Hands resting in front of the stomach, thumbs and fingertips touching to form a diamond shape — Angela Merkel’s “rhombus” hand gesture was her most recognisable trademark.
The gesture has its own Wikipedia page, its own emoticon, “<>”, and the longtime German leader has even been immortalised adopting the pose at London’s famous Madame Tussauds waxworks museum.
But the “Merkel-Raute”, as it is known in German, became her signature largely by accident — born from a camera-shy Merkel being unsure how to pose during a photo shoot for Stern magazine in 2002.
Then head of the Christian Democrats (CDU) but still three years away from being elected as chancellor for the first time, Merkel “didn’t know what to do with her hands”, photographer Claudia Kempf later recalled.
“She let them hang down next to her, which made her look a bit exposed, or she joined them together. I said to her, ‘You look too much like a pastor’s daughter’,” Kempf told the Rheinische Post newspaper in 2009.
A few months before German elections in 2013, Merkel offered her own explanation of how the gesture had come about.
“It’s about the question of where to put your arms,” said the trained physicist, adding that the rhombus also showed “a certain love of symmetry”.
At the time of that interview, Merkel was campaigning for a third term in office.
The whole parliament comes up for renewal in German federal elections, but her CDU party had decided on a very personalised campaign.
A billboard 70 metres wide by 20 metres tall (230 feet by 66 feet) was erected near Berlin’s central station featuring a giant image of the Merkel rhombus, made up of over 2,000 photographs of hands, with the slogan “Germany’s future in good hands”.
The rival Social Democrats (SPD) slammed what they called an “empty personality cult” around Merkel, while the Greens lamented: “If this is politics, we have fallen very low.”
But the woman affectionately nicknamed “Mutti” (mummy) won the election by a wide margin a few weeks later, with the Merkel rhombus becoming “probably one of the most recognisable hand gestures in the world”, according to Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
The gesture has also been likened to a bridge, a protective roof, and even a sign made between Illuminati members to identify themselves.
“I believe the Merkel rhombus was initially adopted unconsciously,” Jochen Hoerisch, a communications specialist at the University of Mannheim, told AFP.
“But once it had been noticed by the public it was then consciously used by the chancellor as a brand.”
Even in the twilight of Merkel’s political career, the gesture was once again catapulted into the spotlight during this year’s election campaign when SPD chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz adopted it on a magazine cover.
Scholz used the gesture in a photo shoot for the Sueddeutsche Zeitung — part of his strategy to position himself as the true Merkel continuity candidate, as opposed to Armin Laschet, the challenger from Merkel’s party.
This claim on Merkel’s legacy prompted a backlash from the CDU and even from Merkel herself, who was at pains to point out that there were “enormous differences” between herself and Scholz.
In a debate in parliament, Laschet told Scholz: “You can’t go around making rhombus signs and talking like Saskia Esken” — the co-leader of the SPD, who represents the party’s left wing.
But the Social Democrats’ plan paid off and Scholz’s party secured a shock victory in the election over Merkel’s conservatives.
Many older voters in particular defected from the CDU to vote for Scholz, who will be officially elected by parliament on Wednesday to replace her as Germany’s next chancellor.
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