Merkel's home town rises from the ashes

As Germany's leader makes a historic address to the US Congress today, Tony Paterson reports from Templin, which, like the rest of the former GDR, is building a future amid the wreckage of its Communist past
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The Independent Online

The bit of rural ex-Communist hinterland in which Angela Merkel grew up has undergone an imaginative makeover since the 55-year-old pastor's daughter embarked on her political career. Ms Merkel, now one of the world's most powerful leaders, will today address the US Congress in a symbolic speech marking two decades since the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Back in her former GDR, the landscape has seen remarkable changes since 1989. Huge swathes of its industry have shut down or been gutted by what many still consider to be capitalist West Germany's wholesale annexation of the region. With pockets of unemployment at 50 per cent in some areas, nearly two million of the former Communist state's inhabitants have upped sticks and gone west in search of work.

For centuries Ms Merkel's home territory of gently undulating fields, beech woods and lakes 60 miles north-east of Berlin has been called the Uckermark. Nowadays eastern Germany's nascent tourist industry refers to it as the "Tuscany of the North". The Chancellor's home town, Templin, has been rebranded "the Pearl of the Uckermark" and uses every Chancellor association it possesses to attract visitors.

Yet in the 20 years since the collapse of the GDR, Templin's inhabitants have experienced far-reaching changes which are more significant than the knowledge that the current German Chancellor comes from their region. Templin is a microcosm; it is like hundreds of other towns in the once collectively farmed rural regions of north-eastern Germany. Under Communism the Uckermark was home to one of the largest battery-pig farms in East Germany which contained no less than 300,000 of the animals. The complex was shut down after reunification, throwing hundreds out of work.

The same applied to the region's Wisent jeans factory – which produced clothing that few young East German wanted to be seen dead in at the time, as they preferred jeans smuggled in from the West. Wisent closed not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now, there is a large Levi's shop in the centre.

These days Templin is a carefully renovated walled market town of 13,000 inhabitants which is trying to carve out a future as a tourist attraction in a thinly populated agricultural region. Sabine Hetrich, who runs the tourist office from its perfectly restored, pink-painted, 18th-century town hall, says that the Merkel factor has put the town on the map. "We get lots of people dropping in here and asking about the Chancellor," she says, "Most of them are foreigners or west Germans – the locals just take it for granted," she added.

It has a saw mill and a lumber industry but unemployment still stands at around 20 per cent as a result of the mass lay-offs that followed reunification.

The region is proud of its crystal-clear lakes and extensive forests, and has built a network of special "bicycle autobahns" and wellness hotels in an effort to attract visitors from Berlin and further afield. Its other attractions are large thermal baths and an "Eldorado" cowboy theme park. The former Friedrich Engels Communist trade union hostel has been turned into a Costa del Sol-style lakeside hotel.

For Templin, such developments are new. When Angela Merkel, then three -year-old Angela Kasner, and her Protestant pastor father and mother arrived from capitalist Hamburg in 1957, much of the small East German town was a bombed-out ruin with streets made out of compressed sand. There were no cars. Templin had one lorry, a delivery van and a few tractors.

Angela Kasner was brought up in the Waldhof housing area, more than a mile outside the town, which then as now was used as the Protestant church- owned St Stepahnus home for the mentally handicapped. Her father, Horst Kasner, had taken the then highly unusual step of moving from capitalist West to communist East Germany, to run the home. At that time there was no Berlin Wall but people in the Uckermark were already beginning to flee to the West. The dearth of cars meant that many built rafts and went by river.

Egbert Binkow, a former neighbour of the Kasners, recalls how the Waldhof was funded by the Western Protestant church and how its inhabitants including the young Angela obtained money and clothes from the West. The Kasner family lived in a privileged bubble that was largely isolated from the rigours of the Communist state. "Most of the children in Templin were told not to go and play there," Mr Brinkow recalled.

Inside the Kasner home, it was possible to play Monopoly and read Western newspapers that were brought in under Protestant church protection. East Germany's despised Stasi secret police was able to detect that the family watched Western television by the way in which the aerial on the roof of "Fichtengrund", their two-storey house in the Waldhof complex, was pointing. But its agents were unable to exert much influence.

Political discussions were held around the dinner table. Horst Kasner believed that the basic idea of socialism was right but he disagreed with the way it was being implemented in Soviet-controlled East Germany. Ms Merkel nowadays insists that "very early it became clear to me that East Germany could not function".

Nevertheless the young Angela Kasner appears to have done much to feather her own nest in the state she believed could never work. She not only joined the Free German Youth movement – which some critics still describe as the socialist answer to the Hitler Youth – but she also learned Russian, the language of East Germany's ultimate rulers.

Erika Benn, the 69-year-old Templin schoolteacher who taught Angela Kasner Russian at the Waldschule where she was educated only a stone's throw from home, said that the German Chancellor was a star pupil who even attended extra Russian lessons on Sunday mornings. "Angela was incredibly industrious," she said, "She used to learn vocabulary at the bus stop. She made no mistakes, she was reserved but not shy. I have never had such a gifted pupil since," she added.

When she was 15 Angela Kasner won Templin's annual Russian language olympics which guaranteed her fame throughout the region. After that she was unable to rid herself of her reputation as a school swot. Harald Löschke, who is now in charge of Templin's main police station, was in a parallel class to Angela Kasner in the 1970s. "She was never present when the youth of Templin went out drinking, when they went skinny-dipping in the lakes or listened to the latest pop songs on the radio," he said. "When we went on school trips she held scientific discussions with the teachers. That was way beyond our world. I never saw her with a man; she was mostly on her own," he added.

Like millions of East Germans Angela Kasner found a niche which enabled her to survive Communism. After Templin, she went to Leipzig to study chemistry and then to Berlin where she lived for a while as a squatter. For most of her early adulthood however she appears to have been waiting – perhaps unconsciously – for the Berlin Wall to fall.

When it happened, she had conformed enough with the system to derive benefit from the change, but not so much as to have been considered an active participant. Thus, she was able to seize the opportunities that capitalism presented as they arose. Her political career began only weeks after the Wall fell, when Germany's "reunification" Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, saw her political use in the fact that she was both a woman and an East German. He made her the country's first woman Environment Minister. The rest is history.

Angela Merkel often returns to her roots. She and Joachim Sauer, her physics professor husband, own a weekend cottage in the woods outside Templin. They are not often troubled by locals. "Angela Merkel is a fact of life around here," said Barbel Manz. "Nobody gets very excited about her any more."

Given Angela Merkel's modest style of leadership, it is probably the sort of comment of which she would approve.

Life story: Rise and rise of Angela Merkel

*EARLY LIFE Born Angela Kasner on 17 July 1954 in Hamburg, she and her family moved to Templin three months later. She studied physics in Leipzig before going to work at the Academy of Science in East Berlin.



*FAMILY Married Ulrich Merkel in 1977; she kept his name after their 1982 divorce. In 1998 she married Professor Joachim Sauer. No children.



*CAREER Became involved in politics in 1989, getting a job as spokeswoman for the Democratic Awakening party before joining the Christian Democrats the following year. In 1991 she was named Minister for Women and Youth, and went on to be promoted to Environment Minister and then, in 1998, secretary general. In 2000 she became leader of the Christian Democrats, and in 2005 she beat Gerhard Schröder to become Germany's first female chancellor.



*SHE SAYS "It seems to me that the fact that I am a woman is a bigger issue than the fact that I'm from the East. For me it isn't really important. I've only ever known myself as a woman."



*THEY SAY "She is a stranger to most Germans. Many East Germans think of her as a West German, while West Germans think she is an East German" – biographer Gerd Langguth.

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