World and Nation

Merkel faces tough questions in former East Germany

MAGDEBURG, Germany— When Chancellor Angela Merkel made an hourlong campaign stop in this town in the former East Germany this week, Ilse Siegert was determined not to miss her chance.

A descendant of an impoverished noble family who landed here in the chaos of 1945, Siegert, 74, has seen her share of German history. For more than a decade, she has campaigned for better benefits for retirees and others she thinks are not getting their fair share from the German state. So, she said, she buttonholed Merkel as she worked the crowd of about 1,500 on Tuesday and demanded to know what the chancellor planned to do about the issue. Merkel shook her hand and smiled, she said.

“Before the election, they all want to know us,” Siegert said. “After the election, no one knows us at all.”

She said she might vote for Merkel on Sunday, when the chancellor hopes to win a third term, but was still considering shunning the election altogether.

Merkel, 59, a trained physicist, spent her first 35 years in the Communist East, so she may be considered “one of us” in these parts of Germany by the political and other elites who like to talk, at least publicly, of the blossoming “new states.” But she may also have an uphill battle to win over eastern Germans who feel shortchanged by capitalism nearly a quarter-century after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Parts of the former East, particularly southern regions around Leipzig and Dresden, have flourished. But in places like Magdeburg, a 1,000-year-old town with Germany’s oldest Gothic cathedral, a renowned university and some very Soviet-looking buildings that replaced bombed ruins left by the Allies, the present and future look less gleaming.

In more than a dozen conversations a visitor had with older residents at Merkel’s campaign stop, at Old Market Square, talk turned quickly to their too-meager pensions, and among younger spectators to their abiding indifference toward the chancellor.