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Kati Marton: The Chancellor; The remarkable odyssey of Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel

With a very light touch, she transformed Germany into a far more liberal society. Part of her political genius comes in recognizing good ideas wherever they originate. “Asserting authority is something you must learn as a woman. Without power you cannot achieve much,” Merkel has said.

During her entire adult life, Merkel has been sustained by her near-photographic memory, her trained scientific ability to break down problems to their component parts, and her ravenous appetite for work.

Against the tide

“Only Communists or idiots go east voluntarily,” the West German movers told Kasner.

During the migration from East to West in 1953, one German family chose to travel in the opposite direction. Two months after her husband left Hamburg for the East, Herling Kasner, with her daughter Angela in a basket, boarded a train for the three-hour journey to Quitzow, in the province of Brandenburg, to join him. The young family moved to Templin.

Horts and Herlind Kasner instilled the values of sacrifice and self-discipline in their daughter from the beginning. Pastor Kasner may not have been a gentle man of the cloth, but from him Angela learned logical rigor and clarity of argument.

The serene years of Angela Kasner’s early childhood ended abruptly on the morning of August 12, 1961.  Roles of barbed wire had been used to cut East Germany off from West Germany, and from the rest of Europe. Later, Merkel would call the country of her youth a Lager, world used generally to describe concentration camps.

“Nothing in the life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.” Curie had written, a sentiment which deeply impressed the young Angela.

Even as she mastered Marxist-Leninist theory, with its sunny prediction of the inevitable triumph of the proletariat, Merkel secretly followed politics in the forbidden half of Germany.

In the year 1968, when the Prague Spring was abruptly closed down by socialist army of Russia, Merkel was very sad and disappointed in socialism.

Leipzig – on her own

In the fall of 1973, nineteen-year-old Angela Kasner left home for Leipzig University. Her goal was a PhD in physics. She had amazing recall. She is so structured and organized in her thinking. It was all in her head. Those were description used by her colleagues in the university.

Navigating between church and state, between independent thinking and Marxist-Leninist dogma, required mental and emotional finesse. Merkel was already a shrewd survivor, managing to simultaneously stay both in faithful Lutheran and a member of the Communist Youth.

Eventually Merkel did fall in love. In 1974, at the age of twenty, she met Ulrich Merkel, a fellow Leipzig physics student, on an exchange trip to Moscow and Leningrad. They wed. Angela was twenty-three and Ulrich twenty-four.


Angela Merkel’s passage from Leipzig to the capital was not uneventful. Berlin had not been her first choice for post-university life.

She was working as researcher in the field of physics.

Within three years, Merkel realized that her marriage had been a mistake. Angela celebrated her thirtieth birthday newly divorced and living in a barely furnished apartment on Templiner Strasse. Angela’s most vivid memory of that year was a visit from her father. “Well, Angela, you certainly haven’t come very far.” That was his words during that visit.

During that period, her lab partner was spying on her for Stassi. The only description about her, were the ones regarding her love affairs. Her life as a single woman in Berlin.

In 1985 Merkel’s dreary days in Berlin were lit up by her arrival of a man of sparkling intelligence who would soon become one of her closest friends, Michael Schindhelm.

Angela was profoundly moved by a speech of West German president Richard von Weizsacker in 1985, where he talked very honestly about German past regarding Holocaust. She created a conviction that followed her even during her chancellor’s years, that German’s debt to the Jewish people was permanent.

When she was allowed to travel to West, she returned from that adventure convinced that the German Democratic Republic was doomed.


The Berlin Wall fell almost casually. With a single word, an East German government spokesman flung open the gates of the prison state. It was a thrilling but uncertain time, and yet apart from a few jaunts through West Berlin, Merkel’s life continued almost as normal.

Merger of Germany was more complex than politicians could imagine. Angela feared that the West did not fully comprehend the cruelty of the system and how it had hardened its most loyal servants – now citizens, and even policemen, of an open, liberal West.

Angela told her friend from the West: “We can learn to be like you. But you can never figure us out. Because our master (she used the German word, Lehrmeister) is dead.”

Merkel’s entrance into politics in December 1989 was low-key. One of the new East Germany parties was the Demokratischer Aufbruch (DA), which would soon merge with the powerful West Germany Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The DA was mostly male, Catholic, and conservative, but Angela liked the serious-minded, nonideological people she met there.

Angela political approach was shaped by her scientific background. She refused to be rushed. Though cautious by nature, she would soon reveal an instinct for a bold move when things opened up.

The apprentice

During the period following reunification, Angela Merkel benefitted enormously from being a woman from the East, at a time when Chancellor Helmut Kohl needed to fold both categories of people into the leadership of the new Federal Republic of Germany.

On January 18, 1991, only a year she’d sauntered into the cluttered offices of a political start-up in her East Berlin neighborhood and offered to assemble the computers, Angela Merkel took her place in the Cabinet of Helmut Kohl. He had appointed her as minister of women and youth.

Merkel had admirers already, Former American secretary of state Henry Kissinger called on her when she joined Kohl’s Cabinet.

Mehr sein als Schein – to be more than to be seen to be – was one of Angela’s Lutheran edicts.

Merkel landed on the “Merkel rhombus”: fingertips pressed together, after some trial and error regarding public speaking.  It has become her signature.

In 1991 Kohl took her to America and introduced her to her hero Ronald Reagan. Kohl treated her as “a kind of trophy” of German unification.

Angela Merkel was a feminist. Nevertheless, she would face criticism over the years from those who felt she was so insufficiently committed to the advancement of women.

Angela is a woman with her style: seeking consensus, playing her cards very close to the chest, but with strong convictions. Also, with great stamina. Still, Merkel’s warmth one-on-one doesn’t prevent her from being tough when circumstances demand it.

Angela Merkel and Joachim Sauer got married just when no one was expecting it anymore.

In 1998 Kohl was defeated in his fifth run for chancellor after sixteen years in power. The following year, he was caught in a financial scandal involving allegations of illegal and anonymous cash donations to his campaigns, stretching back to 1982.

Liberated from Kohl, Merkel had become, for the first time, the master of her political destiny.

Though Merkel often acknowledges Kohl’s role in her life, she frames what she owes him as a political, not personal, debt. Merkel’s greater debt was to the country that, in unification, gave her a second chance.

To the chancellery at last

In 2005, when Chancellor Gerhard Schroder called for early elections, no one in the Christian Democratic Union seriously contested that Angela Merkel’s time had arrived.

On November 22, Angela Merkel was sworn in as Germany’s first female chancellor. Merkel’s husband was absent from her inauguration. He was busy in the laboratory. His wife did not seem to mind.

The chancellor of the Federal Republic is not a powerful executive. Power in the Federal Republic – especially in domestic matters – is deliberately dispersed among the sixteen Lander (states) and a robust Constitutional Court. The chancellor thus rules mostly by consensus and persuasion, with far more leeway in foreign affairs than in domestic policy.

On her desk, In Plexiglas cube was engraved with the chancellor’s mantra – There is strength in calm.

Merkel’s routine changed little in her sixteen years as chancellor. She held her daily meeting with Beate Baumann, her chief of staff; Stefen Seibert, her spokesman; Eva Christiansen, her long-standing jack-of-all-trades; and, in her final term, Jan Hecker, her national security advisor. Of this small circle, Baumann was by far the most important.

Anyone who failed to live up to her standards did not long survive. She holds those around her to the same standard of precision as she does herself. That precision has made working with her an intense experience but not always a pleasant one.

Humor is Merkel’s way to defuse moments of high tension.

Merkel rarely practices her speeches, certainly not in front of a mirror, and often reads them straight from the text presented to her. In her experience, language cannot be trusted. Words are weapons to be deployed cautiously.

One of the chancellor’s essential survival mechanisms has been her singular ability to detach emotionally: to depersonalize politics, parking her ego outside.

Domestic affairs have rarely inspired Angela Merkel. It is no surprise that Merkel preferred foreign policy, with its greater scope for creativity and the freedom to deploy her exceptional powers of analysis.

In the spring 2008 she spoke to the Israeli body. She was the first German chancellor to address the Israeli legislative body. She acknowledges and embraced Germany’s historic responsibility to the state of Israeli. Merkel would form a friendship with Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert. She soon gave up, however, on having a productive partnership with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The next time she acted boldly was after Fukushima situation in 2011, when her scientific background acted and she called for immediate phaseout of German nuclear energy. She announced that six plants would cease operation by 2021, while three more would shut down by the following year. By closing down nuclear power plants, Merkel robbed the Green Party of one of its most potent rallying cries. Nuclear power. No, thanks!

Her first American president

Angela Merkel’s two most important relationship in her first term were with two dramatically different personalities: Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush. Angela and George bonded. Angela was committed to transatlantic relationship and Bush was fascinated with her life story. The new chancellor found the Texan “authentic”, one of her highest words of praise.

After making a brief effort at being the “First Gentleman,” Sauer would soon decide he was not cut out for the role.


Merkel’s approach to authoritarian regimes, whether Russian or Chinese has been pragmatic. Her approach with rivals combines patience and persistence to pursue even a sliver of common ground.

For the next decade and a half, Merkel’s relationship with Putin would be her most frustrating and dangerous. It would also be her longest relationship with a fellow head of state, its roots reaching back to November 9, 1989. Stationed as a KGB officer in Dresden, thirty-seven-year-old Putin did not share Merkel’s euphoria on the night the wall came down. Putin had learned a lesson he would not soon forget. Unchecked demonstrations and sudden eruptions of freedom can topple even the world’s most heavily armed empire.

She was chancellor of Germany and he was the modern-era czar of Russia. Divorce was not an option.

A rules-based international order and the EU, which was an actual commonwealth of nations with shared democratic values rather than a mere giant bureaucracy – that was Merkel’s vision. Putin threatened this vision. Merkel understood the man she’d be dealing with. Putin’s role was not the reformist Mikhail Gorbachev, but rather dictator Joseph Stalin.

Merkel kept Catherine the Great’s portrait in her office. The German-born Russian Empress tried to rouse Russia from feudal torpor, to “Go out in the open!”

To Merkel’s distress, Putin has cut off the oxygen of democracy to a country whose culture, history, and language she deeply admires.

Allowing Nord Stream to proceed exposed in Merkel’s record a blind spot that is hard to square with her many principled positions, but it serves as a reminder that she is also a calculating politician. One of Merkel’s favorite explanations in complex circumstances is “The advantages outweigh the disadvantages.”

China – both its lessons and the danger it poses the world – never strayed from Merkel’s radar. The chancellor generally returned from Beijing with a packet of lucrative trade deals for German businesses – eventually making China one of the top three markets for German cars. She understood history, so for her China’s rise was nothing new, since they were great once before. She compared China’s rise to Germany after WWII. The rise of China being based on hard work, creativity and technical skills.

The private chancellor

Long before Merkel was dubbed the most powerful woman in the world, she was a well-grounded person, with interests well beyond politics and politicians.

Her husband is important for her while dealing with all the pressures of her position. Berliners have nicknamed Sauer the “Phantom of the Opera”, because of his love of opera and his aversion to the media’s attention.

Public life not being her most natural environment, Merkel tends to escape into friendships with people who work outside the political sphere.

She is utterly absorbed by politics. “It’s the way to get things done,” she has said.

If music, soccer, and stolen evenings and weekends with creative people are means of escape for Merkel, so too are books.

Merkel lets her actions speak for her. Thatcher was much more image conscious. Her public presentation was a big part of her persona. Merkel is about the work. Thatcher approached every meeting as combat. For Merkel, it’s more about finding a solution to the problem, usually by meeting halfway. That was a Hillary Clinton’s description of Merkel’s comparison with Thatcher.

Limited partners

“Love is not too strong a word to describe Barack Obama’s feeling toward Angela Merkel.” Benjamin Rhodes, aide to President Obama.

In America, where emotional displays are not only acceptable but admired, Merkel felt freer to express herself – her gratitude, her optimism – than she ever had in Germany.

Angela Merkel was slow to warm to Barack Obama. She wanted to know, ‘What’s his agenda? What is he really like?’

The idea that a person can touch other people so much with words that they change their minds is not one that I share. Merkel is an almost aggressively dull speaker. Her relationship to words is one of wariness: the fewer the better; it’s results that matter. Merkel behind closed doors is far more forceful than Merkel at the podium. Merkel felt that Obama was her intellectual equal. Both see themselves as problem solvers, with politics as a means to an end rather than an end itself.

The Obama-Merkel relationship hit its lowest point in 2013, when Snowden revealed that US spy on politicians in Europe and that they also spy on Merkel’s private phone. The trust was breached. Merkel express her outrage to Obama, but at the end, her strategy was to let it go, too much else was at stake.

Europe is speaking German now

One of Merkel’s goals upon taking office was to make Germany a normal nation. Germany has twice blown Europe apart.

In 2008 Merkel’s management of crisis would expose her strengths as well as her shortcomings as a leader. She would eventually succeed in saving the Euro. But this success would come at a price: to her own reputation and to Germany’s.

Germany fared better than other European countries in the crisis partly as a result of long-ingrained habits having to do with culture, politics, business, and financial practices.

Merkel prescribed belt tightening. No bailouts until they were earned with responsible behavior. “If everyone just sweeps outside their door, the whole village will be clean,” Merkel said sometimes, quoting Goethe.

While the chancellor may have professed to love Europe, she wasn’t willing to hurt Germany to save it. When she finally did travel to Athens in October 2012, she experienced something new in her political life: public rage.

She needed to work with French president Nicholas Sarkozy in this crisis. “Merkozy” as French media dubbed the two leaders, ultimately forged an awkward but united front.

Merkel explained once that she is able to sustain herself on stored energy during a crisis with very little sleep, then collapse once it has passed. For her, performing in public is more exhausting than unknotting complex problems.

The most dangerous by-product of this period, however, wasn’t the blow to Merkel’s image. It was the birth of the first successful post-WWII German far-right political party, the Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which was founded in opposition to the EU’s bailout of Greece.

The war in Ukraine – “Get me Angela on the phone”

When war started, Angel took a role as the political leader of the West. The role would be exhausting and nerve wracking.

The trouble began in February, when Ukraine was on the brink of signing a wide-ranging political and economic agreement with the EU.

Putin did not necessarily expect to be believed. Trained by the KGB to spread confusion and doubt, actual diplomacy was not part of the Russian’s repertoire.

Merkel negotiation style is to find out what other person wants and then work on solution. She said that she can’t afford to be angry. That people with smaller problems can afford anger.

Negotiation with Putin reached standstill at the end of 2014, until Russia shut down Malaysia plane and there was another push in US to help Merkel get an agreement with Putin. Merkel still didn’t want to use sanctions and put pressure on German business. The peace agreement was not ideal, Russia was still in Crimea, but even that was better than all-out war for Merkel.

The summer of reem

In 2015 Angela Merkel’s decision to address Europe’s growing refugee crisis would transform Germany into the moral center of the world.

In late August 2015 Merkel announced – without warning – a change of policy. “Germany will not turn away refugees,” she said, defying the EU’s Dublin Regulation and her usual caution. “If Europe fails on the question of refugees, then it won’t be the Europe we wished for”. At that moment, she wasn’t thinking about the political consequences. It was a moment different from all others in her life.

Crisis can bring out the best in a leader, as it often has for Merkel. But this particular crisis also brought two of her worst leadership characteristics to the fore. She failed to articulate forcefully why her policy was in Germany’s interest. And when the usually measured chancellor feels convinced about the issue, she assumes others must surely agree with her.

Merkel has never expressed regret for the most dramatic act of her life. “Our country is very divided,” she acknowledged.

The worst of times

“The only thing wors than fighting with allies is fighting without them.” Winston Churchill

The year 2016 would be the most challenging of Merkel’s tenure as chancellor. US elected new president and the wave of terrorist attacks traumatized German society. Also, UK voted for Brexit.

By the fall of 2016, Merkel was being blamed for her party’s four successive defeats in regional elections.

Now Merkel had to reconsider her own political future: whether to run for a fourth term in 2017 or, as she had long planned, to leave before she became what she feared – a spent force. She went for her fourth term.

Enter Trump

Trump seemed unfamiliar with history’s strongmen, but they were all too familiar to Germans, particularly those of Merkel’s generation. “Grab some high ground and hold on to it,” Obama advised Merkel after Trump’s election – advice that proved much tougher to follow than the president implied.

Just four months into Trump presidency, Merkel announced that the US was no longer a reliable partner. She said that Europeans must take our destiny into our own hands.

Trump delivered on his threat and pull out of Iranian nuclear agreement and the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. Both subjects were important for Merkel – Iran due to Israeli safety and Paris agreement due to her work in this area in her early days as minister of environment.

Merkel in her address to Cambridge in 2019 gave advice to young people to stand firmly by their values, not their impulses. To stop for a moment. To keep quiet. To think. By doing so, she also revealed her approach to decision making. But she also said not to build walls, but to break them. That lies should not be called truth, nor truth, lies.

No country needed the Chinese market, Russian energy, and American security guarantees more than Germany. No country had less appetite for the world to devolve into great power rivalries than Germany. That summer, the relentless stress finally caught up with Merkel. Twice within ten days, she was seen trembling at public events.

Something has changed in our country…

Merkel managed to retain the chancellorship, but it hardly felt like a victory. Far right received more than 15 percent. The greatest success of far right in Germany since WWII.

Some in Merkel’s circle compared the people of East Germany in the many African American’s who were disappointed by Barack Obama’s presidency.

Merkel underestimated how rocky the road since unification has been for many other East Germans.

On December 7, 2018, Merkel quits as the CDU leader. She still remained the chancellor.

A partner at last

Merkel never claimed leadership of the West; it had been thrust upon her, and she accepted it reluctantly. But two months into her final term as chancellor, she was no longer alone on the world stage, holding back the tide against authoritarianism. She was joined by Emmanuel Macron.

Nations, like people, often learn more from failure than from triumph, and Merkel and Macron are both exquisitely products of their national narratives.

Macron wanted to do everything quickly and loudly. Not an approach suited to Merkel. But they find a way to work together. The two countries agreed to a new joint program to coordinate and integrate their defense and security tasks, and to collaborate in developing a new generation of European fighter jets.

Toward the end

Merkel spent her final two years in office securing policies that would live on after she stepped down.

More frequently she used the phrase “we East Germans” – a new expression of solidarity.

Her most powerful weapon in fighting for women remained her own example. She demonstrated that a woman could lead without the usual theatrics of the powerful.

She was now interested in quantum computing, AI and digital revolution in all its aspects.

Last crisis Merkel faced was “the virus”. She went public and explain to her nation, that this is serious. And the people believed her, since she never lie to them in her 15 years. Merkel’s fifteen years insisting on a tight budget now paid off. Germany went into the health crisis with a surplus. The rescue package could be delivered without the need to take on debt.

Macron and Merkel announced on May 18, 2020, joint historic 500 billion Euro recovery fund. This was a way how both countries fight for the European idea. They needed to convince everybody else in EU. It was again done by Merkel’s means of slow and smart diplomacy. The final number was 859 billion Euro fund.

During the last days of a year Merkel also achieved her final diplomatic triumph: a historic agreement between Beijing and the twenty-seven states of the EU. Agreement that brought some nice economic benefits for EU. This was the chancellor practicing Realpolitik, Henry Kissinger would likely applaud.

She, one of the most pro-American of European leaders, was, in effect, declaring the end of US hegemony. Pax Americana, the international order forged by Washington in the wake of the Second World War, was history.


“I belong to the optimists,” she has said. “For me, the image of Sisyphus, the man who keeps rolling the rock up the mountain, isn’t hopeless at all.”

When asked once what she wanted history books to say about her, she answered, “She tried.” In an age of dead-certain demagogues, the humility and decency of Merkel’s chosen epitaph speaks for itself.

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