With the release of Time’s ‘People of the Year’ earlier this month, there emerged the usual controversies. Many readers condemned the decision to place ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in second position, arguing that it demonstrated crass insensitivity to the extremist violence he has advocated. Meanwhile, Donald Trump demonstrated characteristic modesty at being runner up, tweeting, ‘I told you Time Magazine would never pick me as person of the year despite being the big favourite.’ Many, however, demonstrated unconditional support for Angela Merkel’s election as ‘Person of the Year’ citing her integrity, her empathy and her strength as all-too rare qualities in her influence.
Merkel’s roots were far-removed from the private school elitism or nepotistic wealth which pervades many political systems. The daughter of a Lutheran minister, she was raised amongst the repressive, Communist constraints of East Germany within a starkly divided German republic. Her education seemed to point not to politics, but scientific prestige, earning a Ph.D. in quantum chemistry. Nonetheless, come 1989, her involvement with the Democratic Awakening – a party which later merged with the Christian Democratic Union to encourage German reunification – permitted her first steps to political authority.
She was, perhaps, an unlikely contender for power: a Protestant outsider amongst the conservative ranks of the CDU. However, her election as German Chancellor in 2005 has been one of the most influential actions within Europe this decade. Described by Time magazine as ‘the de facto leader of Europe’, she has powered the European Union through several of the greatest controversies this decade has faced from Vladimir Putin’s military intervention in the Ukraine, to the economic crisis in Greece, to (more recently) the dispute regarding Middle Eastern refugees.
she has powered the European Union through several of the greatest controversies this decade has faced
Indeed, it is this sense of normality which is perhaps what makes Merkel such a political icon. There is no murky past of university recklessness, no publicised scandal regarding infidelities or marital pettiness, no hidden familial agendas… Her principles and ambition have very clearly been formed within the rural roots of her childhood. Unlike the corruption of Jacob Zuma, the brash ignorance of Trump or the megalomania of Putin, Merkel is a rare figure who appears rooted in authenticity: a genuine representative of the people.
Indeed, this more genuine nature clearly manifests itself in her policies. Her reflexive response in the face of international pressure does not turn to military force or violence, but more patient methods. At a security conference in Munich this February, when criticised for her decision to use economic pressure rather than military force to combat Putin’s intervention in the Ukraine, Merkel replied, ‘As a 7-year-old child, I saw the [Berlin] Wall being erected. No one – although it was a stark violation of international law – believed at the time that one ought to intervene militarily… And I don’t actually mind. Because I understand this, because it was a realistic assessment that this would not lead to success.’
In many ways, ‘realistic’ would be the best adjective to assess her policies. Her ‘open door’ refugee policy has welcomed over 1 million refugees this year, a tactic which, recently, has been starkly opposed by her own government due to the lack of border control or adequate accommodation. With this in mind, her recent decision to ‘dramatically reduce’ the number of refugees entering Germany has attracted criticism from numerous quarters, particularly following viral footage in July of her attempts to console a Palestinian teenager threatened with deportation. Yet, although critics have viewed this as a sign of her growing weakness and inability, this compromise demonstrates a striking pragmatism which is all too lacking in many politicians. Her centralist attitudes reduce the threat of idealism or intolerance which are so destructive for many political systems. Indeed, far from demonstrating austerity or debilitation, this pragmatism ensures that her political system is not merely an ego project, but embodies an entire government and people.
Her centralist attitudes reduce the threat of idealism or intolerance which are so destructive for many political systems
For many critics, however, what makes Merkel quite so striking is not her policies, nor her leadership, but (rather patronisingly) her gender. Certainly, her ability to gain such esteem within a party which – when she joined in 1989 – was notoriously male-dominated is a feat in itself, especially given the masculine focus which has shaped and influenced politics over the centuries. Although to praise Merkel for simply being a woman would be a rather condescending dismissal of femininity, her drive and ambition certainly makes her a powerful icon for girls today. In a society in which female celebrities are regularly sexualised and objectified, it seems that girls are encouraged to view the world through an almost masculine lens, valuing their worth in how many pounds they can shed or how highly their looks are rated. This is a curse which has certainly not evaded female politicians; Nicola Sturgeon faced one of the more imaginative backlashes with her depiction in The Sun, clad in tartan underwear, straddling a wrecking ball.
Criticism of Hillary Clinton has been as levelled at her role as a wife as it has been her politics with Donald Trump tweeting, ‘if Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?’ Indeed, for many males, Margaret Thatcher’s authority was seen as a feminine anomaly, belying a more masculine nature which led to American politician, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s remark that, ‘in her presence, you quickly forget that she’s a woman.’
Yet, in spite of such misogynistic opposition, this has not distracted Merkel’s aims in dominating both Germany and Europe. Under Merkel’s guidance, she has helped steer Germany out of the shadow of its twentieth-century history, building the fourth-largest economy in the world and maintaining its stability even amongst clashes in the European Union. Her resolution does not simply provide an example to women, but to all politicians, prioritising a need for patience and integrity over violence and corruption.