In 1949, two German states were founded, the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the communist German Democratic Republic (East Germany). In 1961, the division between the two states was cemented, quite literally, through the construction of the infamous Berlin Wall at the orders of the East German government. In 1989, the Berlin Wall collapsed – and East Germany’s Stalinist regime with it. One year later, in 1990, East and West Germany were reunified under the leadership of the West German Christian Democratic Chancellor Dr Helmut Kohl – much, it should be added, to the dismay of the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who feared a resurgence of German nationalism and chauvinism that had brought so much suffering to Europe and the world fifty years earlier. The Iron Lady lost this battle.
ButGermany’s reunification is not just important because of its geopolitical ramifications. More significantly, it also changed, over-night, the lives of millions of Germans, not least twenty million East Germans who became new citizens of the reunited Federal Republic of Germany. One of these was a young quantum chemist, Dr Angela Merkel. Born in Hamburg in 1954, her family had moved to East Germany when she was three months old so her father could continue his work as a protestant pastor – not the easiest task under a Stalinist regime that actively suppressed religion. In 1990, Frau Dr Merkel became a citizen of a reunited Germany.
Reunification gave rise to a new social cleavage in Germany. Unlike in Britain where the traditional social cleavage has been class, the main social cleavage in post-Reformation Germany had been religion: Catholics in the South and some parts of the West, Protestants in the north and west. Reunification added the cleavage between East and West – and Ossis (East Germans) and Wessis (West Germans). East Germans, in particular, remained suspicious of West German administrative, economic, political, and legal elites charged with the transformation of East Germany’s communist economic and administrative order into a fully functioning part of a capitalist, liberal-democratic state.
Against the background of tense intra-German relations, Mrs Merkel, who had joined Germany’s main conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) shortly after the fall off the Wall, was part of a group of young East German politicians supported by Chancellor Kohl, partly to show commitment to the former East. At the time, Merkel was referred to as Kohls Maedchen (Kohl’s girl). And Kohl continued to refer to Merkel as ‘my girl’ until their public falling out a decade later. If anyone needs an example of sexist language in politics, here it is. But crucially, she enjoyed Kohl’s patronage. Personal ridicule or harsh criticism seemed to peel off her – something that would come in handy later.
During these early days of her political career, her strongest test came as Minister for the Environment. The German state had decided to use an abandoned salt mine/salt dome near the Northern German city of Gorleben as an Endlager (storage site – a deep geological repository, to be precise) for nuclear waste from Germany’s nuclear power stations. This generated massive protests and resistance from local populations and Germany’s powerful environmental movement, which had campaigned for the closure of nuclear power plants since the 1970s. Anti-nuclear sentiment had gained further traction since the Chernobyl reactor catastrophe in 1986.
Mrs Merkel’s job was the enforcement of an unpopular policy against strong civil disobedience in the area surrounding Gorleben (the Wendland) and beyond. Specially adapted trains carried radioactive waste towards the new Endlager. Mostly travelling at night, the trains proceeded at a snail’s space as they entered the Wendland, surrounded by legions of armed police officers in full riot gear to keep protesters at bay, with helicopters flying overhead. These were apocalyptic scenes. A direct clash between the German state, the environmental movement, and local residents.
In this light, it is almost unthinkable that, many years later, Mrs Merkel, as Chancellor no less, would facilitate the Energiewende (change in energy policy) that abandoned nuclear power in favour of other forms of energy. This is was largely a policy response to the Fukushima reactor disaster in 2011. It is equally unthinkable that, nearly two decades later, Mrs Merkel would try to form a coalition with the Green Party. At the time of the Gorleben protests, the conservative CDU and the Greens were mortal enemies. If anything, this shows how the country has changed over the last quarter of a century.