Where Merkel left off her first campaign, people have fond memories

RUEGEN, Germany – It was a cold and hazy morning in November 1990 when the fishermen noticed a woman standing in front of their hut. They were fishing in the Baltic Sea and approaching the shore, trying to guess who it was. Hans-Joachim Bull feared that the foreigner was an inspector sent by the government to enforce fishing quotas.

“We landed our fish and then asked her what she wanted,” he recalls. “She said she was a candidate for Parliament and wanted to know how we fishermen were doing. So we naturally invited her to our cabin to drink schnapps with us.”

The young candidate was Angela Merkel. And a smoky, alcohol-filled fishing hut in northeastern Germany was his first campaign stop.

Bull shares what is now a famous photograph from the tour, showing five fishermen smoking, dressed in blue work uniforms, seated around two tables as Merkel chats with one of them. Another bearded fisherman sits in the background, puffing his cigarette while looking out the window. Rays of light penetrate the hut, making the image look like an old Dutch painting.

Merkel, 36, in her jeans, white shirt and burgundy cardigan, almost looks like a time traveler visiting fishermen from the distant past. And in some ways it was – it was Germany’s first election after reunification.

Bull, a fifth-generation fisherman who grew up in communist East Germany, worried about the changes the Western world would bring. “We talked about fishing and [European] quotas – new to us East Germans at the time – and Merkel said she would bring our concerns to Parliament, ”he said. “It was a down to earth conversation and it was easy to talk to her.

Bull then voted for Merkel, and has been since. The same goes for most of the others in this seaside region. Even as Chancellor, Merkel is a Member of Parliament and has represented this district in the Bundestag for 31 years. On Sunday, millions of Germans will go to the polls to vote in a federal election that will determine who will succeed him.

Further along the Baltic coast, Steffen Meisner cleans the deck of his sailboat in the port town of Stralsund. The 58-year-old has never voted once for Merkel and her Conservative Party; he is a diehard Green Party voter and climate change is his biggest concern. But he had a drink at a local bar with her when she came to visit her neighborhood, and he says she is humorous and down to earth. He is proud that Merkel represents him in parliament and on the world stage.

“For her, being a politician was not just a job but a duty,” he says. “And she wasn’t there for the money or to prioritize profit over people. She knows how to listen and she’s happy to hear views that contradict her own. And she has no problem with it. change course or even apologize. Politicians rarely apologize.! ”

Then again, Merkel was never a typical politician, Meisner says. “She’s a scientist, and she’s always had both feet on the ground,” he says.

It was Angela Merkel that Michael Schindhelm met in December 1983, at the height of the Cold War. Schindhelm, born and raised in East Germany, had just completed five years of study in the Soviet Union when he returned home to present an article at his country’s Academy of Sciences.

Among the scientists present that day, Schindhelm says, were 11 elderly men and one young woman – Angela Merkel, 29, a quantum chemist. She asked to chat with Schindhelm on her own after her presentation – but she had no questions about her science work. “She was interested in the political situation in the Soviet Union and life there, as well as many details that were not even well known in East Germany about what it means to live in Russia,” he remembers.

The two became friends. They were both young Christians in an atheistic society, they both found science as an outlet and they both had big questions about the future of communism.

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These questions were answered in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Schindhelm says the end of communism in Germany forced him, Merkel and many others to re-evaluate their path in life.

“In our generation, we felt that this was the most important moment of our lives: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the total collapse of the political system that we expected would be here forever,” he says. “And of course, we had to make a choice: do you want to be a part of it? Or do you want to hold on to where you’re from?”

Schindhelm gave Merkel a book when he left the Academy of Sciences to become a writer and filmmaker. In it, he wrote a dedication to her: “Get out in the open.”

Merkel left science and entered politics. She then recounted Schindhelm’s advice in speeches after she became Chancellor in 2005. As leader of Germany, Schindhelm says, Merkel balanced this desire to take risks and “come out in the open.” with what he calls his East German scientific side – a tendency to be cautious and analytical.

This trend has drawn criticism – Merkel has been criticized for being overly cautious and lacking in drive and ambition when planning for Germany’s future. But Stefan Kornelius, author of a biography of Merkel, says her approach is balanced and has helped Merkel maintain a calm and stable leadership at a time when the cohesion of Europe was constantly under threat.

“She kept the euro from collapsing. She kept Europe united to a point where their economic crisis was tearing the continent apart. She calmed one of the major military crises we had in Ukraine by negotiating a ceasefire. -fire with Russia, ”he said.

And although she has come under heavy criticism for opening Germany’s doors to hundreds of thousands of migrants from war-torn Middle Eastern and North African countries in 2015, Kornelius says the decision has mitigated the impact on the rest of Europe.

But Merkel’s legacy is far more important than all of that, he believes. “I think his greatest achievement is to keep the flame of a liberal-minded democracy alive at a time when the foundations of our democracies are shaken, when we wonder if this type of government is right for us, where populists all across the world, and when the West, as the unifying ideal of so many countries with the United States at its head, crumbles. ”

Another Merkel biographer, Ralph Bollmann, said Merkel initially planned to resign in 2017, but thought about it after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. With a populist in the White House, the world needed a leader to fight for democracy, he says, and she stayed.

Today, after 16 years, Angela Merkel is finally retiring. She is leaving Germany better than she has found it, many of her constituents say.

Her old friend Michael Schindhelm has some familiar advice for her. “After such a long period of government, it is time to do something else, and you might say again, ‘Come out into the open. “”

He is convinced that after leading Germany for so long, Merkel is ready to do interesting things again.

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