angela merkel

The Philosopher, the Chancellor – and Lady Chatterley

merkel in the kanzleramt laif
Chancellor Merkel is the first woman to lead Germany.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Politics in the 21st century, says the philosopher, does not seek to cure problems, but to delay meaningful action.

  • Facts


    • Peter Sloterdijk is a leading German philosopher and author of  “Critique of Cynical Reason” and the “Spheres” trilogy. Politically, he has described the modern welfare state as a “fiscal kleptocracy.”
    • The philosopher describes Mrs. Merkel’s patron, former chancellor Helmut Kohl, as co-inventor of government by “lethargocracy.” It persists today, he says, as politicians find ways to sit out problems.
    • Mr. Sloterdijk compares modern governments to palliative medicine, in which leaders search for the healthiest way to be chronically ill.
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In November 2015 Angela Merkel will have occupied the office of federal chancellor for 10 years. This November will pass by like so many misty months before it, with low-lying clouds and an understanding that there is no alternative to follow.

We will all gaze in wonder at the date, make a big deal of it and then swiftly forget it. However, it does offer the opportunity to ponder the difference between an anniversary and a turning point. From all we can see right now, we are a long way from the latter.

If everything goes as expected, Mrs. Merkel will remain in office until 2017, although she can reckon with increasing resistance – which will hardly even scratch her Teflon armor.

If things in Germany continue in their now customary ways, the chancellor should be able to rely on voters for a fourth term despite the irreparable mistakes she just made with her edicts on refugee policy. Why not give her a fifth term?

Remarkable as it may sound, the chancellor has maneuvered herself with inconspicuous craft into the position of a woman without contender. Her re-election at the annual meeting of her party, the ruling Christian Democratic Union, in 2012 with an approval of 97.9 percent of votes is an indication of the momentum she has gained. Who could possibly doubt that she has made an art form of sliding on the steep slopes of serendipity?

Helmut Kohl was co-inventor of post-modernist politics that could be called “lethargocracy.” It results from the marriage of power instinct and indolence.

After 10 years of Mrs. Merkel as chancellor there is no turning point. At best, it is an opportunity for an interim report on the open road ahead. Hardly anyone has reason to doubt that in 2021 Angela Merkel has a real chance of catching up with her political patron, Helmut Kohl, who was in office for 16 years.

Because success engenders success – even Jesus himself knew that, as quoted by the disciple Matthew: “To him who has, more will be given.” So it is not beyond reason that the Merkel era could last until 2021, perhaps even until 2025. Mrs. Merkel, a reverend’s daughter, would be the last person to deny Jesus was clearly right.

With a fifth term her term in office would grow to a length normally impossible for democracies. She would have achieved what opposition parties fear and despots dream of. From today’s point of view it is within her capacity.

It is the end of such a period that could then be called a turning point.

It is worth dwelling for a moment on the connection between politics and durability. The rattled Weimar Republic, founded in 1919, kept going for almost 14 years. The inflamed Third Reich burned out in 12 years. The soothing era of West Germany’s first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, that began in 1949 again lasted 14 years. The chancellors who followed, even though their terms weren’t uneventful or without consequence, ran out of breath sooner still.

Since Angela Merkel came to office, the current of German political history has apparently rediscovered a well-trodden path – serenely untroubled by maelstroms of whatever kind.

One thinks involuntarily of the words of Karl Marx, who said it wasn’t a question of solving the contradictions of society, but of giving them form in which they can exist.

If politics is the art of using time to implement things for which it is time, what has actually been done during the Merkel decade?

To get closer to the phenomenon that is Angela Merkel – if closeness is even a suitable concept for such an elusive personality – we should perhaps turn back the pages briefly to the phenomenon that was Helmut Kohl.


merkel selfie refugee DPA
Projecting the self onto Angela Merkel. Source: DPA


He was considered Mrs. Merkel’s patron, but nobody would have thought it possible, at the beginning of his term as chancellor in 1982, that he could be the man to shape the country’s fate up to 1999. Learning from Mr. Kohl meant understanding how important it was to be underestimated by your opponents.

Younger people nowadays are no longer familiar with this literally colossal man. When his name is mentioned they might just remember a big guy from rural Rhineland-Palatinate, whose syntax not always matched the expectations of intellectuals. His appearance proved that “plump” and “good-natured” are not synonymous.

He was seen as someone who loved to eat stuffed pig’s stomach, a specialty of his home town – and who once in his life had had more luck than wit, or to be fair, had had as much wit as luck at the right time. That he was already in his way a post-modernist politician, only few people are willing to admit to this day.

Helmut Kohl was co-inventor of post-modernist politics that could be called “lethargocracy.” It results from the marriage of power instinct and lethargy. It is based on the usually more instinctive than reflective realization that power today is based, to a great extent, on not exercising it or on doing so only informally. This does not exclude its thorough consolidation – on the contrary, consolidation is more than ever its precondition.

The historian Jacob Burckhardt posited at the end of the 19th century that power, by definition, was evil. This was his way of not only expressing the old Swiss privilege of not having to obey any rule, neither that of a royal family nor an army of occupation.

As a voice of the good Europeans of his time Mr. Burckhardt articulated the spontaneous feelings of politically uninvolved new nations with regard to their governments. For him, free nations were those that kept in check the trend of the powerful and all-too-powerful to become evil – with a well thought out framework of institutions and controls.

Bearing in mind Mr. Burckhardt’s shrewd theory, it is also possible to understand how in more recent times the collective masses could be mentally corrupted. Where an emotional plague spreads, the masses cheer on evil perpetrators as if they were participating themselves in the frenzy of power.

It was the achievement of Helmut Kohl – and some of his predecessors and successors – that he practically eliminated power-based evil from German politics, domestically, as well as internationally. That the price for this was a lethargocratic style of government will not have bothered him unduly.

Palliative politics is the search for the most authoritative – or least ridiculous – way to be chronically out of one’s depth.

This style is characterized by developing sitting out problems into a veritable governing technique. Politicians increasingly avoid shaping politics. They do not act, they react. They do not prevent, they are just horrified when reality knocks at the door. They are happy to wait until a problem is perceived to be so urgent by the public, thanks to alarm calls from the media, that some action on part of the pig-stomach-eating elite becomes unavoidable.

To understand the phenomenon that is Angela Merkel, we have to return to the discovery of lethargocracy in the Kohl era. Lethargocracy is, in effect, highly adaptable lethargy by a head of state, always ready for opportunities of historic proportions.

Mr. Kohl showed how this is done. His political daughter has forgotten nothing of this lesson.

One of the paradoxes of post-modernist politics is that lethargy in power can actually involve working 14-hour days, seven days a week, including the most distant state visits. Jacob Burckhardt saw this too, when he noted that history often required strenuous events and a disproportionate amount of noise to achieve relatively little.

The Merkel decade has given the public a basketful of clumsy expressions, which will be seen in later years as the guiding verbal fossils of its time: energy transition, rescue package, debt haircut, eavesdropping practice, refugee summit, Grexit and welcoming culture, to name a few. (An amusing addition is the so-called “Merkel-diamond,” to describe the way she holds her hands in front of her stomach, as if to immunize herself against outside influence, in front of photographers.)

These word creations reflect the basic embarrassment of post-modernist politicians that they cannot offer much more than chronic crisis management. They reveal something of a compulsion of having to do so much to so little effect.

The structural change of politics, to become an oversized breakdown service, is best explained by looking at modern natural medicine. For some time now, it has differentiated between curative and palliative medicine. Curative medicine comprises those treatments that have the direct objective of restoring health.

Palliative (from the Latin pallium for cloak) applies to measures that “cover up” untreatable conditions, that is, to relieve and extend without promising a cure. Especially in aging populations, with their usual high rates of sickness, the palliative approach is all the rage. To put it briefly: Palliative medicine is the search for the healthiest way to be chronically ill.

In view of current circumstances, it is appropriate to apply this differentiation to the political arena. Palliative politics is the search for the most authoritative – or least ridiculous – way to be chronically out of one’s depth. And that is the key characteristic of the lethargocratic style of government, which Mr. Kohl and Mrs. Merkel have made indigenous in the Federal Republic of Germany. And unless we are all mistaken, lethargocracy’s best years are yet to come.

You do not need to be a psychic to understand that the incurable will continue to run away from available treatments. The 21st century can only be a palliative political era, because we can no longer imagine a “cured” world or a global community not in crisis. Angela Merkel has already made essential contributions to the physiognomy of palliative politics.

Of course, these observations apply particularly to monetary policy and state finances. It must be clear to every observer that, for a long time, monetary and financial policy can only be pursued in a palliative economy. The incurable system of indebted states and their dependence on central banks – Handelsblatt’s publisher, Gabor Steingart, recently called it the “bastard economy” – continues to introduce new excessive demands in the political arena, spurning players on to ever more palliative political efforts.

And here the clever expression “path dependency” is appropriate. If you have done the wrong thing for long enough, then continuing to do the wrong thing is temporarily the right thing. You might even suggest the term “Krugman effect,” after the U.S. economist who spurns balanced budgets and austerity in favor of more and more spending.

But following the concept of palliative medicine, covering up the symptoms is not a permanent solution. Palliative doctors know that even an alleviated untreatable condition will sooner or later have an end. Only the foreseeable future will show whether palliative politics – and the palliative economy – will realize that the current modus operandi is unsustainable in the long run.

Merkel, the most powerful woman in the world; Merkel, Europe’s domina; Merkel, the disciplinarian of the Greeks; Merkel, the mistress of the fourth Reich; Merkel, the figurehead of the new German egoism; Merkel, the maiden queen of the 21st century; Merkel, the praying mantis biting off the heads of males who get too close; Merkel, the pseudo-conservative who snubs the Pope; Merkel, the closeted green who briskly dismisses nuclear power; Merkel, the politician who blows with the wind; Merkel, the crypto-socialist passing all opposition on the left; Merkel, the one-quarter Jew committed to Zionism; Merkel, the chancellor of the working man; Merkel, with the low-cut dress in Oslo; Merkel, the modest; Merkel, the celebrated; Merkel, the mama; Merkel, the obfuscator; Merkel, the staller; Merkel, the abrupt; Merkel, the jellyfish; Merkel, the sphinx.

It is impossible to deny a cult of personality has grown up around the chancellor that shapes her future public perception. There likely are few individuals in Germany whose existence has been so overly interpreted. Other public figures look like they’re made from glass next to her.

Like so many other politicians in the limelight, Angela Merkel also has learned that a large part of life’s accomplishment consists of ignoring other people’s judgments about yourself and what you do. Everyone who makes it to the top has done this. They must realize if they extend a finger to those who are pulling them down, they risk losing not just their hand, but also their whole arm.

Mrs. Merkel proved there is such a thing as ignoring too much when she declined to receive Juli Zeh, the civil liberties activist, after the latter wrote an incisive – and unanswered – open letter to the chancellor in the German weekly newspaper, Die Zeit, two years ago. Mrs. Zeh wanted to present a list of almost 70,000 German citizens protesting efforts by surveillance agencies to Mrs. Merkel.

Unlike German President Joachim Gauck, who embodies the other face of East German political Protestantism, the chancellor possesses none of the pathos of a life in freedom. If someone from the other side of the Atlantic is listening in on her conversations, she thinks, “We used to be watched a lot more before, and still became what we are today.”

Eventually, the phenomenon, or anti-phenomenon, of Angela Merkel challenges the value of pragmatism in politics. Observers often state Mrs. Merkel is a quintessential pragmatist. They usually forget to ask what pragmatism actually means.

Pragmatism is the submission by adults to what is considered the power of reality.

Reality, however, is frequently nothing more other than the wreckage of collapsed exaggerations. As a true daughter of the communist German Democratic Republic, Angela Merkel knew all too well what life means underneath the ruins of the disproved, exaggerated idealization labeled “real socialism.” It means making do with little and tenaciously minding your own business.

We probably should see in her a long-lost sister of Lady Chatterley. Too little attention has been paid to the fact that in her own way Mrs. Merkel offers a fine example of feminine pragmatism. Lady Chatterley’s husband came home from the war a wreck and that was the reality. As the lawful wife of a wreck, she needed to cope. Doesn’t the will to cope with the situation create indestructible morals?

As strange as it may sound, Angela Merkel and the English Lady have these morals in common, minus the eroticism that differentiates them. Novelist D. H. Lawrence expressed it with inimitable simplicity: “We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies had fallen.” He might have added, you get somewhere else what you don’t find in the emptied skies.

It was Angela Merkel’s fate not to fall into the arms of a gamekeeper. She found her own destiny in another hunting ground.

Her charm had an effect on the men from the German West, who carried within them the lofty rigidity of institutions and suffered under ossified torpidity. Her climb up the ladder of the center-right Christian Democratic Union of Germany had something about it like sleepwalking, if it’s possible to talk about sleepwalking in systems active during the day.

Mrs. Merkel’s secret is her inner synchronization with the longings of the Germans for something they seldom have experienced in the past century. She answers the longing for normality. It already can be said the Merkel years were a time where the sacred marriage of a population with normality was celebrated.

The strange celebration was made possible by the fact that Angela Merkel, from a psychological perspective, epitomized a container-personality. There is enough room for every sort of projection in a container-politician. The price for such delegating is depoliticization.

Was Hegel correct when he contended humanity’s happiest times are the empty pages in history? The Merkel years are yielding dense pages of European history. They leap out at the reader like an ambiguous image, one of those reversible optical illusions that, depending on how you look at it, first appears to be a young girl’s face but suddenly is a bent-over old woman.

In this case, the image jumps between bright, cheery figures and those of horror. When the decade is summed up, it appears cheery because it turned out more successfully for Germans, overall, than was expected. And one of horror because ulcers of incurable reality become clearly apparent through the tears in the coating of pragmatism.

The abrupt association of Mrs. Merkel with Lady Chatterley can’t stand without an intermediary link. The constellation appears too much like a novel, too fanciful to be taken seriously. Unless there was a writer, ready to pen in detail how the spark jumped between the dissimilar women while sipping pragmatic tea.

All too many of Ms. Merkel’s supporters are content with sugar coating. Only sober perception could help them set their distortions straight.

Don’t they have one decisive factor in common? Don’t both think: Who lets themselves be taken off course simply because one or the other sky has fallen?

The search for such an author would end after a short time if, against all probability, he hadn’t have come forward, voluntarily and without coercion, in an indirect manner.

In September 2013, three people met on stage of the Berliner Ensemble theater that could rightly be labeled “older gentlemen.” Writer and poet Martin Walser and I myself sat up there, while Swiss journalist Frank A. Meyer performed his duties as organizer of the “Cicero” discussions. The title of the discussion was, “Nothing is more than beautiful. On the condition of the world.”

From the beginning, Mr. Walser made clear he was interested in developing a language of agreement. The world is so full of beauty it would be insane to close your eyes. And what is beauty, if not an invitation to respond in the affirmative. Even the passengers in his plane to Berlin were beautiful, he said. In the face of such a confession, it is best to keep your own, contrasting examples to yourself.

I don’t know anymore how we ended up discussing Angela Merkel. Probably, Mr. Walser wanted to put his efforts to see the world beautifully to a test with a difficult subject. One thing is certain. He spared no expense in his will to affirmative thinking. He commenced a song of praise to the chancellor’s appearance. The audience in the full house realized they hadn’t come to Bertolt Brecht Platz this Sunday morning for nothing. Epic theater lives when the right ones are on stage. Yes, Angela Merkel is also beautiful. You just have to see how she laughs sometimes.

It is remarkable Mr. Walser found a partner in Frank A. Meyer. He was ready to sing the second part and harmonize in a song of the sensual beauty of the chancellor, which he as a Swiss citizen, was not obligated to do. More remarkable was the inclination spread in the Berliner Ensembles audience, which is known to be rather critical, to agree with the rhapsodizing speaker. The audience left the hall an hour later, amazed at their own susceptibility to be seduced by levitation.

It would seem they learned about the subtle difference between seeing beauty in things and making things look beautiful. All too many of Mrs. Merkel’s supporters are content with sugar coating. Only sober perception could help them set their distortions straight.

But whoever can see beauty in the chancellor as the poet did should be able to intuit how a conversation between Angela Merkel and Connie Chatterley would have gone. The tenor of feminine pragmatism is easy to guess: You have to take life as it comes, even when excessive idealization is no longer of help to us. A gamekeeper will also do. And in case one isn’t handy, a CDU, Mrs. Merkel’s cantankerous but compliant conservative party, will do.


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