4th Mar 2024


Long ago, there was another Angela Merkel

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Angela Merkel, who will soon step down as Germany's chancellor after 16 years, has a portrait of Catherine the Great in her office. Many people have asked her why. Merkel always answers that the 18th century Russian tsarina is her role model, and that she admires Catharine for her perseverance and for initiating sweeping modernisation in healthcare and education in Russia.

Still, this comparison is a little strange.

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For there is one female leader in European history whom Merkel resembles much more than the fiery, authoritarian Catherine, who once staged a coup with her lover against her husband and whose greatest ambition it was to make Russia ever larger and mightier: the Habsburg empress Maria-Theresia.

Maria-Theresia, a contemporary of Catherine who lived from 1717 to 1780 (the 18th century was the century of powerful women), was a cautious, conservative leader. She did everything one step at a time, hated conflict, and was driven by moral standards rather than power politics or a penchant for grandeur.

And, coincidence or not, Maria-Theresia was also nicknamed "Mutti" [Mother].

She was, in fact, the real Mutti of the two. She bore 16 children, ten of whom survived into adulthood. Her husband, Franz Stephan of Lorraine, was Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

Together, the couple ruled much of Europe. Both in temperament and on content the spouses were often at odds. Maria-Theresia usually tried to protect the interests of her country without harming those of her husband. Instinctively trying to seek compromises and paper over cracks, she often ended up more or less getting her way in the end.

Anyone who has seen chancellor Merkel struggling with Germany's China or Russia policy or the euro crisis in recent years, will notice the similarity: she has the same moderate temperament as Maria-Theresia.

Maria-Theresia ascended the throne as a 23-year-old, in 1740, because her father had no male heir. The law had to be changed for her to succeed him. So as not to offend anyone and not to add to her husband's inferiority complex, she had herself crowned Queen, not Empress. So while she was called Empress, officially, she was not. She did not care.

European rivals, however, immediately seized the opportunity to occupy parts of her empire. Frederick II of Prussia (Frederick the Great), for example, annexed Silesia. Initially, Maria-Theresia could hardly respond: she had inherited an almost empty state treasury, and the Habsburg army was small and unmotivated.

The new empress immediately set out to form alliances with mighty neighbours who could help militarily and financially. And as a way to keep the many nations and language groups inside the empire loyal and motivated, she also decided to start investing in education, science, health care, and an independent justice - like tsarina Catherine, but on a larger scale. Maria-Theresia was the founder of the legendary Habsburg bureaucracy, the first real state administration in Europe. Some of 'her' libraries, courts, schools and land registers are still in use today.

Eventually, Maria-Theresia drove Prussian troops from her territory. But she stopped at the border, refusing to invade Prussia in return.

When Catherine proposed to her and Frederick to divide Poland among the three of them, Maria-Theresa initially declined. Later, when her son Joseph II (her foreign minister) wanted to declare war on Frederick, she tried to dissuade him. When she failed, she tried making peace with Prussia behind Joseph's back. Although she despised Frederick, she stuck to her motto "better a mediocre peace than a glorious war".

Three centuries later, Angela Merkel operates in a similar way. While French presidents often advocate a 'two-speed Europe', with its core integrating faster than the periphery, Merkel preferred to keep all EU countries together - even if this slowed down European integration.

Muddling through like this, she kept Hungarian prime minister Orbán in the conservative European family for years. She also refused to sanction Russia with a shutdown of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

Merkel's aversion of confrontations and conflicts is reminiscent of Maria-Theresia, who married off her daughters and nieces to avoid war. Marie-Antoinette, her youngest daughter, married Louis XVI to cement peace with France (and ended up on the scaffold).

The empress was such a devout Catholic that she even punished adulterers at court. Merkel is not a religious fanatic. But she has a similar aversion to raw power politics, instead using compassion, her conscience and Christian morality as a guide – "Wir schaffen das" [We can manage this], during the refugee crisis in 2015, is a good example.

The first to call the childless chancellor "Mutti" was her former economy minister Michael Glos (CSU) – no fan of hers. One chilly day she ran into him before the Bundestag. He had no coat on, and she told him to put on something warm. She spoke to him as to a child: patronising, friendly and concerned. "Mutti" was the only nickname for Merkel that ever stuck. Once, when asked what she thought of it, she said it was "affectionate".

Maria-Theresia was also very much a Mutti – also called Magna Mater Austriae, she bore the state as she bore her children.

In her biography Le Pouvoir Au Féminin, French historian Elisabeth Badinter quotes from the empress' letters to friends in which she wrote about her dread of yet another pregnancy and her fear to die in childbirth. Letters to her husband and son show that she was in constant doubt and was not afraid to show it.

For Badinter, this makes Maria-Theresia a modern monarch: she was the first "to combine her public person with her private person". Previous monarchs had been cold, shielding their private lives. The empress, by contrast, took her children everywhere and had her family painted just the way royals nowadays organise photo sessions at home to show how 'normal' they are. She often walked in the streets of Vienna and regularly received citizens to hear what was going on in the empire.

Merkel, too, is both a doubter and a mensch. She takes time weighing different arguments before she takes decisions, severely testing her interlocutors' patience – as anyone working on rescue packages for Greece during the euro crisis can testify.

And she, too, is not afraid to show that she is both a chancellor and an ordinary human being. She is often spotted behind a shopping cart in a Berlin supermarket, queueing like everyone else.

Both the empress and the chancellor liked to keep things on track, ensure cohesion and avoid conflict.

Maria-Theresia once wrote to her daughter Marie-Antoinette, the queen of France: "We live in this world to be good to our fellow men. On your shoulders rests an enormous responsibility, for we are not here only for ourselves, let alone to just entertain ourselves."

The adventurous Catherine the Great would never have written this. But Angela Merkel could have - every word.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. This column is an edited version of a recent piece in NRC.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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