The Aristocratic Ineptitude of Ursula Von Der Leyen
How the EU president’s family connections explain her rise to power—and failures using it during the pandemic.
Where does the buck stop in the EU? There’s been plenty of finger pointing as Europeans try to figure out why their own vaccination efforts lag so far behind much of the rest of the world. In many ways, the EU’s failure to produce an adequate supply of its vaccine is the kind of cataclysmic social failure that seems to indict entire regimes, not simply individual actors. No one is powerful enough to produce such a multifaceted failure on their own.
Yet much of the blame and anger has deservedly settled on European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. To oust her, as former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker recently demanded, would be understandable given her blind trust in free market forces to administer Europe’s vaccination efforts and flailing attempts to make up for the resulting shortages.
But it would be a mistake to blame von der Leyen without understanding the broader failures that installed a person with a middling record in such a powerful position in the first place. The ultimate problem with von der Leyen is not that she bungled Europe’s vaccine rollout. It’s that she obtained her position through a kind of incestuous, image-obsessed politics that made bungling an inevitability.
Germans might have a reputation for being cold and rational, but mothers play a surprisingly large role in the political culture. For the Nazis, motherhood was the most a woman could hope to accomplish. They made Mother’s Day a national holiday in Germany and rewarded exemplary mothers with the Mutterkreuz or “Mother’s Cross.” Mothers were perhaps even more essential to the post-war era, however, when Germany was largely rebuilt by the so-called Trümmerfrauen, women who took their names from the piles of rubble they helped clear and repurpose while their husbands and fathers awaited release from prisoner-of-war camps. In this context, it can hardly be surprising that powerful women are almost inevitably maternal in Germany. German Chancellor Angela Merkel became a notable exception but only because she overcame the burden—in the form of public criticism and media skepticism—associated with her childlessness.
Merkel’s understanding of this dynamic would be one way of explaining the trust she placed in an unproven regional politician at the beginning of her chancellorship. Von der Leyen certainly seemed the perfect embodiment of motherhood: With seven children of her own, she had already climbed the lower ranks of Germany’s political establishment while promoting an image of herself as a kind of supermom, who packed lunchboxes and tended to boo-boos while juggling affairs of state.
Today, the image of the power-mom with a big job and a bigger brood has become commonplace in global politics, especially on the right. Frauke Petry, former leader of Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany party, has been especially conspicuous in using her six children to her political advantage, in ways reminiscent of former U.S. Gov. Sarah Palin, whose five children and “grizzly mama” moniker were constantly exploited for political gain when she shared a ticket with then-U.S. Sen. John McCain in 2008.
Von der Leyen, with fewer populist impulses than Petry or Palin, has found ways of investing Germany’s politics of motherhood with new substance. Placed by Merkel atop both the ministry for family affairs and the ministry for labor in successive governments, von der Leyen was responsible for introducing new directives intended to bring mothers back into the workforce. Among them were the introduction of Elterngeld, a program that replaces a substantial portion of the salaries of parents who take leave from their jobs to care for their children, and a program that expands public day care programs so they are available to children as young as 12 months old. Both programs have now become so thoroughly a part of public life in Germany that it can be difficult to imagine just how controversial they were when first introduced, but they each came under fire, especially from conservatives who saw them as an affront to traditional family structures and unnecessarily invasive to private life.
Von der Leyen, with her seven children and strong ties within the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), was the perfect person to push through these reforms. She served as an endless example for women’s ability to do it all. But another key factor often gets overlooked: her lineage. It should be no surprise that von der Leyen has been adept at exploiting images of youth and family for political ends. She learned at the hands of masters.
Von der Leyen was herself one of seven children, though her sister Benita-Eva died tragically in childhood. She was born in Brussels in 1958 to Ernst Albrecht and Heidi Adele Stromeyer. It was a charmed, if difficult, moment in German history. The Wirtschaftswunder made the country Europe’s economic engine, and it was coupled with a newfound confidence in Germany’s central economic and defensive role in the new world order. There were few more enthusiastic beneficiaries of the rapidly shifting political landscape than the Albrecht family. Albrecht was one of the European Union’s first civil servants. He was just 37 years old when he was appointed to the highest civil-service office in the Directorate-General for Competition, where he oversaw the nascent European Union’s antitrust operations.
Albrecht grew dissatisfied with life in Brussels, however, and returned to his ancestral home in Hanover, Germany. He was soon elected to the position of minister president (or governor, in U.S. diction) of Lower Saxony, an office he held between 1976 and 1990. Albrecht had a reputation as a politician whose influence exceeded his office, and he was a perennial pick for the CDU’s next chancellor. Though he never held any higher office, he and his family were constantly in the limelight. It can hardly be a surprise. The children were blond, beautiful, and talented, and Stromeyer seemed as cool and sovereign in front of the camera as her husband.
Indeed, in some very real ways, Germany still thinks of von der Leyen as Albrecht’s little girl. While the childless Merkel gained the nickname “mutti,” or mommy, von der Leyen still carries the nickname given to her by her father: “Röschen” or “Little Rosie.” To reduce von der Leyen to her father’s daughter, as one does when one calls her “Röschen,” is to overlook the fact that she has far exceeded his political accomplishments. It’s a terrible nickname. A better nickname might have been, “die hübsche.” It means “the pretty one” in everyday parlance, so it might hardly seem an improvement in terms of misogyny. But it also has another history. In Hanover, the “hübsche Familien” were quasi-noble families who had special access to the court. The Albrecht family have held this status—and key positions in German politics—for more than 500 years.
Contemporary Germany doesn’t seem like a place where aristocratic titles and family lineages hold much sway—publicly, Germans are deeply committed to democratic culture and have minimal interest in the kinds of aristocratic trappings that still seem to capture British hearts. Yet the aristocracy have managed to maintain far more of both its economic and political privileges than is commonly recognized. Indeed, the Social Democratic Party’s youth committee proposed legislation to ban the adoption of noble titles as parts of last names; had they succeeded, the president of the European Commission would have had to drop the noble title she took when she married her husband, and she would now simply be called Ursula Leyen. The demand was not empty. Many nobles still move in an elite world, where titles can have a real effect on a person’s chances of career success and where bloodlines still trump accomplishments as a measure of a person’s worth.
Although it would be foolhardy to think von der Leyen could have achieved everything she has without political talents of her own, it’s also important to recognize she has always been granted a kind of privilege that far surpasses the parochial advantages accorded to average Germans. Von der Leyen’s family tree traces a legacy of power and brutality, incorporating not only some of Germany’s most significant Nazis but also some of Britain’s largest slave traders and, through marriage, some of the United States’ largest slave owners. Von der Leyen is descended directly from James Ladson, who owned more than 200 slaves when the Civil War broke out.
It might seem petty to condemn someone for their ancestry: The sins of the father, after all, shall not be visited on the son—or, in this case, the daughter. But von der Leyen herself has invoked these forefathers unapologetically, if unthinkingly. When von der Leyen was in college and a group of radical, left-wing terrorists called the Red Army Faction (RAF) went on a violent crime spree, Albrecht, concerned his family would become a target of the RAF, implored his beloved Röschen to study abroad. She enrolled at the London School of Economics under the name Rose Ladson. Few people at the time were as conscious of the lingering legacies of slavery as we have now become, but her choice to assume the name of her slave-holding ancestors was an indication nevertheless about her comfort with unchallenged and inherited privilege.
Even if von der Leyen was a little more reflective about her ancestry, it would be necessary to point out the ruling classes that emerged centuries ago continue, at least in some cases, to hold undue influence on European politics. The kinds of family trees that seem to include a shameful number of moral transgressions are still revered by much of the continent’s ruling elite. It’s no accident that French President Emmanuel Macron is commonly cited as having first suggested von der Leyen for the leadership position, citing her perfect French—the French she learned as a child when her father was in Brussels—as evidence of her cosmopolitan nature. But there are any number of Europeans who speak excellent French, and Macron complimented more than her pronunciation. At a press conference, Macron praised her “profoundly European culture” before going on to say “she has the DNA of the European community,” referring explicitly to her father’s important role in Europe’s bureaucratic apparatus more than 40 years earlier.
However, it’s not only that von der Leyen’s name and connections have provided her with a kind of aristocratic sheen. Family was always crucial to her political trajectory. She catapulted through the ranks of local government in Lower Saxony largely because she could call her father’s former allies into line in the service of Christian Wulff, the minister president of Lower Saxony when von der Leyen began her career there in 2003 at the age of 45. These connections, and the milieu in which they were established, were the precondition of von der Leyen’s political maternity. Indeed, the power of her connections is evident in the story of how she gained her first regional seat.
Her own home in the tiny Hanover suburb of Ilten was represented by regional CDU chairperson Jürgen Gansäuer, so she decided to try her political hand in her hometown of Burgdorf, even though that seat had been held for almost 15 years by a CDU politician named Lutz von der Heide. The first primary, which she won by a single vote, was thrown out on a technicality. Her father jumped into action, and with Wilfried Hasselmann, then the honorary chair of the CDU in Hanover, he went on a charm offensive. Meanwhile, the regional edition of the powerful tabloid Bild started a smear campaign against von der Heide. Though von der Heide had held the seat for more than a decade and was, by all accounts, a skilled politician, she won with two-thirds of the votes.
This combination of high political connections and low-brow slander is typical of the family’s political style. Albrecht, with his photogenic family and conservative values, had always been a favorite of the paper. Von der Leyen surpassed him. For years, she wrote a column for the tabloid, which is easily the most powerful in Germany. Her political convictions played a secondary role. Indeed, many of the columns seem as though they might be ad copy for some strange German cousin of J.Crew—the images of the family relaxing, riding, and playing music together could hardly have been more carefully staged had the family been modeling the latest in seersucker and chambray rather than advocating for their particular brand of politics.
It’s unsurprising that von der Leyen’s successes at the labor and family ministries served to make her, for a time, Merkel’s natural successor as leader of the CDU. The policies—despite some complaints about inequities across social classes—were widely popular on the left while von der Leyen herself was widely popular among German centrists. Her next job, as Germany’s defense minister, would have been a natural stepping stone to the top job; Helmut Schmidt had already gone from that position to the German chancellorship in prior decades. When von der Leyen entered office in 2013, Merkel had already been chancellor for eight years, and it seemed likely that von der Leyen, after a tenure leading the German military, would replace her.
But von der Leyen’s career floundered at the defense ministry in ways that foreshadowed her failures in Brussels—and were entirely in keeping with her earlier successes. The ministries of family and labor are important sites of policy development, and they allowed von der Leyen to flaunt her considerable skill at redistributing tax money in ways that represented the needs of German families. But the managerial challenges of the defense ministry are of an entirely different order. It wasn’t just that von der Leyen had never previously shown an interest in security policy. At her earlier posts, von der Leyen primarily led small teams of loyal deputies; at defense, she suddenly was the boss of hundreds of thousands of people and responsible for an annual budget of more than $48 billion. In her many earlier successes, she never demonstrated a particular skill at overseeing the sort of massive global logistic problems the military confronts every day as a matter of course—or even at navigating the internal dynamics of complex organizations like the Bundeswehr, Germany’s armed forces.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, one of her first reforms at the defense ministry involved the creation of army day care centers (or “Kitas”). Here, again, the kinds of care work von der Leyen supported were critically important, both societally and militarily. Germany abandoned mandatory military service just a few years before von der Leyen began to serve as defense secretary, and the army was in the midst of adjusting to its new, fully professional status. The Kitas was only one of several measures von der Leyen introduced to make the army more family friendly. She also attempted to tie soldiers’ leaves to school breaks, allow soldiers to work part time while still progressing in their careers, and limit the number of relocations soldiers with families had to endure. One shouldn’t underestimate the importance of these measures; not only were they crucial to maintaining a standing army, but there is also reason to believe a more family-friendly military is less susceptible to right-wing extremism than one that relies on a more traditional model of the family.
But if von der Leyen’s powerful connections, aristocratic comportment, and media savvy were enough to carry her through stints leading Germany’s ministries of family and labor, they failed her in her role as the head of Germany’s military. Can it be any surprise, really, that a person who had neither any previous experience in defense policy or strategy nor substantial experience managing large organizations in the private or public sectors should fail in such a complex and varied role?
Von der Leyen held the post as defense minister from 2013 to 2019, a remarkable run considering her inexperience. But when things came crashing down, they came crashing down quickly—and exposed a slew of mismanagement, incompetence, and potential corruption. The scandal is usually called the “consultant affair” due to the untold hundreds of millions of dollars von der Leyen and her chief deputy Katrin Suder paid to consultants who were responsible for helping to determine how the military should spend its substantial armaments budget. In actuality, however, it was really problems with procurement that led to von der Leyen’s political downfall in Germany. And it was no accident that it was as minister of defense that von der Leyen encountered issues with procurement. It’s the complexity of the Bundeswehr’s expenses—and the ubiquity of lobbyists—that have long turned the powerful position into a pitfall. Germany’s ministries of labor and of family deal with a relatively small number of vendors, and much of their time is spent procuring items familiar with everyday life. There are, of course, more complicated challenges in both of these ministries as well, but nothing that approaches the difficulty of supplying a modern army. Von der Leyen failed at it in a truly spectacular manner.
The Gorch Fock, a sailing ship—with sails!—the German Navy used for training was docked for repairs in 2015, briefly before von der Leyen assumed office. The estimated cost was $11.6 million. When she left office in 2019, the estimated cost of repairing the training vessel had risen to $163 million. The mission-critical components of von der Leyen’s armament expenditures fared even worse. In 2017, according to N-TV, 97 new weapons systems were delivered to the Bundeswehr. Only 38 were functional.
Furthermore, von der Leyen and Suder deleted cell phone data and censored documents in ways that raised the suspicions of experts. Their evasions were so extreme that Tobias Lindner, who is the Green Party’s defense expert in the Bundestag, asked prosecutors to investigate von der Leyen for potential criminal wrongdoing. “It goes beyond a political dispute,” Lindner told the Süddeutsche Zeitung in 2019. “She’s made clearing up the case much more difficult and might be criminally liable.”
Everyone was largely willing to overlook von der Leyen’s fundamental dilettantism when she was advocating for more social support for working mothers. And it remains a remarkable testimony to the shared experiences of mothers in different situations—as well as to von der Leyen’s solidarity with other German mothers—that the reforms she introduced to help women balance career and family have been so wildly successful.
It’s lamentable, however, that Macron and the rest of the European Commission were so dazzled by von der Leyen’s extraordinarily embodiment of “European culture” that they refused to listen to the warnings of Germans who knew how badly she bungled her last major procurement effort. Indeed, Germans mistrusted her so badly that her appointment to lead the European Union was largely greeted with skepticism in the country, although she is the first German to hold the office since Walter Hallstein in 1958.
What’s remarkable is not that she has failed so badly in the position. She rose, after all, by playing on her family connections. What is, however, remarkable is she has failed in so nearly the same way as in her last two positions. Running the Bundeswehr, she entrusted the army’s procurement efforts to neoliberal market logic espoused by management consultants, and things went poorly. A few years later, responsible for Europe’s vaccine procurement efforts, she has faced criticism for placing too much trust in the free market, failing to insist on centralized control of vaccine production and distribution within the European Union. As a result, people are dying.
For any other politician, one suspects it would have been a career-ending mistake. But the world works differently for von der Leyen, and the press has already largely moved on from her disastrous mismanagement of Europe’s vaccine procurement efforts. She is one of the hübsche, Germany’s privileged few.
Correction, May 3, 2021: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified a former defense minister.
Peter Kuras is a writer, translator, and editor living in Berlin.