German Chancellor Angela Merkel is counting on one of her most reclusive and longest-serving aides to help her win re-election in September.
In two decades at Merkel’s side as the former East German scientist rose to the top, Beate Baumann, 49, has amassed influence that belies her title of the chancellor’s office manager, acting as policy adviser, speech-writer, coalition negotiator and gatekeeper, according to four people who have worked with her. That makes Baumann, a teacher of English and German by training who shuns public appearances and interviews, the most influential aide at the Chancellery in Berlin as Merkel seeks a third term in Sept. 22 elections.
Merkel’s reliance on her confidante has helped shape German policy from the cautious response to the euro-area debt crisis, which forced both women into a crash course on the financial markets, to the chancellor’s decision to avoid military action in Libya. Baumann’s overriding mission is to ensure that Merkel’s decisions sell with German voters, said two people familiar with Merkel’s decisions who spoke on condition of anonymity because the deliberations are private.
Kajo Wasserhoevel, a former Social Democratic Party official, said he experienced the extent of Baumann’s power when she showed up to negotiate the first-term coalition of Merkel’s Christian Democrats with his party in 2005. “Baumann had Merkel’s power of attorney,” Wasserhoevel said in an interview.
She’s “detail-oriented, reliable and keeps things confidential,” said Wasserhoevel, who had managed the SPD’s election campaign. “She always had an eye on everything.” Her job includes “observing the political landscape and heading off threats early,” he said.
As Merkel’s eyes and ears, Baumann has deeper ties with the chancellor than her top policy advisers and press secretary, according to two people who know both of them. She molds the chancellor’s public message, edits her speeches and critiques her media interviews, said a Chancellery official who spoke on condition of anonymity. The two women retreat once a year to brainstorm at Dierhagen, a Baltic beach resort in Merkel’s electoral district.
Otherwise, Baumann is said to travel rarely and joins Merkel only on trips deemed critical. That includes her visit to Athens last October, Merkel’s first trip to Greece during the euro crisis in a show of support for the country after three years of debt turmoil, austerity and soaring unemployment. Baumann also went with Merkel to Israel in 2008 for the chancellor’s speech to the Knesset, the official said. Merkel’s foreign-policy and economic advisers travel with her to all international summits.
“Baumann is certainly one of the least known and most important people in the Berlin political landscape,” Richard Hilmer, head of pollster Infratest Dimap, said in an interview.
The two women’s bond goes back to the early 1990s, when then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl brought Merkel into his first Cabinet after the Berlin Wall fell and East and West Germany reunited in 1990.
Merkel had grown up under communism and worked in an East Berlin physics lab before being named deputy spokeswoman of East Germany’s first and last democratically elected government. Now she was looking for aides she could trust in the post of women’s affairs minister that Kohl created for her.
Baumann, born in 1963 in the western city of Osnabrueck near the Dutch border, joined Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union as a student because she supported the stationing of U.S. ballistic missiles in Germany that provoked protests in the early 1980s, an official who works with Baumann said. Like Merkel, she was an outsider to Bonn, then still Germany’s political capital. When Baumann was brought to Merkel’s attention, the Cabinet novice hired her to run her office.
Merkel came to rely on Baumann for more than her appointments. As environment minister in 1995, a frustrated Merkel broke down in tears during negotiations at a United Nations global-warming conference in Berlin, according to her late biographer Gerd Langguth. In front of the assembled German delegation, Baumann told Merkel to pull herself together, Langguth wrote. She went back and won over global delegates, producing a deal she still ranks as one of her proudest moments.
The relationship was cemented when Kohl was engulfed in a party financing scandal, clearing the way for Merkel to become CDU head in 2000. Baumann helped Merkel navigate the party’s crisis and was there when Merkel drafted a daring opinion piece for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper in December 1999 that called for the CDU to break with Kohl, the architect of German reunification.
Baumann has “a huge significance” for Merkel and her rise to power, Laurenz Meyer, a former CDU general secretary, said in an interview. Though nine years younger than her boss, she remains the only aide who dares to criticize Merkel to her face, said two people who have worked with both of them.
The euro-area debt crisis that erupted in Greece in 2009 put Merkel on the spot as other countries pressed a reluctant Germany to approve sovereign bailouts and keep the currency union whole. Baumann supported a “step by step” solution to the crisis, the Chancellery official says. The phrase remains a staple of Merkel’s speeches, signaling her rejection of joint euro-area debt and insistence on boosting competitiveness in the rest of Europe.
True to Merkel’s style, Baumann steers clear of symbols of power. She usually comes to work at the glass-and-concrete Chancellery near the Brandenburg Gate in a gray Volkswagen Golf compact and heads to the 8:30 a.m. morning meeting, joining other key Merkel aides such as Steffen Seibert, the government’s chief spokesman, Ronald Pofalla, Merkel’s chief of staff, and top CDU party leaders, according to the Chancellery official. Her seventh-floor office is three doors down from Merkel’s and overlooks the Tiergarten park, a former hunting ground of Prussia’s rulers that abuts where the Berlin Wall used to stand.
Baumann isn’t infallible. When she suggested that Merkel ask former Bundesbank chief Hans Tietmeyer to head a task force on financial-market regulation in 2008, the Social Democrats, then allied with Merkel, shot down the proposal. The SPD cited Tietmeyer’s board seat at Hypo Real Estate Holding AG, the Munich-based lender that was taken over by the government in 2009, according to a former CDU official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Merkel instead chose Otmar Issing, the former European Central Bank chief economist.
While other CDU members criticize Baumann’s role only privately, Gertrud Hoehler, a former adviser to Kohl and author of a book portraying Merkel as the “godmother” of an “authoritarian system,” views the chancellor’s most-trusted aide as part of that power structure. “Beate Baumann takes the fight to anyone who she believes can hurt to her boss,” Hoehler said in an interview.
With elections less than three months away, Germans back Merkel’s response to the euro crisis, making her Germany’s most popular politician and the election front-runner, though polls suggest she may not be able to extend her alliance with the Free Democrats, her preferred junior coalition partner.
As Merkel gears up for a six-rally tour along the North German seaside on July 19 and 22, Baumann, as a civil servant, has no official campaign role. Even so, she will keep a watchful eye in the background on everything from Merkel’s public appearances to her campaign posters.
Carl Graf von Hohenthal, a partner at public relations firm Brunswick Group in Berlin, witnessed the relationship when he attended a dinner with Merkel and Baumann.
“She brought Baumann with her, we said ‘hello’ and then Baumann sat down with us and didn’t say another word for the entire meal,” he said in an interview. “Merkel doesn’t tolerate people who come on strong, but make no mistake: Baumann has a lot of power.”