This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
Fact: at some point in her life, Angela Merkel was young.
I know it's true because that's how life works, but I still find it hard to believe. When I try to imagine Merkel as a young girl, I still see her as our 63-year-old chancellor – with the same bowl cut and the same practical fashion sense. I can't imagine she's ever let herself go, gone to a party, danced with her eyes closed or chatted up a boy. I can't imagine her, even then, ever thinking about anything other than how to run our country.
This Sunday, the 24th of September, she's likely to win a fourth term as chancellor. She has been in charge of Germany for 12 years and I still don't feel like I know her at all. For me, the best way to understand a person is to try to relate to them. So that's what I did – I looked into the rare times she's revealed anything about what she was like growing up, in order to answer the simple question: If I had known Angela Merkel when we were growing up, would we have been mates?
Her early days were pretty different to mine. She was born in Hamburg in West Germany, but when she was just two months old her family moved to a rural area in communist East Germany. Her father, a protestant minister, was offered a job there. "I grew up in a bad country, but the landscape was beautiful," Merkel said in an interview with Der Spiegel. She claimed that Templin, the small town she was raised in, smelled of pine and hay and, in autumn, of potatoes. So she was close to nature, and that poses the first problem for our potential friendship – I grew up in the middle of Berlin. The only connection I had to nature was the local petting zoo, where us kids and a few poor goats would stare at each other in mutual disappointment.
Of course, growing up in a different environment doesn't mean friendship is out of the question – it's what you do together that counts. Could we have painted the town red together, as young girls? Not really, no. Angela Merkel claims that the naughtiest thing she ever did as a kid was "climbing into a hollow tree trunk while wearing a brand new tracksuit I had received as a gift". I'd say that's a tiny bit naughtier than Theresa May's unauthorised dash through a local farmer's field of wheat – but not by a lot. I'm not sure if both May and Merkel never did anything naughty as kids because they're daughters of ministers, or just that they're both lying about it because they're politicians.
In the interview with Der Spiegel Merkel admits that, even at five years old, she had a fear of adventure; before doing anything, she asked her parents to explain to her what to expect: "What normal people can just do naturally, I have to mentally process first, and laboriously practice." I think it's clear that Merkel wouldn't have been the biggest riot to play with, but I wasn't all that judgmental at five. I see no reason why I wouldn't have gotten along with her at that age.
The first time Angela Merkel got drunk, she fell off a boat. "I had too much cherry whiskey and forgot that I needed to steady myself when the guy next to me stood up," she confided in Der Spiegel. I think that, at the age when we first started experimenting with booze, we could have been great drinking buddies for a while: the first time I got drunk I fell flat on my face because of all the Jäger shots I'd had.
Our boozy days wouldn't have lasted long – Merkel didn't tumble out of many boats after that first time, and I managed to keep standing too. At parties, "I was the girl that ate peanuts and never danced," she said in the interview. If we had wandered into the same school dance as girls, I can totally imagine us finding each other in a corner, our eyes on the disco ball, our hands in the peanut bowl. Maybe we would have bopped our heads to the Puhdys, one of her favourite German rock bands.
Merkel has claimed she never took drugs. "I didn't enjoy dancing or smoking," she said, "and would rather take part in a Russian-language competition or an extra maths class." I don't speak Russian, but I know the feeling. I've always had lots of friends – they were just the kind that didn't judge me for spending my weekends in debate club. I think Angela Merkel wouldn't have judged me, either.
I do suspect that our friendship, like many before it, would have faded out during uni. It would have taken me as much time to understand the title of her dissertation as she spent writing it – it's called Der Einfluß der räumlichen Korrelation auf die Reaktionsgeschwindigkeit bei bimolekularen Elementarreaktionen in dichten Medien, which, I guess, translates into something unreadable like The Influence of Spatial Correlation on the Reaction Time in Bimolecular Elementary Reactions in Dense Media. Or something. I don't think we could have had any riveting chats about her field of interest, quantum chemistry.
Her love of politics started at university. She joined the Free German Youth (FDJ) – a socialist movement with official ties to the East German regime. Coming from a middle-class, religious family, she didn't naturally fit in. In order to graduate, students were tested on their knowledge of socialist values. Merkel had been top of her class up until that point, but she only managed to get a "satisfactory" on that last test. It's not that surprising – she's admitted that while living under a communist regime she always did what the system asked of her, but nothing more. "I always behaved in such a way that I wouldn't have to live in conflict with the government," Merkel explained in an interview with photographer Herlinde Koelbl. "If I hadn't, they could've used any excuse to keep me from graduating."
If there's anything we could have talked about at that age, it was her personal life. She married her first husband, Ulrich Merkel, when she was 23, and they divorced five years later. "We got married because everyone got married," she explained to Der Spiegel. "This might sound silly today, but I never really approached the relationship with the necessary seriousness it needed to survive." None of my friends got married so young, but I appreciate the insight that Merkel has about it now – especially coming from a person who is so meticulous about everything. Though she wasn't exactly driven by blind passion, it's still a youthful mistake. And in the end, that's what friends are for – to laugh at you for doing stupid shit and then help you get out of your predicament.
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But then there's her politics. Don't get me wrong, I don't have to agree with my mates on everything. But Merkel has voted against the legalisation of gay marriage, rejected a number of positive discrimination laws that would have benefited women, and actively supports nuclear power. I wouldn't be able to overlook those issues. It's one thing to agree to disagree with an obnoxious friend over a drink in the pub, but when that friend is the most powerful woman in European politics and directly influences the direction the country's taking, I would expect some more sense on those matters.
Faith plays a big part in Merkel's life, and her favourite Bible verse reads, "Now faith, hope, love, these three remain, but love is the greatest." I am not the least bit religious, but I do like this version of her – the Merkel who loves that verse is the one who ruined her new tracksuit by climbing in a hollow tree trunk, doesn't like to dance and fell off a boat drunk on cherry-whiskey. I could have been friends with that Merkel, but we wouldn't have had much in common as grown-ups.
Mind you, I suppose the real question is: would she have wanted to be friends with me?