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Merkel’s political career deeply rooted in her upbringing

Angela Merkel, née Angela Dorothea Kasner, was born on July 17, 1954, in Hamburg, West Germany, where her father was a theology student and her mother a teacher of Latin and English.

The family relocated to East Germany just weeks after Merkel’s birth, when tens of thousands were heading the other way.

In grade 8, she won a prize in a Russian competition, and at the age of 14, she began to attend international mathematics Olympiad in East Europe.

In 1973, she began studying physics at Karl Marx University (now the University of Leipzig). She met her first husband, Ulrich Merkel, while attending an event in the Soviet Union in 1974.

They married in 1977 and divorced in 1982, though she kept his last name, even after Merkel married her longtime companion, chemistry professor Joachim Sauer, her mentor in doctoral studies, in 1998.

Sauer, professor of quantum chemistry at Berlin’s Humboldt University before his retirement in 2017, has kept out of the public eye.

After earning her degree in 1978, she worked at the Central Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Academy of Sciences in East Berlin, earning a doctorate in 1986 in physical chemistry.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Merkel joined the newly founded Democratic Awakening, becoming the party’s press spokesperson in February 1990.

In the first post-reunification election in December 1990, Merkel won a seat in the Bundestag, and was appointed minister for women and youth by Chancellor Helmut Kohl in January 1991.

Merkel was elected the CDU’s deputy chairman in 1991. After the 1994 election Merkel became minister of environment, conservation, and reactor safety.

In late 1999, a finance scandal hit the CDU, implicating Kohl. Merkel, Kohl’s former protegee, called upon the party to make a fresh start. On April 10, 2000, Merkel was elected head of the CDU, becoming the first woman and the first non-Catholic to lead the party.

Although Merkel had hoped to stand as a candidate for chancellor in the 2002 election, a majority of her party expressed a preference for Edmund Stoiber of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU’s sister party in Bavaria. The CDU-CSU block narrowly lost the election, and Merkel became leader of the opposition.

First term

The September 2005 election eventually led the CDU-CSU and the SPD to settle on a “grand coalition” government with Merkel at its head. On November 22, 2005, Merkel took office as chancellor, becoming the first woman, the first East German, and, at age 51, the youngest person for the office.

Second term

After the parliamentary elections held in September 2009, with the SDP posting its worst performance since 1949, Merkel was re-elected and formed a government with the Free Democratic Party (FDP). Merkel’s second term was largely characterized by her role in responding to the euro-zone debt crisis, controversially embracing austerity as the path to recovery.

Third term

Although the CDU-CSU alliance won an impressive victory in the September 2013 federal election, after more than two months of negotiations, Merkel secured an agreement with the SDP to form another grand coalition government.

The struggling European economy continued to loom large, aggravated by Europe’s gravest refugee crisis since World War II. Despite her earlier pledge, Merkel reintroduced border controls with Austria in September 2015.

Over 1 million migrants entered Germany in 2015, and Merkel’s party paid a steep political price.

Fourth term

Two-thirds of SPD voters approved the proposed government in March 2018, officially securing Merkel’s fourth term. Later in October 2018 a dismal CDU regional election performance led Merkel to announce her intention to step down as chancellor at the end of her fourth term.

Merkel’s style of government has been characterized by pragmatism, although critics have accused her of lacking a clear stance and ideology.

She demonstrated her willingness to adopt the positions of her political opponents if they proved effective, as testified to by Merkel’s decision to phase out nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima accident in 2011, a dramatic reverse of her previous pro-nuclear power stance expected of a scientist.

When German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently thanked Merkel for steering the country through difficult times, particularly during her final four-year term, he mentioned the coronavirus pandemic, Brexit, and a US government under President Donald Trump that he said “had little to no interest in the international order and trans-Atlantic partnership.”


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