After the disastrous result obtained by the Christian and Democratic Union (CDU) on the occasion of the latest German General elections, a kind of “Merkel-fatigue” became evident across the country. Well known experts, analysts and academics – most of which, one must concede, are men – denounced the “unfriendly” ruling-style of the Chancellor (“Ist es Wahnsinn, aber hat es auch Methode”; Streeck 2016). Some claimed that “Merkel tired citizens” (Merkel 2016), or, to say it with Jürgen Habermas: she left “Germany to swim like a brick” along history (Die Zeit 2016).

In this context, and at first sight, the book Becoming Madam Chancellor by Joyce Marie Mushaben stands out from the crowd. Mushaben, an American political scientist, argues that Angela Merkel, likewise the “German reunification” in the 90s, embodies a sort of miracle (77). More specifically, the Chancellor herself spurred a “cultural revolution” in Germany. Unlike anyone else before, Merkel raised the status of women in the country. Part of the explanation Mushaben provides, relies upon Merkel’s “socialist past” as she grew up in the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

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Well written and filled with qualitative data, the book is yet a bit over-stretched given its 342 pages. However, the data through which Mushaben backs her arguments are excellent. The volume contains many extracts from interviews conducted by Mushaben with high-level politicians across the country over the past 30 years. Among the latter, a conversation with Angela Merkel dating back to the 90s – a time when no one could imagine the future of the Chancellor – stands out. More than that, the author merges wisely secondary literature and journalistic material form national and international media outlets.

Is it all about the German Democratic Republic?

In the first part of the book, the private-professional and political biography of Merkel is analysed against the backdrop of her experience in the DDR. Subsequently, in the second and third part, Mushaben focuses here attention on four case studies, trying to evaluate the achievements of Merkel’s legacy concerning the Euro-crisis, the refugee crisis, the relationship between Western and Eastern Germany, and, last but not least, the politics of energy.

It is in this second and third part that readers get rid-off that sort of “pro-Merkel” flavour that emerges from the first section and which is contrasts so much today’s negative commentaries. More specifically, the analysis of Merkel’s behaviour midst the Euro-crisis conveys the clear (and, for many German citizens, unpleasant) feeling that Germany does not practice at home what it preaches abroad. Likewise, as Mushaben discusses the current inequalities between Eastern and Western Germany, as well as the long-term economic, psychological and social consequences of the reunification process, the book can be seen as a j’accuse against the Western establishment, judged guilty of systematically neglecting the state of the German “Mezzogiorno”. Drawing insights from her past, extensive and far-reaching research on Eastern German social developments, the author shows how especially women suffered from a lack of social rights if compared to the standards of the West. Arguably, no West-German author would feel comfortable in drawing up this socio-economic picture in such a neat fashion.

Against this background, it is then again astonishing how Mushaben understands Merkel’s political style to be an outcome of her “socialisation” in the GDR. But the reason is as simple as sensible: the Chancellor was an outlier if compared to 90% of women born and grown up in the formerly Democratic Republic. First of all, Merkel didn’t become a mother. Secondarily, she grew up as the daughter of a priest in a State that was thorough in – and effectively – trying to shut any religious power-influence. By the way, Merkel was born in Western Germany. Moreover, political factors didn’t interfere with Merkel’s ability to study and accomplish strong academic results. All that taken into consideration, it is impossible not to raise an eyebrow as the author tries to explain Merkel’s political style through her “socialisation” in the GDR. One must concede however that Mushaben solidly shows how Merkel’s GDR-derived “inertia”, ability “to adapt” and “strike compromises”, drove her success in a Catholic, men-lead Western CDU party. At the same time, the conceptual framework, which is outlined at the beginning of the book, too vague to define specific causal relationships between “GDR-socialisation”, on the one hand, and “political ability”, on the other one. The author does not bring enough counterfactual elements to the fore.

The fact that Mushaben did not set up other alternative conceptual frameworks depends as well on the book’s desired audience. Becoming Madam Chancellor is not meant to be a text for scholars only, but a reference for informed readers as well. The thoroughly-documented and relatively neutral perspective of the author is refreshing. Most of all, if compared to the one forging the commentaries of German experts, years after Merkel first appeared. That’s why, if anyone feels like having more about Madam Chancellor, this 342 long book is a more than advisable read.

Photo Credits CC: EU2017EE Estonian Presidency

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Also published on Medium.


Book review of: Joyce Marie Mushaben (2017). Becoming Madam ChancellorCambridge University Press

Other video resources (Bloomberg, 2015): Angela Merkel’s Life & Career, Explained in 3 Minutes

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