It has its own Wikipedia page and even its own emoticon, “<>”, and the German leader has been immortalised adopting the pose at London’s famous Madame Tussauds waxworks museum.
And with Merkel about to bow out of politics following an election this month closing the door on her 16 years in power, the hand gesture has been catapulted to the spotlight once again after a candidate from a rival party adopted it on a magazine cover.
Olaf Scholz, the Social Democrat (SPD) chancellor candidate, used the gesture in a photo shoot for the Süddeutsche Zeitung magazine — 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, the frontrunner in the polls ahead of the September 26 vote.
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 left wing of the party.
After all, the rhombus gesture has become the veteran chancellor’s signature.
‘Love of symmetry’
The “Merkel-Raute”, as it is known in German, made its first appearance 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’,” the photographer 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 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 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.”
By Mathieu FOULKES