Why you should care
For decades, the German public never bothered about their leaders’ health. Now, it’s demanding greater transparency.
For Gabor Steingart, Angela Merkel’s health is becoming a constitutional issue.
“People’s trust in her is melting away,” the influential commentator and former editor of the Handelsblatt newspaper thundered on Thursday. “There is still no answer to the crucial question — is the chancellor still in full possession of her physical capacities?” The cause for Steingart’s consternation was the trembling fit Merkel suffered at a public event on Wednesday, her third in as many weeks. Suddenly, the chancellor’s well-being has become a matter of deep concern — a novelty in Germany, where the private lives and ailments of politicians are rarely discussed in public.
The new state of affairs was clear for all to see on Thursday when Merkel, who once said she had the constitution of a camel, received Mette Frederiksen, the Danish prime minister. Both women listened to their national anthems sitting down. German officials have been stubbornly tight-lipped about the episodes. In response to a deluge of questions at Wednesday’s regular government press briefing, Ulrike Demmer, Merkel’s spokeswoman, repeatedly insisted that the chancellor, whose fourth term ends in 2021, was “feeling fine.”
You should assume that I know the responsibility that goes with this job and I act accordingly.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel
But Germany’s commentariat is finding the stonewalling increasingly irksome. “The state of the chancellor’s health is no private matter,” says Hans-Georg Maassen, former head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency. “People in Germany have a right to know whether the head of the government is in a fit state to carry out her duties with all her strength.”
On Wednesday Merkel did lift a veil on her most recent attack of shaking. She was, she said, still trying to “process” the first bout on June 18, when she was receiving Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president — an episode she blamed at the time on dehydration.
“There’s obviously a way to go on that, there has been some progress, but it’s just something I will have to live with for a while,” she said. The suggestion was that fear of experiencing another attack was triggering others.
But she insisted there was no need to “worry about me,” and also hinted she had already sought medical attention for the problem. “You should assume that I know the responsibility that goes with this job and I act accordingly,” Merkel said.
Some observers think Merkel should open up more. “The fact that she keeps saying she’s OK just fuels speculation that it’s something really serious,” says Jürgen Falter, a political scientist at the University of Mainz. “It undermines public trust in her much more than if she just came out and said exactly what the problem was.”
Berlin’s obfuscation contrasts with the radical transparency of the United States. There, presidents submit to yearly physical exams, the results of which are publicly released. In February, Donald Trump’s personal physician, Sean Conley, said a team of 11 doctors had examined Trump and expected him to remain healthy “for the remainder of his presidency and beyond.”
That level of disclosure is unheard of in Germany. “But I wouldn’t call it a lack of transparency — it’s more a greater sense of discretion,” says Martin Sabrow of the Leibniz Centre for Contemporary History in Potsdam.
That, he says, reflects the German political system. “We have a different understanding of democracy, which is based more on institutions than personalities,” he says. “It’s a reaction to the charismatic Führer cult of the Nazi era; these days, the politician is not normally supposed to be the focus of people’s attention.”
German chancellors have traditionally remained silent about their health problems. Most Germans did not know, for example, that Willy Brandt suffered debilitating bouts of depression or that Helmut Schmidt was prone to fainting fits. Staff discovered him lying unconscious about a hundred times.
Helmut Kohl kept his prostate problem quiet in 1989 so that he could attend an important Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party conference where his enemies were preparing a putsch. He sat through the event in agony and straight afterward underwent surgery at a hospital in Mainz.
“It doesn’t fit the image of a politician to be sick or weak,” said Interior Minister Horst Seehofer in 2005, three years after he had suffered a serious heart muscle inflammation.
But recently, German politicians have become much more open about their health issues. Malu Dreyer, prime minister of Rhineland-Palatinate, publicly announced she had multiple sclerosis. Mike Mohring, leader of the CDU in Thuringia, admitted he was having treatment for cancer. And Sahra Wagenknecht, a leader of the hard-left Die Linke party, announced in March she was withdrawing from front-line politics for health reasons. She was, she said, “quite burnt out.”
“The health of leaders used to be just a private matter but now it’s more of an issue [of public concern],” says Peter Siebenmorgen, a political biographer. “They are constantly on the move — G-7, G-20, European Council — and they need a cast-iron constitution for that. So it’s legitimate to ask whether they’re in a fit state to carry out their duties.”
Merkel’s mortality came up again at the press conference after talks with Frederiksen on Thursday. Asked how she felt on the eve of her 65th birthday next week, she said she was aware she was not “getting any younger. But you also maybe get more experienced. There’s a good side to everything.”
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