BERLIN — Once again, the scandal came close to Angela Merkel’s Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen. This time, it was about the G36 assault rifle, the standard weapon of some 170,000 soldiers of the Bundeswehr, or German defense forces. For the past few years, the troops have been complaining about this piece of equipment. Heated by the sun, after a long stay in a truck or after extended use, the G36's shooting accuracy is just 53%. But several alarming reports about it didn't change anything.
It was "as if the German manufacturer Heckler & Koch benefited from special relations with the army's order department," the daily newspaper Tagesspiegel notes. But Ursula von der Leyen retorted, "This weapon has no future in the German army in its current state of construction." It was with the same rigor that she has handled several other embarrassing cases inherited from her predecessors in the 18 months she has been at the helm of the Ministry of Defense.
With Von der Leyen, appearances can be deceiving. She seems tiny and fragile when she visits the Bundeswehr troops. But she's the only one you see, with her pale pink suit, white blouse, dark pants, combative smile, and assured walk. At 56 years old, 5-foot-2, a trained physician with seven children, she is the first woman to lead the German army. At the Ministry of Defense, and in every other position she has occupied, her determination and unrivaled capacity to draw attention have left many amazed.
Two books about her have been published recently, one by Die Zeit journalists Peter Dausend and Elisabeth Niejahr, the other by their colleagues at Focus magazine, Ulrike Demmer and Daniel Goffart.
Late to politics
Röschen ("little rose," the nickname her father gave her) is the third child and only daughter of the very conservative Ernst Albrecht, the powerful minister-president of the Lower Saxony state from 1976 to 1990. At the time, the bombings of the Red Army Faction (RAF), the Baader-Meinhof Gang, were predominant in the German political landscape. Albrecht was on the list of RAF enemies, and Röschen even had to leave to study abroad with a fake identity.
"She told me this threat made her apolitical," Niejahr explains. "For her, politics was a threatening thing. She deliberately undertook non-political studies and kept away from any student political activity. It was only when her father was beaten, in 1990, that she joined the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). More to show her loyalty than out of political belief."
Albrecht's defeat against social-democrat Gerhard Schröder as the head of traditionally conservative Lower Saxony was stinging. "We children thought, what rubbish! And we all joined the CDU," his daughter would later explain.
A graduate in economics, then in medicine, Von der Leyen first devoted herself to the education of her seven children and followed her husband to California. The Green politician Jürgen Trittin, who knew her at the University of Göttingen when she was younger, remembers a girl in shapeless clothes, vaguely hippie, hesitating between archeology and economics, and who hated getting up in the morning.
Ursula Von der Leyen and Angela Merkel in the Bundestag in 2013 — Photo: Zhang Fan/Xinhua/ZUMA
Von der Leyen’s career truly started in 2001, with a run against a CDU member of parliament whose seat she snatched. She then became Minister of Family Affairs in 2003, a CDU board member in 2004, Angela Merkel’s Minister of Family in 2005 and Minister of Labor and Social Affairs in 2009.
"She burst in like an avalanche," says Regina Runge-Beneke, the social-democrat mayor of Sehnde, a town with a population of 3,000 where Von der Leyen started out. "We'd never seen such a large number of campaign posters." Even today, her detractors are convinced Von der Leyen owes her political success to her family's fortune and her father's connections.
No wall flower
But that's not all. The only daughter of seven children, Röschen knows how to take risks. "She risked her career for women's quotas at the head of companies," says Peter Dausend. "She's someone who wants to take things further." At the Ministry of Labor, she supported women's quotas and minimum wages despite Chancellor Merkel's reluctance. "Through her model, she stifles any leaning for domination, which you especially find with older men," Ulrike Demmer and Daniel Goffart note.
"The von der Leyen 'system' has a lot to do with her biography," authors Peter Dausend and Elisabeth Niejahr say. She favors the idea of a United States of Europe, or a single sovereign federation of states, and the engagement of German forces abroad. A mother and a minister, she has campaigned for gender parity at the Ministries of Family Affairs, Labor and Defense. These topics often irritate the most conservative CDU electorate.
Authors Peter Dausend and Elisabeth Niejahr characterize her as "progressive in what she does, conservative in her private life, always on the offensive, always pragmatic, never ideological. And glamorous in the way she presents herself."
As someone who's non-conventional, "she probably has more enemies within her own party than in the opposition," adds Jürgen Trittin. That's particularly because the party's policies bore her. During the internal CDU elections, her numbers were mediocre, though her public approval rating was still good.
"For a CDU politician, she's very social-democrat," Niejahr says. "In her speeches, the words 'left' and 'right' never appear. And she never talks about rivals." Adds Dausend, "If the Social Democratic Party only reached 25% during the last legislative elections, it's partly thanks to her."
Demmer and Goffart already envision her as the future German chancellor. "She would exercise power differently than Angela Merkel," they write. "Instead of leading from behind, she would take action to give a sense of the direction to follow. And would be more charismatic and less down-to-earth than the Chancellor."