Why hadn’t someone already thought of such an obvious solution? During the new Danish prime minister’s visit to Berlin on Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her guest, Mette Frederiksen, were seated in chairs. Merkel sat calmly through military honors and listened to both countries’ national anthems without shaking.
Third shaking spell in weeks
On Wednesday, Merkel, 64, suffered a third bout of shaking within the space of a few weeks while standing in the courtyard at the Chancellery. But before long, she seemed her usual self again — the chancellor that many have long come to know: calm, matter-of-fact, emotionally restrained but with a slight smile.
“I am doing well. As I have recently said, since the military honors with [Ukrainian President] Volodymyr Zelenskiy, I have been in a processing phase. That is apparently not yet completely finished, but progress has been made. And I have to live with it for a while now. I am fine,” Merkel said just an hour after she was seen shaking uncontrollably again.
Is the chancellor unwell? Is she running out of steam? The day following the latest shaking spell, the front page of Germany’s mass circulation Bild newspaper read: “It just doesn’t stop.”
Merkel’s health began making headlines after she was seen shaking during a reception for Zelensky in mid-June in the courtyard of the Chancellery. But nine days later during a farewell ceremony for the outgoing justice minister, Merkel was seen shaking again — this time holding her hands in front of her body. But once moving, she was back to normal.
A simple case of dehydration?
In the first incident alongside the Ukrainian president, the official line was that Merkel was not sufficiently hydrated. Indeed, temperatures in Berlin were scorching that day. After the second shaking spell, German media reported that a possible cause may be psychological.
While health issues are a fact of life, German politicians have long treated them like they were state secrets. Only a few minutes before Merkel publicly commented that she had to live with the occasional shaking, her spokesperson, Ulrike Demmer, went on a reassurance offensive, emphasizing that all is well with the chancellor: “In the past three weeks, she not only attended all appointments but also made great achievements.” And this is true: Merkel has not canceled a single meeting, and she negotiated well into the night at the G20 summit in Japan after having declared: “I am fine!”
Germany: Unaccustomed to leaders falling ill
The resulting frank discussions on how the chancellor is faring and the fact that Merkel is taking a stand in openly addressing her health is a sign of an evolving German political landscape.
In the past, reporting on the health of chancellors has been an exception rather than the norm. In the 1970s, the then-chancellor from the center-left Social Democrat party, Willy Brandt, experienced long periods of depression unbeknownst to the public. Similarly, in 1989, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, former Chancellor Helmut Kohl survived an attempt by his conservative colleagues to oust him at a party conference while he was in excruciating pain from a prostate illness. No one knew that Kohl was unwell at the time.
Evidently these chancellors knew what they were doing: Germans, who view dependability as a great asset in politicians, do not like it when their leaders show signs of weakness. And, usually, they do not want to know about it either.
Politicians in Germany are also afforded more privacy than in other democracies where the topic of leaders’ health is dealt with differently. In France, it is not improper to discuss the president’s health; likewise, in the US, the press even reports on the president’s bloodwork. But that level of transparency hasn’t always been the norm. Former presidents such as Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were seriously ill while in office, but the public were provided few, if any details.
The way that the illnesses of public figures are viewed is changing in Germany, and certain individuals have contributed to this shift. The popular Social Democratic state premier of Rhineland-Palatinate, Malu Dreyer, has always been open about her battle with multiple sclerosis.
For the strictly controlled states around the world, this topic becomes difficult. Dictators and autocrats rarely fall ill — at least not officially. Instead, images such as those of Russian President Vladimir Putin riding a horse shirtless through the wilderness reinforce the perception of a strong leader.
Merkel has since diffused some of the drama surrounding her health, telling reporters: “You don’t have to worry about me.” In doing so, she’s set about getting on with it.
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