Ursula von der Leyen Ursula von der Leyen © KAS/Liebers

Ursula von der Leyen (geb. Albrecht)

Physician, State Minister, Federal Minister, President of the EU Commission Dr. med. October 8, 1958 Ixelles/Elsene, Belgien
by Christine Bach

Family and Education

Ursula von der Leyen was born Ursula Albrecht in Brussels on 8 October 1958, the third of seven children. Her mother, Heidi Adele Albrecht (née Strohmeyer), who held a doctorate in German language and literature, devoted herself entirely to her family after her first child was born. Her father, the economist Ernst Albrecht, had a successful career in the civil service of the European Communities. From 1964 to 1971, Ursula Albrecht attended the European School in Brussels, where she learned several foreign languages. When Ernst Albrecht won a seat for the CDU in the Landtag of Lower Saxony in the elections of 1970, the family moved from Brussels to Ilten, near Hanover. Six years later, Ernst Albrecht unexpectedly became minister president in Lower Saxony, an office that he held until 1990. The family thus found itself increasingly in the media spotlight and Ursula Albrecht became accustomed to public appearances at an early age.

The Albrechts placed importance on teaching their children the value of hard work and education. They made no distinction in this respect between their daughter and her brothers. Another formative influence on the future politician was the appreciation of politics that the children learned from their father. Ursula later recalled that she could always sense in him a "passion to shape, change and improve things in the country" (von Welser 2007).

She completed her Abitur at the Lehrte high school for maths and sciences with a mark of 'very good'. Afterwards, she studied economics in Göttingen, Münster and London. Out of a desire to have "more to do with people", she switched courses after three years and began studying medicine in Hanover. In 1987, she completed her state examination in medicine and acquired her licence to practise as a doctor.


Doctor and Mother

In 1986, Ursula Albrecht married Heiko von der Leyen, who was also a physician. Between 1987 and 1999, the couple had seven children. During this period, Ursula von der Leyen initially worked as a junior doctor (1988–1992); in 1991, she obtained the degree of Doctor of Medicine (Dr. med.). Between 1992 and 1996, she and her family lived in Stanford, California. Von der Leyen used this time to attend classes as an extra-mural student at Stanford University. In addition to auditing classes, she performed market analysis for the hospital administration of Stanford Health Services. In 1997, after the family returned to Germany, she began a programme of postgraduate study, which she completed in 2001 with a Master of Public Health. Afterwards, she worked as a research associate in the Department of Epidemiology, Social Medicine, and Health System Research at Hanover Medical School.


From Local to State Politics

Ursula von der Leyen transitioned from the field of medicine to politics comparatively late in life, at the age of 43. She joined the CDU in 1990, in response to her father's defeat by Gerhard Schröder in the Landtag election in Lower Saxony. After returning to Germany from the United States with her family, she worked in a voluntary capacity on issues which would later require her attention as a career politician. She served on multiple committees of the Lower Saxony CDU, including the Expert Committee on Social Policy (1996–1997) and the Physicians' Working Committee (1999). In the local government elections held in Lower Saxony in 2001, she was elected to the town council of Sehnde. She became chairwoman of the CDU group on the council and was appointed deputy mayor. From 2001 to 2004, she was a member of the Hanover Regional Assembly.

Her star rose quickly, and she soon made the leap from local to state politics. Even before the Lower Saxony Landtag election in the spring of 2003, von der Leyen was seen as a potential minister; she was part of the "team for the future" assembled by Christian Wulff, who was then the regional CDU chairman and its candidate for the office of minister president. At that time, the CDU had been in opposition for thirteen years in Lower Saxony. The positions that von der Leyen advocated during the election campaign were ones of great personal significance to her: the compatibility of family and career, and better options for child care. In the Landtag election on 2 February, she stood as a candidate for the CDU in the constituency of Lehrte and received 44.2% of the second votes, winning the district her father had once represented. At the Land level, the CDU obtained 48.3% of the second votes, giving it an overwhelming victory. On the first day of the new legislative period, 4 March 2003, von der Leyen was sworn in as Minister for Social Affairs, Women and Health in Lower Saxony.

The strict policy of austerity pursued by the state government under Christian Wulff left von der Leyen with limited room for manoeuvre in her new position as minister. The "complete overhaul" that the new minister president had announced in his government policy statement did not spare the budget of the Ministry of Social Affairs. On 1 January 2005, non-means-tested disability benefits for the blind were abolished by the state government, prompting fierce protests among social welfare groups and those affected by the cutback. Von der Leyen justified this move by referring to the need for belt-tightening measures. By making specific, targeted cuts, she said, the government hoped to preserve the social safety net overall. Fiscal consolidation was also the rationale for the privatisation of state-owned hospitals initiated by the ministry during her term. Von der Leyen left her own mark on family affairs policy with a programme that she initiated in 2003 to encourage multi-generational housing.


Rise in Federal Politics

Ursula von der Leyen belonged to a new generation of politicians who set out to recalibrate socio-political frameworks in response to the challenges arising from demographic change. As part of the CDU's effort to modernise its platform, she was involved in drafting a variety of reform proposals for social welfare programmes in 2003 and 2004. In February 2004, she became deputy chairwoman of the Federal Expert Committee on Social Policy of the CDU in Germany. That year, the CDU and CSU were engaged in an internal argument about the possibility of making a fundamental change in the health care system. Von der Leyen was among those who advocated unlinking health care costs from wage costs. Alongside CDU Chairwoman Angela Merkel, she promoted the idea of a uniform health care contribution combined with a taxpayer-funded, means-based subsidy for the needy. This was a proposal that the CDU had added to its platform at the party conference in Leipzig (17th party conference of the CDU from 1–2 December 2003 in Leipzig, held under the motto "Germany can do more").

As the media became increasingly interested in her as a minister and a mother of seven, she took the opportunity, in interviews and articles, to call attention to key problems in family and social policy, such as Germany’s low birth rate and the difficulties encountered by women in reconciling family and career. Interviewed in Der Spiegel magazine in November 2004, she remarked that the CDU should make a greater effort to renew awareness of its expertise in social policy. She consistently put the family at the heart of her political work during this period: "The social security systems are affordable only if there are children, and only then is there economic momentum". After the chairman of the Christian Democratic Employees' Association, Hermann-Josef Arentz, had stood unsuccessfully for election to the CDU National Executive Committee on 8 December 2004, he proposed von der Leyen as a new candidate. She was subsequently elected to that body with a vote total of 94.1%, the best result of all the candidates, and was henceforth a member of the CDU party leadership.

In the spring of 2005, von der Leyen was entrusted with the task of heading a newly created CDU committee on “Parents-Children-Career”. The committee was primarily concerned with the issue of making family and career more compatible and incorporating this issue into the CDU platform. After the early dissolution of the 15th Bundestag led to new parliamentary elections in September 2005, the CDU candidate for the chancellorship, Angela Merkel, appointed von der Leyen to her team of specialists as an expert on family affairs and health care policy.


Federal Minister for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth

Since the Bundestag election on 18 September 2005 did not result in a clear majority for either a Christian-Liberal coalition (CDU/CSU and FDP) or a 'Red-Green' coalition (SPD and Greens), the CDU/CSU and the SPD began exploratory negotiations. For the CDU, Ursula von der Leyen jointly led a working group whose purpose was to set out the objectives of the prospective new government in the field of family policy. On 22 November 2005, the new cabinet under Angela Merkel was sworn in. It included von der Leyen as Minister for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth.

She carried out the duties of her office as federal minister with great energy and focus. "More children in families and more family in society" was the motto that she chose to guide her work. Key projects of the Ministry of Family Affairs during this term included the introduction of a means-tested parental allowance on 1 January 2007, the Childcare Funding Act of 16 December 2008 for the expansion of child day care, and the Multi-Generational Housing Program, which drew on some of the work done by von der Leyen as Minister for Social Affairs in Lower Saxony. The policy direction of the new Minister for Family Affairs caused heated debate, not just among the general public, but also within the CDU and CSU. The 'fathers’ months' initiative was especially controversial. In addition to the normal twelve months in which families with young children could receive the parental allowance, these two months were offered subject to the condition that each parent should spend at least two months at home to care for the child. Critics within the CDU viewed this measure as unacceptable interference in private matters by the state. Von der Leyen countered that it was essentially an "offer" rather than a mandate. In view of the low birth rate and the costs resulting from demographic change, it was incumbent on family policy, she said, to "provide encouragement" to men who were committed to caring for their children. Conservatives also criticized the Childcare Funding Act, which committed the federal government, the Länder and local authorities to create day-care capacity for thirty-five percent of the children under three years of age by the year 2013. When the bishop of Augsburg, Walter Mixa, accused von der Leyen of having a fixation on dual-income married couples and reducing women to the level of "birthing machines", leading CDU politicians such as Chancellor Merkel and Bundestag President Norbert Lammert leapt to her defence. The reactions that her initiatives garnered, whether approving or disapproving, ultimately showed that von der Leyen had succeeded in focusing public discourse on the topic of family policy. Her success as a politician was due in large part to her unwillingness to shy from conflict inside or outside the party and to her confidence in asserting her right to highlight key issues, stimulate debate and, in the process, to help shape the development of future CDU policy.


Federal Minister for Labour and Social Affairs

Ursula von der Leyen stood for a seat in the Bundestag for the first time in the election of 27 September 2009 and won a mandate via the state party list of the CDU of Lower Saxony. On 28 October 2009, after the coalition between the CDU/CSU and FDP had been formed, she was once again sworn in as Minister for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth. Her second term as Minister for Family Affairs lasted only for a brief time. After Franz-Josef Jung stepped down as Minister for Labour and Social Affairs, the cabinet was reshuffled. Von der Leyen took over one of the key portfolios of the government on 30 November 2009, when she became head of the Ministry of Labour.

As Minister for Labour, she continued to promote the interests of families and working women; she oversaw the introduction of an education package in the Hartz IV reforms of 25 February 2011 and called for a "women's quota" on the executive boards of DAX-listed companies. Other key themes of her term included fighting poverty among the elderly and implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. With regard to the wage dumping seen in various sectors of the economy, she called for a "market-based minimum wage" to be negotiated between unions and employers. On 15 November 2010, at the 23rd party conference of the CDU in Karlsruhe, she was elected deputy party chairwoman.


First Woman as Minister of Defence

In the Bundestag election of 22 September 2013, Ursula von der Leyen again gained her seat via the state party list of the CDU of Lower Saxony. The CDU and CSU received 41.5 percent of the vote and therefore constituted the largest parliamentary group. Following three months of coalition talks, the decision was made to form a grand coalition of CDU/CSU and SPD. When the new government was formed, von der Leyen found herself faced with a new challenge: on 17 December 2013, she was appointed Minister of Defence, succeeding Thomas de Maizière in that role. She was the first woman to hold the office and was therefore watched with an especially critical eye. After her swearing-in, she declared that she was "willing to learn" and had a "terrific respect" for her new duties.

The fact that she was a woman and had no military experience was frequently commented upon during her first months in office but, over time, the German public became accustomed to the idea of a woman as the top-ranking supervisor of the Bundeswehr.

The suspension of compulsory military service as of 1 January 2011 and the consequent restructuring of the Bundeswehr as a fully professional army had made the recruitment of suitable personnel an urgent problem for the armed forces. Shortly after being sworn in, therefore, von der Leyen announced her intention to make the Bundeswehr "one of the most attractive employers in Germany". In this endeavour, she was able to make use of the experience she had gained as Minister for Family Affairs: she expanded child care options, for example, and built on opportunities for part-time service. In May 2014, she opened the armed forces' first day nursery on the campus of the Bundeswehr University in Munich. Shortly after taking up her duties, she introduced another notable theme of her term; speaking at the Munich Security Conference in January 2014, she advocated a stronger role for Germany in foreign and security policy: "Indifference is not an option for a country like Germany, not from the standpoint of security policy and not from a humanitarian point of view".

One key issue occupied her throughout her term of office: the modernisation of the armed forces’ procurement system. In the summer of 2014, she hired a former McKinsey director, Katrin Suder, to reorganise the armament and procurement systems of the Ministry of Defence and appointed her as a state secretary with permanent civil servant status. This move was without precedent in the history of the Defence Ministry. In January 2016, von der Leyen announced a "turnaround": for the first time since 1990, the Defence Ministry was again hiring additional personnel instead of cutting costs. For the period 2014 to 2018, the Bundestag approved armament projects worth approximately thirty-two billion euros – a significant increase over the six billion euros of the previous legislative period. The greater relevance of defence policy reflected in these numbers was not solely due to von der Leyen's efforts as Minister of Defence, however. It was rather a consequence of new threats arising from Islamist terrorism, the collapse of states in the Middle East, aggressive Russian policy and the refugee crisis. The new white paper on security policy and the future of the Bundeswehr, which Minister von der Leyen presented to the public on 13 July 2013, was likewise a response to these changes in the global security situation. It declared a willingness "to assume responsibility, to play a leading role" globally.

One of the biggest challenges that von der Leyen faced during her first term of office at the Defence Ministry was the case of a lieutenant colonel who was arrested in April 2017 because he had assumed an alternative identity as a Syrian refugee and was suspected of planning a terrorist offence. After memorabilia of the Wehrmacht (the wartime German army) was found in the man's barracks, von der Leyen ordered a search of all army barracks. On television, she remarked that the Bundeswehr had an "attitude problem" and that it suffered from a "misunderstood esprit de corps" and "weak leadership at various levels". She was strongly criticised for these admonitions, above all because, having already served for three years in the office of defence minister, she too was held responsible for the problems that she was lamenting.

In response to the scandal, von der Leyen initiated a revision of the Traditionserlass of the Bundeswehr, a regulation that defines the traditions relevant to the German armed forces and, by extension, their governing values and norms. The revised regulation, which replaced a version that had been in effect since 1982, was signed by her in March 2018. The new regulation specifies that, in the search for traditions to serve as a source of orientation, soldiers should look primarily to the more than sixty-year history of the Bundeswehr.


Second Term as Minister of Defence

In the Bundestag election in September 2017, von der Leyen stood as the lead candidate of the CDU in Lower Saxony and again entered parliament via the state party list. Once the difficult phase of forming a government had drawn to a close and another grand coalition was in place, von der Leyen was sworn in for the second time as Minister of Defence on 14 March 2018. That she was again chosen for this post was interpreted as a sign of the chancellor’s confidence in her. As the Tagesspiegel wrote on 10 March 2018, she was the only one considered tough enough to lead that difficult ministry. The fact that von der Leyen was the only minister who had been a cabinet member throughout Merkel's tenure as chancellor was further evidence of her unique status.

The office of defence minister certainly demanded much more from von der Leyen than any of her previous political duties and responsibilities had done. In the first few months of her second term as the authority with the power of command over the armed forces, she was again occupied with a steady flow of complaints about equipment shortages and procurement procedures. As always in her career, she met these challenges with characteristic steadfastness and perseverance.


Commitment to Europe

After the European Parliament election of 23–26 May 2019, von der Leyen was nominated for the office of President of the European Commission by the European Council (composed of the heads of state and government of EU member states). On 16 July 2019, addressing the members of the European Parliament, she presented the political principles that she intended to put into practice in the event of her election. In her speech, she invoked Simone Veil, the first president of the European Parliament following the introduction of direct elections in 1979. The most important objective for Europe, she said, should be to become the world’s first climate-neutral continent by the year 2050. She also announced an "investment plan for a sustainable Europe". With regard to social affairs, she called for a "European child guarantee" to combat childhood poverty in the European Union and announced that she would present a draft for a new asylum and migration pact. One of her projects included convening a two-year conference on the future of Europe beginning in 2020, in which citizens would play an active and indeed a leading role. This conference was intended to strengthen European citizens' attachment to Europe and European democracy. Although her nomination was initially controversial, von der Leyen was ultimately elected President of the European Commission with 383 of the 747 votes cast. She entered office on 1 December 2019.


The original german text was translated into English by Richard Toovey.

Curriculum vitae

  • 8 October 1958 Born in Brussels
  • 1976 Completes secondary education (Abitur) at the mathematics and sciences high school in Lehrte
  • 1976 Studies archaeology in Göttingen
  • 1977–1980 Studies economics in Göttingen and Münster
  • 1978 Attends the London School of Economics
  • 1980–1987 Studies medicine at the Hanover Medical School
  • 1987 Passes state examination, obtains licence to practise as a physician
  • 1988–1992 Assistant physician, Gynaecological Clinic of the Hanover Medical School
  • 1990 Joins the CDU Germany
  • 1991 Obtains doctoral degree
  • 1992–1996 Lives in Stanford, California (United States), extra-mural student at Stanford University
  • 1996–1997 Member of the Expert Committee on Social Policy of the CDU in Lower Saxony
  • 1998–2002 Research associate at Hanover Medical School
  • 1999 Member of the Physicians' Working Committee of the CDU in Lower Saxony
  • 2001 Obtains Master of Public Health
  • 2001–2004 Member and chairwoman of the CDU group on the town council of Sehnde, Lower Saxony; member of the Hanover Regional Assembly
  • 2003–2005 Member of CDU parliamentary group in the Landtag of Lower Saxony
  • 2003–2005 Minister for Social Affairs, Women, Family Affairs and Health in Lower Saxony.
  • 2004–2019 Member of the National Executive Committee of the CDU of Germany
  • 2005–2009 Federal Minister for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth
  • 2009–2019 Member of the Bundestag for the constituency of South Hanover
  • 2009–2013 Federal Minister for Labour and Social Affairs
  • 2010–2019 Deputy chairwoman of the CDU of Germany
  • 2013–2019 Federal Minister of Defence
  • December 2019–present President of the European Commission

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February 26, 2021
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