This week (on the 17th July 2019), Angela Merkel celebrated her 65th Birthday. Despite approaching the German retirement age, Merkel intends to remain chancellor until the end of her term in 2021. However, her fitness for office has been questioned by the media over the last month, following a series of public “shaking attacks”.
In June, while welcoming Ukraine’s new president to Berlin, Merkel was seen shaking as she stood for the anthem during unusually hot weather. She recovered shortly after, and carried on the meeting as normal, and the incident was described as being the result of dehydration. Nine days later, she was again seen shaking in public during an event with the German president. Then, last week, a third public shaking incident happened during an event welcoming Finland’s prime minister to Berlin. As the third incident also happened during the national anthem, a government spokesperson has described it as psychological and attributing it to fears about the potential for the trembling to happen again. Therefore, in subsequent public appearances, Merkel and other international leaders have sat while listening to the national anthem instead of standing as normal.
Merkel is known as a strong female leader, famous for her discipline and stamina. She has previously spoken about how her “camel-like” abilities to store sleep allow her to work for long stretches of time without rest and give her the strength to come with sometimes marathon negotiation sessions. While there was a similar incident in Mexico during 2017, where Merkel was seen shaking, medical checks at the time found nothing serious wrong.
Merkel has repeatedly made assurances that there is no need to worry, stating on July the 10th that; “I’ll have to live with this for a while. But I’m very well. You don’t have to be concerned. I believe this will go the way it came. Meanwhile, I’m convinced I am fit to perform.” As such, she has continued to work as normal, and has cancelled none of her planned activities. However, now every public appearance she makes is being closely watched for potential signs of illness. This was particularly clear when media reports described her as “fighting for breath” at a press conference during her recent visit to Paris, with a government spokesperson forced to clarify that Merkel had appeared slightly breathless after rushing up some stairs to arrive at the press conference on time.
The German media is largely respectful of Merkel’s privacy – insisting that she should be taken at her word. This is also reflected in the general public in Germany, with 59% of German voters polled believing that Merkel does not have to reveal any information about her health, and only 34% calling for a more detailed diagnosis to be made public. As such, while Merkel’s second trembling attach was front page news of the Bild, Germany’s popular daily tabloid, many other German news outlets just repeated a short news agency report on it, with the public broadcasters ARD and ZDF running the news briefly and relatively low down in their bulletins.
Coming from the UK, it is immediately obvious that the German media is usually noticeably more restrained within its coverage of controversial events than the often sensationalist British tabloid media is. Most of the coverage that I have seem of Merkel’s supposed illness comes from sources outside of Germany – and particularly from the UK. Media consultancy expert Tom Vesey, argues that British culture encourages the British media to go to greater extremes than their counterparts in other European countries – pointing to other aspects of society like binge drinking to argue that the British public “responds to events with both aggression and excess, so the media simply feed this back into society”. In comparison, German media analyst Jo Groebel argues that “in Germany too drastic reporting, too much diving into people's private sphere, would not be welcomed by an audience, it would say, 'Leave people alone - that's not fair and that's unethical … it's not the same kind of culture of reporting, having practically no borders or hesitation to dive into the lives of private people.” Germans are generally supportive of personal privacy, which is often seen as a response to the traumatic effect that intrusive surveillance under both Nazi and communist rule had on the German public.
However, while many Germans clearly feel protective towards Merkel and her privacy (particularily her fans who often call her "Mutti" meaning "mother"), this is not the case across the whole of society. Critics of Merkel, particularly from those who oppose her refugee policy, have called for her to provide more information on her health. Hans-Georg Maassen, a Merkel-critic who was forced out of his role as a spy chief after downplaying far-right violence tweeted that “the health of the head of government is not a private matter. People in Germany have a right to know whether the head of government is in a position to fully carry out their duties.” Even more partisan figures, such as Julia Bielig – a presenter on commercial TV channel RTL - have said that, while would it would be nice to let Merkel keep her health issues private, “it’s not as simple as that” because “the chancellor is not like just any other individual. Her health is a political issue."
Therefore, regardless of the cause of her shaking, the subsequent debate about Merkel’s health shows that even in Germany, where privacy is particularly highly valued, leaders are facing pressure to be more transparent in an era where they are closely watched, with all their activities recorded and shared online. The days when public figures could keep parts of their life entirely private might be behind us.