idea of a democratic world, she’s now the leader of the West. I’m told that she doesn’t want that mantle. But for all of us who think that democracy is under challenge and we must do everything we can to revive it, she’s the one Western leader who’s never flinched. I think she will arrive at Harvard with many, many people on both sides of the Atlantic seeing her as a figure of hope. - Nicholas Burns

As ambassador to the Holy See, I witnessed the reaction to the way Merkel handled the migration crisis. She was viewed as “the woman who saved the dignity of Europe.” For Merkel, this decision was critical. While populists were maneuvering to use the issue to their advantage, she viewed it as the hour of truth for a Christian democracy. How Europe treated refugees was a testament to how it treats human beings. For her, the migration crisis was a turning point for Europe to demonstrate how to act responsibly. - Annette Schavan

Considering the challenges she has faced, I would rank her as one of the great chancellors because she dealt with, like some of her predecessors, a major critical development: the breakdown of the established rules-based system in the wake of the U.S. election. She’s handled that very well, so far. That is her big crisis. She kept the European Union together in difficult times, particularly when the question came up of dealing with Russia, which is another crisis where she did well. Inside the European Union, there was a lot of divergence on whether or not to impose sanctions on Russia after the annexation of Crimea. She twisted the arms of some countries quite successfully to keep them on board, in close cooperation with the White House under [Barack] Obama. - Karl Kaiser

What constitutes her success? If you ask me, it’s not visible at first sight. Probably the most remarkable achievement will be to have kept so much stability and continuity to the system in Germany, to government, to the country, to everyone’s life — with continued growth in economic terms, but also politically. When she took office, we were living through the terrorist age, then immediately slid into the most tumultuous economic times with 2008 and the ensuing economic crises, the European currency crisis. Her biggest, first achievement was preventing the euro from disintegrating. The second was to keep the EU together as it is now. Even the way the British show how difficult it is to get out, and what attraction the EU still can project, this shows that there must be something to it. She’s not a big performer, she’s not a huge visionary. She’s the stable hand. - Stefan Kornelius

She does everything possible not to talk about herself. She doesn’t give interviews to correspondents from leading Western newspapers and magazines; she gives interviews to local papers when it’s politically advantageous. She seems to have no vanity. I’m sure she does, but she seems to have none, and that’s been one of her great assets as a politician. Whenever she runs up against a powerful and vain male German politician, she’s inevitably underestimated. She bides her time, and then, when the moment is right, she gives a small but decisive shove, and that person has to find some other line of work. That’s been her way to the top from the beginning. She doesn’t need to win every argument. She doesn’t have to get in the last word. She quietly assesses the different factors involved in a given situation and then decides which way she wants to go, and does it quietly and without fanfare. It’s a different kind of political style that Germans had not known until Merkel. - George Packer

She’s seen to be a problem-solver who sometimes puts other people’s best interests forward. And that’s just so remarkably unlike most politicians, on both sides of the Atlantic, that she’s stood out — to be serious, analytical, not always looking for the votes. She leads a country that has become, without any question, the strongest in Europe economically and politically, far stronger than France or Britain, the other two of that triumvirate. Her personal behavior, her seriousness, the way she drills down on issues — she’s substantive, she’s not superficial. If you took a private poll of the G20 leaders, the most powerful leaders in the world, and you asked, “Who do you respect the most in this group?” Merkel wins the poll. Or ask “Who would chair this group in a fair way?” They’d put the gavel in her hands. - Nicholas Burns

A number of things are distinctive about her, but the thing that distinguishes her from most other politicians is that she’s genuinely not needy. She genuinely doesn’t need politics to be happy. People who know her much better say she ran for a fourth term because she felt responsible. She felt that she needed to, as it were, “finish her job.” Whenever she gets to step away, she will do so very happily. And I find that more credible than with most other politicians I’ve met. - Constanze Stelzenmüller

Her political career could have never been anticipated, and never gave the idea that she could end up as chancellor or that she would be the leader of the Western world somehow. The speed in which she took on politics after ’89, especially when she joined the first unified German cabinet in ’91 and the continuing years, was breathtaking. There’s hardly a political career in these professionalized times where you start that late, at age 35, and not that high. So yes, this is stunning.

The second stunning thing is that her private character, the base on which all of this stands, has changed remarkably little. Yes, she has become, through and through, a political animal. She is breathing and thinking and dreaming politics, I guess. But on the other side, her character has not changed at all — the way she deals with people, the way she shows interest, the way she engages. She has not disappeared in the fog of prominence or of being a superhero. She’s a very down-to-earth woman, very self-critical. She’s always suspicious of people adoring her too much. She has kept that kind of ability to stand beside herself, watch herself, and tell herself, “Don’t take yourself too seriously, Angela.” - Stefan Kornelius

Ever the East German

Her father was called “The Red Minister” because when everyone else was going west after the division of Germany following World War II, he went east and took over a parish north of Berlin, in the heartland of Brandenburg. It’s known for its correctness and its uprightness and the values of German Protestantism: hard work, discipline, self-effacement, all those things different from the German south. That was the region that shaped Merkel. That was the father who gave her a sense of purpose and responsibility. But she certainly didn’t take his politics and live by them. She was a good East German. She did not become a dissident. She avoided all the traps that could have derailed her career and even worse. She kept her head down and did what you had to do in order to have a decent life and a reasonably successful career. - George Packer

She always was deeply interested in politics. She tells the story that she listened to West German radio in secret at her parents’ home, that she always dreamt of visiting Westminster in London, and so Parliament. Her first trip abroad led her to London. The first thing she did from Heathrow was to come up the escalator at Parliament Square in London and see the Churchill statue and then Parliament. Then, going on to Speakers’ Corner, watching those people debating. She had this deep desire to engage in public affairs and the public exchange of arguments. - Stefan Kornelius

I met Angela Merkel for the first time on Sept. 23, 1989, at an event organized by the Pastoral College in Templin. Her father, Horst Kasner, was in charge of this continuing education institution for the Protestant church. Together with friends and acquaintances, I attended a seminar with Professor Christofer Frey from Bochum on the relation of theology and natural sciences, ethics and responsibility, etc. My friend Marcus Kasner, Angela Merkel’s brother, also participated. One of the participants was Hans-Jürgen Fischbeck from the initiative Democracy Now, whose texts our ecumenical peace group had distributed the weekend before, after the worship. Another one was Angela Merkel, who was visiting her parents. I remember that she did not say much, but at one point when her father, as was typical for his generation, was suggesting moderation, she contradicted him. She was open-minded and acted politically in the spirit of the new civil rights movements, although she did not belong to one. For us, the most important date is the 9th of October, the Monday of the peaceful rally in Leipzig. One month later, the wall came down. - Günter Nooke

She wasn’t among the first to go over to the West. After it became clear people could cross, she didn’t go immediately. She actually took a sauna with a friend while others were crossing, and then joined a crowd. I picture her quietly taking it all in and assessing what it meant, rather than getting caught up in the euphoria and taking the lead. And that’s sort of been true of her for most of her political career. She doesn’t like to get out in front of the crowd. She likes to test the winds and make her decision like a scientist, based on a careful calculation of all the different factors at play.

She was a quantum chemist. She was divorced without children. She was working at an East German scientific institution that was decaying throughout the ’80s. You can’t think of a less-likely origin story for a world leader. I just have to speculate that as a really intelligent, ambitious, and capable person, she saw the fall of the wall as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and showed up at the local CDU [Christian Democratic Union] meeting and from there began to make her way upward. But whether she’d been planning it all along, I don’t believe it’s possible, because the fall of the Berlin Wall took everyone by surprise, including Merkel. I think she just saw the opportunity and realized that this was her moment, and she took it. - George Packer

She had this career as a physicist, and she knew that the academic credentials she brought, the training and learning on the job she had enjoyed for about five to seven years in East Germany, wasn’t nearly enough of what was expected in the West. The East was so far behind in terms of equipment, in terms of scientific advances, that she knew she wouldn’t stand a chance in this competitive new environment. So she made the decision to join politics. She went from one political party to another to check on what she liked best. She disliked, for example, with the Social Democrats, the way that they always addressed each other by first name. That was too casual for her — or always this obligation to sing songs at the meetings. And the Greens, the same. That was alien to her. Her initial steps led her to a party called the Democratic Awakening, or Demokratischer Aufbruch. This party was, soon after unification, dissolved. - Stefan Kornelius

The key to understanding Angela Merkel is that her biographical experiences have shaped her world view. With the fall of the wall, her political life began. That extraordinary event changed everything, shaped how she views political developments, and how to handle them. Merkel is motivated by a perspective that says, “What is impossible can be made possible.” When she lived in East Berlin, it appeared that life would never change. Even six months before the Berlin Wall fell, most people thought that its fall would be impossible. Her position on the migration crisis and her statement “Wir schaffen das” (“We can do it”) is a case in point. Merkel looks at a situation and then looks at its possibilities, not its obstacles. Her critics demanded that she take back this statement. But by doing so, they would have taken away her ability to lead. She, however, shaped the situation herself and decided how to handle it. She reacted the same way as with other topics. Rather than complaining, she looked at the opportunities the situation offered. - Annette Schavan

After a long cabinet meeting, we went out of her office. During the meeting there had been tough conversations between some members of the government about the [Syrian] refugee issue. Some cabinet members asked for closing the borders and building fences. I was vice chancellor and leader of the Social Democratic party. She took me aside and said, “Please promise me that we will never build new fences in Germany against people who are refugees of civil wars and who only want to save their lives and the lives of their children.” To understand her position, one has to remember that she lived in East Germany, which was divided from West Germany through a fence. For me, it was her deep conviction that it is her duty as a Christian to help people who are in danger. And, of course, we did not build new fences in Germany. - Sigmar Gabriel

For a long time, there was a line I heard from many German journalists and politicians that she had no core values, that she was a politician who just went with what was popular and followed public opinion rather than led it — and that may have been true, but it’s no longer true. The second great event of her life, after the fall of the wall, has been something that echoes it: the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees at the borders of Germany. Those two moments are the bookends of her career. And there, she led and people learned that Merkel has core values, that they were shaped by being a product and a victim of Communism and being a German, with all that that means. - George Packer

Her suspicion of the police state, her suspicion of authoritarian systems, her deep, deep belief that liberalism and individualism are core to our whole existence — this all comes from her 35-year-old experience of being taught there and having to grow up in a system where she always felt suppressed. She grew up in a pastoral household. Her father was the priest-teacher in East Germany, the Protestant pastors’ teacher. So, yes, the family was watched. She was approached by the East German secret police when she started to study at the age of 17, 18, in Leipzig. She refused to cooperate, or actually told them she couldn’t keep a secret anyway, so it wouldn’t be worth recruiting her. So this is all part of her upbringing. It’s not pretention, it’s true. It is extremely honest, and you still do feel this honesty when she talks about democracy and liberalism and freedom. - Stefan Kornelius

Taking power and leading

Chancellor Helmut Kohl had good instincts, and choosing her as a successor was a good move. There was nothing for anybody to object to. There was nothing really for people to be able to say, “This is a real visionary; this is a person of great moral stature.” She was not that, but she clearly was not an apparatchik in any sense. She was a person whom no one could take offense with. I think the people in her party felt she’ll be the transitional figure between Kohl and whoever was the next major leader of the party. And, as it turned out, she was the major leader of the party. - Charles S. Maier

In Germany, there is a kind of blandness and blindness to politics, at least as I saw it back then. It’s changing; Germany is becoming more like the rest of Europe, but slowly. We here [in America] don’t recognize a politician like Merkel. It’s part of Germany’s political culture to distrust bombast. Look at what bombast led to in Germany. When Merkel and then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder sat around a table on a news talk show after the 2005 election, it was clear that her party had won the most votes. But Schröder was trying to claim a victory. He was certainly bombastic. Merkel just quietly let him talk and talk and finally said, “We won the election. We will form the government.” It was so devastating that it deflated him in front of the eyes of the country. That’s Merkel. That’s how she has succeeded. Not in spite of that, but that is how she’s succeeded. - George Packer

In the German vernacular, we have this expression that has become a verb: to merkeln, which is “to wait for the strategic opportunity, or see how the chips lie, or how a landscape presents itself, and then make a strategic move.” Because she’s a woman, they call her Mutti, which is short for Mommy. Mommy Merkel. That’s partially in admiration, because she’s not mommy-ish at all. She’s not the mother hen of the nation. She’s a shrewd, straightforward, straight shooter who doesn’t take too many risks. She’s comforting in that sense — because she’s not a risk-taker. That’s why when she did open the doors to millions of refugees; that, for people, really broke character, because usually she’s so calculated, she’s so strategic, she’s so good at thinking a couple steps ahead. - Cathryn Clüver-Ashbrook

She’s not taken away by the grandeur of the office. She’s not a pomp-and-circumstance woman. She hates standing at a party conference giving a speech and being applauded for 20 minutes. You can see she is physically uncomfortable being pushed into the limelight. She prefers to govern quietly and step by step, not by grandiose ideas, approaches, speeches. She rejects that role, and this makes her suspicious of all of us who expect more of that leadership type. The thing is, she’s utterly self-confident. There’s no question about that. She never has any doubt that she is right. She has the strength to make it through troubles. She went through at least three or four near-death moments in her political life where she was solely alone, especially during the refugee crisis. She never had any doubt that she was doing the right thing. How does this go along with the lack of the wish to show off? I can’t explain. - Stefan Kornelius



  – Via the original publication source.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:Angela Merkel, The Scientist Who Became a World Leader.” Harvard Gazette, May 28, 2019.


Nicholas Burns