As Angela Merkel called it a day, the performance of her centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party in the recent German elections was poor. While the underlying political reasons of this election outcome are beyond the scope of our present discussion, the absence of Merkel-rhombus – Angela Merkel’s signature, a widely-used marketing tool for her party, is one reason, for sure.
“Merkel-rhombus” or “Merkel-diamond” (“Merkel-Raute” in German) is “probably one of the most recognizable hand gestures in the world”. This mythical hand sign, also known as “The Triangle of Power” or “Merkelizer”, is constituted by placing hands in front of the stomach, connecting the index finger and thumb with their respective counterpart, thus forming the geometric shape of a rhombus. Four-sided shapes invoke feelings of balance and stability in the mind because of their symmetry, while a rhombus gives an impression of speed, in addition.
Merkel herself explained her hand gesture in different ways – her love for symmetry, a solution to the question of what one should do with her hands while talking, and an orthopaedic aid to straighten the back. Merkel-raute, however, symbolizes more than Merkel’s political and public power as it is blended with her steady personality that shapes and characterizes her leadership. It has its own Wikipedia page and its own emoticon, “<>”, and has also been adopted by the CDU as a symbol of Angela Merkel in its online communications. It “defuses and avoids emotional signals” as it is situated “between proximity and distance,” according to one communications specialist.
The “Merkel-raute” was noticed during a photoshoot for Stern magazine in 2002 for the first time. During the campaign of the 2013 German federal elections, the CDU erected a 230 by 66 feet banner near Berlin’s central station featuring a giant image of nothing but the Merkel-rhombus, made up of 2,150 photographs of hands, with the slogan “Germany’s future in good hands” on the left of the picture. Clearly, Merkel-raute was able to represent or even replace Merkel’s visually. Although the rival Social Democratic Party accused the CDU of fostering a “personality cult”, journalist Philipp Wittrock from the magazine Spiegel commented: “With the mega billboard, Merkel’s hands have become an icon of power. Why bother with political content?”
Merkel won the 2013 elections, and as The Guardian commented, Merkel-rhombus became “probably one of the most recognisable hand gestures in the world.” The successful campaign of 2013 motivated the use of the Merkel-raute again in the election campaign of 2017. The front page of Merkel’s website featured one icon stating “I love Raute”.
In a 1986 research article titled “The use of hand gestures in political speeches: some case studies” published in the ‘Journal of Language and Social Psychology’, Peter Bull of the University of York found that, much like a conductor leading an orchestra, gesturing helped speakers with intonation and placing stress. Yes, the body language of politicians is important. For example, those who watched the Nixon-Kennedy presidential debate in 1960 on television thought Kennedy dominated the proceedings while those who listened to it on radio thought Nixon performed better. Body language is so important that the US government used to spend about $300,000 annually to fund studying the body language of Russian President Vladimir Putin and other world leaders to understand them better.
Incidentally, some gestures get deeply associated with some politicians and become their power statement. The gesture of the thumb leaning against the thumb-side portion of the index finger, which is part of a closed fist, or slightly projecting from the fist is popularly known as “Clinton thumb” after one of its most famous users, Bill Clinton, although it was already road-tested by John F. Kennedy. In 2008, the New York Times declared that then-presidential candidate Barack Obama putting his index finger against his thumb and jabbing a bit while delivering an important point was his signature gesture. And when Donald Trump emphasizes a point, he often brings his arms wide and pairs it with his trademark “yuuuuuuge”.
Angela Merkel was certainly not in the race for the German chancellorship in 2021. But, the magic of Merkel-raute persisted in the election battleground when Olaf Scholz, the Social Democrat chancellor candidate, used the gesture in a photoshoot for the Sueddeutsche Zeitung magazine. This was possibly an attempt to portray himself as the true Merkel continuity candidate, as opposed to the CDU candidate. Quite predictably, the CDU lashed out at this attempt to hijack Merkel’s legacy by the rival party.
The rhombus belongs to Merkel, for sure. Its magic is blended with the legacy of Merkel herself. The legacy is associated with her scientific conviction that helped save the euro in 2010 – maybe only barely, her negotiation with Putin in 2014 as the representative of the West during the Russian invasion of Ukraine and seizure of Crimea, her allowing Syrian refugees in Germany during the Syrian crisis of 2015, her tough role with post-Brexit Britain – crippling the UK as a competitor and deterring any other countries from leaving the European Union – and finally, in 2020, through her scientific handling of the Covid-19 pandemic in Germany.
Merkel’s wax statue at London’s Madame Tussauds museum depicts her Merkel-raute pose. But, Germany and the European Union will miss the leadership and conviction of Merkel-rhombus in their orchestra parties, for sure, at least for the time being.
The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.