Chancellor Angela Merkel may still be the most popular politician in Germany. But with state elections looming this year in eastern Germany, she is not a welcome guest on the campaign trail. She remains persona non grata in the east.
Drivers who head out of the city of Jena to the east on the A4 autobahn can’t avoid the chancellor. “Merkel Must Go!” reads a gigantic, 1.7-by-12-meter banner hanging on the side of a warehouse. Indeed, it is almost as big as the company’s own sign hanging above it. Called Pagus, the firm trades in industrial machinery and is run by Paul Guloglou, a man whose second occupation is doing battle against the chancellor.
“Merkel has to go because she let too many of the wrong people into the country,” he says. Guloglou, 58, is an immigrant himself, having been born in the Syrian city of Aleppo to Armenian-Greek parents. When he turned 18, he emigrated to the United Kingdom before later ending up in Germany. He has a Greek passport. “I am European through and through,” he says.
Guloglou put up the poster last summer, and when somebody removed it a short time later, he immediately had a new one made. At the time, he also received a visit from two representatives of the Jena chapter of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Merkel’s party. They wanted to talk about the banner, but Guloglou says that they told him on the down-low that a majority of their party allies largely agreed with the poster’s message.
Indeed, the CDU in Thuringia, the state in which Jena is located, would like to see Angela Merkel stay as far away as possible this year, a sentiment shared by party chapters in Brandenburg and Saxony. The three eastern German CDU chapters are currently planning their campaigns for the European and local elections in May and for state elections scheduled for September and October. Angela Merkel may have eastern German roots and she may be the most popular politician in the country, but her party allies in eastern German states want to keep her away from their campaigns.
Few would openly refer to Merkel as a liability. But wherever she appears in eastern Germany, she is met with shouts of disapproval, whistling and insulting signs. The fact that the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) received more votes in the 2017 general election than the CDU in many areas of eastern Germany has largely to do with Angela Merkel herself.
‘Wouldn’t Help Us’
“There will certainly be more discussions in the Thuringia CDU on the question as to whether she should make a campaign appearance here,” says Michael Heym, the deputy floor leader in the state parliament. “It likely wouldn’t benefit us.” Matthias Rössler, president of the state parliament in Saxony, is even more explicit: “A campaign appearance by the chancellor wouldn’t help us here in Saxony.”
If the CDU does manage to emerge with the greatest share of the votes in each of the three states, which current surveys indicate is a possibility, then it won’t be because of the eastern German chancellor, but rather because the end of her tenure is approaching. In her political career, Merkel never made much of an effort to ensure that eastern Germans felt a sense of belonging — and many resent it.
Last Tuesday evening, Saxony Governor Michael Kretschmer traveled with his cabinet to the small town of Dippoldiswalde in the Erzgebirge mountains on the border with the Czech Republic. They were there to meet with locals and answer their questions. The area is an AfD stronghold and there is plenty of hatred of Merkel to go around and Kretschmer was careful to avoid mentioning the chancellor as he spoke about industrial parks, wind turbines and the route of a local train line.
The audience likewise avoided addressing the elephant in the room. An employee from a local construction company took to the floor and said that he supported CDU policy in many areas — “aside from the one issue of the chancellor’s, but we don’t need to go into that.” It seemed as though everyone here had already begun moving beyond Merkel.
From the perspective of the Saxony CDU, that made for a pleasant evening. Kretschmer, whose federal constituency opted for a candidate from the AfD in the 2017 general election, wants to focus his entire campaign on state-related issues. He has brought on politics professor Werner Patzelt, a prominent critic of Merkel’s refugee policy, to co-author his campaign platform in the hope that Patzelt will be able to bring back voters who turned to the AfD out of frustration with Merkel. A strong presence by the chancellor during the campaign would counteract that effort.
Some party chapters in the eastern German states have also distanced themselves from the federal party optically as well. Instead of using the classic CDU orange, Brandenburg’s CDU has adopted the state’s red-white color scheme. The Thuringian CDU has chosen turquoise.
The campaigners in the former east also appreciate that the CDU has agreed with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), on a common lead candidate, Manfred Weber, heading into European Parliament elections. That means that every Weber poster includes the logo of the CSU, a party which is popular in the east. Saxony voters have a strong memory of Bavaria’s hardline approach in the refugee fight with Merkel last summer. Party members report that in a strategy meeting at CDU headquarters, party members from Saxony even asked if they could stamp their own European campaign posters with the CSU logo.
Merkel doesn’t have too many fans in the state. When she visited the state parliamentary group in August, it felt a bit like a kangaroo court. Then-floor leader Frank Kupfer later related rather triumphantly that the chancellor had admitted making mistakes. No surprise, then, that enthusiasm for a joint campaign is rather limited.
All eastern German campaigners also have clear memories of the federal election campaign, when they could barely hear themselves speak on the market squares because of the jeering. As such, Brandenburg CDU leader Ingo Senftleben is hoping for a less trying summertime campaign with federal politics kept at arm’s length. At most, state CDU leadership has suggested, the chancellor could be included in a few low-risk, invitation-only appearances, such as a visit to a company or to a summer festival on an asparagus farm.
The Thuringia CDU, for its part, doesn’t really have to worry about appearances where it doesn’t have full control of the audience. The election in the state is scheduled for October, making open-air campaign events a rather risky prospect. “We won’t be doing any market-square events,” says state CDU leader Mike Mohring. “Everything will take place in closed spaces.” He is certain that there are still some Merkel fans among CDU voters in his state, so he isn’t opposed to Merkel making an appearance or two. But the CDU in eastern Germany is even more enthusiastic about Merkel’s unencumbered successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.
Furthermore, ever since Merkel stepped down from the leadership of the CDU, she no longer feels particularly responsible for the eastern state chapters. If you ask people close to her how she is planning to support CDU candidates in eastern Germany, the response tends to be a complete lack of comprehension. It’s almost as though the chancellor were an independent, as if she didn’t just step down from the position of party leader, but handed in her membership card at the same time.
Calming Raw Nerves
In the European Parliament campaign, the plan currently calls for just a single appearance by the chancellor together with leading members of the European People’s Party, to which the CDU belongs on the European level. Nevertheless, Merkel isn’t completely ignoring eastern Germany. The Chancellery is currently preparing a series of moderated townhall meetings across the country, events similar to Merkel’s appearance in the Saxony city of Chemnitz in fall 2018. Following the killing of a Cuban-German there, likely by refugees, there were a number of right-wing marches. Merkel went to the city in the hopes of calming raw nerves.
“I think you have every reason to be proud of what you stand for and of your history,” she said. It was the kind of message, custom tailored to an eastern German audience, that has been missing for much of her tenure in the Chancellery.
Indeed, Merkel has never put her East German background in the forefront or focused too heavily on the issues specifically facing eastern Germans. When the political battle over the refugee issue began heating up and the AfD started making inroads in eastern Germany, Merkel seemed not just unwilling, but also unable to develop a connection with the furious voters in the east. Only now has she begun changing her tone.
The shift was apparent earlier this month during an appearance in Templin, a town just north of Berlin. The chancellor’s motorcade rolled up to the Multicultural Center, a glass box on the shores of Lake Templin as anti-Merkel demonstrators outside the building were screaming “Go away!” and waving German flags. Inside, though, out of earshot, the atmosphere was almost homey.
Standing at the lectern decorated with the Brandenburg eagle, Merkel expressed her gratitude for being made an honorary citizen, a motion that had been approved by the city council with a two-thirds majority. She greeted “Cornelia, Brigitte and Ute,” friends of hers from school, and apologized to her former biology teacher for the fact that she still can’t recognize different bird species and “always has to look up what their tails look like.”
She said things that you rarely hear from Merkel. She admitted that she was “a bit nervous” and that the return to her childhood hometown was “very moving.” She said there could never be a doubt “that Templin and the Uckermark region is my personal homeland and that it will always remain so.” Why didn’t she ever talk like that before?
Passionate in Their Rejection of Merkel
Perhaps it has to do with the fact that Merkel only looks like a standard product of East Germany. In actuality, there is much dividing her from them, many of whom are passionate in their rejection of Merkel.
Merkel may have spent half of her life in East Germany, going to university in Leipzig and conducting research as a physicist at the Berlin Academy of Sciences. But she was born in a western German city and had plenty of relatives on the other side of the Wall. As a child, she made frequent trips to Hamburg before the border was ultimately closed. Furthermore, as the daughter of a pastor, she was regularly under observation in East Germany and her loyalty to the system was frequently doubted. In Templin, Merkel insisted that she had had a “very, very happy childhood.” But it was also one in which she constantly had to explain herself.
After the Berlin Wall came down, Merkel must have decided that she had had enough of all the explanations. Such as those for the benefit of western journalists, who were quick to make generalizations and sought to examine her past for Marxist loyalties or Stasi contacts. She also wasn’t interested in explaining herself to East Germans, who should have known better.
As a politician in reunified Germany and as a member of the CDU, dominated as it was by West German Catholic men, the East German protestant Merkel quickly adopted a strategy of only talking about her roots in situations where it was unavoidable. By doing so, she was able to deflect attention to the degree possible from her unusual background. Had she not done so, it seems likely that her political career would have been a short one. “Merkel was constantly aware that the majorities were primarily to be found in the west, including those within the CDU. That realization fueled her strength,” says Marion Wendt, a member of federal parliament from Saxony.
Merkel was 35 when the Berlin Wall fell, and she didn’t see it as a fracture or trauma. Rather, it was more of a deliverance. She finally saw the opportunity in politics to “test her limits,” as she once put it. Indeed, that was one reason why she never fell for the temptation of romanticizing East Germany.
With the refugee crisis, eastern Germans in particular became consumed by fury that Merkel, who had never paid much attention to their concerns, was suddenly focusing all of her energies on helping the foreigners. People in the east felt almost personally insulted by the very woman who should actually have been able to understand them the best, says political scientist and psychologist Thomas Kliche, a professor at the Magdeburg-Stendal University of Applied Sciences.
In a recent interview with the influential weekly Die Zeit, Merkel admitted to having underestimated some aspects of German-German relationship. “Perhaps reconciliation in the country hadn’t come as far as some had thought,” she said.
By Melanie Amann, Florian Gathmann, Martin Knobbe, Ralf Neukirch and René Pfister