Merkel’s Mean Girls

Angela Merkel has built her career around female advisors and undermined the old boys’ network in the process.

Having won her fourth consecutive election victory—albeit with a reduced number of votes—Merkel is set to govern Europe’s largest economy for another term. How has this most unlikely of political leaders succeeded in transforming the once male dominated conservative and Christian CDU (Christian Democratic Union) into a centrist party? Answer: Largely in close co-operation with a close-knit group of predominately female advisors.

German Media have talked about “Girls Camp” when describing the cabal surrounding Merkel. In some ways such reporting is always in danger of generating sensationalist hype without substance. Merkel is no traditional feminist. And yet, it is undeniable that Die Kanzlerin, as Merkel is called, relies more heavily on female advisors than even many other women politicians.

Merkel ́s Girls Look after Her

Since long before coming to power in 2005, Merkel—who is 63—has relied on Beate Baumann. The 54-year-old Cambridge graduate has been Merkel’s Chief of Staff since 1995, the year she became Secretary of State for the Environment.

“I need someone who can look after me,” Merkel reportedly said. Her then staff of mostly male civil servants treated the new minister with ill-disguised condescension. Merkel’s colleague Christian Wulff—who later became president of Germany (2010-2012)—recommended Baumann. This was the beginning of the strongest partnership in modern German history.

Baumann, who has never given interviews, is Merkel’s equal. Thus, when Merkel was reeling under pressure at one of her first international conferences, and seemed ready to shed a tear, Frau Baumann took her to task and applied her trademark tough love approach to her boss: “Get your act together woman,” Baumann hissed. Merkel did as she was told. Yet, the two keep a professional distance, and address each other as using the formal Sie rather than the informal Du (you). Like Merkel, Baumann has no children.

Baumann is not the only “woman behind the woman.” Since 2002, Merkel has relied on the advice of Eva Christiansen. The 47-year-old economist and mother of one has been Merkel’s main speechwriter, spin doctor, and problem solver. The youthful-looking blonde is often credited with inventing the “Merkel Sound,” the slightly mumbling and non-threatening style of talking that characterize the German chancellor.

Merkel is no traditional feminist. And yet, it is undeniable that Die Kanzlerin, as Merkel is called, relies more heavily on female advisors than even many other women politicians.

While Baumann and Christiansen belong to the innermost circle of the Kanzleramt (the Chancellery), there are other powerful women around Merkel. Defense Minister and mother-of-seven (!) Ursula von der Leyen (front-runner to be Merkel’s successor) and the CDU Party’s vice-president Julia Klöckner (a former beauty queen who is rumored to be Merkel’s preferred crown princess) are among the most influential politicians in Germany.

Of course, Merkel also takes advice from male advisors, her foreign policy advisor, the diplomat Christoph Heusgen, and her economic advisor, Professor Lars-Hendrik Röller, provide technical advice and expertise in difficult negotiations but they do not belong to the innermost circle of Merkel’s trusted confidants.

The Demise of the Altar Boys

“Nah, she can’t do it,” was the late Helmut Kohl’s dismissive remark when he heard that Angela Merkel wanted to become party leader and hence candidate for the chancellorship in 2000. A few weeks before, the woman whom the former Bundeskanzler called mein Mädchen (my girl) had undercut him and his successor Wolfgang Schäuble by writing an op-ed in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in which she distanced herself from Kohl and criticized her former mentor for having received illegal party donations.

Back then, the CDU was ruled mainly by white Catholic males from the southwest of Germany. For Kohl it was a natural state of affairs that the next leader would be found among one of the younger conservative Catholics. The names Friedrich Merz, Roland Koch, and Jürgen Rüttgers are unknown to most non-German readers. These old-fashioned conservatives were prominent members of what was known as the Altar Boy Generation [Generation Messdiener] and felt leading the CDU was their birthright.

The CDU was ruled mainly by white Catholic males from the southwest of Germany. For Kohl it was a natural state of affairs that the next leader would be found among one of the younger conservative Catholics.

These politicians held traditional view of women’s role as Kinder, Küche, Kirche [church, kitchen, and children] – roughly the equivalent of English “barefoot and pregnant.” In addition to these views, the Altar Boys were highly skeptical of immigration and were defenders of the superiority of German Leit-kultur. Rüttgers infamously summed up his preferred policy as “more children and fewer Indians,” or Kinder statt Inder, as the slogan runs in German.

These men were already successfully running some of the largest of Germany’s sixteen states and everybody expected them to take over after Helmut Kohl. Back then, no woman had held more than a symbolic post. Indeed, Merkel herself was regarded as a token female when she became minister for children and women in 1990.

The Direct Effect on Public Policies

The rise to power of Angela Merkel, a Protestant female from the east of Germany, not only spelled the demise of Die Messdiener. One by one (and with a substantial amount of Machiavellian touch), Merkel and her advisors outmaneuvered the Catholic old-boys network using means reminiscent of the movie Mean Girls. While outwardly supportive and friendly, Merkel, Christiansen, and Baumann were able to use charm and contacts in the media to run stories that undermined the credibility of the self-appointed custodians of Catholicism.

One by one, Merkel and her advisors outmaneuvered the Catholic old-boys network using means reminiscent of the movie Mean Girls.

The prominent position of women in Merkel’s inner circle has a direct effect on a number of public policies, such as measures to help female-run start-ups, targets to get more female members of a company, free daycare places for children over 12 months. However, the main effect has not been reflected in concrete policies but in a greater place for women in German public life. This was unheard of before Merkel became Chancellor.

Having given Merkel another four years at the helm, German girl-power is set to continue. It is part of Merkel’s style of governing to prepare meticulously; to understand how her opponents think. When preparing for her first meeting with Donald Trump she told her staff: “I’ve been reading Playboy Magazine lately – to understand Donald Trump.” What that says about Merkel—and about Trump—is for the readers to decide.

Matthew Qvortrup

is professor of applied political science and international relations at Coventry University and the author of Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader. He is an expert on comparative constitutional engineering and European Politics. He has previously worked as member of President Obama’s Special Envoy Team in Africa (2009-2010). Professor Qvortrup is a frequent commentator for the BBC and writes regularly for Bloomberg.

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