Merkel’s ‘Mutti System’ and German democracy
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Merkel’s ‘Mutti System’ and German democracy

Psychoanalysts have always had fun with Angela Merkel. But in this election campaign, critics say the mother symbolism amounts to a “personality cult.”

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Last weekend, as the German election campaign moved into its final week, Social Democrat candidate Peer Steinbrück – as consummate a career politician as ever made a gaffe – had a brain-freeze and managed to insult the entire electorate. With advisors around him pleading to his last scrap of sanity, the desperate candidate approved a cover photo for one of Germany’s biggest weekend supplements that showed him thrusting a middle finger at the reader with a sneer of contempt on his face.

It was, the pundits all agreed, probably the fatal blow to Steinbrück’s slim chances. But it was also  a fitting gaffe to close on, because it worked so well as a vulgar counterpoint to the hand gesture that has floated above this election projecting wisdom, serenity, and Zen concentration: Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “Raute” (literally, her “rhombus”) – fingers touched carefully together, pointing down, held in front of the abdomen (or in front of her power chakra, one columnist pointed out) to make a diamond shape. It’s been her trademark for some years now, but until this election, it was no more than a gift to the cabaret impressionists. Now, with Merkel’s popularity by far her government’s biggest asset, the Raute has become so much more than that.

Three weeks before election day, the Christian Democrat campaign team pulled off a coup when they unveiled an iconographic image: Merkel’s hands magnified to monstrous proportions on a 2,400-square-metre poster in the heart of the German capital, an image made up of a collage of thousands of photos of those hands doing that thing. Those big hands are still hanging there now, reaching out to the chancellery building just a stone’s throw away.

More unnervingly still, the Junge Union (the CDU’s youth wing, by its own account the biggest political youth organization in Europe) incorporated the Raute into a parody of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” motif – and are so delighted with it that they go round doing “Merkel hands” themselves, as a sign of loyalty to the leader they have started calling “Mutti,” or “Mummy”. As a result, this already surreal campaign now includes the spectacle of boys who define themselves as Merkel’s children forming with their hands something that seems to represent the womb from which they wish they’d sprung.

The opposition parties exploded in ridicule and outrage at all this. One Social Democrat spluttered that this poster represented “a monstrous, empty, personality cult,” – as if the CDU were turning Germany into Chairman Mao’s China, or even Mr. Burns’ Springfield. But the rage, like everything aimed at Merkel’s unassailable person, was futile, because the chancellor doesn’t just inspire loyalty in Germany’s callow youth – she inspires it in the population at large.

Psychotherapist Tilmann Moser, writing in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, came to the conclusion that, over the past eight years, Merkel has turned herself into nothing less than Germany’s Madonna, and voters are drawn to her as instinctively as they are to a holy mother. Unlike Margaret Thatcher, he went on, she does not deliberately polarize, but wins over the population through sheer self-assurance and the promise of redemption. In the parlance of psychoanalysis, this is classic transference behaviour: “In such a ‘regressive’ trust in the mother, one rejects change, one represses one’s own doubts, and one raises reliance and devotion to a category way above that of day-to-day politics.” No wonder Merkel always seems to rise above political debate, and avoids all controversy. “You can listen to her speak for an hour, and not remember anything she said,” one reporter has said.

Of course, whenever a woman gets anywhere near political power, the psychoanalysts come out to play. This was true 13 years ago, at Merkel’s political ascension to the CDU leadership. Then, she was identified as the female Oedipus – the one who had to kill her political father Helmut Kohl (whose reign had become toxic in a party donations scandal), to take control. Misogyny obviously played a part in Merkel’s rise to power, but since she owed so much to Kohl’s patriarchal nurturing, this also invested their relationship with a dangerous tension: “On the one hand, Angela Merkel was promoted by Kohl, on the other she was always dismissed as ‘the girl’,” observed psychoanalyst Thea Bauriedl in an interview with Die Zeit in 2000. Kohl’s subconscious message to Merkel was: “You are important, but inferior,” (a common father-daughter dynamic) and since this tension was never resolved, Merkel’s reaction was political patricide.

But over a decade later, we have a very different Merkel on our hands. Power has turned the “girl” into a mother, and the psychoanalyst Torsten Milsch, author of a book called “The Secret Dictatorship of  Mothers,” appeared on TV channel 3Sat earlier this year to offer his own diagnosis of Merkel’s “Mummy System.” Picking up on a quotation in which Merkel described how she lived “a schizophrenic life” under the East German dictatorship – hiding her true thoughts from the regime – the venerable analyst concluded that she has adapted this mastery of dissembling to her political life so thoroughly that she lacks both “empathy and dialogue ability.” Now she is so revered that there is no one left to question her, either in her government, in her party, or in half the German population. Merkel has gradually surrounded herself with yes-men (“more and more often women,” reckons Milsch), making herself its mother-dictator and consequently weakening Germany’s democracy.

Whatever you make of this, it’s true that Merkel’s ultra-passive leadership style has created a vacuum around her – a friction-free zone that appears to comfort the German electorate. This is not just because her policies, so many of which have been swiped from her centre-left opponents, have split the difference on many issues – she is so popular that people get instinctively defensive when anyone criticizes her at all. And, probably because she happens to be a woman, we also get a few zealous psychoanalytic explanations for why this election only ever had one winner, middle finger or no middle finger.