The Outsider (Part I): The extraordinary career of Mrs Merkel

A Research Puzzle: The girl who ate peanuts

Sixteen years as German chancellor. A long time indeed. Much has been made of how many British Prime Ministers and US Presidents Angela Merkel has seen come and go – Prime Ministers Blair, Brown, Cameron, May, and Johnson; US Presidents Bush Jr, Obama, Trump, and Biden. Not bad. Strangely, in a world in flux, a German chancellor, of all people, came to symbolise stability and reliability.

While Merkel’s place and status in German, European, and international history will certainly inform historical debates in the future, it strikes me how odd her time as chancellor has been in the context of German post-war and post-reunification politics.

Merkel is female (obviously), a divorcee, a Protestant, and has a doctorate in physics. Though she remarried (but retained her first husband’s family name), she never had any children. Why does this matter, you ask? It matters because the German centre-right predominantly recruits middle-aged, married with children, Catholic males from Southern or Western Germany, usually with a background in business or law (and often with doctorates of varying academic quality in relevant subject areas), into top political positions. Against the odds indeed.

Moreover, upon her entry into German politics in the 1990s, Merkel was a figure of fun for many Germans. A dodgy haircut, entirely unfashionable clothes, and not the faintest hint of charisma. In 1994, Merkel admitted in an interview with Campino (real name: Andreas Frege), the German-British lead vocalist of legendary German punk band Die Toten Hosen,that, when she was young and went to parties, she was das Maedchen das Erdnuesse ist und nicht tanzt (‘the girl who ate salted peanuts and never danced’).

It did not help that, under Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the conservative patriarch from Rhineland-Palatine with a taste for Saumagen (stuffed pig’s stomach), Merkel was Minister for Young People and Families (1991) and then Minister for Environment (1994-1998). Both posts would suggest some capacity to appeal to young people who typically care about being young as well as the environment. But it is safe to say that Frau Dr Merkel, the nemesis of Germany’s powerful Green Party when she was Umweltministerin, failed to connect with anyone below fifty-five.

Social scientists like good research puzzles, and Frau Dr Merkel present a formidable one. How did she, an outsider, become the towering figure of German and arguably European centre-right politics? How can someone who is neither a people person, nor an outstanding public speaker, remain at the apex of German and European politics for nearly two decades? These are the questions this blog series tries to answer.

Part II ‘Reunited (1990-1998)

Part III ‘The Kingslayer (1998-2000)’

Part IV ‘The Blonde Guillotine (2000-2002)’

Part V ‘The Road to Groko (2002-2005)’

Part VI ‘The Physicist of Power (2005-2021)’

Coda: ‘Never Explain, Never Complain’.