The Outsiders: How The Lives of Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel Created Modern Europe

“We want the Community to move forward as twelve… Europe is strongest when it grows through willing co-operation and practical measures, not compulsion or bureaucratic dreams.” – Margaret Thatcher in the House of Commons (1990)

“Nobody in Europe will be abandoned. Nobody in Europe will be excluded. Europe only succeeds if we work together.” – Angela Merkel in the Bundestag (2010)

Leo Tolstoy began Anna Karenina with one of the famous opening lines in literature—“all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” However, if one were to look at all successful, “happy”, female heads of state, two figures would stand out: Margaret Hilda Thatcher and Angela Dorothea Merkel. Yet the two could not have been more different, both in terms of style and substance. While Thatcher reveled in being dramatic and forceful, Merkel has made a political living out of being low-key and consistent. Thatcher staked her eleven-year premiership and absolute domination of the Conservative Party on her refusal to agree to the single currency suggested by the Delors Commission. Merkel—who enjoyed the highest approval ratings of any Chancellor in postwar Germany and governed an economically resurgent colossus—had to lean on both Christian Democrats and opposition Members of Parliament to formulate a European bailout package that did not compromise the monetary stability of her own country.

Thatcher believed passionately in the economic freedom of the individual, frenetically privatized stagnant state enterprises, and was famous for declaring, “There is no such thing as society.” Merkel, on the other hand, presides over a state that spends a third of its GDP on welfare (including education), and has proved to be malleable when it comes to vital issues of state, such as the minimum wage.[1]

This paper, however, will argue that if one looks beyond the particular sets of beliefs held by the two women, their backgrounds are surprisingly similar. And this extends far beyond the fact that both were elected three times by generally fickle and fractious electorates. Indeed, both women grew up in societies that could be seen as having lost their sheen. Thatcher came of age hunting for her scholarship to Somerville, Oxford, just as Churchill lost to the devilish Left in 1945. From her perspective, postwar Britain had become a socialist state at war with the kind of free enterprise her father’s Grantham grocery store had symbolized.[2] Never content with socialism or the Communist regime, Merkel decided not to follow in the footsteps of her mother and become a teacher; she refused to funnel the propaganda of the East German regime in the classroom. A brilliant student who excelled at Russian and mathematics, Merkel would go on to get a doctoral degree in quantum chemistry, but managed to evade being recruited by the Stasi.[3]

Additionally, this paper shall focus on the evolution of these women’s views on Europe by emphasizing that these powerful women were far more than just prisoners of the nation-states in which they grew up. Section One, “Freedom Fighters Under God”, shall examine how the upbringing of these two women affected their eventual understanding of “freedom” for individual and states. The next chapter discusses how the women’s quest for education—Thatcher’s at Oxford and Merkel’s at Leipzig—was a determinant of how driven and successful they became. Their adeptness at building relationships with party members, maintaining political coalitions, and garnering support to buttress their position toward Europe is covered in the third section. “Caesars Looking Outwards” aims to chronicle how these two leaders influenced European and foreign affairs in their respective tenures as premier—specifically examining the bearing of their economic policies, electoral success, and cults of personality on the process of European integration. The concluding chapter sums up the similarities in the political and personal challenges faced by these women, and how these experiences led them to influence the histories of their countries and of Europe.

Freedom Fighters, Under God

The British historian Alan Allport, writing a decade after Thatcher’s fall from power, asserted that there were really two sides to the icon of liberal capitalism.[4] The first was a Millian Margaret (in reference to John Stuart Mill), prizing the individual as his own autonomous unit, deserving and needing freedom from the overarching state. The second was the High-Tory Burkeian Margaret (a la Edmund Burke), striving to preserve the “morality” upon which the British society she knew depended for its character. Millian Margaret denationalized public industries, dismantled monopolies and sold council houses. Burkeian Margaret toughened divorce laws, wanted the BBC to be more patriotic in its programming, and opposed increasing rights for homosexuals. A Millian Margaret who sought an individualized, society thus coexisted with the Burkeian Margaret who idolized the Britain of her youth—a country moored in Victorian and Georgian values.[5] This paper contends that the reason for this duality in Thatcher’s ideas of individual freedom lies in her religious background growing up in Grantham of the 1930s.

The decade of the Thirties was not a glorious time for Britain or its inhabitants. The Empire’s economic and political superiority was at an end: families lined up in “dollar queues” during the depression, and Chamberlain’s appeasement policies had failed to stem the Nazi regime in a resurgent, menacing Germany. Margaret Roberts, however, remembered her childhood in Grantham as being an “idyllic blur.”[6] Her father, Alfred Roberts, was the archetypal small entrepreneur, a specialist grocer who was a devout Methodist. From very early on in her life, Thatcher was instructed about the benefits of the liberty of economic exchange; her father’s store saw Indian rice, Kenyan coffee, and Caribbean sugar make their way to English breakfast tables. The spirit of free enterprise was complemented by a culture of charity and self-denial intricately linked to the Roberts family’s faith. Thatcher’s early life was as much about helping out in the grocery shop as it was about chapel, Sunday school, civic organizations, and private charity. She was convinced by her father that Adam Smith’s theory of the Invisible Hand ensured that ultimately, the free trade of goods and services would lead to the betterment of both society and marketplace.[7] It was because of this conviction that the Millian and Burkeian sides of Margaret Thatcher the freedom fighter were able to coexist.

The nationalization, public overspending, and punitive taxation that would come to define the postwar British economy outraged both the Millian and Burkeian sides of the future baroness. She saw how the expanding role of the government ate away at the entrepreneurial activities of communities such as her relatively depression-sheltered Grantham locality. Thatcher watched her political mentor Edward Heath feebly try to stand up to striking miners, and disastrously call for an election that resulted in a hung house in February 1974; these events would only set the stage for Labour to win in a rematch later that year. In addition to the decline of economic liberty, what struck Thatcher was the rapid erosion of the morals that had bound her childhood community together.[8] Official records available from the Home Office show that 234,372 crimes were recorded in England and Wales in 1935, while 2,105,631 crimes occurred in 1975.[9] Hence, in fighting for freedom from the destructive government Leviathan, Thatcher indulged her Millian sympathies for individual freedom, and held fast to her Burkeian notions of morality and social order.

Just as Thatcher grew up seeing the shackles of a socialist state weigh down on capitalist Britain, so too did Merkel see an iron-fisted one-party regime rule a portion of her divided country for thirty-five years. However, while Thatcher emphasized the importance of lifting socialist restrictions, Merkel never mentioned freedom for most of her political career. In the Western world, much of the attention on her after her repeated election to the office of Chancellor has focused on her East German background. Even President Obama mentioned it at length while bestowing the Presidential Medal of Freedom upon her.[10] However, characteristically, Merkel regards freedom and values to be personal, rather than political matters, and made it a point earlier in her career not to belabor her East German background. It wasn’t till 2000 that, after becoming CDU chairman, she even mentioned freedom in her speeches. In 2003, she defined freedom as “… the joy of achievement, the flourishing of the individual, the celebration of difference, the rejection of mediocrity, personal responsibility.”[11] The best illustration of this separation of Merkel’s personal story and her role as Chancellor is best shown by her response to pleas from Yulia Tymoshenko’s daughter. The younger Tymoshenko tried to reference Merkel’s background opposing Communist rule while asking for German help in securing the former Ukrainian Prime Minister’s release. Merkel felt manipulated: she declined to intervene, putting her role as German Chancellor ahead of any personal affinities.[12]

Merkel may be different from Thatcher in that she doesn’t make freedom a cornerstone of her oratory or public image. However, this cannot obscure the great extent to which Merkel felt alienated from the GDR while growing up. A pastor’s daughter, she always lived in a world that was more cut off and free from the overwhelming propaganda that most East Germans were immersed in. She would later claim that the family almost never watched East German television except the sports programs, while surreptiously watching West German television. She knew the names in the Western German cabinet by heart, and heard about the election of Gustav Heinemann as President of the Federal Republic on a transistor radio while hiding in her school’s bathroom. She chose to study physics because it was a subject that gave her the most opportunity as an East German woman for self-betterment and travel.[13]

Just as Thatcher never forgot the lessons Alfred Roberts taught her in his grocery store, Merkel could never ignore the profound sense of loss she had felt when the Berlin Wall was erected on August 13, 1961. The Kasners—Angela, her parents, her brother and sister—were returning along with Merkel’s Hamburg-based maternal grandmother from a holiday in Bavaria that very day. They noticed the barbed wire and soldiers—it was to be the grandmother’s last holiday with the family.[14] The separation of her family, a plight shared by many Germans, was the reason Merkel would never identify with the new East German state. It was this lack of identification that taught her when to keep quiet and avoid being sucked into the orbit of the all-powerful socialist state. When the Stasi came to enlist her, she pretended to be frank and “confided” in them that she had a hard time keeping secrets. A career in the Communist secret service skillfully dodged, Merkel went on to travel throughout Europe as part of her quantum chemistry research. We can see here the East German origin of Merkel’s generally reticent operating style. “… Learning when to keep quiet was a great advantage in the GDR period,” she would say. “It was one of our survival strategies.”

Both Thatcher and Merkel hence grew up as conscientious dissenters, with their countries being ruled during their childhood by political dispensations each found repugnant. Thatcher would always think of herself as the grocer’s daughter battling the socialist establishment, and Merkel saw herself as a victim of German partition opposing Communist rule over her nation. Though reticent and more circumspect, Merkel too would find her political journey to be informed by her formative experiences growing up in the Communist GDR. 

Rays of Rebellion

The young Margaret Roberts and Angela Kasner were also deeply affected by their families’ emphasis on the importance of education. Thatcher would recall in her memoir The Downing Street Years that dancing and other frivolities were frowned upon in the Roberts household, and Sundays were meant exclusively for religious thought and discussions.[15] Even knitting and sewing were taboo. With most avenues of childish frivolity shut off by her parsimonious and religious father, Margaret saw herself working constantly, whether at the grocery store or proving herself on scholarship at the Tony Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ School. One of the main motivations for Thatcher’s aspirations for higher education and a shot at Oxbridge was the desire not to end up like her mother Beatrice, who was committed to a life of housework.[16]

Thatcher applied to Somerville College, Oxford, to read chemistry, and though initially unsuccessful, was accepted when a student dropped out of the program. Her tutor at the college was Dorothy Hodgkin, still the only British woman to ever win the Nobel Prize for chemistry. Thatcher would eventually claim she regretted having studied chemistry, telling friends that a degree in law would have better prepared her for the political career she always wanted. Yet the tutelage of Hodgkin would still hold importance, as Thatcher was given the opportunity to conduct research on X-ray crystallography. The three years Thatcher spent working at chemical industries after graduating personally exposed her to the industrial world she was to later shape. Thatcher eventually left the field of chemistry to pass the bar in 1953—six years before she took the plunge in elections for Parliament.

Thatcher’s time at Oxford shaped her in two important ways. Firstly, coming from a modest background—her puritan father refused to be “excessive” and spend on indoor plumbing—she was now confronted with legions of upper-middle class, professionalist peers. The ability to blend in with those more privileged than her, and to indeed thrive in such an alien environment, becoming, for example, the first president of the Oxford University Conservative Association, would serve her well in her later political career. Surely, the success she enjoyed in the male-dominated circles of Oxford prepared her for the challenges she would face in her rapid ascent in the equally patriarchal and posh upper echelons of the Conservative Party.

The second way in which her time at Oxford shaped Thatcher’s premiership was via the insight she gained into the workings of higher education. Her stint as a chemist and researcher had imbued her with a sense of pragmatism, and thus scientific research would have to prove its usefulness as a major criterion for why it should receive government funding. Alas, Thatcher’s priorities primarily lied elsewhere. When she was education secretary in 1976, the UK cut public education funding in exchange for a bailout by the International Monetary Fund. In 1981, as Prime Minister, Thatcher gave universities a month to make across-the-board reductions amounting to 18 percent of operating budgets. Academic posts were eliminated, student grants reduced, and the process for tenure removed. Thatcher’s biggest change to scientific education, however, was something no previous premier had thought of—she made government funding of scientific research selective, picking and choosing between “basic” and “applied” research activities.[17] Thatcher could do this since she was not an outsider to the world of science. Yet despite her academic background, Thatcher would ironically have a tenuous relation with left-leaning academia. Oxford would eventually refuse to grant her the customary honorary degree in 1985—the first such snub to any Prime Minister to have graduated from the university.[18]

Angela Merkel delved even deeper into the academic hierarchy than Thatcher, going on to write a doctoral thesis in quantum chemistry. Just as Thatcher’s Oxford connection put her in a league radically different from her humble Grantham origins, Merkel’s study of physics at Leipzig helped her secure a comfortable position for herself within East German society. Excelling in her academics at both Leipzig and the Berlin Academy of Sciences, Merkel soon realized how her field of study meant she had certain extra liberties. For instance, she was able to travel far more than the ordinary citizen. Merkel made several journeys to the Heyrovsky Institute at Prague to conduct research, and participated in exchange programs with the Soviet Union.

However, this constant travel also further bred Merkel’s sense of discrete rebellion against the socialist system. After only being allowed to travel in groups and for official purposes, she decided to take a risk and try breaking the rules. In 1982, Merkel embarked upon a hitchhiking trip through southern Russia and the Caucuses—a journey that took her all the way to Azerbaijan. When confronted by police, Merkel would oftentimes use her formidable command over the Russian language to help her group steer clear of trouble. This sense of rebellion sometimes became potentially quite risky; on a trip to Poland, she picked up propaganda material issued by the trade union Solidarity.[19] Being caught with this by the Stasi would have landed her in an extremely unenviable position, with charges of treason and criminal punishment a real possibility.

Merkel’s exposure to the grimy Communist world deeply informed her yearning to visit West Germany, a place she had not seen since the erection of the Berlin Wall. In 1986, she finally received the requisite permissions to visit Hamburg for a cousin’s wedding. Observing the high-speed trains, the general cleanliness, and the palpably different sense of freedom of the West, Merkel says she knew then that socialism was never going to last.[20] Hence, the opportunities afforded to Merkel by her higher education were transformative for her political resolve, just as Thatcher’s Oxbridge connection allowed her to occupy positions of power and forge an indomitable will.

Coups and Compromises

A story widely told in London toward the end of Margaret Thatcher’s tenure describes a dinner meeting of her cabinet at the Savoy. The waiter asked Mrs. Thatcher what she wanted for appetizers. “A shrimp cocktail,” she reportedly said. The main course? “Beef Wellington.” The potatoes? “Mashed.” And how about the vegetables? “Oh,” Mrs. Thatcher replied, “they’ll take care of themselves.”[21]

Margaret Thatcher adopted a style of governing that was almost Presidential in its separation of prime ministerial power from the authority of cabinet and Parliament. By all accounts, she resented the collegial model of cabinet government, wanting less of a cabinet and more of an “echo-chamber,” as many alleged.[22] But this single-minded assault on the traditional method of governance and Prime Ministerial limitations was not born overnight: its origins lied in Thatcher’s ascent in the patriarchal Conservative party.

It was only through an extraordinary confluence of circumstances in the aftermath of the World War II that Thatcher and Thatcherism came to power. The Conservative party, after its humiliating drubbing at the polls in 1945, was forced to assent to trade unions, and their demands for social services in health and education. The party’s weakness would persist for the next 30 years, as the government could do little to rule over labor unions. It was in these dire economic straits, with the dogged resistance of labor unions holding back sorely needed economic reforms, that the British political system saw the emergence of Thatcher . In addition to a slow postwar recovery, the “sick man of Europe” had failed to produce a “true” Conservative who could challenge Heath (who is this?). But as financial woes continued, and labor unrest broke out during the Callaghan administration, Thatcher was virtually handed the keys of 10 Downing Street.[23]

Gender, however, would be an essential part of Thatcher’s dealings with both her Conservative colleagues and Labor opponents. In fact, had Thatcher been a man, she may have even been less successful in her political-savvy. Most of Thatcher’s political friends and foes were men educated at posh English public schools, individuals unaccustomed to dealing with women in powerful positions. In some sense, Thatcher was a “political cross-dresser,” selectively choosing when to use her femininity toward political aims; this strategy disconcerted male politicians. For instance, France’s President Mitterand found Thatcher very attractive, and would being her flowers at each of their meetings.[24] Thatcher wasn’t too shy to marshal her feminine appeal to connect with male foreign leaders, or browbeat domestic opponents. “Mrs. Thatcher is more difficult for me to oppose,” said Neil Kinnock, Labour leader. “I’ve got however much I try to shrug it off an innate courtesy towards women that I simply do not have towards men.”[25] Thatcher’s role as Britain’s first female prime minister even played a large role in creating an entire “-ism” after Thatcher—an honor even Sir Winston Churchill did not enjoy.

Gender, along with a few other factors, was also integral to rise of Angela Merkel. At first glance, it would seem incongruous for Merkel, a Protestant woman from East Germany, to cement any hold on the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which was a patriarchal Catholic party based in the South. However, it was precisely her belonging to these religious, gender, and geographic categories that enabled her to be seen as a “party-manager,” along the lines of Chancelors Adenauer and Kohl. In fact, CDU documents from at least the 1950s showed lists of prospective candidates for party committees actively looking for “Protestant women” to be included. Merkel’s reputation as a non-sectarian figure who never overly identified with any particular strain within the party further helped her case.[26] Moreover, when Kohl was forming his cabinet after the 1990 elections following reunification, he faced a quandary over including East Germans in his cabinet. 400,000 Easterners—a full 4 percent of the GDR adult population—had worked for the Stasi. Hence, finding qualified East Germans for cabinet posts was a challenge for the first chancellor of reunified Germany. Merkel was appointed Minister of Women and Youth, one of three easterners appointed to the cabinetand the only one to stay in her position for the entire tenure.[27]

One of Merkel’s colleagues once commented that “Angela Merkel could have been assigned to the Bat Ministry of the United Nations and she would have made something out of it.”[28] Indeed, as Minister of Women and Youth, Merkel made an immense impression on Kohl, who became her political mentor. She was appointed as Environment Minister during his next tenure, from 1994 to 1998. Like Thatcher, Merkel was plucked out of obscurity by a male political mentor and at first assigned ministries that somehow related to women. Thatcher was Education Secretary, Merkel Minister for Women and Youth. And just like Thatcher, Merkel paved her own path to power by becoming the person to fell that same mentor. Just as Thatcher challenged Heath to win the leadership of the Conservative Party, Merkel became the first CDU leader to denounce Kohl publicly after a campaign finance scandal.

Thatcher and Merkel had much more in common when it came to their intraparty policies than having to topple former male mentor en route to party leadership. Gender was both relevant and irrelevant for both of them—it helped them get spotted and nominated, surely, but took a backseat when they performed well at ministerial, party leader and eventually prime ministerial or chancellor levels. In dealing with predominantly male colleagues, they may have had different approaches—Thatcher famously always surrounded herself only with men, while Merkel has many women in her inner core of advisers—but a common theme in these was their use of the fact that they were historical anomalies. The grocer’s barrister daughter knew she could get the Conservative grandees in a spot, and the female physicist born to an East German pastor recognized her utility to the Christian Democrats—and they made full use of this.

Caesars Looking Outwards

Thatcher entered office with a clear set of policy directives seeking to break the post-war consensus she so despised: a monetarist approach to tackle the astronomical levels on inflation under Labour rule; cuts across the board in excessive public spending; and the denationalization (or, as her government called it, “reprivatization”) of the public industries that had become economic white elephants. The role of economic policy in achieving Thatcher’s political goals thus cannot be overstated. “Economics are the method,” she once said. “The object is to change the soul.”[29]

What must be noted, of course, is that for all the messianic rhetoric, Conservative policies did not always match up to Thatcher’s political demagoguery. Initially, inflation shot up drastically, reaching double digits (10.3 percent) in 1979 just a month after Thatcher became Prime Minister. Two years later, it was 11.7 percent. However, a series of steps taken by her government to control the interest rates would tame inflation through the eighties, keeping it at 2-5 percent. Moreover, public spending was also cut, but not as drastically as popular culture then may have led one to believe; from 44.6 percent of GDP in 1979, it fell to only 38.9 percent by 1990. The composition of this expenditure, however, changed from housing, education, and public transportation to increased defense and law and order spending.[30]

Thatcherism’s economic impact was also seen on many other fronts. Privatization in the 1980s led to the sale of assets in key industries like British Petroleum, Rolls Royce, and British Steel. The labor strikes that had paralyzed the Heath and Callaghan administrations were defeated by Thatcher and her unwavering resolve; after her administration bought eighteen months’ worth of coal in advance, Thatcher was able to wait out a bruising yearlong coalminers strike, and hence recorded a massive victory over the most powerful trade union in Britain. In 1979, there were 13.2 million members of British trade unions, a number that decreased to just 9.8 million by 1990. [31] Thatcher’s “Big Bang” reforms thus ensured a boom that would run through the 1980s, and even created a new class of young, Thatcherite upwardly mobile entrepreneurs—the “yuppies.”[32]

The creed of Thatcher’s economic policy at Britain stemmed from her childhood distaste for the postwar consensus: the overreaching state stifling entrepreneurship in favor of the “greater good.” This motivation cannot be understated in examining Thatcher’s policies applied toward the wider Western European theater. Central to Thatcher’s embrace of the European Community was her distaste for another institution: the British Commonwealth. Thatcher saw the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as the “enemy from within,” and did not want British policy to be dictated by those she thought were more interested in the welfare of other nations.[33] Foreign aid was cut dramatically during her administration, and her opposition to the Commonwealth would reportedly bring her into conflict with her only boss—the Queen (Head of the Commonwealth).[34]

In dealing with the larger European community, Thatcher was a pragmatist, utilizing European institutions to pursue British national interests. After all, growing up in the 1930s had taught her how appeasement politics could wreak havoc on a country’s foreign policy. In 1981, Thatcher lobbied for the inclusion of Southern European countries—Spain, Portugal, and Greece—in order to counteract the influence of a powerful French-German coalition. Following this victory, she hammered through a deal at European Council meetings at Stuttgart and Fontainebleau in 1983-84: Value Added Tax (VAT) ceilings were severed from budgetary discipline and Britain would no longer be overburdened by imbalances in the European budget. Perhaps no other policy victory was as significant, however, as Thatcher’s swift and outright condemnation of Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands. Under her authority, Britain’s foreign services became free to pressurize the Americans and the United Nations.[35]

Thatcher was equally adept at selecting Europe as her primary focus in foreign policy, even overruling American objections. The Community’s 1980 Venice Declaration on the Middle East, which sought to expand the peace process started at Camp David and recognize the rights of Palestinians as well as Israelis, did not go down well with the U.S. Thatcher was also not averse to a European foreign policy, and certainly permitted the Europeanization of many aspects of British decision-making on global issues. This was helped by European solidarity supporting Britain on several occasions during her premiership: the Community condemned the American invasion of Bermuda in 1983,[36] and opposed American attempts to extend US domestic law to British companies selling technology to the Soviet Union.

Thatcher is best known for her falling out with the European Union, and this too can be traced back to her personal ideology. In 1985, Thatcher’s Britain sided with Greece to adamantly oppose the Dooge Committee recommendations incorporated in the Single European Act—which replaced unanimous consent with the idea of qualified majorities; unfortunately, she was to be completely outvoted by countries wishing to speed up the decision-making process in the community.[37] This is much like her dislike for popular subsidies and programs that were desirable for a multitude of people, but in the way of individual freedom and choice. Similarly, the concept of qualified majorities may have been appealing to most countries, but Thatcher saw it as a dangerous move that would threaten Britain’s ability to block moves that would damage its national and strategic interests.[38] However, much like her political career in Britain, she managed to make the best of being in an unpopular position, and used her negotiation skills to temper opposing opponents’ plans. She used her proven abilities of coalition-building and “hand bagging”, honed through a lifetime of dealing with powerful male colleagues, to push through British initiatives like the internal European market and increased cooperation in defense and security policy.

It is a tradition of the modern European Union that the head of government of the presiding country address the European Parliament at Strasbourg. When France held the presidency, Nicolas Sarkozy made a subtle change in the parliament hall before speaking. The head of government is supposed to wait in a seat before being called to the speaker’s lectern, and like every other seat in the hall it is numbered. Sarkozy did not like the fact that he was sitting in a chair numbered “2”, and so he had the number erased from the chair.[39]

Angela Merkel could not care less for numbers and appearances on such occasions; after her training as a theoretical physicist, she tended to focus much more on the facts and arguments she needed to impress upon fellow European heads of state. Delivering her presidential address on January 17, 2007, Merkel stated:

“The heart and soul of Europe is tolerance. Europe is the continent of tolerance. It has taken us centuries to understand this. On the road to tolerance we have had to live through many disasters. We have persecuted and annihilated one another. We have laid our own country waste. […] The worst period of hatred, devastation and destruction happened not even a generation ago. It was done in the name of my people.”[40]

Merkel’s experiences behind the Iron Curtain ingrained in her not just an insistence for tolerance to be a hallmark of modern Europe; it also made her envision “Europe” beyond a Franco-German reconciliation project. Indeed, the only way she ever viewed Europe for the first 35 years of her life was as an outsider, an East German. In 1990, after reunification, she saw how the introduction of the West German deutschemark at a ratio of 1 for 2 East German equivalents devastated the economy, flooding the market with cheaply produced western products. After watching German farmers burn their produce in the fields and the impact of the EC-subsidized West German imports, Merkel saw a very different side of Europe from Kohl and his contemporaries. To her, Franco-German relations were not the center of Europe; Merkel was not from an area geographically close to France, and thus did not have the “barrier obsession” of Adenauer or Kohl.[41] What Europe was to her was a beacon of freedom, tolerance and the ability to maximize potential—in sum, all the things denied to her by the regime of the German Democratic Republic. Merkel hence was the German Chancellor that an expanded EU of 27 countries needed: someone who could appreciate the enormous change the downfall of Communism had brought to the eastern part of the continent.

This keen sense of freedom was perhaps Merkel’s guide when she led the European response to the financial crisis that broke out in 2008. Even though France, Greece, and several international economists opposed her proposal for budget cuts in southern Europe, the heads of state for Eastern European and Baltic countries supported her. They too thought that after the debt cuts—such as the deal reducing Greece’s debt from 160 percent of GDP to 120 percent—and the reductions to government spending, the southern Europeans would still have a higher standard of living than them. Merkel saw the crisis through East European eyes: she did not want to see the dismemberment of another system, and neither did the Poles and other central Europeans who supported her.[42] Merkel hence vigorously opposed the proposed “Eurobonds” that would pool sovereign bonds from across the EU and stem the flight of funds from discredited Greek, Italian and Portuguese government bonds. She refused to countenance the idea that the productivity of Germany and northern Europe should continue to fund the lifestyles of the southern countries.

In opposing these proposals, Merkel relied on her analytical, physicist approach to problem solving. She would become famous in Brussels for her bright, well-illustrated charts, which showed data such as the widely varying unit debts and labor productivity of different countries, and the stability of the Euro over the past ten years. And just as Thatcher “got [Britain’s] money back,” Merkel would seek to renegotiate offers from European allies that asked too much of Berlin’s resources. Hence, the recommendations of Council president Van Rumpoy, highly favoring Eurobonds, were dismissed outright by Merkel.[43]

Merkel’s vision for the future of the EU lied in something she termed as a “stability union” an idea was built upon four pillars: a common financial policy, a common fiscal policy, a common economic policy, and greater democratic control and authority. Achieving the first two was straightforward; Europe standardized its financial regulatory responses to failed banks, and Merkel’s “fiscal compact,” agreed upon by the heads of state of Europe in 2012, set limitations on federal budgets across Europe. However, it was the third pillar that was revolutionary. How could member states be prevented from diverging from the common fiscal policy envisaged in the second pillar? In response to this issue, Merkel wished to empower a European authority that would enable economic policy across the union, and have appreciably wide-ranging powers. However, Merkel clarified she did not want the European Commission to have more powers. This led to her fourth pillar—the one on democratic accountability, which translated into greater powers for the European Parliament. This would mark a fundamental change in the operations of the EU.[44]

Merkel hence views the EU’s function in two concurrent steps—the creation of a more democratic Brussels center, and the empowerment of nation-states to be meaningful stakeholders in strengthening the Union. In 2011, Europe experienced the rebirth of the nation-state, as countries in the north and south, east and west squabbled over conflicting economic policies and burdens in resolving the crisis. Merkel also believed that the Brussels elite had become arrogant in their belief that they were the real embodiment of the EU; many of them had cast national governments as retrograde provincial fiefs. Her “stability union,” she thought, would provide a fine balancing act between a more democratic Brussels and a more constructive set of nation-states.[45] Merkel demonstrated the firmness of her conviction in a more democratic basis for European actions when she rejected a IMF proposal to raise money for bailouts; had it passed, the plan would have mortgaged the gold held by national banks. German law makes it illegal to go anywhere near the gold reserves in the country, so Merkel emerged as the strongest critic of the IMF plan. Withstanding criticism from economists and leaders from across the world—including President Obama—Merkel steadfastly refused to mortgage Germany’s gold.[46] She would not let a common economic policy trump national laws and self-interests, as the crucial fourth pillar of her ideal “stability union”, democratic accountability, was completely missing from this proposition.

Additionally, Merkel’s experiences as “party-manager” in the CDU prepared her well for the diplomacy she would have to master during her response to the Eurozone crisis. Her relationship with Nicolas Sarkozy was the primary example of this. Merkel and Sarkozy could not have been more different—he was the sage voice of facts and reason, he the hyperactive bundle of French pizzazz and energy. In his first state visit to Berlin as President, Sarkozy refused to step out of his car and walk to the waiting Chancellor. Merkel stood her ground; the French President would eventually have to walk up to her.[47] This first meeting typified Merkel’s firm handling of relationships with her French counterpart, whom she impressed in the next few months with her clear grasp on the emerging facts of the crisis. Merkel managed to convince Sarkozy that cuts would have to be made in his government’s budget. Even the European Stability Mechanism (ESM)—one of the centerpieces of the EU’s attempt to provide credible infusions of liquidity into markets—was a result of the political relationship between these two radical leaders, a decision made after a sunset walk on the beach at Deauville.[48]


Thatcher and Merkel both belonged to backgrounds that made them unlikely and atypical choices for leaders, both of their patriarchal parties and their countries. Their common background in a religious setting with devout parents ingrained in them a ferocity of conviction: Thatcher’s against the postwar “socialist” consensus, and Merkel’s against the legitimacy of the East German state. Their convictions would lead them on quests for self-betterment through education; Thatcher would equip herself with a degree from the bastion of the upper class that she would later be accused of favoring, but to which she never had belonged. This would allow her to jumpstart a career in law and public life, and gain entry to the upper echelons of the Conservative Party. Merkel studied physics, a subject that enabled her to enjoy far greater freedoms and privileges than the ordinary GDR citizen; these travels and experiences would bolster her moral opposition to the regime, and allow her to be seen as a suitable pick for cabinets in reunified Germany.

Gender is a tricky subject for both these premiers, as each seemed to step in and out of their femininity at will. There is no denying that gender helped them initially in their careers—the Conservatives gave an untested Thatcher cabinet secretarial positions, and the CDU was impressed by the “triple-quota” Merkel filled (East German, Protestant and a woman). However, over time, their personalities as a whole became election issues, with gender just part of that personality. Hugo Young, writing in the Guardian before the 1987 election, wrote how the Prime Minister’s personality was the main plank on which the national election was being fought: “… although it may occasionally be right not to discuss the intellectual and moral weaknesses, the hypocrisy and the private character, of one politician or another, the only consequence of foreswearing an analysis of Mrs. Thatcher’s personality would be grossly to misrepresent both the past and the future politics of the country.”[49] 2013 would see the German elections revolve around the personality and politics of Chancellor Merkel. CDU posters showed the most famous German in the world in her typical pose, hands crossed in the form of a rhombus, a sign of stability and reassurance in a turbulent world.[50] In 1987, as in 2013, these approaches worked; both women were respectable premiers, and at the ballot box, their millions of constituents preferred them to their shaky, untested alternatives.

With Thatcher, and increasingly with Merkel, one aspect cannot be ignored: the divisiveness, polarization, and controversy that accompany the mention of their name. Thatcher’s administration saw mass unemployment and riots, which even led to clashes between striking miners and the police. The Prime Minister who famously stated, “There is no such thing as society” truly did shake up British society during her rule. While some of her economic achievements were unquestionable successes, many are highly debatable; yet the fundamental reason that the Thatcher years continue to be divisive is the choice they presented between an American-style individualistic society and “traditional” British community living. Merkel has been able to be controversial on an even larger scale, as her policies now affect an entire continent (as she said, “European Union policy is domestic policy”). At Deauville, for instance, as she was debating the ESM with President Sarkozy, she suggested a punitive clause for member states that refused to honor its provisions, even proposing a loss of voting rights. This was rejected immediately at meetings of country representatives, who saw the withdrawal of any democratic rights immensely troubling. This gained her numerous unflattering sobriquets from across Europe, including the moniker of the “European Thatcher.” When she visited Athens at the peak of the crisis, the entire central area of the city had to be cordoned off— it was almost as if the US President were visiting Iran.[51]

The background that has guided the policies of these women has decided their personal triumphs and importance. Born on the fringes of political life, they both took the center by storm, and in having their policies, politics and, personalities validated by the electorate three times each, they ensured their spots among the great statesmen of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In safeguarding growth and warding off decline, they showed themselves to be true patriots. In their differing attitudes toward Europe, they showed the influence of these backgrounds and contributions toward the political life of their nations on their idea of a model of European integration and cooperation. In reaching the highest corridors of power in London, Berlin and Brussels, these outsiders became the insiders known today to people across the world. And yet these two leaders never lost the intuitions and experiences that their lives as outsiders taught them. With Thatcher having been given a funeral at Westminster Abbey and Merkel cruising along in what will be her last term as Chancellor, history is sure to record the lives of these outsiders in golden letters.

Dhruv C. Aggarwal (’16) attends Yale University.



Works Cited

Allen, David. “British Foreign Policy and West European Co-operation.” In British Foreign Policy Under Thatcher, 35-53. Edited by Peter Byrd. Oxford: P. Allan, 1988.

Allport, Allen. “Mrs. Thatcher’s Liberties.” In The Political Legacy of Margaret Thatcher. Edited by Stanislao Pugliese, 29-40. London: Politico’s, 2003.

“Angela Merkel: A safe pair of hands.” The Economist, September 14, 2013.


Butt, Ronald. “Mrs. Thatcher: The First Two Years.” The Sunday Times, May 3, 1981.


Byrd, Peter. Ed. British Foreign Policy Under Thatcher. Oxford: P. Allan, 1988.

Cameron, Sue. “Whitehall shouldn’t risk losing its memory.” The Telegraph, April 3, 2013. <>.

Dail, Iain. Memories of Maggie: A Portrait of Margaret Thatcher. London: Politico’s, 2000.

Dessau, Bruce. “Margaret Thatcher had the last laugh in comedy.” The Guardian, April 10, 2013. <>.

Erlanger, Steven. “Europe’s Odd Couple.” New York Times, January 13, 2011.


Genovese, Michael. “Margaret Thatcher: Revised, Revisited, Re-examined, and Reappraised.” In The Political Legacy of Margaret Thatcher. Edited by Stanislao Pugliese, 368-393. London: Politico’s, 2003.

“Germany rules out using reserves or SDRs to boost.” Reuters, November 7, 2011.


Harris, Robin. “Margaret Thatcher’s Family: The mother Maggie pitied – and the sister she left behind…and the puritanical father who wouldn’t pay for an inside loo and banned her from playing snakes and ladders on Sunday.” The Daily Mail, April 15, 2013. <>.

Isenson, Nancy. Ed. “East German Stasi Tried to Recruit Merkel as a Spy.” Deutsche Welle, May 19, 2009. <>.

Kornelius, Stefan. Angela Merkel: The Authorized Biography. Richmond: Alma Books, 2013.

Office of the Press Secretary. “Remarks by President Obama and Chancellor Merkel in an Exchange of Toasts.” The White House, June 7, 2011. <>.

Ridley, Mike. “Margaret Thatcher 1925-2013: How she bashed miners and the unions but backed yuppies.” The Mirror, April 9, 2013. <>.

Roy, Subroto and John Clarke. Eds. Margaret Thatcher’s Revolution Revised Edition: How It Happened and What It Meant. London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005.

Sheehy, Gail. “The Blooming of Margaret Thatcher.” Vanity Fair, June 1989.


Steinberg, Blema. Women in Power: The Personalities and Leadership Styles of Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, and Margaret Thatcher. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008.

Thatcher, Margaret. The Downing Street Years. New York: Harper Collins, 1993.

——. The Path to Power. New York: Harper Collins, 1995.

United Kingdom Department for Business Innovation and Skills. “Trade Union Membership 2012: Statistical Bulletin.” May 2013. <>.

Weinbren, Daniel. “Oxford may have snubbed Margaret Thatcher – but higher education owes her a debt.” The Telegraph, April 9, 2013. <>.

Williams, Shirley. “Shirley Williams: How Margaret Thatcher Changed Britain.” The Independent,April 8, 2013. <>.

Williarty, Sarah. The CDU and the Politics of Gender in Germany: Bringing Women to the Party. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Young, Hugo, and Ion Trewin. The Hugo Young Papers: Thirty Years of British Politics – off the Record. London: Allen Lane, 2008.



[1] To form her 2007 Grand Coalition with the Social Democrats, Merkel agreed to enforce a minimum wage in some industrial sectors, despite earlier refusing to contemplate any wage floors. At the time of writing this paper, the SPD had demanded a uniform minimum wage across the German economy to ally with Merkel after the results of the 2013 Bundestag elections.

[2] Allen Allport, “Mrs. Thatcher’s Liberties,” in The Political Legacy of Margaret Thatcher, ed. Stanislao Pugliese (London: Politico’s, 2003), 29-40.

[3] Nancy Isenson, ed., “East German Stasi Tried to Recruit Merkel as a Spy,” Deutsche Welle, May 19, 2009, <>.

[4] Allport, “Mrs. Thatcher’s Liberties,” 29-40.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Margaret Thatcher, The Path to Power, (New York: Harper Collins, 1995), 118.

[7] Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years, (New York: Harper Collins, 1993), 11.

[8] Allport, 29-40.

[9] United Kingdom Office for National Statistics (online data tables).

[10] Office of the Press Secretary, “Remarks by President Obama and Chancellor Merkel in an Exchange of Toasts,” The White House, June 7, 2011, <>.

[11] Stefan Kornelius, Angela Merkel: The Authorized Biography, (Richmond: Alma Books, 2013), 76.

[12] Ibid., 77.

[13] Ibid., 19.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Thatcher, The Downing Street Years, 11.

[16] Robin Harris, “Margaret Thatcher’s Family: The mother Maggie pitied – and the sister she left behind…and the puritanical father who wouldn’t pay for an inside loo and banned her from playing snakes and ladders on Sunday,” The Daily Mail, April 15, 2013, <>.

[17] Daniel Weinbrin, “Oxford may have snubbed Margaret Thatcher – but higher education owes her a debt,” The Telegraph, April 9, 2013, <>.

[18] Thatcher would ultimately have her revenge, though – her foundation’s £2 million gift to establish a center for entrepreneurship went to Cambridge, as did her private papers.

[19] Kornelius, 28.

[20] Isenson, “East German Stasi tried to recruit Merkel as a spy,” 2009.

[21] Bruce Dessau, “Margaret Thatcher had the last laugh in comedy,” The Guardian, April 10, 2013, <>.

[22] Shirley, Williams.“Shirley Williams: How Margaret Thatcher Changed Britain,” The Independent, April 8, 2013. <>.

[23] Michael Genovese, “Margaret Thatcher: Revised, Revisited, Re-examined, and Reappraised,” in The Political Legacy of Margaret Thatcher, ed. Stanislao Pugliese (London: Politico’s, 2003): 368-393.

[24] Shirley, Williams. “Shirley Williams: How Margaret Thatcher Changed Britain,” April 8, 2013.

[25] Gail Sheehy, “The Blooming of Margaret Thatcher,” Vanity Fair, June 1989,


[26] Sarah Williarty, The CDU and the Politics of Gender in Germany: Bringing Women to the Party, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., 168.

[29] Ronald Butt, “Mrs. Thatcher: The First Two Years,” The Sunday Times, May 3, 1981,


[30] Data courtesy Britain’s Office of National Statistics.

[31] United Kingdom Department for Business Innovation and Skills, “Trade Union Membership 2012: Statistical Bulletin,” May 2013, <>.

[32] Mike Ridley, “Margaret Thatcher 1925-2013: How she bashed miners and the unions but backed yuppies,” The Mirror, April 9, 2013, <>.

[33] Sue Cameron, “Whitehall shouldn’t risk losing its memory,” The Telegraph, April 3, 2013, <>.

[34] Queen Elizabeth II has made the Commonwealth her single-largest focus in foreign affairs, devoting an enormous portion of her time and energy over the past 60 years to its development as an international institution. On her 21st birthday, even while George VI was still on the throne, she declared in South Africa: “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”

[35] David Allen, “British Foreign Policy and West European Co-operation,” In British Foreign Policy Under Thatcher, ed. Peter Byrd, (Oxford: P. Allan, 1988), 35-53.

[36] The invasion was a rather ignoble chapter in the Special Relationship between the United States and Britain – the Queen is still technically the Head of State of Grenada.

[37] Subroto Roy, and John Clarke, eds, Margaret Thatcher’s Revolution Revised Edition: How It Happened and What It Meant,(London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005).

[38] Ibid.

[39] Kornelius, 208

[40] Ibid., 210.

[41] Ibid., 203.

[42] Ibid., 228.

[43] Ibid., 255.

[44] Ibid., 253

[45] Ibid., 255

[46] “Germany rules out using reserves or SDRs to boost,” Reuters, November 7, 2011,


[47] Ibid., 221.

[48] Steven Erlanger, “Europe’s Odd Couple,” New York Times, January 13, 2011.


[49]Hugo Young, and Ion Trewin, The Hugo Young Papers: Thirty Years of British Politics – off the Record, (London: Allen Lane, 2008).

[50] “Angela Merkel: A safe pair of hands,” The Economist, September 14, 2013,


[51] Kornelius, 225.


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