Merkel dodges Brexit for blazer jibes

German chancellor opens up about her political life as a woman and an East German

While the rest of Europe obsesses over Brexit and backstops, Angela Merkel has ventured into previously off-limits territory: her political life as a woman and an East German.

From digs at her wardrobe to eye-rolling over her voice, the 60-year-old chancellor says she experienced nothing more than other women in public life.

"For a man it is no big deal to wear the same blue suit for 100 consecutive days, but if I wear the same blazer four times in a fortnight, it prompts post from people," she told Die Zeit weekly. "You can only do this job when one isn't easily wounded. One has to concentrate on the relevant tasks, and I just take note of the rest."

Dr Merkel, born in Hamburg but raised in the East German Democratic Republic (GDR), is a trained physicist who entered politics by accident after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.


Within months she was a public figure as a minister at Helmut Kohl’s cabinet table – opening her up to jibes about her pudding-bowl haircut and denim skirts. But since handing over leadership of the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) last December, Dr Merkel seems a more relaxed figure – happy even to talk more openly about life in East Germany.

Its centralised economy made it easier to crack open gender roles, she said, allowing women into traditional “male” domains such as manufacturing and engineering.

Ideological instrument

But East Germany’s openness was both pragmatic – a chronic lack of skilled workers and a “subtle” ideological instrument deployed the state to control people.

“Whoever goes working every day and belongs to a collective was under observation,” she said. “That most women worked in the GDR was not down to any emancipatory human rights ambition, but it did produce a certain economic equality and a similar confidence among both sexes.”

Dr Merkel said the growing distance from East Germany – the Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago next November – made it easier to see the consequences of unification’s winners and losers.

Younger people such as herself could adapt, she said, while older East Germans were surplus to requirements in a new Germany.

Westerners forgot – or never understood – the vanished Germany in which their eastern cousins were reared. Though a socialist state with narrow confines in public life, she said, there were many escape routes into the private.

And the limited career opportunities, she said, offered greater free time for a personal life and family time.

“There were spaces where one discussed, read, thought, was inquisitive, partied but these aspects of life are rarely present in public narrative,” she said.

West Germans’ narrow understanding of life in the GDR, and its shattered post-wall biographies, have played their part in easterners’ embrace of the far-right and anti-immigrant sentiment.

“It’s not good when feelings towards others are so harsh, because if one wants social cohesion it is a basic prerequisite to show respect for others,” said Dr Merkel. “In East German there was simply too little contact with other cultures.”

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin