It's a gray but mild winter afternoon in Berlin; the night before, the House of Commons in London voted against Theresa May's Brexit deal. The guards at the gate to the Chancellery are friendly, the head of the press department leads photographer Dominik Butzmann and DIE ZEIT reporter Jana Hensel to the elevator, which takes them up to the seventh floor, where German government spokesman Steffen Seibert joins them. Almost exactly to the second of the agreed upon appointment, they are led into the chancellor's office. Angela Merkel seems concentrated and calm, although perhaps a little tense -- not because of the interview, more likely because of the failed Brexit deal. But this interview is going to be more about the chancellor herself. Merkel asks her visitors to take a seat at the long conference table and pours coffee. A total of 45 minutes have been granted for the interview, and it will end exactly 45 minutes later.
DIE ZEIT: Madame Chancellor, when you announced your intention to stand down as the chair of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, I wrote a very personal farewell article in DIE ZEIT. Among other things, it mentioned how important your chancellorship has been, particularly for many women in eastern Germany. Do you like it when you are viewed from an eastern German perspective?
Angela Merkel: Just as much as I like being viewed as a woman or as a person over 60. The German Democratic Republic (GDR) is part of my history. I didn't grow up in the West, after all, so you can't describe me from that perspective.
ZEIT: Are your East German roots important to you?
Merkel: All my roots are important to me, and the East Germans ones are part of that. I neither emphasize them every day, nor do I deny them.
ZEIT: After the publication of my article, I was surprised to see how many women wrote to me saying that you were important to them. Are you aware that many women in our country have developed a particularly strong emotional bond with you?
Merkel: No, that isn't especially clear to me. I sense a certain appreciation for trying to do my job properly, but I also generate many negative emotions in others. Both can come from women as well as men. That's how it was in the euro crisis – and also when it came to the refugee issue. I was the target of criticism just as much as a man would have been. I don't think it's possible to make the generalization that women admire other women. Even among women, there are sometimes hard feelings.
ZEIT: Still, you are a role model for many women. But it tends to be more of a silent sisterhood: It is seldom the case that you address women.
Merkel: I rarely address only women. After all, I'm not just the federal chancellor of women in Germany, I'm the federal chancellor of all people in Germany. I'm also not at all certain that women always expect me to address them specifically. Of course, when you get to where I am in your career, you're in the spotlight. The fact that women compare themselves to me arises from the fact that I am a woman and other women also sometimes face difficult tasks. I don't really need to turn specifically to them.
ZEIT: Do you think you communicate with women subconsciously or indirectly?
Merkel: No, not subconsciously. Automatically. When I say or do something, I am saying or doing it as a woman.
ZEIT: Exactly 10 years ago, we sat down here in your office and talked about feminism. It was a rather tentative conversation, as became clear in re-reading the interview. You weren't willing to call yourself a feminist at the time.
Merkel: I consider women like Alice Schwarzer to be feminists. Or Marie Juchacz, who together with others fought for women's suffrage 100 years ago and won. I don't want to seek out false praise. They fought all their lives for women's rights in ways that I cannot claim to have done myself. As a woman, I of course also had to find my way like any other, so that one day we would really find our way to gender parity. It's not only as chancellor that I have worked together with many men, but also during my time as a physicist. Parity in all areas just seems logical to me. That's not something I have to constantly bring up.
ZEIT: But that's a significant development! To use a term like parity in a self-confident, almost self-evident way actually does make you a feminist!
Merkel: At the G-20 Women's Summit, Queen Máxima of the Netherlands found a definition of feminism that I can endorse: For her, it's feminism if I am in favor of men and women having the same life opportunities.
ZEIT: Did you become a woman during your time in office?
Merkel: No, certainly not in office. I was already a woman before that.
ZEIT: But have you become more conscious of it?
Merkel: I wouldn't say that either. Even as a physics student, I experienced men at the university as being extremely dominant. In politics, a different version of the same situation became apparent. My awareness of the disadvantages faced by women has broadened because I have gained insights into many areas of life. And I looked around attentively, not least because I was minister for women in the beginning. This interest never again left me.
ZEIT: Did you ultimately reach the realization that being a woman is a kind of blemish?
Merkel: It is in no way a blemish. But of course, we experience disadvantages. On the one hand, it is rightly expected today that women are represented in all areas. And that this diversity, as we so nicely put it, enriches us. On the other hand, there are, of course, areas in which women have a harder time because they first have to shape new paradigms. There is one point where it has been easier for me as a woman politics: It has traditionally been expected that the woman at a chancellor's side does voluntary charity work. It wasn't like that for me and my husband. He does his job as a scientist and I do mine. And this was accepted more quickly than it would have been if it had been the other way around – as had always previously been the case.
"There Was No True Equality in the GDR"
ZEIT: Nonetheless, you were still the first to have to define what it meant to be a female chancellor.
Merkel: Thank God that not all things in life are different for a man. Leading an administration also has gender-neutral components. But of course, the outward appearances, for example, how to act ...
ZEIT: ... how does a person negotiate with men as a woman, and how does one communicate, particularly in conflict situations ...
Merkel: ... a woman's voice is not as dark and strong as a man's voice. For a woman, radiating authority is something you have to learn. 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 tenure. I know you don't like hearing it, but I would say that in the way you clarified these sometimes small and sometimes large questions, you became the most important female role model of the present day.
Merkel: Well, that is a bit exaggerated. Other women in politics have also made a significant contribution: Hillary Clinton, Theresa May. Margaret Thatcher was way before our time. And on a completely different level, the Queen has also defined many things about the wardrobe. But I have also made a contribution. Totally automatically.
ZEIT: Totally automatically?
Merkel: Some things just attract attention. For a man, it's no problem at all to wear a dark blue suit a hundred days in a row, but if I wear the same blazer four times within two weeks, the letters start pouring in.
ZEIT: Who writes to you?
Merkel: It's just normal people writing.
ZEIT: What do they write? "Madame Chancellor, can't you properly dress yourself?"
Merkel: No, they don't write that, but they do notice. And, of course, I have to deal with those kinds of reactions.
ZEIT: And yet you have never addressed the chauvinism that you have experienced in office?
Merkel: No, that's a fundamental approach. I believe that, as a politician, you have to be able to take it, that you can only do this job if you aren't overly sensitive. You have to concentrate on the real issues. I merely take note of the rest.
ZEIT: The pragmatic way in which you deal with such questions has always seemed to me to be an East German trait. Is there also something East German about your self-assurance as a woman?
Merkel: I'm very reluctant to say that. There was no true equality in the GDR either. The fact that there was never a full member of the Politburo who was female, that there was no female head of a Combine (eds: a reference to major state-owned enterprises in socialist East Germany), showed that it was men who were sitting in the places where important decisions were made. There was certainly a more pragmatic attitude toward technical occupations, but this was also related to state control. Would all the women have studied or received training in engineering technology and machining of their own free will? I'm not so sure about that. That had more to do with the lack of skilled workers and with the overall lack of efficiency in the East German economy.
ZEIT: You think that because everything in the GDR was controlled by the state, that made it easier for the society to break down classic roles?
Merkel: Yes, I would say so. Of course, the compatibility of career and family was seen as much more normal. But if you took a look behind the scenes, it quickly became clear that parenting and housekeeping was very much left to the women. The Combine directors and Politburo members were men and, of course, they were also the defining role models. I do not think the GDR was exemplary in that regard.
ZEIT: But women were much more present in the labor market.
Merkel: This is true, and it naturally shaped the self-image women had of themselves. But the system was also dependent on the women – they were needed in the workforce. And it was a subtle instrument for preventing resistance from ever coming from any group in society.
ZEIT: What do you mean by that?
Merkel: Everyone who was part of a working unit at one of these state-owned enterprises was under observation. The pedagogical intention was that as many people as possible should be integrated into public social structures in this way. The fact that most women in the GDR worked wasn't the product of any human rights-oriented emancipatory aspiration, but it nevertheless produced a certain economic equality and a similar self-confidence in both genders. But I can still remember very well the many discussions and arguments that many men and women constantly had over the fact that they had to go to work. Anyone who didn't want to do it for a while was quickly cast as being anti-social.
ZEIT: Would you have wanted at the time to take a break from working?
Merkel: No, but I knew people who would have liked to do so because they wanted to work as artists, for example. But it wasn't easy for a person to make a decision like that. The GDR as a society – in the nature of its system – focused on the collective and not enough on the development of the individual. The less you expressed your individuality, the less trouble you had. The more individuality you developed, the closer you came to being seen as a problem.
"Many East Germans Have a Need To Take Stock"
ZEIT: This year is a particularly important one for eastern Germany. Three state elections are scheduled in eastern German states, and November will mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Merkel: I have noticed that the way we talk about the east has changed. Looking back at 1989 today, it becomes clearer the amount of concentration we East Germans needed to familiarize ourselves with the new world at the time. Those years were a major watershed. Some people are still suffering the consequences of that turning point today. Or, let's just say, this watershed hasn't been as positive a part of their history as it has been for me. I quickly found a new job, I had many opportunities and I was able to expand my horizons. But there were also many people, often older than me at that time, who were not accorded this privilege, even though they would have liked to have become a part of free society just as much as I did.
ZEIT: Who are you thinking about when you say that?
Merkel: Of the approximately 11 percent of the population who worked in agriculture in the GDR, only 1.5 to 2 percent were able to continue working after reunification. The experience of many people was that they were no longer needed for the very things they could do, and which gave them self-confidence. Those forced to realize that they had hardly any chance of finding their way in the new society, for them, their memories of the post-reunification period are shaded darker than mine. Everyone tried in their own way to orient themselves and get to know the new world. I personally did this with a great deal of pleasure and, of course, I didn't constantly stress that I'm here as an East German and would like to learn everything. You instead tried to ...
ZEIT: ... to adapt.
Merkel: To settle in, I'd say. And to understand what's good and what's not so good, without constantly having to point out yet again that I come from the east.
ZEIT: Nobody did that.
Merkel: And now, 30 years later, the questions are coming back again. What actually happened back then? What have we accomplished? On the one hand, this has to do with age. On the other, it has to do with the distance. Many East Germans have found their way in this united Germany, and yet they still have a need to take stock. Society in the GDR, after all, was structured very differently than it was in the old Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), and even today, there is still too little understanding of that in western Germany.
ZEIT: What exactly isn't understood?
Merkel: The fact that life in the GDR was divided into life under the political system and private life is often overlooked. Politics set narrow limits for the individual, but it also wasn't omnipresent. There were friendships. There were spaces where you could discuss a lot, read a lot, think about things, be inquisitive and throw parties. None of these aspects of life make it into the public narrative.
ZEIT: Because politics dominated everything in the GDR, were those everyday spaces experienced in a more intense way?
Merkel: Exactly. We had a lot more time because career opportunities for those with certain political attitudes were rather limited. This resulted in space and time that you would most likely have to invest in your professional career today. And because of the surveillance in the political system, it was also necessary to be able to rely unconditionally on others. Otherwise, you might be facing an existential threat very quickly.
ZEIT: So, the interpersonal was important?
Merkel: It is today, too, but things could get existential very quickly.
ZEIT: Where do you think this schematic West German view of the GDR comes from?
Merkel: Every country in which we do not know any people who live there, people who are happy and laugh and cry, simply as people, are always anonymous to us at first. Those who had no family or acquaintances in the GDR could only follow life there on television. We also can't forget that we East Germans were enthusiastic about everything new during those years of upheaval. Early on, we certainly did not give the impression that the West Germans needed to quickly find out what we learned in our civics class (Eds: where the GDR taught the fundamentals of Marxist philosophy and socialism). Most people did talk about how things used to be, but the future didn't lie in the old world. For those who weren't able to gain a foothold in the new world, it was all the more painful to realize that many people weren't particularly interested in what they had done in the GDR.
ZEIT: So, you're saying that GDR citizens left their pasts behind prematurely and in a way that was almost a matter of course.
Merkel: No, I did not say prematurely.
ZEIT: Carelessly? Overly casually?
Merkel: Yes, that's more what I mean, but also out of necessity, to make room for new things. We didn't process our history every day back then. The experiences and things that used to shape you receded into the background a bit. Now that a certain amount of time has passed and with a bit of distance, we once again find ourselves in a phase where we can look back. I often think it must be a little like how it was in 1968 in the West, where the question was constantly asked: Who were you before 1945? And how did you deal with it afterward? We are asking ourselves the same kinds of questions now about the epochal shift that came in 1989. It's a natural and in no way extraordinary process that you have to allow. Such as with the Treuhand (Eds: the government agency that was responsible for privatizing or closing state-owned enterprises in former East Germany), people simply have a lot of questions they now want to ask. That's legitimate, even if the periods before 1945 and after 1989 are in no way comparable.
"In the GDR, There Was Too Little Interaction with other Cultures"
ZEIT: At the same time, though, we have to admit that this new conversation about the east has been spawned by a kind of right-wing revolt – by the Islamophobic PEGIDA movement and the rise of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
Merkel: I don't see it that way. It is simply time for these questions to become more pressing. There is a growing feeling among many eastern Germans that there isn't enough appreciation of their merits. That sentiment is more pronounced the older a person was when the Berlin Wall fell. People who are not active within the right-wing spectrum also have this feeling. They're just quieter about it.
ZEIT: Did it come as a surprise to you that there was a certain potential for frustration in eastern German society in the decades that followed reunification? Sometimes it has articulated itself more quietly, and at others, more loudly.
Merkel: I don't think it is very surprising that there are frustrations in eastern Germany. This has to do with the different backgrounds, the perceived disinterest just mentioned or also with the fact that there are still too few positive role models and examples. Eastern Germans are underrepresented in many areas. I am pleased that the president of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft is from the eastern state of Thuringia. The Catholic charity Caritas also once had a president from eastern Germany, but it is still worth mentioning. As such, I'm not surprised that frustration developed.
ZEIT: But did it shock you that this frustration has now manifested itself in a rightward shift?
Merkel: The fact that these feelings are so severe and are being acted out against others isn't good, because if you want cohesion in our society, you must be able to demonstrate a fundamental respect for others. That is nonnegotiable. Some people have completely lost sight of this basic respect.
ZEIT: The paradox is that the fury of the eastern Germans is focused largely on you.
Merkel: No, that isn’t a paradox. It began with the euro crisis and the financial crisis and was then intensified by the many refugees who came to us.
ZEIT: Did you realize at the time that your decision to not close the borders would be asking too much of some parts of eastern German society?
Merkel: I was reacting to a humanitarian emergency. The challenge presented itself and I had to confront it. But I wasn't surprised that many people in eastern Germany found the decision more difficult to accept than those in western Germany. In the GDR, there was simply too little interaction with other cultures. The contract workers from faraway countries were treated poorly and contact with locals wasn't really encouraged. As a result, there might still be a certain tendency. But the Germany of today is a united country, which is why we must meet the challenges together.
ZEIT: Today's eastern Germany has a lack of young, well-educated people, hundreds of thousands of whom left after the fall of the Wall.
Merkel: That is true, and one shouldn't play down the effects of that phenomenon on the development of eastern Germany. These people, who today live and work in places like Bavaria or Baden-Württemberg, are missed. Which is why I am happy to hear that some of them are returning. I think that is extremely important.
ZEIT: Ever since many eastern Germans began supporting PEGIDA or voting for the AfD, the country's divisions have become more visible than ever before. The AfD could ultimately emerge as the strongest political party in the three parliamentary elections scheduled for later this year in eastern German states. Is that something that worries you?
Merkel: There is no doubt that the political challenge is significant. But I am still not prepared to say that the country is more divided than ever before. Perhaps reconciliation in the country hadn't come as far as some had thought. Some conflicts have only now become apparent because the society is under significant stress as the result of various processes of change. The large number of refugees means a significant exertion for a country and its people. In such a situation, differences become much clearer. I will never forget meeting with young people of Turkish extraction as youth minister. They were rather depressed by reunification because the eastern Germans were now the new arrivals in a certain sense, and they felt as though they had been supplanted. And now, the refugees who have come to us present a significant challenge.
ZEIT: That's an interesting observation: You think the Germans weren't as reconciled as had been assumed for many years?
Merkel: I am familiar with the biographies of eastern Germans and have heard many personal stories. More attention is being paid to these narratives now. Many eastern Germans want some things to change. For a long time, they were willing to accept that, for example, an elderly care worker in eastern Germany earned less than in western Germany. They always assumed that salaries would align one day. But many are frustrated by the significant wage differences that still exist between Baden-Württemberg and Saxony-Anhalt. And the fact that one group has been granted civil service status and the others have not. Hopes that alignment would proceed quickly have been dashed in some fields. Some used to laugh at Helmut Kohl when he spoke of the "blooming landscapes" that would soon be found in eastern Germany. But today, nobody is laughing anymore because we know that he was right. But we also know that these landscapes still have some significant structural problems.
ZEIT: Which ones are your referring to?
Merkel: The inheritances are smaller, as are tax revenues and people cannot compile enough wealth. Older people see their children moving away and their grandchildren grow up elsewhere. Rent prices in Munich are high, but in their own towns, far away from the big cities, many apartments are unoccupied. The result is that many people are wondering: How long is it going to go on like this? It is actually the same phenomenon as with women's equality. Which is why one of the significant tasks facing politics today is that of establishing equal living conditions.
Translators: Charles Hawley and Daryl Lindsey