David Nightingale: Angela Merkel (1954 - )

Jun 25, 2017

Angela Merkel
Credit Jacques Grießmayer / Wikimedia Commons

When the first-born child of a Lutheran clergyman, 7 year old Angeela Kasner corrected her music teacher's mispronunciation of her name, she already exemplified that she could be a perfectionist as well as a bit of a pain. But her East German teacher was not too put out -- she knew that this pastor's daughter, whom she had mistakenly called Angela was rather bossy but a good pupil.

Angeela excelled in school, particularly in Russian (she is still fluent) and mathematics. At the Gymnasium, she had top grades in math and physics, and, with everything paid for by the socialist East, was accepted at 18 to the University of Leipzig -- that 600 yr old school affiliated with such notables as Wagner, Leibniz, Bach, Boltzmann, Hertz, Heisenberg, and many Nobel Prize winners in varied fields. Initially motivated to study medicine, for complicated reasons she chose physics.

She had been born in West Germany (Hamburg 1954) but Germany had already been divided into East and West (1945). After the 2nd WW the border between the Soviet-controlled East and the European-controlled West ran 800 miles from the Baltic Sea down to Czeckoslovakia. In its 40 year existence this boundary was a continuous line of barbed wire, watchtowers, fences, ditches, alarms and minefields, and was not taken down until 1990, with over 1000 people having been killed trying to pass it.

Her father had decided earlier to travel east for an opportunity in the Lutheran church -- rather odd since East Germany was already an atheist Communist state, and so she was raised always under a certain amount of fear from the Stasi (Secret Police). While the standards of living were low, the socialist government paid for university, IF accepted -- but throughout childhood she and her parents had to be careful about the things they said -- and careful not to let on about her father's rather liberal views. And she admits that as an 18 yr old she wanted to get away from the (by then) rather stifling vicarage [ref.1p.63].

In her first year she started dating another physics student, Ulrich Merkel, marrying him at 23. After graduation -- her thesis, on rates of chemical reactions [ref.2], was published in the refereed British journal Chemical Physics [p.73] -- they both got jobs at the Academy of Sciences, his in Optics, hers in Physical Chemistry. But they slowly drifted apart, and, although friends, at 27 she packed her bags [p.78] and moved into a small place of her own. While working, she earned her doctorate in physical chemistry, on "the reactions of hydrocarbons... using quantum mechanical and statistical methods". Frau Doktor Merkel was then 32.

How then did she get into politics, and by the age of 50 become Chancellor of Germany? For that, one would have to read how, as a 35 yr old woman with her heart no longer in chemical physics, she began going to meetings and became a member of the small Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in 1990, which was the year of East-West re-unification under Helmut Kohl [p.114] (who died only last week.)

In the 1990s she had been, to some extent, Chancellor Kohl's protege. She had many advantages: highly intelligent, fluent in Russian, and someone who despite growing up under socialism also had relatives and friends in West Germany. In an excellent biography by Matthew Kvortrup, the stages that followed after she left physics were her election as a Christian Democratic Union Member of Parliament, then Cabinet Minister, followed by, in 2005, Chancellor [p.132.].

Finally, although she has been Europe's most powerful woman since then, and very popular, I find myself fearing now that her decent and liberal policy of almost unlimited immigration from Moslem countries, could lead to her downfall this September. I hope not -- but it'll be interesting to see if she can find a solution, while so many other countries cannot.


1. "Angela Merkel", by Matthew Qvortrup; Overlook Duckworth, New York & London, 2016.

2.  In "Chemical Physics", 53 (3), 1980, pp 437-442.

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at NewPaltz and is the co-author of the text, A Short Course in General Relativity.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.