As the old Market Church bells tolled in Hannover last October 3 on German Unity Day, commemorating Germany’s re-unification, Angela Merkel walked briskly over the cobblestones and paused at the entryway of the church to greet a few members of a children’s choir, dressed untraditionally in red sweatshirts and black pants. She herself was in her chancellor-of-Germany uniform: a brightly colored jacket, simple necklace, black pants, and low heels. She had TV pancake makeup on, but her sensible-matron look—cropped, softly colored blond hair, little lipstick—is always carefully calibrated to appear as if she were wearing no makeup at all. Only a couple of security guards could be seen anywhere in the church; there was no fanfare like the playing of “Hail to the Chief,” and, going up the aisle, she did not pause to shake hands with any of the congregation of 1,200 religious leaders, dignitaries, and diplomats. To think that only 25 years ago Angela Merkel was a divorced 35-year-old East German physicist specializing in quantum chemistry, who was not allowed to set foot in West Berlin and had never uttered a political opinion in public, was a striking affirmation of both the ability of Germany to recover and her own ability to succeed.
After nine years of her rule, however, many Germans still see her as from the East, not really one of them. They understand that as Merkel plays an ever enlarging role in the world—going head-to-head with Putin, charming China, exasperating and infuriating her European Union partners with her unyielding demands—she, who wants nothing to do with being seen as a “female” leader, has become The Man striding across the global stage. But, even so, Germans seem puzzled by Angela Merkel.
“She came as an outsider and she stayed an outsider,” Ines Pohl, editor of the Berlin alternative daily, Die Tageszeitung, commonly known as Taz, told me. “She’s spooky, because how can she manage all these things? She’s not really a woman you can love—admire and be proud of, yes. But you always feel her killer instinct.”
“She governs by silence,” says Dirk Kurbjuweit of Der Spiegel, who wrote a 2009 biography of Merkel. “It’s her biggest advantage and disadvantage. She never says something fast. She waits and waits to see where the train is going and then she jumps on the train. Part of this she learned in the G.D.R. [Communist East Germany]. She knew she had to watch her words—there’s nobody better at [vague] words than Angela Merkel.”
She is often referred to as the world’s most powerful woman, although those in Merkel’s immediate circle will fix you with looks of utter disdain for even bringing up such a concept. “That’s done for media lists—it has no meaning,” an official close to her told me. In fact, 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germans instinctively recoil at the idea of being powerful because that presumes responsibility on a global scale that they do not yet seem ready to take. The older generation still remembers the ravages of Hitler and the Third Reich, and the younger generation has grown up under the defense umbrella of the U.S. and NATO, which has been in place for nearly 70 years.
“Germans are just coming out of a phase where they didn’t see the world the way it was—now they are half in and half out,” former U.S. ambassador to Germany John Kornblum, who has lived in Germany for more than 40 years, told me. “Merkel is very smart and she is trying to manage these illusions while not losing elections.”
In Germany’s parliamentary system, Merkel is head of the center-right Christian Democratic Union party (C.D.U.). A year into her third term, she governs in a grand coalition with the center-left Social Democratic Party (S.P.D.), many of whose programs she has appropriated as her own, outflanking them at every turn and leaving little to debate. “We are a democracy,” Kurbjuweit says. “Government needs fights and arguments. We have none anymore.” Der Spiegel recently revealed that between 2009 and 2013 Merkel commissioned 600 secret public-opinion polls on the German electorate’s feelings. These are what often guide her actions.
Merkel has the added advantage that her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, instituted a number of unpopular structural reforms of the welfare state—giving management more leeway in laying off employees and streamlining various government benefits—that probably cost Schröder the 2005 election that saw Merkel come to power. Ironically, these reforms now allow Merkel to lecture other E.U. countries about their structural lassitude: the E.U. has only 7 percent of the world’s population but 50 percent of the world’s social spending. “All the reforms she has demanded from Greece, Italy, and Spain, she would never, ever, ever ask the German people to do, not remotely,” says Mariam Lau, another Merkel biographer, who is a political correspondent for Die Zeit. “I asked her, ‘How do you imagine the German voter out there?’ She always said, ‘People are afraid—the economy might not hold, their jobs might not be there.’ She thinks of her voters as risk-averse, anxious, and nervous.”
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