The personal history of Angela Merkel

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is one of the most powerful leaders in the world.

Her style of leadership can be summed up by her two nicknames: “The Iron Chancellor” and “Mutti” (Mummy). Though it is difficult to remember a time when Merkel was not the face of German politics, her rise to the top was not always set in stone.

Growing Up in East Germany

Angela Dorothea Kasner was born on July 17, 1954. Her father, Horst, was a Lutheran Minister and her mother, Herlind, taught English. 

Merkel was born in West Germany, but when she was a child, her family moved to East Germany, following a job opportunity for her father. Merkel grew up in Templin, where she spent her free time participating in government-approved communist in youth organizations. Growing up in the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR), all of her classes were conducted in Russian, so she learned to speak Russian fluently.


She graduated from high school in 1973. She attended university at the University of Leipzig, then known as Karl Marx University. She studied physics.

At university, she met her first husband, Ulrich Merkel. The two were married in 1977, one year before Merkel graduated. Though they divorced in 1982, Merkel chose to keep his last name. 

1986, Merkel was awarded a doctorate for her thesis on quantum chemistry from the Central Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Academy of Sciences in Berlin. 

The Beginning of a Prosperous Political Career

Motivated by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Merkel joined the Democratic Awakening, a small East German political party that rallied for the reunification of Germany. After the party’s spokesperson was found to be an informant for the Ministry for State Security, Merkel was elected to take his place. That year, in East Germany’s first democratic election, the party won a position in the German government. Shortly after, Democratic Awakening merged into a more prominent party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

After the reunification of Germany, Merkel won a seat in Bundestag, German parliament. In 1991, Chancellor Helmut Kohl appointed Merkel as the minister of women and youth. Kohl’s appointment of Merkel garnered her more public attention and status. He affectionately referred to Merkel as “the Girl,” and presented her as his protégée. The same year, Merkel was elected head of the CDU.

Merkel’s political power rose steadily, and in 1994 she became the minister of environment, conservation, and nuclear safety. In 1995, she helped conduct the first UN Climate Conference in Berlin. In 1998, Merkel married current husband Joachim Sauer and became the secretary-general of the CDU.

A Golden Opportunity 

In 1999, Kohl was involved in a financial scandal that pushed him out of his position as chancellor. Merkel used the opportunity to take hold of the CDU party. In an open letter published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a political newspaper, she called on the party to start a new chapter, moving away from Kohl. Though Kohl felt betrayed by Merkel, her “best foot forward” stance brought her more attention and respect from German voters. As a result, in 2000, Merkel was elected the head of the CDU, making her the first woman to hold the position.

Becoming the Most Powerful Woman in the World

In 2005, she was elected chancellor--but she did not win the position easily. As the election had been tight between Merkel and Gerhard Schröder, the head of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the parties decided to form a coalition with Merkel as the leader, making her the first female German chancellor, as well as the youngest.

In 2009 she was re-elected for a second term. This time, the SPD was driven out by the liberal Free Democratic Party, whose views were much more aligned with Merkel’s. From 2009, Merkel began to frontier the recovery out of the euro-zone debt crisis.

In 2013, Merkel was re-elected for a third term. Over the course of the term, she helped navigate two pressing crises: the Greek debt crisis, and the Syrian migrant crisis. Her leadership over this period earned her the title of Time Magazine’s 2015 Person of the Year. The editor of the magazine referred to her as the “de facto leader of the European Union.”

Present Day

In 2017, Merkel was re-elected for her fourth term. She has committed much of her fourth term to the ongoing migrant crisis, which has drawn intense criticism from conservative groups. Merkel’s term will expire in 2021, and she has said she will not seek re-election, stating, “It is time for me to start a new chapter.”

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