Merkel took sauna as Berlin Wall fell

7th November 2009, Comments 0 comments

Merkel told how as a 35-year-old research scientist working in the communist East, she decided to stick by her weekly routine even as history was made around her on November 9, 1989.

Berlin -- Chancellor Angela Merkel has reminisced about how she was taking a sauna 20 years ago as thousands of fellow East Germans surged through breaches in the Berlin Wall.

Merkel told how as a 35-year-old research scientist working in the communist East, she decided to stick by her weekly routine even as history was made around her on November 9, 1989.

"I thought something was going to happen, and had heard the announcement on television that the borders would open," Merkel said in an interview with journalists from Le Figaro, the Guardian, the New York Times and other newspapers.

"But it was Thursday, and Thursday was my sauna day so that's where I went -- in the same communist high-rise where we always went."

After her steam bath, Merkel went for a beer with a friend and only afterwards, when they left the bar, did they find themselves swept up in the huge crowds pouring into West Berlin.

There she met celebrating West Berliners and shared more beers with them, before heading home, telling herself "the wall will still be open in the morning."

The next day, Merkel and her sister made a pilgrimage to the huge KaDeWe department store in the West, a temple of the Western consumer society that had everything that was lacking in the East's command economy.

Merkel, a pastor's daughter, said she did not consider herself an "activist" against the communist regime, and had stayed out of politics until the wall fell even if "since childhood I had had a critical view of the system."

In 1990, after German unification, Merkel joined the centre-right CDU party and won a parliamentary seat in the east.

A protégé of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, she rocketed through the ranks and in 2005 made history as Germany's first leader from the former east, its first female chancellor, and its youngest.

Running Europe's biggest economy and re-elected for a second term in September, Forbes magazine has nominated her as the most powerful female on the planet for four years running.

Merkel on Tuesday became the first German chancellor to address a joint session of the US Congress.

She conceded that not everyone had adapted so well to the unification of Germany that came 11 months after the fall of the wall.

"In the GDR we had known the pressure of Nazism, then communism. You can't make that disappear with one blow. For many people is was impossible to learn something else in just one night," she said.

She recalled the strangeness of tasting parmesan cheese from Italy for the first time and the fascination many in the East felt for tropical fruits, but also the arrogance of many Westerners.

"I was shocked when (West German politician) Otto Schilly mocked us, saying we were coming to the west to find bananas. You can still see that arrogance in the west today," she said, adding her roots has sometimes held her back.

Many German voters like Merkel's modest and unshowy style, some of which can be traced back to the discretion she learned growing up in a dictatorship, surrounded by prying eyes.

"We would get gift parcels from the West," she recalled. "But in the GDR there were only five models of gloves. If you had a different pair, people knew where they came from. You'd be noticed, and that was bad."

Around 100,000 revellers are expected at official celebrations on Monday, with Merkel due to host world leaders past and present including Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and former US president George H.W. Bush.

Kohl, 79, chancellor in 1989 and father of unification, will be absent, however, his office said on Friday. He has been in a wheelchair since fracturing his hip in February 2008 and has speaking difficulties.

Simon Sturdee/AFP/Expatica

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