Herlinde Koelbl. Angela Merkel Portraits 1991 – 2021

Prof. Dr. Gesine Schwan | 2 May 2022

We’re publishing the speech by Gesine Schwan, political scientist and chair of the SPD’s Basic Values Commission, delivered at the opening of the exhibition “Herlinde Koelbl. Angela Merkel Portraits 1991–2021” on 28 April 2022.

“Traces of Power” is the name given to Herlinde Koelbl’s project that snowballed into her photographing Angela Merkel for over 30 consecutive years – and also involved her interviewing her for part of that time. In an almost clinical setup, she attempts to find out whether any traces of power have manifested themselves in the photographs of Angela Merkel, or at least in her face.

What traces could one expect to find? Increasing haughtiness? A hardening of the face and figure? That her burdens wear her down, depress or disappoint her? Or simply that she relishes wielding power? There are many possible outcomes.

In response to Koelbl’s question about what was pleasurable about power, Angela Merkel answers: “In the past I would have said: That you can shape politics. Now I would say: That you can snatch something away from someone else.” In her case, sometime later, the chancellorship from Gerhard Schröder, a post he had never believed she could fill. It just goes to show how wrong you can be.

Her answer to that question has something playful about it, a side that Angela Merkel doesn’t usually broadcast publicly. In private, however, she is apparently playful, so her friends report. Also reflecting a cheery disposition towards wielding power is a statement she once made as CDU secretary-general [prior to becoming party leader], which surprised me. She said: “I would also like to impart some cheerfulness to the party.” I will duly pass the tip on to Kevin Kühnert [current secretary-general of the SPD].

Angela Merkel is usually described as someone who knows exactly what she’s doing, is indomitable and above all never flustered. The base nature of the political machine does not affect her – or so it seems. But in conversation with Herlinde Koelbl she admits to being afraid that the office could annihilate her and that “in the end society’s scorn may end up being greater than if I had done nothing at all”.

A couple of years later, we see she has even less trust in people. She says: “I have become more mistrustful. I was already mistrustful back then, but not nearly mistrustful enough to avoid being constantly disappointed in the business of politics.” She is, or at least was, probably more vulnerable than she wanted to let on.

And she consciously protects herself by dissembling and not giving anything away, a quality that she actually dislikes in others. She says: “I can now wear a stony expression and not reveal what I’m thinking at any given moment.” People didn’t want to see worries or insecurity in politicians. She confides: “That’s something I won’t admit to in the future, either, so that I don’t have to constantly read in the papers that I don’t know what I’m talking about. I think it’s unfortunate that, when it comes to politicians, it’s actually the cookie-cutter type that goes down best.”

Angela Merkel wants to be authentic, but in order to acquire and maintain power, she has to dissemble and keep her true thoughts to herself. That’s what experience has taught her.

In her dress and outward appearance, for a long time she held out against the pressure to conform. At first, female figures from West German polite society would often mock her for it. Some even felt compelled to give her a desperate word of advice, that she really had to do something about it before becoming chancellor. I think the result of her bowing to such pressure is clearly evident in the first picture of her as chancellor, from 2006. Here, in the long row of portraits up to this point, is the only instantly discernible difference from all the photographs that have gone before. In outward appearance, Angela Merkel has adapted to the mainstream, mainly by wearing mascara, eyeliner, and a change of hairstyle. This makes her seem more aloof and less original than before.

Here it would seem that there is little joy or pleasure in having political power – to return to Herlinde Koelbl’s earlier question – despite the praise and awards that get lavished on people at the top. On the contrary: power threatens one’s own personal authenticity and integrity. One has to fulfil false expectations and above all keep disappointment at bay. This is a striking leitmotif in Angela Merkel’s career. If its traces of power you’re after, you may find them in an increasing sense of disillusionment with the people with and for whom she sets policy.

Yet many observers claim to be unable to spot any changes in Merkel in the photo series. “Her facial expression is the same over thirty years,” writes George Packer, describing her in the large photobook. He continues: “This emotional uniformity may be the key to Merkel’s phenomenal success as a politician. The portraits from three decades bear witness to Merkel’s staying power at the helm of public life.”

“Emotional uniformity” as the key to political success?

According to this assessment, there are no traces of power to notice, because Merkel has switched off her feelings. But if you look closely at the corners of her mouth, you do discover a slight development. True, her face is well made up. But a change has occurred in how the corners of her mouth now point more noticeably downwards. And this change is also reflected in pictures by other photographers taken around the same time. They start to speak of disappointment and detachment from people – and these I read as traces of power.

They contrast with the more open, sometimes mischievous face we saw earlier on and with her unguarded manner in answering Herlinde Koelbl in the early years of her political career. In this more authentic period, her face also has a dreamy, perhaps even melancholic aspect. Melancholy and cheerfulness are not in fact mutually exclusive. Perhaps that’s why she seems rather sad to many people. It’s something she doesn’t like, and has never understood.

At the same time, however, even in this more openly authentic phase there is already the mistrust that Angela Merkel herself says was a personal trait from the outset and which she consciously reinforces as a means of self-protection. In politics, she quickly realizes that the only person she can rely on is herself. It occurs to me that this realization impacted her entire understanding of politics, including how to wield the power invested in her. This is what shaped her, in my impression. Not just the scientific, analytical method of breaking problems down into their individual parts and then seeking solutions, or partial solutions, one step at a time. Also of importance is her cautiousness on principle, a scepticism towards a great vision for the future of any kind, probably because things like that contain too much enthusiasm and fiery spirit. They are no guarantee against possible disappointment.

In another quote, Angela Merkel says: “Basically I move and solve problems in the time that is, and I don’t spend time thinking about the time that will one day be, if you see what I mean – that’s what historians have to do.”  And when she says this she’s not talking primarily about personal reputation, but about the historical long-term dimensions to policy-making.

Without confidence in human nature – despite constant adversity in politics – it is unlikely that anyone could find the political courage to make long-term improvements to people’s lives. Willy Brandt possessed more than his fair share of hope and utopia; without it he could not have embarked on his policy of reconciliation and understanding with the people of Eastern Europe – and of Russia. Helmut Schmidt’s great intelligence and marked sobriety alone could not have brought this reconciliation about.

Christopher Clark and Kristine Spohr conclude their review with the conclusion that we “remember Angela Merkel as a politician who showed the world how to wield power without being in the slightest bit vain”. This lack of vanity has fascinated many observers and earned her, and thus her politics, a high degree of recognition. The fact that she saw through the posturing of her male colleagues Sarkozy, Berlusconi, and even Gerhard Schröder as ridiculous machismo lent respect to her own power, but it doesn’t elicit great admiration from me as a woman. And it’s alright for me as a woman to take her to task on this.

That banal vanity was alien to her is evidenced by her cleverness and the fact that, if anything, she displays power over herself. After all, vanity is the sister of ridiculousness. She did not want to expose herself to this risk, the risk of appearing vain and therefore ridiculous. But is it really enough to say that a predominantly male weakness is the benchmark for measuring how one wields political power?

Clark and Spohr cite further evidence for the wisdom behind Merkel’s politics that stems from that scepticism I mentioned earlier … and I quote: “And she has always recognized the fragility and transience of those things that most people take to be supremely robust: the West as a community of common interests and values, liberal democracy, the institutions that support responsible government, i.e., parliaments, free elections, independent judges, universities as places of free-thinking, the rule of law. As someone who experienced the sudden collapse of a regime and ideology that appeared to have a permanent place on the global stage, she knows what she’s talking about.”

But is knowledge of the “transience” of democracy – just because the GDR itself was transient – necessarily a sign of political wisdom? I’m not sure Angela Merkel herself would be keen on this analogy. It wouldn’t bode well for democracy. For if we no longer believe in democracy’s values … if we let scepticism eat away at its values, then it doesn’t stand a chance. The resolute actions of autocratic regimes would then have the upper hand. Angela Merkel scaled the very heights of political power and did so while maintaining her personal integrity. This in itself is an admirable achievement. She was not seduced by the banal, ignominious temptations of power and she passed them unscathed and without them leaving their trace on her. But perhaps what democracy needs is the courage to overcome scepticism and mistrust. Perhaps it needs the willingness to take risks, to let oneself be disappointed and yet still carry on.