Merkel leaves bittersweet legacy for ‘Ossis’ as she leaves German politics

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In one of her last speeches, Chancellor Angela Merkel did something she had hardly ever done in her 16 years in office: she spoke about herself and her past is -German.

Merkel was hurt by a recently published essay on her party, the Christian Democratic Union, which called her story “ballast.” Quoting a dictionary, the Chancellor said the ballast was cargo that was used for balance and then thrown away.

“A personal life story of, in my case, 35 years of state dictatorship and repression – ballast? She asked on the October anniversary of German reunification.

“I say this as a citizen of the East. . . who entered German unity with this life story, and who continue to experience such assessments – as if their life before German unity didn’t really matter.

It was a subject Merkel has long avoided in public. She is the first Chancellor to come out of Communist East Germany, a past that weighs on those who grew up there.

Three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the east-west divisions still resonate – especially for former citizens of East Germany, who feel Merkel has never promoted their history, nor worked to bridge the divide. still felt with the west of the country.

Erika Benn, Merkel’s former Russian teacher, says it is “a bit late” for Merkel to realize that she should be talking about her life in the East © Jan Zappner / FT

Numerous Frame – the informal name for people in the former East – say its economic and migration policies have exacerbated schisms, which have created fertile ground for far-right populism.

And despite Merkel’s status as one of the most powerful democratic leaders in the world, many Easterners feel Wessis continue to dominate their reunified nation.

East Germans always earn less and work more. According to a study by the Allensbach Institute, 40% consider themselves “East Germans” rather than “Germans”.

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In Merkel’s childhood home, Templin, her new embrace of shared historical grievances was bittersweet. It comes just weeks before Olaf Scholz, center-left social democrats, took over the reins of Europe’s largest economy.

“She was a little late,” joked Erika Benn, 83, who was Merkel’s Russian coach for school district language competitions.

The white-haired, bespectacled teacher – a staunch leftist – never voted for Merkel, but now appreciates that “she has realized that she has to talk about her life here.”

Map showing where Templin is located in Germany in relation to Berlin

Today, Templin draws as many curious visitors to the distant Chancellor as it does to its medieval walls. Unlike much of eastern Germany, emptied by economic migration to the west, the city has flourished as a retreat for neighboring Berliners, who in summer flock to the picturesque city and its neighboring lakes.

Although she was born in Hamburg, West Germany, Merkel’s family was moved east by her father, Horst Kasner, a left-wing pastor. The future chancellor grew up in a leafy two-story house in Waldhof, a Protestant seminary, nestled among trees and rolling pastures.

Merkel’s childhood was a privilege and a burden, said Wolfgang Seyfried, a retired Waldhof manager who knew the family. Many priests were seen as potential Western spies. But they had material advantages, with West German churches sending supplies from washing machines to cars.

Wolfgang Seyfried, former director of the Protestant seminary where the Merkel family lived
Wolfgang Seyfried, former director of the Protestant seminary where the Merkel family lived, says Angela’s childhood was a privilege and a burden © Jan Zappner / FT

“It was not just an East German education, but a unique education, easy to stigmatize,” Seyfried said. “It becomes who you are for life, for better or for worse. “

Merkel’s relative silence on her past might have been a missed opportunity to heal divisions, but was also likely something she needed to maintain, said Hans Vorländer, of the Technical University of Dresden. “She did not politicize him because it could have been used to mobilize against her,” he said.

Behind the scenes, he said, Merkel has done more for her fellow East Germans than she deserves. His government’s decision to spend billions of euros to subsidize mine closures was, according to Vorländer, likely taken for the sake of East German coal miners who would soon be out of work.

The mayor of Templin Detlef Tabbert
Templin Mayor Detlef Tabbert said Merkel’s childhood had prepared her for Chancellor: “Women raised in the East had more confidence in themselves” © Jan Zappner / FT

“A lot, a lot of money has been transferred from the German states in the west to the east,” he said. “She has always had the interests of East Germany in mind.”

Yet trauma lasts long before Merkel’s time as Chancellor. East Germany suffered in the 1990s from deindustrialization, when western companies closed countless factories in the east and thousands of people lost their jobs. The migration of younger and skilled East Germans has left small towns empty until today.

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) drew on this anger, developing a strong following in the east.

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A move by Merkel – which SPD politician Sigmar Gabriel described as being driven by her East German experience and Christian values ​​- deepened that fault line. His acceptance of nearly a million refugees, mostly Syrians, in 2015 sparked a popular backlash, used by the AfD to enter the Bundestag. It was the first far-right party to do so since World War II.

“All of a sudden they just screamed: Stop now, Merkel!” Goodbye Merkel! Vorländer recalled. “The strength of the AfD can be explained by the fact that it took over this anti-Merkel substance.”

In the September elections, the AfD became the most powerful party in the eastern states of Saxony and Thuringia.

Graph showing that East Germans are more dissatisfied with the country's democracy;  Satisfaction with democracy (average values ​​on a scale)

Rather, one of Merkel’s greatest contributions, according to some Templiners, was to Wessis – by changing the conservative treatment of women. (Her political mentor, Helmut Kohl, called Merkel a Mädchen, or girl.)

Templin Mayor Detlef Tabbert said Merkel’s childhood prepared her to make history as Germany’s first female Chancellor.

“[East German] women had the same rights, the same salary, the same opportunities for advancement. As a result, women raised in the East had more self-confidence, ”he said. “She never thought: I’m a woman, I have to stand in line.”

At Thursday’s military ceremony to bid her farewell, Merkel gave a nod to her roots by asking the group to play an East German punk rock song, Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen – “You forgot the color film. “

A veiled critique of the gloomy East German life, his famous refrain is: “No one will believe how beautiful it was here.”


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