July 17 – Happy Birthday, Angela Merkel

Posted on July 17, 2018

Today's famous birthday has been called "the Leader of the Free World."

First - wow! A woman is the "Leader of the Free World"?

That's very cool!

Second - what does "Leader of the Free World" even mean?

Well, during the Cold War (the hostile-but-not-actually-fighting-battles relationship between the Soviet bloc countries and the U.S.-led Western powers, from 1945 to 1990), people used to say that the American president, whoever it was at the time, was the Leader of the Free World.

But when Donald Trump was elected to the presidency, he was so unpopular at home and abroad, so vigorously protested and resisted by so many, many political observers pointed out that he had abdicated the informal title of Leader of the Free World. These commenters have gone on to say that the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, who is the de facto leader of the European Union, was now the Leader of the Free World.

Angela Merkel knows something about freedom, because, although she was born on this date in 1954 in what was then West Germany, when she was just three months old her parents moved her to East Germany. She grew up behind the "Iron Curtain," which means that the Soviet Union put into place a communist regime and continued to wield influence on the nation.

Merkel has said that the building of the Berlin Wall, when she was just 7 years old, was her first political memory. She has talked about people being stunned to see the wall, which was thrown up around the West German portion of Berlin overnight. Adults - including her parents - cried. 

You see, West Berlin was a bit of democracy in the Soviet-controlled nation, a way for East Germans to escape to freedom. That West Berlin was used as an escape hatch or loophole is of course exactly why that wall was built. Note that the wall was meant to keep citizens in, it was not meant to keep foreigners out.

Merkel's upbringing in a Soviet-bloc nation meant that she was mandated to study the Russian language and was heavily pressured to join the official communist youth movement. However, she resisted some of the dictates of the ruling culture, participating in religious practices, for example, and helping with a student-run project.

Merkel studied physics in university was awarded a doctorate for her work in quantum chemistry. She worked as a scientific researcher and published several papers, but she turned down a professorship job she wanted because it would have involved spying on her colleagues for the government.

When the Berlin Wall came down in late 1989 inspired Merkel to get involved in politics, as she joined the democracy movement and then became the deputy spokesperson for the government that was put into place by East Germany's first and last free, multi-party election. Soon East Germany and West Germany were unified into one nation, in 1990.

In the first federal election after reunification, Merkel was voted into parliament. She became chancellor when her party formed a coalition with another party in order to form a viable government, and the majority of delegates of the two parties chose her to lead. That was in 2005. She's headed Germany, and to some extent Europe and even the world, ever since.

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