Saturday, January 21, 2012

What makes Angie tick? (6 of 6) A few good words for Angie

I personally find the history of Communist East Germany, the German Democratic Republic, (DDR, from the German initials) fascinating. The same is true of Angie's childhood in it.

Angie's father was Horst Kasner (1926-2011), a Protestant minister who voluntarily accepted a parish in the DDR in 1954, shortly after Angela's birth. Being a PK (preacher's kid) invites extra scrutiny even in countries where organized religion is officially discouraged. Churches were never outlawed in the DDR. But they faced various degrees of discrimination. The daughter of a minister, for instance, would have a hard time getting admitted to a university.

Horst Kasner over time became more sympathetic to the regime. Or, more precisely, he became one of those church figures like Manfred Stolpe who walked a difficult line between protecting the churches from excessive state interference and providing support for it within the churches.

Horst Kasner, Angela Merkel's father
It was a paradox of the DDR's system. Since the regime expected any public discussion related to politics to remain within the framework of Communist ideology, the only formally legitimate way to express disagreement government policy was to frame it in terms consistent with Communist ideology. Which in turn meant that even criticisms framed in terms of the official socialist ideology fell under suspicion of being a more basic dissent against the state and the Communist system itself.

Neither Kasner nor his oldest child Angela were active resisters to the Communist regime. But much of the active resistance that did take place acted within an ecclesiastical framework. Because the churches did provide an institutional space in which an ideology (was Christianity was from the official viewpoint) other than strict adherence to the regime's line was officially tolerated, though with serious limitations.

So Angela learned early on to maintain a set of views about life (Christianity) that was different and under suspicion from the publicly approved consensus. She was able to get into university - the one then known as Karl Marx University in Leipzig - where she studied physics. But she also maintained friendly relationships with people who were more actively dissident. Someone growing up in those conditions could have become simply duplicitous, a skill that is useful in politics and business but not an admirable one, and one that also has distinct disadvantages.

Angie wouldn't have become Chancellor of Germany without learning how to play her cards close to the vest in many instances. But in her case, the experience seems to have resulted in real independence of judgment and an ability to hold on to them in the face of pressure.

Her education and early professional experience as a physicist gave her an appreciation of science and rational thinking that Germans may not find so remarkable in a politician. But in the US Republican Party, declaring confidence in science could be enough to make one noncompetitive in a Party primary.

These two qualities seem to have played major roles in Angie's positions on abortion and stem-cell research, which found her dissenting from the Catholic Church's position and also that of many Protestant ministers who wanted to ban them. She supported abortion rights against the churches' position and argued for freedom of research on stem-cells. One could make an argument that she didn't go far enough on either. But her willingness to stand up to the church factions on those issues is something I find admirable.

Angie's commitment to protecting the environment also seems to be genuine. She served as Environment Minister in Helmut Kohl's government. And she holds up the Climate Summit in Berlin in 1995 as one of her accomplishments of which she's most proud. As the host of the conference, she did an impressive job of getting 130 nations to agree to make climate change a priority, thus preparing the way for the Kyoto Treaty.

Angie does have a green side
And her record as Chancellor provided continued evidence that she indeed takes environmental protection seriously. Most dramatic was her action just this past year after the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan, when she insisted on accelerating Germany's phaseout from the use of nuclear energy for power. Her experience with the nuclear industry in the 1990s as Environment Minister may have played a role. She backed the nuclear industry on the controversial transportation of nuclear waste, known in German as Castor transport from the name of the container type, until she discovered via media revelations that the industry had failed to properly monitor their transports; she reversed her position on the Castor transport issue. Lingering distrust of the nuclear lobby may have played a role in her position in 2011 on accelerating the phaseout of nuclear power.

She's obviously aware that Germany has competitive gains to be made by a strong push on developing solar and wind power. But she does seem to take environmental protection seriously, though the Green Party would be quick to point out her real deficiencies in that area. And her understanding of her Christian faith in terms of responsibility for the care of the earth also seems to play a role in her thinking on this issue .

Volker Resing's biography emphasizes the religion-related aspects of her career. She played an important role in opening her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to Protestant voices, where the Catholic Church had previously been more exclusively the "C" in the CDU. Her public formulations of her positions are also attractive, especially for Americans worried about the increasingly overt Christian dominionism of the Republican Party. She warns explicitly against assuming that we can know precisely what God's opinion on a political issue can be. She argues that a Christian should be informed by their religious worldview, but it's still up to individuals to take responsibility for making judgments on political issues in a secular democracy.

On the other hand, she tried to get an official recognition of the Christian concept of humanity written into an EU treaty. And she insists on calling the Christian concept of humanity a basic value of European civilization. Although she formulates it in non-theocratic terms of human rights and personal dignity, she is nevertheless arguing that the Christian religion should take primacy both in her Party and in some important sense in German and European politics. Since I tend to be a hardliner on separation of church and state from both the Christian and secular-democratic viewpoints, this aspect of Angie's thinking is something I find disturbing, especially at a time when the Western democracies' relations to the Islamic world have become increasingly important.

When it comes to Angie's insistence on forcing destructive austerity policies, it's likely we're seeing some of the dark sides of her strengths. Strength of conviction is admirable when the convictions make sense and are open to revision, expansion or modification in the face of evidence. Angie's commitment to "ordoliberalsim" and austerity economics during a depression seems remarkably immune to pragmatic adjustment. And her Christian convictions don't seem to make her willing to reconsider that approach even in the face of the real human costs we clearly see now in Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland.

At the risk of veering into pop psychology, I also wonder if her particular training in the hard sciences may be also leading her astray in thinking about economics. Ordoliberalism with its rigid principles posing as economic laws and alleged mathematical certainties may appear unduly attractive to someone more comfortable with a hard science like physics. It may also be attractive to her because its advocates cast it as a direct repudiation of Communist economics that were part of the DDR system she rejects.

But we also shouldn't forget that one-percenter economics, no matter how self-destructive its implications can be even for some of the very wealthy, carries a lot of clout and frames the context in which Angie is carrying out her mission to put Europe on permanent austerity economics. The CDU prefers to call itself a popular party (Volkspartei). But it's still the party of Big Capital. And Angie's attempts to force her ordoliberal faith on Europe will almost certainly be what defines her legacy as a political leader.

Sources on Angie's life and career:
  • Gerd Langguth, Angela Merkel.Aufstieg zur Macht - Biographie(DTV; München) 2007 edition
  • Michael Lümann, Der Osten im Westen - oder: Wie viel DDR steckt in Angela Merkel, Matthias Platzeck und Wolfgang Thierse? Versuch einer Kollektivbiographie (ibidem-Verlag; Stuttgart) 2010
  • Angela Merkel, Mein Weg.Angela Merkel im Gespräch mit Hug Müller-Vogg (Hoffmann und Campe; Hamburg) 2004
  • Volker Resing, Angela Merkel.Die Protestantin - Ein Portrait (St. Benno-Verlag; Leipzig) 2009


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