Ursula von der Leyen

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Ursula von der Leyen
Von der Leyen 2010.jpg
Minister of Defence
Assumed office
17 December 2013
Chancellor Angela Merkel
Preceded by Thomas de Maizière
Minister of Labour and Social Affairs
In office
30 November 2009 – 17 December 2013
Chancellor Angela Merkel
Preceded by Franz Josef Jung
Succeeded by Andrea Nahles
Minister of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth
In office
22 November 2005 – 30 November 2009
Chancellor Angela Merkel
Preceded by Renate Schmidt
Succeeded by Kristina Schröder
Personal details
Born (1958-10-08) 8 October 1958 (age 56)
Ixelles, Belgium
Political party Christian Democratic Union
Spouse(s) Heiko von der Leyen
Children 7
Alma mater University of Göttingen
University of Münster
London School of Economics
Hannover Medical School
Religion Lutheran

Ursula Gertrud von der Leyen, née Albrecht (born 8 October 1958 in Brussels) is a German politician who has been the Minister of Defence since 2013, and is the first woman in German history to hold that office. A physician by trade, she previously also served as the Minister of Labour and Social Affairs from 2009 to 2013 and as the Minister of Senior Citizens, Women and Youth from 2005 to 2009. Von der Leyen has regularly been tipped as a possible future successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel and she regularly polls among the most popular politicians in Germany.[1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8]

Early life[edit]

Ursula von der Leyen is the daughter of Ernst Albrecht, a prominent CDU politician and former European Commission official, as well as a long-time Prime Minister of Lower Saxony. Her brother is businessman Hans-Holger Albrecht.

She was born in Ixelles in Brussels, where her father worked for the European Commission (as a Director-General from 1969). She attended the European School until 1971, when the family relocated to Lehrte in Hanover after her father had become CEO of Bahlsen and involved in state politics in Lower Saxony.[9]

Ursula von der Leyen is a descendant of Baron Ludwig Knoop, a cotton merchant of the city-state of Bremen and one of the most successful entrepreneurs of the 19th century.[10]


Ursula von der Leyen started her studies in 1977 in the field of economics, at the universities of Göttingen, Münster and London School of Economics. While studying in London in 1978, she used the pseudonym "Rose Ladson" because she was seen as a potential target for West German left-wing terrorism.[11] "Röschen" ("Rosie") has been her nickname since childhood.[12] In 1980, she switched to studying medicine. She subsequently studied at Hanover Medical School, whence she graduated in 1987 after seven years.[13]

From 1988 to 1992, she worked as an assistant doctor at the Women's Clinic of the Medical School of the University of Hanover. Upon completing her postgraduate studies, she earned a doctorate in medicine (Dr. med.) in 1991. From 1992 to 1996, after the birth of twins, she worked as a housewife in Stanford, California, while her husband was a faculty member of Stanford University.

From 1998 to 2002, she was a faculty member at the Department of Epidemiology, Social Medicine and Health System Research at the Medical School of the University of Hanover, where in 2001, she earned a Master's Degree in Public Health.[14] She grew up bilingually in Belgium and speaks German and French at a native level as well as English.[15]

Political career[edit]

Ursula von der Leyen joined the CDU in 1990, and became active in politics in 1999, entering local politics in 2001 in the area of Hanover.

State Minister for Social Affairs, Women, Families, Health and Integration in Lower Saxony, 2003–2005[edit]

Von der Leyen was elected to the Parliament of Lower Saxony in the 2003 state election, and from 2003 to 2005 she was a cabinet minister in the state government of Lower Saxony in the cabinet of Christian Wulff, responsible for social affairs, women, family and health.

In 2003, Von der Leyen was part of a group assigned by then-opposition leader and CDU chairwoman Angela Merkel to draft alternative proposals for social welfare reform in response to Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s "Agenda 2010". The so-called Herzog Commission, named after its chairman, former German President Roman Herzog, recommended a comprehensive package of reform proposals including, among other things, decoupling health and nursing care premiums from people’s earnings and levying a monthly lump sum across the board instead.[16]

Ahead of the 2005 federal elections, Angela Merkel chose Von der Leyen to cover the family and social security portfolio in her shadow cabinet.[17][18] In the negotiations to form a government following the 2005 federal elections, Von der Leyen led the CDU/CSU delegation in the working group on families; her co-chair from the SPD was Renate Schmidt.[19]

Federal Minister for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, 2005–2009[edit]

In 2005, Von der Leyen was appointed Federal Minister of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth in the cabinet of Angela Merkel. On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel, Von der Leyen participated in the first joint cabinet meeting of the governments of Germany and Israel in Jerusalem in March 2008.[20]

Federal Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, 2009–2013[edit]

Von der Leyen was elected to the Bundestag, Germany's Parliament, in the 2009 federal election, representing the 42nd electoral district of Hannover (alongside Edelgard Bulmahn from the Social Democrats). She was reappointed as family minister[21] but soon succeeded Franz Josef Jung as Federal Minister of Labour and Social Affairs on 30 November 2009.[22]

During her time in office, Von der Leyen cultivated an image as "the social conscience" of the CDU[6] and helped Merkel move the CDU into the political center.[2] By speaking out in favour of increasing the number of nurseries and the introduction of a women's quota for listed companies' supervisory boards, gay marriage and a nationwide minimum wage, Von der Leyen made enemies among the more traditionalist party members and won admirers on the left.[23]

Von der Leyen lobbied for lowering barriers to entry for some foreign workers in order to fight the lack of skilled workers in Germany.[24] In 2013, she concluded an agreement with the Government of the Philippines that was to facilitate the placement of Filipino health care professionals in employment positions in Germany; a key provision is that the Filipino health care professionals would be employed under the same conditions that are accorded to their German counterparts.[25]

Von der Leyen was initially considered the front runner for the nomination of the ruling CDU/CSU and FDP parties for President of Germany in the 2010 election,[26] but Christian Wulff was ultimately chosen as the candidate. Media later reported that Wulff's nomination was a blow to Merkel whose apparent first choice Von der Leyen was blocked by conservative state premiers.[27]

In November 2010, Von der Leyen told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper that the CDU should consider holding a formal vote when choosing future candidates for chancellor.[28]

In the negotiations to form a government following the 2013 federal elections, Von der Leyen led the CDU/CSU delegation in the labor policy working group; her co-chair from the SPD was Andrea Nahles.

Federal Minister of Defense, 2013–present[edit]

Von der Leyen with German soldiers (2014)

In 2013, Ursula von der Leyen was appointed as Germany's first female defense minister.[23] By placing a major party figure such as Von der Leyen at the head of the Defense Ministry, Merkel was widely seen as reinvigorating the scandal-ridden ministry’s morale and prestige.[29] Along with Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, Von der Leyen is one of only three ministers with Merkel since she became chancellor in 2005.[30]

Within her first year in office, Von der Leyen visited the Bundeswehr troops stationed in Afghanistan three times and oversaw the gradual withdrawal of German soldiers from the country as NATO was winding down its 13-year combat mission ISAF.[31]

With 2014 marking the centenary of the start of World War I, Von der Leyen inaugurated a memorial for the Armistice Day in Ablain-Saint-Nazaire alongside French President François Hollande and North Rhine-Westphalia State Premier Hannelore Kraft, as well as British and Belgian officials.[32]

While some other party officials were, like Merkel, also elected with scores over 90% to the CDU executive board at a party convention in December 2014, Von der Leyen scraped only 70.5%.[33]

Military procurement[edit]

Early in her tenure, Von der Leyen pledged to get a grip on Germany’s military equipment budget after publishing a KPMG report on repeated failures in controlling suppliers, costs and delivery deadlines, e.g., with the Airbus A400M Atlas transport plane, Eurofighter Typhoon jet and the Boxer armoured fighting vehicle.[34] In 2015, she criticized Airbus over delays in the delivery of A400M military transport planes, complaining that the company had a serious problem with product quality. "At stake is not just the image of the company, but also Germany's reliability as an alliance partner," she stated.[35]

Ukraine crisis[edit]

At the Munich Security Conference in 2015, Von der Leyen publicly defended the German refusal to supply Ukraine with weapons. Stressing that it was important to remain united in Europe over Ukraine, she argued that negotiations with Russia, unlike with Islamic State jihadists, were possible. Germany sees Ukraine and Russia as a chance to prove that in the 21st century, developed nations should solve disputes at the negotiating table, not with weapons, she said. In addition, she noted, Russia has an almost infinite supply of weapons it could send in to Ukraine. She questioned whether any effort by the West could match that or, more important, achieve the outcome sought by Ukraine and its supporters.[36] On the contrary, Von der Leyen said giving the Ukrainians arms to help them defend themselves could have unintended and fateful consequences. "Weapons deliveries would be a fire accelerant," von der Leyen was quoted as telling the Süddeutsche Zeitung daily. "And it could give the Kremlin the excuse to openly intervene in this conflict."[37]

Political views[edit]

Childcare and parental leave[edit]

Ursula von der Leyen assumed her office as Federal Minister for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth in 2005. Amidst much protest, particularly from the conservative wing of her own party, the CDU, Ursula von der Leyen introduced the Child Advancement Act (Kinderförderungsgesetz), which reserved 4.3 billion euros to create childcare structures throughout Germany.[38]

Von der Leyen also introduced the German Elternzeit, a paid parental leave scheme which, following Scandinavian models, reserving two additional months for fathers who go on parental leave as well (Vätermonate in German). This part of the law in particular attracted protest from some German conservatives. Catholic Bishop Walter Mixa accused von der Leyen of turning women into "Birthing Machines", while Bavarian colleagues from von der Leyen's sister party, the CSU, complained that men did not need a "diaper-changing internship".[39] Von der Leyen successfully influenced public opinion of her reforms with a 3 million Euro PR campaign, which was criticized for using public funds for political advocacy and for employing embedded marketing techniques.[40]

Blocking internet child pornography[edit]

Demonstration on 17 April 2009 against the planned mandatory blockage of child pornography.

Ursula von der Leyen advocated the initiation of a mandatory blockage of child pornography on the Internet through Internet service providers via a block list maintained by the Federal Criminal Police Office of Germany (BKA), thus creating the basic infrastructure for extensive censorship of websites deemed illegal by the BKA.[41]

These actions brought her the nickname "Zensursula", a portmanteau word blending the German word for censorship ("Zensur") and her given name ("Ursula").[42] The combination of a sensitive topic like child pornography and internet censorship is said to have caused a rising interest in the Pirate Party.[43]

In July 2009 she referred to the problems of struggling against pedophile pornography on the internet as the responsible persons often use servers located in Africa or India, where "child pornography is legal".[44][45] This claim was based on a study by the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children in 2006;[46] however, child pornography is in fact illegal in India. Indeed, Indian society has much stricter rules about erotic media than Germany. She later expressed regret for having cited an inaccurate study.[47]

Von der Leyen was in charge of the request to ban and the rating of the Rammstein album Liebe ist für alle da by the Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Medien.[48]

Women board quota[edit]

In 2013, Von der Leyen unsuccessfully campaigned for a statutory quota for female participation in the supervisory boards of companies in Germany, requiring company boards to be at least 20% female by 2018, rising to 40% by 2023.[49]

Foreign policy[edit]

Von der Leyen is a proponent of a more assertive foreign policy.[50][51] One striking example was the decision in September 2014 to send arms to Kurdish and Iraqi security forces, which broke a longstanding taboo on Germany‘s dispatching of weapons to a conflict zone.[7]

On the deteriorating relationship between Europe and Russia during the 2014 Crimean crisis, she argued that "the reliance on a functioning business relationship with Europe is much, much bigger in Russia" and that sanctions should prod the oligarchs and Russian business.[52] She also called for greater NATO backing of the Baltic states amid the Crimean dispute.[53]

Von der Leyen has in the past voted in favor of German participation in United Nations peacekeeping missions as well as in United Nations-mandated European Union peacekeeping missions on the African continent, such as in Somalia – both Operation Atalanta and EUTM Somalia – (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014), Darfur/Sudan (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014), South Sudan (2011, 2012 and 2013), Mali (2013 and 2014) and the Central African Republic (2014).

European Union[edit]

In a 2011 interview with Der Spiegel, Von der Leyen expressed her preference for "a united states of Europe – run along the lines of the federal states of Switzerland, Germany or the USA" which would capitalize on Europe's size by agreeing on core issues relating to finance, tax and economic politics.[54] Merkel slapped down Von der Leyen, then labor minister, that same year for demanding Greece offer collateral for emergency loans to avoid possible default.[30]

In 2015, Von der Leyen argued that a form of EU army should be a long-term goal for the block. She also said that she was convinced about the goal of a combined military force, just as she was convinced that "perhaps not my children, but then my grandchildren will experience a United States of Europe".[55]

Personal life[edit]

Ursula von der Leyen is married to Heiko von der Leyen, a professor of medicine, the CEO of a business development company (medical engineering) and a member of the von der Leyen family, an aristocratic family noted as silk industralists. She met him at a university choir in Göttingen.[1]

Ursula and Heiko von der Leyen have seven children, David (1987), Sophie (1989), Maria Donata (1992), twins Victoria and Johanna (1994), Egmont (1998) and Gracia (1999).[56][57] Until late 2014, the family lived together with her father Ernst Albrecht, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, on a farm near Hanover.[58]



  1. ^ a b Erik Kirschbaum (22 April 2013), "Feisty German minister stands up to Merkel", Reuters.
  2. ^ a b Stefan Wagstyl (15 December 2013), "Merkel cabinet choice set to restart debate on successor", Financial Times.
  3. ^ Judy Dempsey (16 December 2013), [1] Carnegie Endowment.
  4. ^ Gordon Repinski (17 December 2013), "Military in Flux: What's In Store for Ursula von der Leyen", Der Spiegel.
  5. ^ "Merkel takes oath of office, begins third term", Deutsche Welle, 17 December 2013.
  6. ^ a b "A guide to future chancellors?", The Economist, 21 December 2013.
  7. ^ a b Alison Smale (28 September 2014), "Seeking Global Role, German Military Stumbles", New York Times.
  8. ^ Stefan Wagstyl (5 October 2014), "German defence ministry and arms industry come under fire", Financial Times.
  9. ^ Biography in whoswho.de (German)
  10. ^ "Der denkmalgeschützte Bau drohte zu verfallen: Altes Knoop-Mausoleum für 90000 Euro restauriert" (in German). Bild. Retrieved 1 December 2011. 
  11. ^ David Crossland (15 December 2013), "'Heir to Angela Merkel' appointed Germany's first female defence minister", The Daily Telegraph.
  12. ^ "Röschen geht in die Verteidigung", (Rosie goes military) Constantin Magnis, Cicero September 2013
  13. ^ "Germany Appoints 1st Female Defense Minister", Defense News, 16 December 2013
  14. ^ Presse- und Informationsamt der Bundesregierung. "Ursula von der Leyen". Bundesregierung. Retrieved 1 December 2011. 
  15. ^ Von Alice Bota (29 December 2006). "Small Talk auf höchster Ebene" (in German). Tagesspiegel. Retrieved 1 December 2011. 
  16. ^ "German Opposition Split Over Reforms", Deutsche Welle, 8 October 2003.
  17. ^ Matthew Tempest (17 August 2005), "Merkel unveils 'cabinet' ahead of German elections", The Guardian.
  18. ^ Judy Dempsey (18 August 2005), "Merkel puts small team forward", International Herald Tribune.
  19. ^ Timot Szent-Ivanyi (25 October 2005), "Gutverdiener sollen höhere Kassenbeiträge zahlen", Berliner Zeitung.
  20. ^ "Bilateral agreements reached at first Israeli-German intergovernmental consultations", Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, press release of 17 March 2008.
  21. ^ Elizabeth Fullerton (27 November 2009), "Merkel moves German family minister to labor job", Reuters.
  22. ^ Spiegel.de, 27 November 2009 (German)
  23. ^ a b Philip Oltermann (15 December 2013), "Ursula von der Leyen appointed as Germany's first female defence minister", The Guardian.
  24. ^ Sabine Siebold (16 October 2010), "Merkel says German multiculturalism has failed", Reuters.
  25. ^ "Philippines and Germany conclude agreement to deploy Filipino health care professionals to Germany", Department of Foreign Affairs (Philippines), press release of 19 March 2013.
  26. ^ "Köhler-Nachfolge: Arbeitsministerin Von der Leyen Favoritin". Nachrichten.at. 30 June 2010. Retrieved 1 December 2011. 
  27. ^ Madeline Chambers (9 June 2010), "Germans want opposition president in blow to Merkel", Reuters.
  28. ^ Annika Breidthardt (13 November 2010), "Big German protests pressure Merkel before CDU meet", Reuters.
  29. ^ Jonathan Laurence (23 December 2013), "New Government, New Responsibilities: Will Merkel's Team of Rivals Do Anything Differently?" Brookings Institution.
  30. ^ a b Arne Delfs (22 January 2014), "Merkel Succession Beckons After Von der Leyen’s Defense Posting", Businessweek.
  31. ^ "German defense minister makes surprise Afghanistan visit", Deutsche Welle, 13 December 2014.
  32. ^ Natalie Muller (11 November 2014), Hollande, von der Leyen, Europe observe Armistice DayDeutsche Welle.
  33. ^ Stefan Wagstyl (9 December 2014), "Merkel eyes relief for German taxpayers", Financial Times.
  34. ^ Stefan Wagstyl (6 October 2014), "Ursula von der Leyen vows to tackle Germany military budget", Financial Times.
  35. ^ Michael Nienaber and Victoria Bryan (23 January 2015), "Germany's Defense Minister Criticizes Airbus Over New A400M Delays", New York Times
  36. ^ David M. Herszenhorn (6 February 2015), Ukraine Insists Any Pact With Russia Must Adhere to Terms of September Accord New York Times.
  37. ^ Top NATO General Warns of Russian Reaction to Arming Ukraine New York Times, 5 February 2015.
  38. ^ [2][dead link]
  39. ^ "Full portrait of von der Leyen's work" (Press release). New York Times. 
  40. ^ Getarnte Werbung – Die fragwürdigen PR-Kampagnen der Bundesregierung ("Stealth advertising – The questionable PR campaigns of the federal government"). Report Mainz, Südwestrundfunk, 27 August 2007 (German)
  41. ^ Focus Online: "Kinderpornografie: Der Traum von der Internetsperrung" (German)
  42. ^ Der Spiegel Online: "Zensursula" geht in die Offensive (German)
  43. ^ Reißmann, Ole (16 October 2009). "Stoppschild für Zensursula" (in German). Spiegel.de. Retrieved 6 September 2011. 
  44. ^ MDR: Interview (German)
  45. ^ heise.de (German)
  46. ^ Spiegel.de, 15 July 2009 (German)
  47. ^ MDR.de "Von der Leyen gesteht Fehler ein" (German)
  48. ^ "Rammstein: "Liebe Ist Für Alle Da" wird verboten". Laut.de. Retrieved 1 December 2011. 
  49. ^ Quentin Peel (14 April 2013), "Merkel faces snub over women board quotas", Financial Times.
  50. ^ Alison Smale (1 February 2014), "Spurred by Global Crises, Germany Weighs a More Muscular Foreign Policy", New York Times.
  51. ^ "German foreign policy: No more shirking", The Economist, 8 February 2014.
  52. ^ Alison Smale (12 March 2014), "Ukraine Crisis Limits Merkel’s Rapport With Putin", New York Times.
  53. ^ "German defense chief von der Leyen calls for stronger NATO backing in Ukraine crisis", Deutsche Welle, 23 March 2014.
  54. ^ Helen Pidd (12 March 2014), "Ursula von der Leyen: Germany's next chancellor?", The Guardian.
  55. ^ "Juncker calls for collective EU army", Deutsche Welle, 8 March 2015.
  56. ^ [3]
  57. ^ [4][dead link]
  58. ^ Arne Delfs (22 January 2014), "Merkel Succession Beckons After Von der Leyen’s Defense Posting", Bloomberg Businessweek.
  59. ^ "DNB, Session abgelaufen" (in German). Portal.d-nb.de. Retrieved 1 December 2011. 

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Renate Schmidt
Minister of Senior Citizens, Women and Youth
Succeeded by
Kristina Schröder
Preceded by
Franz Josef Jung
Minister of Labour and Social Affairs
Succeeded by
Andrea Nahles
Preceded by
Thomas de Maizière
Minister of Defence