Theresa May is Margaret Thatcher in reverse

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In an interview with the author Jana Hensel for DIE ZEIT, Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks about feminism, governing as a woman and the lack of recognition for the lifetime achievement of many East Germans.

The afternoon is mild and gray in Berlin, the night before the British House of Commons voted against Theresa May's Brexit deal. The security guards at the gate of the Chancellery are friendly, the head of the press department leads the photographer Dominik Butzmann and ZEIT employee Jana Hensel with the elevator to the seventh floor, government spokesman Steffen Seibert joins them, and you are allowed to arrive at the agreed appointment almost to the second enter the office of the Chancellor.

Angela Merkel seems concentrated and calm, maybe a little tense. Not because of the interview, more because of the failed Brexit deal. But this conversation should be more about the Chancellor personally. Merkel asks to take a seat at the long conference table and pours coffee. 45 minutes are agreed. Exactly 45 minutes later, the conversation ends.

"All of my roots are important to me, the East Germans are also part of it"

DIE ZEIT: Ms. Chancellor, when you announced that you were withdrawing from the CDU chairmanship, I wrote a very personal farewell text in ZEIT - also about how important your chancellorship is for many East German women. Do you like to be viewed from an East German perspective?

Angela Merkel: Just as I like to be seen as a woman or as an over 60 year old. The GDR is part of my biography. I didn't grow up in the West, so you can't describe me from that perspective.

ZEIT: Are your East German roots important to you?

Merkel: All of my roots are important to me, including the East Germans. I neither wear them all day long, nor do I deny them.

ZEIT: After my text appeared, I was surprised at how many women wrote to me to whom you are important. Do you realize that many women in our country have developed particularly emotional relationships with you?

Merkel: No, that is not so clear to me. I feel some appreciation for trying to do my job properly, but I also create a lot of negative emotions in others. Both can come from women as well as from men. That was already the case during the euro crisis - and also with the refugee issue. Then I drew the arrows at myself just as it would have happened to a man. I don't think women generally admire other women. Even among women, there are sometimes harsh emotions.

ZEIT: But you are a role model for many women. But it's a rather silent sisterhood: you rarely address women yourself.

"I don't want to adorn myself with false laurels"

Merkel: I rarely only address women. After all, I am not just the Federal Chancellor of women in Germany, but the Federal Chancellor of all people in Germany. Besides, I'm not at all sure that women always expect me to address them in particular. Of course: when you've got where I am in your job, you're in the spotlight. The fact that women compare themselves to me results from the fact that I am a woman and other women are sometimes faced with difficult tasks. I don't need to contact her specifically.

ZEIT: Do you think you communicate with women subconsciously or indirectly?

Merkel: No, not subconsciously. Automatically. When I say or do something, I say or do it as a woman.

ZEIT: Exactly ten years ago we sat here in your office and talked about feminism. Very timid, as it seemed to me when rereading the conversation. You didn't want to call yourself a feminist back then.

Merkel: For me, women like Alice Schwarzer are feminists. Or Marie Juchacz, who fought for women's suffrage together with others 100 years ago. I don't want to adorn myself with false laurels. As much as they fought for women's rights all their lives, I can't say that about myself. But of course, as a woman, like any other, I had to find my way so that one day we would really find gender parity. Not only as Federal Chancellor, but even as a physicist, I have worked with many men. Parity in all areas just seems logical to me. I don't have to keep mentioning that.

ZEIT: But that's a huge development! Using a term like parity confidently and almost naturally, that makes you a feminist!

Merkel: At the G20 women's summit, Queen Máxima of the Netherlands came up with a definition for feminism that I can agree with: For her, it is feminism if I am in favor of men and women having equal opportunities in life.

"You have to concentrate on factual tasks"

ZEIT: Did you become a woman in office?

Merkel: No, certainly not in office, I was a woman before.

ZEIT: But did you become more aware of it?

Merkel: I wouldn't say that either. Even as a physics student, I experienced men at university as very dominant. In politics it was presented differently again. My view of the disadvantages that women face has widened because I gained insights into many areas of life. And I let this gaze wander attentively, if only because I was Minister for Women at the beginning. This interest has never left me.

ZEIT: Have you come to realize that it is a flaw to be a woman?

Merkel: It is in no way a flaw. But of course we experience disadvantages. On the one hand, one expects today, rightly, that women are represented in all areas. And that this diversity, as the saying goes, enriches us. But on the other hand, there are of course areas in which women have a harder time, because they first have to shape new patterns. In one point I had it even easier as a woman in politics. It is traditionally expected of a Federal Chancellor that the woman at his side does voluntary work. It was not the case with me and my husband. He's doing his job as a scientist, and I'm doing mine. And that has been accepted more quickly than if - as always - had been the reverse case.

"There was no real equality in the GDR either"

ZEIT: Nevertheless, for the first time you had to define what it means to be Federal Chancellor.

Merkel: Thank God not all things in life are different for a man. The administration of office also has gender-neutral components. But of course, for example the external appearance, how do you behave ...

ZEIT: ... how do you negotiate as a woman with men, how do you communicate, especially in conflict situations ...

Merkel: ... a woman's voice is not as dark and powerful as a man's voice. For a woman, exuding authority is something that has to be learned. And of course there was also the discussion about how I dress.

ZEIT: That too: your style was a very complicated question at the beginning of your term in office. I know you don’t like to hear that, but I would say that you have become the most important female role model of our time by answering all these sometimes small and sometimes big questions.

Merkel: Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration. Other women in politics have also made a significant contribution to this: Hillary Clinton, Theresa May. Margaret Thatcher was way ahead of our time. And on a completely different level, the Queen also defined many things in terms of the wardrobe. But I also made a contribution to that. Completely automatically.

ZEIT: Completely automatically?

Merkel: Some things just attract attention. For a man it's no problem at all to wear a dark blue suit for a hundred days in a row, but if I wear the same blazer four times within two weeks, then the citizen mail generates.

"As a politician you have to be able to take it with you"

ZEIT: Who is writing to you?

Merkel: People just write there.

ZEIT: What? "Madam Chancellor, can't you even put on something decent?"

Merkel: No, you don't write that, but you notice. And of course I have to deal with such reactions.

ZEIT: But you never broached the chauvinism that you experienced in office?

Merkel: No, that is a fundamental attitude. I believe that as a politician you have to be able to accept that you can only do this job if you are not hit too quickly. You have to concentrate on the practical tasks. I take note of the rest.

ZEIT: Your pragmatic way of dealing with such questions always seemed to me to be an East German stamp. Your self-confidence as a woman, is that something East German?

Merkel: I'm very cautious about that. There was no real equality in the GDR either. The fact that a full member of the Politburo was never female, that there was no head of the Combine, showed that there were men where the important decisions were made. Certainly there was a more pragmatic attitude towards technical professions, but that also had to do with government guidance. Would all the women have studied or learned engineering technology and machiners of their own free will? IM not sure. That was more due to the shortage of skilled workers and the general lack of efficiency in the GDR economy.

ZEIT: You believe that because everything in the GDR was controlled by the state, it was easier for society to break classic role models?

Merkel: Yes, I would say that. Of course, the compatibility of work and family was much more natural. But if you looked behind the scenes, it quickly became clear that the upbringing and housework was very much left to women. Combine directors and Politburo members were men, and of course those were the defining role models. The GDR was not exemplary in that regard, I think.

ZEIT: But women have participated much more in the labor market.

Merkel: That's right, and of course that has shaped the way women see themselves. But you also had to rely on women, you needed their labor. And it was a subtle tool to prevent resistance from ever coming from any group in society.

ZEIT: What do you mean by that?

Merkel: Well, anyone who went to work every day and belonged to a collective was under observation. It was educationally intended that as many people as possible were involved in public and social structures. The fact that most women went to work in the GDR did not obey any real human rights emancipatory claim on the part of the state, but nevertheless produced a certain economic equality and a similar self-confidence of both sexes. But I can still remember the many discussions and arguments that many men and women had constantly, that you had to go to work. Anyone who didn't want to do that for a while was quickly seen as anti-social.

ZEIT: Would you have liked to quit working life back then?

Merkel: No, but I knew people who would have liked to do that because they wanted to work as artists, for example. But such a decision was not made easy. The GDR as a society - in the nature of its system - dealt far too little with individual development, but rather with collective development. The less individuality became visible, the less anger one had. The more individual you were, the closer you got to the limit to the problem case.

"Many East Germans feel the need to take stock"

ZEIT: This year will be particularly important for East Germany. There are three regional elections - and November will mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Merkel: I notice that the way we talk about the East has changed. Today, looking back to 1989, it becomes much clearer to us the great concentration with which we East Germans had to familiarize ourselves with the new world. Those years were a big break. Some people still suffer from this turning point today. Or let's say that in her biography this break is not as positive as mine. I quickly found a new job, had many opportunities and was able to broaden my horizons. But there were also many people, often older than me at the time, who weren't allowed to, even though they would have liked to get involved in a free society as much as I did.

ZEIT: Who are you thinking of?

Merkel: Of the roughly 11 percent who worked in agriculture in the GDR, for example only 1.5 to 2 percent were able to continue working after reunification. Many people experienced that they were no longer needed - with what they could, what had given them self-confidence. Anyone who had to find out that they hardly had a chance to find their way into the new society, the memory of the post-reunification period is darker today than it is for me. Everyone tried in their own way to realign themselves and get to know their new surroundings. I did it myself with great joy and of course I didn't keep emphasizing that I'm the East German here now and I still want to learn everything. But you tried ...

ZEIT: ... to adapt.

Merkel: To settle in, I would say. And to understand what is good and what is not so good. Without constantly saying that I now have to point out again that I come from the East.

ZEIT: Nobody did that.

Merkel: And now, 30 years later, the questions come back again: What actually happened back then? What did we do? This has to do with age on the one hand, and the distance on the other. Many East Germans have arrived in this united Germany and still feel the need to take stock. The GDR society was structured completely differently from the old Federal Republic, and that is still too little understood in the old federal states.

ZEIT: What exactly is not being understood?

Merkel: It is often overlooked that life in the GDR is divided into a life in the political system and a private one. Politics imposed narrow limits on the individual, but it was not omnipresent either. There were friendships. There were rooms in which one discussed a lot, read, thought about it, was eager to learn, and celebrated parties. Nothing of this aspect of life comes through in the public narrative.

ZEIT: Because politics dominated everything in the GDR, could free spaces in everyday life be particularly intense?

Merkel: Exactly. We also had a lot more time because career opportunities were rather limited with certain political attitudes. That gave us freedom and time that today has to be invested in a professional career. And because of the surveillance in the political system, it was also necessary to be able to rely on others unconditionally. Because otherwise your existence could be endangered very quickly.

ZEIT: Was interpersonal relationships important?

Merkel: It is today too, but it could very quickly become existential.

ZEIT: Where does this schematic West German view of the GDR actually come from?

Merkel: Every country in which we don't know any people who live there every day, who are happy and laugh and cry, quite simply as people, initially remains anonymous. Those who had no family or acquaintances in the GDR could only follow life there on television. But we mustn't forget that we East Germans were enthusiastic about the new even in the years of upheaval. At the beginning we certainly didn't give the impression that West Germans should get to know quickly what we learned in civics class. Most of them talked about the past, but the future wasn't in the old world. For those who could not get involved in the new world, it is now all the more bitter to feel that many were often not so interested in what they achieved in the GDR.

ZEIT: So you say that the GDR citizens prematurely and quite naturally said goodbye to their biographies.

Merkel: No, I didn't say too hastily.

ZEIT: Lighthearted? Light-handed?

Merkel: Yes, that is more likely, but also necessarily in order to make room for something new. Back then we didn't edit our biography every day. The old impressions and experiences have taken a back seat. And now, after a certain time and at a distance, we are back in a phase in which you look back. I often think it's a bit like it was in the West in 1968, because back then, too, people were naggingly asked: Who were you before 1945? And how did you deal with it afterwards? So we ask ourselves today with a view to the change of times of 1989. This is a natural, not at all extraordinary process that you have to allow. For example, there are a lot of questions people just want to ask when it comes to fiduciary services. That is legitimate, even if, of course, the times before 1945 and after 1989 are in no way comparable.

"There was too little experience with other cultures in the GDR"

ZEIT: At the same time, however, we have to admit that this renewed conversation about the East was generated by a kind of right-wing revolt, by Pegida and the rise of the AfD.

Merkel: I don't see it that way. The time has just come for these questions to become more pressing. Many East Germans have a growing feeling that their own merits are not being adequately appreciated. The older you were when the Wall came down, the more pronounced it is. People who are not active in the right spectrum also have this feeling. You live this quietly.

ZEIT: Were you surprised that there was a certain potential for frustration in East German society in all the post-reunification decades? Sometimes it was articulated quieter, sometimes louder.

Merkel: I don't find it so surprising that there is frustration in East Germany. This has to do with the different biographies, the just mentioned perceived disinterest or the fact that there are still too few positive role models and role models. East Germans are underrepresented in many areas. I am pleased that the President of the Fraunhofer Society is from Thuringia, and Caritas once had an East German President. But it's still worth mentioning. So it doesn't surprise me that frustration arose.

ZEIT: That this frustration has now also expressed itself in a shift to the right - did that shock you?

Merkel: It is not a good thing that these feelings are lived out so hard and directed against others, because anyone who wants our society to stick together must, as a prerequisite, have basic respect for other people. It's not negotiable. This basic respect has gotten very sidelined for some.

ZEIT: The paradox is that the anger of the East Germans is strongly ignited by you.

Merkel: No, that is not a paradox. It began with the euro and financial crisis and then intensified again due to the large number of refugees who came to us.

ZEIT: Did you know then that you could overwhelm parts of East German society with the decision not to close the borders?

Merkel: I responded to a humanitarian emergency. The challenge was there and I had to deal with it. But I was not surprised that many people in the new federal states found it a little more difficult to make such a decision than those in the old federal states. There was not enough experience with other cultures in the GDR. The contract workers from distant countries were badly treated, contacts with the local population were not really encouraged. As a result, there may still be a certain preliminary stamp. But Germany is a united country today, so we have to face the challenges together.

It is an "outstanding task of politics to create equal living conditions"

ZEIT: The east today lacks the younger, well-educated people who left by the hundreds of thousands after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Merkel: That is correct, and the effects on the development of the new federal states should not be underestimated. These people, who now live and work in Bavaria or Baden-Württemberg, are of course missing. So I'm all the more happy when I hear that some are going back again. I think that's very important.

ZEIT: Since many East Germans have gone to Pegida or voted AfD, the division in the country has never been more visible. In each of the three East German state elections, the AfD could become the strongest force. Are you worried about this?

Merkel: The political challenge is undoubtedly great. Still, I find it difficult to say that the country is more divided than ever before. The country may never have been as reconciled as it was thought. Some conflicts have only now become clear because society is under greater stress due to the various processes of change. The large number of refugees means a great effort for a country and its people. Differences become much clearer again. I will never forget how I met young people of Turkish origin as Minister for Youth. They were pretty depressed by the unity because now the East Germans were, in a way, the newcomers and they felt put back. And now the refugees who have come to us are a great challenge.

ZEIT: That is an interesting observation: The Germans weren't as reconciled as they had assumed for many years?

Merkel: I know the biographies of East Germans, I've heard a lot of personal stories. Now these narratives are receiving greater interest. Many East Germans want some things to change. They have long accepted that, for example, a carer in the east earns less than one in the west. You always bet that one day it would align. But if you still see the significant wage differences between Baden-Württemberg and Saxony-Anhalt today, it annoys many. Also that some have been made civil servants and others have not. Hopes that alignment will proceed quickly have been dashed in some areas. Helmut Kohl used to be laughed at by some when he spoke of the blooming landscapes. Today nobody laughs about it anymore because we know they were right, but we also know that there are still some major structural problems in these landscapes.

ZEIT: Which do you mean?

Merkel: The inheritances are lower, so are the tax revenues, and people cannot build up too little wealth. Older people see their children move away, the grandchildren grow up elsewhere. Rent prices are high in Munich, but in your own town, far away from the big cities, there is more vacancy. That's why people are now asking: How long should it be? This is actually the same as with women's equality. That is why it is an outstanding task of politics today to create equal living conditions.

This interview is from ZEIT No. 05/2019.