Assessing Angela

‘At the election in September, Germans will have to decide whether Angela Merkel’s modesty and prudence are proof enough of her virtue’

EU Europe European Eye Germany

What are the marks of good government, and what are the characteristics of a successful political leader? With a general election looming this autumn, Germans have found themselves obliged to ask these questions about their Chancellor in an unexpected form. 

According to a new book, The First Life of Angela M. by Günther Lachmann and Ralf Georg Reuth, until the fall of the Berlin Wall Angela Merkel wasn’t just a physicist at the Academy of Sciences in East Berlin. She was also responsible for “agitation and propaganda” on behalf of the Communist youth organisation, the FDJ. In other words, she was much closer to the regime than her familiar image as the independent-minded daughter of a Lutheran pastor. Mrs Merkel has denied the allegation, but added the cryptic comment: “If it turns out to be different, I can live with that.” So: is she the person most Germans took her for when they elected her? 

On a recent trip to Italy, I was struck by the simplicity of what “good” in politics means. I wasn’t thinking of Berlusconi or Grillo, but had escaped to Tuscany from the Machiavellian politics of Rome. In Siena, seeking shelter from the rain, I went into the Palazzo Pubblico to study Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government (1338-39). 

This first major urban landscape in Italian art stands out among the mainly religious themes of the time. Commissioned by Siena’s ruling Council of Nine, its six scenes depict good and bad government on opposite walls of the council chamber. The Republic of Siena was then one of the richest and most powerful Italian city-states. They were turbulent times, too — a chronicle of wars and revolutions. These frescoes were intended as a warning to the rulers, comparing the effects of corruption and tyranny to those of virtuous governance. The lightly painted images, some of which have suffered damage over the years, are intricate renderings of civic virtues and vices. Standing in my rain-soaked shoes, it struck me that Lorinzetti’s mural makes a point that is still valid today.

Now, I’m against nostalgia for a time of idyllic simplicity — as a critic of literature and art, I love complexity. Yet these frescoes were a reminder of the fact that a little symbolism may be effective. 

In Germany, unlike Italy, postwar politics has usually played safe and rarely been risqué. Yet Angela Merkel has suddenly embarked on a feelgood campaign. The famously stony-faced Chancellor permitted glimpses of her private life, allowing a women’s magazine to observe her eating habits. It was at a public screening of the popular Communist-era love film The Legend of Paul and Paula, which apparently influenced her as a young woman growing up in the East, that she was obliged to deny the story about her past.

Merkel’s campaign, some suggested, had turned personal to distract from a lack of vision. After all, her government had so far given the public very few hints as to what the next four years might look like if it were to remain in power. The assumption seems to be: Germany is doing well — why would you change anything? Or, as her party’s patriarch Konrad Adenauer put it, “No experiments!”

To my mind, Merkel throwing on her feelgood costume was not just part of a snazzy campaign to woo voters with her charms (of which she has plenty). It was the modern dilemma of a leader trapped between modesty and courage. Back in Berlin, and watching her folding her hands into the distinctive diamond shape that has become a trademark of her public persona, I wondered about the iconographical potential of this gesture. What does it really mean?

In Siena’s fresco, the display of “Good Government” is made up of several groups of figures. In the middle, there is a ruler sitting on a throne. To left and right, there are six personifications of virtue: Peace, Courage, Prudence, Generosity, Modesty and Justice. Above are the theological virtues: Mercy, Faith and Hope. Below, there is a procession of citizens representing the subordination of private to public interests. Good governance serves the common good. 

As I left the secluded space of Siena and drove into the green hills of Tuscany, I thought about this allegory. It shows a way of taking politics seriously: not just as an activity, but also as a test of integrity. By September 22, Germans will have to decide whether or not their Chancellor’s modesty and prudence are proof enough of her virtue, or whether she is capable of courage too. She remains much more popular than her rivals, but we don’t know her as well as we thought. 

How does Merkel’s “first” life, lived under a “Bad Government”, fit with what we know of her? There are three months left to answer the question: who is Angela Merkel really?