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Generation Merkel at Harvard

May 30, 2019

Generation Merkel at Harvard

May 30, 2019
in Harvard Gazette

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel steps down in 2021 after 16 years, she’ll have been in the job longer than any other leader in the European Union. During that time, a generation of Germans has grown up knowing mostly only her as leader. They are often called Generation Merkel or the Merkel Generation. The Gazette spoke with a number of German students studying at Harvard, in advance of her visit as Commencement speaker.

The German students at Harvard come from major cities such as Berlin, Frankfurt, and Düsseldorf, and from smaller municipalities such as Oeding and Hanover. Many were in grade school when Merkel came to power. Others were young teenagers without a vested interest in politics. Now, looking back at her tenure, they reflect on her abiding and often reassuring presence.

A national constant

“German living is synonymous with Merkel as chancellor,” said Isaiah Michalski, a Harvard College sophomore from Berlin. He was 7 when Merkel took office. “Every election … it seemed somehow natural that she would win again.” That seemed so natural that in a recent conversation, he continued, all of his German friends came to the same conclusion about 2021: “It is a strange, strange feeling, the idea that she could not be chancellor.”

Lara Schenk, a first-year student from Hanover, had a similar take. “I wouldn’t associate any other person with [the chancellorship],” said Schenk, who plays soccer for Harvard. “It’s just been Merkel since I was born, basically, or since I can remember having a leader or listening to the news.”

Schenk was 5 when Merkel took power. “It didn’t seem weird to me at all until I started looking at different countries when I was a bit older — like in high school when you start broadening your spectrum of looking at politics. I noticed it’s not like that in all countries where you have the same leader for 14 years.”

Still, the subject isn’t something Schenk or her friends generally talk about, she said, because they’ve has grown so accustomed to Merkel. Generation Merkel is not a term with which they identify.

“For us, it’s not that big of a deal,” Schenk said. “It’s cool thinking about it now when you’re outside the country and when there’s the potential of her stepping down. That’s only really when you notice how big a deal it is.”

Enduring stability during crisis

In a country that became whole again only 30 years ago, Merkel has not only come to symbolize a national constant, but has given Germans a sense of security, many of the students said, even during times of crisis.

“Everything seems very stable when she’s talking” said Karl Oskar Schulz, a first-year student who was 5 when Merkel became chancellor. Schulz works as a program assistant at Harvard’s Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies and as a John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum committee member at the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS).

“Growing up, everything always seemed to be all right,” Schulz said.