The Eight Places That You Hardly Knew Made Angela Merkel
She became Germany’s first woman chancellor and its first from the east. She stood up to Russian President Vladimir Putin and, during the Greek debt crisis, against pooling countries’ debt. She began her professional life as a physicist and stands to become one of only three postwar chancellors elected to a fourth term. Behind all that is a life story that stretches around the world, including some surprising places and some character-forging events. Here are the locations and moments that made Angela Merkel who she is.
Templin, East Germany
A county seat northeast of Berlin amid lakes and rolling hills, it’s where Merkel, nee Kasner, grew up under communism. Her father, Horst Kasner, was a Lutheran pastor; the family lived in a compound that included a home for the mentally handicapped. Nowadays, Merkel returns to the area to decompress from domestic politicking and international crises, to cook and to tend the potato patch at the country house she shares with her second husband, fellow physicist Joachim Sauer. “I always mash the potatoes myself with a potato masher, rather than using a food processor,” Merkel told a celebrity magazine last month. “That gives it a chunky consistency.” Merkel’s mother, Herlind, an English teacher in her late 80s, still lives in Templin.
Three days after East Germany’s rulers opened the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, Merkel met Polish acquaintances at a scientific conference. They told her that German reunification, ending Europe’s east-west division during the Cold War, obviously was on the horizon. Merkel was nonplussed. “I looked at them with disbelief,” she said years later, when the European Union was welcoming former Soviet-bloc countries, including Poland, into the fold. For Merkel, who has Polish family roots, the connection is also personal. Now she’s on a collision course with a populist Polish government, underscoring a new east-west split in the EU that’s one of her first challenges if she stays on as chancellor.
San Diego, California
The fall of the Berlin Wall wasn’t just young Angela Merkel’s ticket to politics and a Cabinet post in Helmut Kohl’s first post-unity government, it also ended travel restrictions. Merkel, then in her mid-30s, headed to the U.S. for the first time in 1990 to visit her future husband, who had landed a research job in the southern California coastal city. From the wide-open landscapes to the promise of free enterprise, it was here that she cemented an emotional and political attachment to America, President Donald Trump notwithstanding. “I was passionate about the American dream—the opportunity for everyone to be successful, to make it in life through their own personal effort,” she said in a 2009 speech to a joint session of Congress. “We will never forget our first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean. It was simply gorgeous.”
Berlin, International Conference Center
As environment minister in April 1995, Merkel chaired a UN climate conference in the German capital that was decisive for her political education. At one point, the task of channeling the competing interests of 170 countries into an agreement brought the future chancellor to tears, prompting a reprimand by her longtime aide, Beate Baumann. Merkel got a deal in the end and now says she enjoyed the challenge of coalition-building. The meeting was “quite a formative experience,” she told Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung this month. “I had to deal with the balance of power. That really was fun—how do you get results that at least aren't opposed by any country and move an issue forward?” She’s displayed that skill again and again, both domestically and on the international stage, though Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. from the Paris climate accord points up the limits of her consensus-seeking approach.
As a young East German hemmed in by the Iron Curtain, Merkel would get away from home by traveling 1,000 miles to hike in the wilds of Bulgaria's Pirin Mountains. From the peaks, she recounted decades later, she would look longingly toward Greece and tell herself, “Once in my life, I want to go there.” As chancellor, she got her wish and then some when Greece became the epicenter of Europe’s debt crisis. Athens was aflame with protests, including irate Greeks burning her in effigy, as Merkel became the face of fiscal austerity enforced in the euro area in return for bailouts that kept the currency union whole. One of her tensest moments as chancellor was a visit in 2012. As the crisis consumed her second term from 2009 to 2013, she laid down red lines (no joint euro-area debt) and stood her ground. Those fundamentals are unlikely to change in a fourth Merkel administration.
Merkel’s connection with Russia and its culture and people goes back to her childhood, including the Soviet garrison members she’d occasionally run into in her hometown. She won a trip to Moscow for excelling in school; there too she met her first husband and bought her first LP (The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine). She speaks the language fluently. She’s been reported to keep a picture of Catherine the Great, the German-born 18th-century Russian empress, on her chancellery desk. Sochi was the scene of her notorious 2007 visit to Putin’s summer residence on the Black Sea, when the Russian president let his black labrador into the room. Merkel, dog-shy after being bitten as a child, seemed mortified, though Putin later denied trying to intimidate the chancellor. She remains his main antagonist in Europe, only more so after Russia annexed Crimea and backed a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine.
Merkel hosted a Group of Eight summit in this Baltic seaside resort in 2007, her first big moment on the world stage. It wasn’t a triumph: With the shadows of the global financial crisis looming, the leaders failed to back a German push for tighter regulation of markets. A year later, the world was in financial meltdown. Of those who attended, only Merkel and Putin remain in power, with Japan’s Shinzo Abe back for a third term as prime minister since 2014.
Europe’s refugee crisis appeared to catch Merkel off guard midway through her latest term, turning an unprecedented number of Germans against her just two years after she won re-election with the biggest majority since 1990. Suddenly she seemed vulnerable, faced with the kind of vitriol at home that she'd seen in southern Europe during the debt crisis. Heidenau, an eastern German town that like many others across the country was asked by authorities to host a refugee shelter, became an early flashpoint when hecklers shouted “traitor” at the chancellor during a visit in the summer of 2015. While her poll ratings recovered as the influx ebbed, Sunday’s election offers a key gauge of discontent: the voter share for the populist, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany.