It is one of the most iconic photographs of our time: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, arms aloft, showing off her red, white and blue Olympic torch from the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro.
The photo, for all its symbolism, was hard to come by during the lead-up to the games — the longstanding preference for the government to withhold photos of itself as a way of showing German unity. That approach took a decidedly Eurocentric turn, making it possible for few people outside Brazil to see the ceremony or Merkel’s pose in it.
So when Michael Riedel, author of “The Price of Power,” came across the famous picture in an old photo archive of some 75,000 images from the years of the Cold War, he was delighted.
“It was so rare that you get something like that,” he told The Washington Post’s Michael Cavna. “That’s what makes it stand out.”
Riedel and colleague Susanne Simonsnhein, both of whom work at the German newspaper Die Welt, painstakingly began scouring the archive for the image that demonstrated Merkel’s global standing. They ended up at the Der Slautern archives in Cologne, where metal plates with 2,666 images were stored alongside thousands of other treasures that once adorned the walls of the interior ministry of Nazi Germany. When the lensed film was gone, all was revealed, from Hitler through the rise of German reunification in 1990.
The country’s neutrality, unprecedented at the time, was a major selling point to the country’s many allies and others around the world. Yet whether it was a prescient opportunity for propaganda or designed primarily to depict Germany as a unified nation remains in the air. Riedel and Simonsnhein noted that the choice of red, white and blue was also a nod to the colors of European unity.
“This was very much a European picture,” Riedel said. “The color red was the color that, historically, made the communist red flag disappear when it was burned.”
In the 12 years that followed the end of the Cold War, Riedel and Simonsnhein say, Germans have come to greater terms with their past.