Angela Merkel and the art of being ordinary

Angela Merkel’s time as chancellor of Germany is coming to a close, leaving the legacy of a strong-willed but enigmatic politician with a poker face and calm exterior that critics and advocates alike say served her well.

Enigmatic politician’s 16 years at helm in Germany coming to an end

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is stepping down after 16 years in that post, rose to become one of the world's best-known political figures, but also one of its most enigmatic. (Michael Kappeler/AFP via Getty Images)

German photographer Herlinde Koelbl still remembers her first photo session with a shy and awkward young woman named Angela Merkel back in 1991. 

"I was struck by her power even though she was an inexperienced woman at that time," said Koelbl. 

"She was a scientist and then switched to politics. But even so, she already had a strong individuality and also a strong will. She already knew what she wants and doesn't want." 

Koelbl, now in her 80s, was starting a project to document the impact of power on people over time. She would continue to photograph Merkel, who's stepping down as German chancellor, on and off over the next 30 years. 

German photographer Herlinde Koelbl photographed Merkel on and off for three decades, including in 1991, left, and 2008. (Herlinde Koelbl)

When they started, Merkel was 37 and had been a member of Germany's first post-unification parliament for just a year, and recently appointed minister for women and youth in the cabinet of Helmut Kohl, the father of German unification. 

Other politicians in the project included Gerhard Schroeder, who was chancellor from 1998 to 2005, and his foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, in the late 1990s.

Schroeder is pictured with his trademark cigar while Merkel said she didn't know how to sit or where to place her arms, recalled Koelbl, who gave her subjects no direction beyond a request to be "open." 

But it is Merkel who has stood the test of time, rising to become one of the world's best-known political figures, but also one of its most enigmatic. 

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl chats with Merkel, the newly elected minister for women, during a Christian Democratic Union party meeting in 1991. (Michael Jung/DPA/AFP via Getty Images)

That's what makes Koelbl's series of portraits so interesting: searching for the thread linking the awkward MP in her 30s to Time Magazine's Person of the Year in 2015, with a cover headline that read: "Chancellor of the Free World."

By then, Merkel had already been at the helm in Germany for a decade, and Koelbl had started taking her picture more regularly, every year she served as chancellor.   

"She really learnt to wear, in a certain way, a mask," said Koelbl. "She talked about this in the interviews I did with her.  That she had to learn it. And I think she learnt it very well." 

Critics and advocates alike will say that Merkel's poker face and a calm exterior when confronted with more combustible figures has stood her in good stead. 

Think former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi or former U.S. president Donald Trump. 

Merkel and other world leaders deliberate with U.S. President Donald Trump during the G7 summit in Charlevoix, Quebec, in 2018. 'Her method [for] dealing with those macho politicians is to be very patient,' says biographer Ralph Bollmann. (Jesco Denzel/Bundesregierung via Getty Images)

"If you want an ingredient of her success, it has been that she's a very guarded person," said Klaus Goetz, a specialist in European politics at Munich's Ludwig Maximilian University. 

"It's very rare that anything slips out. And she's not like Boris Johnson or some very sort of impulsive people. She's very controlled. She's controlling and controlled." 

'There is no secret'

"The only secret is that there is no secret," said Ralph Bollmann, author of a recently published Merkel biography called The Chancellor and her Time

"She is like she is. And I think only people who have in mind an image of a macho style, a traditional politician's politician, are wondering if there is something [else behind it]." 

Bollmann's theory is that Merkel learned to keep her own counsel as a young girl, growing up in former East Germany as the daughter of a Lutheran minister. 

"As a pastor's daughter in a communist regime and afterwards as a woman, and as an East German in Western [male-dominated] politics, she always had a good sense of resistance, of not ceding." 

Merkel studied quantum chemistry at the University of Leipzig before moving to East Berlin for work. She was there when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.   

"In politics, there are very often situations where there is only the alternative to go out or go up," said Bollman. "She didn't want to go out." 

Only two other German leaders have served longer in office than Merkel: Prince Otto von Bismarck and Kohl.

Goetz said Merkel stands up poorly when placed against leaders like Kohl, calling her a manager and the latter a visionary. 

Seeking compromise

"Under Helmut Kohl, we had the Maastricht Treaty with the introduction of the euro. We had the opening to central and eastern Europe. We had German unification."

Merkel's advocates say it is her skill as a manager that has defined her premiership: an ability to seek compromise into the wee hours and present a steady hand at the helm during times of crisis. 

In 2015, when hundreds of thousands of mainly Syrian refugees arrived in Europe, Merkel was criticized for leaving Germany's border open. Her response to worried Germans was "we can manage." 

Syrians now settled in Germany call her the "mother of refugees." 

WATCH | The legacy of Angela Merkel:

The legacy of German Chancellor Angela Merkel

2 years ago
Duration 5:23
After 16 years as German chancellor, Angela Merkel doesn’t leave behind a legacy of change or innovation, but one of managing the situations at hand.

But the turmoil of their arrival also provoked anti-immigrant groups and it was on her watch that a far-right party was elected to the German parliament for the first time since the end of the Second World War. 

Bollmann believes her motives were both personal and pragmatic. 

"She was a citizen of the former communist eastern Germany. She didn't want to build new walls in Europe. And she wanted Germany as an open society, as a liberal society to preserve liberalism against populist uprisings." 

Now that Merkel is leaving, the political autopsy on her tenure has begun, one line of criticism being that she has failed to "future-proof" Germany or to leave a vision of where the country should be headed. 

A popularity boost 

"I think she's been a stabilizing force there, but she's definitely not been innovative in any way," said Travis Todd, a dual U.S.-German citizen who runs a campus for start-ups in Berlin. 

COVID-19 gave Merkel another crisis to handle, and another boost in popularity. But it also exposed Germany's out-dated bureaucracy, still relying on fax machines and regular mail.

"I mean, I think it was maybe last year or the year before we could finally book our train tickets on the public transport via an app, which was mind-blowing," said Todd.

But despite the criticism, voters have kept her in power for 16 years, choosing her even when the enormity of her imprint blurred the lines of the coalition governments she's led. 

Herlinde Koelbl has been photographing Merkel since 1991. Koelbl says during their first sessions, the new politician was 'a bit awkward, a shy person really.' (Lily Martin/CBC)

"Germany has loved Angela Merkel," said Manual Manzor, a member of the Social Democratic Party that managed to edge ahead of Merkel's Christian Democrats, now led by Armin Laschet, in this week's election. 

"And she was accepted in the whole world as a woman leader, so I think we'll keep her in mind. But it's good to have a change now." 

Where did the sparkle go?

So what about that thread linking the young Merkel to the woman stepping down after 16 years in power?

"I could see that she had a moral guiding line," said Herlinde Koelbl. "And I think she kept it through all these years. 

"She kept herself as a human being and I think she is a great politician and a great woman."

A favourite photo of Koelbl from 1998 shows Merkel holding her hands in the shape of the 'Merkel diamond.' Koelbl says at the time, the gesture 'was just her private behaviour ... later on she used it in public all the time.' (Herlinde Koelbl)

One difference in the Merkel of today, Koelbl noted, is the loss of what she calls a sparkle in Merkel's eye. 

"I think that's the price you have to pay to be chancellor," she said. 

Koelbl had her last photography session with Merkel three weeks ago, as yet unpublished. 

"She didn't love the cameras, but she accepted to be photographed because it's part of her position and her job. And so in the last sitting it was the same. It was quite normal."