For much of her sixteen years in office as Germany’s chancellor, Angela Dorothea Merkel, née Kasner, has been ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, to quote Churchill’s famous dictum on the Soviet Union. Her meteoric rise defied all rational explanation. A woman from East Germany, a scientist with an inbuilt aversion to straddling the political stage and mounting the bully pulpit: how could she succeed in a country with a conservative mind-set which had all but closed out women from professional advancement?
Merkel had other drawbacks, too, which in her own eyes militated against her ascent. In June 2005, in the middle of her campaign to be elected chancellor, she approached Tony Blair, who was visiting Berlin, for advice, telling him, ‘I have the following problems: I am a woman, I have no charisma, and I’m not good at communicating.’ The interesting thing about this encounter is what Blair’s chief of staff remembered of it: ‘She was confident she would win.’ Obviously, she had already begun to trade mischievously on her acquired image. Self-deprecation suited a woman who liked to avert the public gaze from her ambitions.
This anecdote and a host of others decorate Kati Marton’s biography of the soon-to-step-down chancellor, making it one of the best and most readable books we have about this ‘indispensable European’, as The Economist called her in November 2015. Marton had a mountain to climb in assembling the material for her book: ‘Writing the life story of a subject so little interested in having her story told has been, to say the least, challenging. The absence of a paper trail – no journals or private correspondence or even staff memos have been available from one of recent history’s most private public figures – only enhanced the challenge.’
Yet Marton succeeds thanks to her indefatigable dedication to detail, culled from hundreds of interviews with friends, critics and associates of Merkel, as well as with the high and mighty exposed to her wiles and whims in the political arena. Merkel has worked with four American and four French presidents, and with five British, seven Italian and eight Japanese prime ministers. Marton, a Hungarian-born American who fled her home country with her family in 1956, has a particularly observant eye for Merkel’s antecedents in East Germany and the many ways in which a person with an independent scientific mind could secure for themselves a tolerated existence within an ideologically troglodyte society. Merkel’s father, a state-approved Lutheran pastor, never challenged the legitimacy of the communist state. Her mother, a teacher of Latin and English, meekly accepted the fate she and her husband had chosen when they moved from Hamburg to rural East Germany in 1954 shortly after Angela, their eldest of three children, was born.
Young Angela passed her school leaving exams in chemistry, maths and Russian with flying colours. More importantly, she learned the craft of hiding her inner self while shuttling between communist youth activities, Lutheran church services and her chosen field of quantum chemistry, a politically innocuous choice. So highly did her tutors at Leipzig University rate her that she got her master’s thesis, ‘Aspects of Nuclear Physics’, published in the English scientific journal Chemical Physics. Later, with a PhD under her belt and a position at the prestigious East Berlin Academy of Sciences, she was allowed to visit Hamburg to attend a cousin’s wedding. In fact, only two weeks before the Berlin Wall fell, the family had returned from a visit to Karlsruhe. They owned two cars. This was no dissident coven. The Kasners could be relied upon to return to their home after a sojourn in the enemy’s lair.
Ihr kennt mich (‘You know me’) was Merkel’s cheeky mantra during her second election campaign in 2009, when she was well aware that the words belied the truth. Little did the country know what really motivated the chancellor, popularly referred to as ‘Mutti’ (‘Mummy’). ‘The enigma of Angela Merkel only deepens upon closer examination,’ Marton writes, basically leaving the reader to come to their own conclusion about the Merkel persona.
There are a few telling pointers, however. One of Merkel’s overriding character traits is her desire to stand at a distance, to create calm amid the swirling concatenations around her. When she heard about the breach of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989, she insisted on visiting the sauna that she regularly attended with a friend on Thursday evenings. Only after indulging her wellness did she go to the place where thousands of her contemporaries were frenetically celebrating the historic event.
Yet when opportunities beckoned to switch profession from science to politics, she was quick to seize them, on the way scything down the man who had helped her onto the political ladder, Helmut Kohl. On the desk in her Berlin office sits a Plexiglas cube engraved with the words ‘there is strength in calm’. Keeping the world at bay is exactly how Merkel has tried to endure the burdens of office. She doesn’t use social media and in their modest rent-controlled apartment in central Berlin, she and her husband shun a television set.
Winning over hearts and minds was a role she never mastered. Marton, putting on her critical hat, calls this ‘not a trivial deficit for a politician’. She writes that Merkel ‘missed the opportunity to assert a stronger case for her policy – beyond asserting its moral correctness’. Maybe this is why the Germans have now had enough of this humdrum iron lady who has a habit of channelling the country’s conversation into quietism. Lively debate is not encouraged when the political leader time and again declares her policies to be alternativlos – without alternatives.
Without alternatives? Merkel is the living contradiction to this adage. Her policy changes are legendary. It doesn’t escape Marton’s attention that Merkel is a regular follower of opinion polls, keeping a watchful eye on the mood of the country. At one point she somewhat innocently asserts, ‘That’s how she operates: daring to boldly do what she thinks right when she senses her boldness will be welcomed.’ What, one may ask, is bold about following Talleyrand’s sarcastic dictum ‘There go my people. I must follow them, for I am their leader’?
Examples abound. Merkel swerved from being against the anti-nuclear protest movement to, after the Fukushima meltdown in 2011, declaring an end to German’s own atomic power plants whose lifespans she had just lengthened. She simply reacted to an about-turn in the public mood after the Japanese disaster.
Asylum seekers? In July 2015 she had a moving exchange with a tearful Palestinian fourteen-year-old named Reem Sahwil, who begged to be allowed with her family to stay in Germany. Merkel lectured her, ‘Politics is a tough business. There are thousands of people who have come here, and those who are not fleeing wars must leave Germany. If we say everyone can come, we simply will not be able to manage.’ Six weeks later she opened Germany’s borders to close on a million refugees with the confident battle cry Wir schaffen das (‘we can manage that’). To this day, Merkel and Germany stand tall in the eyes of the world for having had the moral courage to show Europeans the way of mercy and human kindness. But there was no accompanying policy to bring along the rest of the EU or develop a common approach to the vexing question of migration. Nor was there a recognition of how the sudden arrival of so many migrants would impinge on the political equilibrium of an unprepared Germany. She also totally underestimated the effect the sight of thousands streaming over open European borders would have on jittery Britons veering towards Brexit.
An alternative to her stand emerged in the form of the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). In the recent national election, the AfD became the strongest party in the eastern provinces of Saxony and Thuringia. Many erstwhile voters for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) have by now left their traditional home. This is also a result of most of Merkel’s governments having been coalitions between the CDU and its main rival, the Social Democratic Party, whose clothes Merkel has stolen on more than one occasion. It’s no wonder people confess to being confused about what Merkel really believes in. While she maintained to the last her positive overall approval rating, the CDU declined under her leadership in worrying fashion – from 41.5 per cent in 2013 to 33 per cent in 2017 to 24.1 per cent this year, an all-time low in the fortunes of what was once Germany’s dominant ‘catch-all’ party. Marton does not pay enough attention to the decline of the Merkel aura at home, which stands in stark contrast to the accolades the chancellor habitually harvests abroad.
Marton clearly believes that Merkel has improved Germany’s stature in the world, though she is ‘an almost aggressively dull speaker’ and often sounds ‘more like a therapist than a politician’. Merkel’s exceptional powers of analysis have lowered her tolerance of ‘blustering male peacocks’, she writes. Merkel hates theatrics and prefers to be understated. She led a nation aspiring to humility by practising a humble style. Never one to let emotions get in the way, she even refuses to become angry with Putin’s lies and obfuscations. ‘They are part of his tool box,’ is her refrain. A strong opponent of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, she compromised her legacy with her support for Nord Stream 2, a supply line being constructed to transport gas from Russia to Germany, the building of which is strongly opposed in sections of the EU hierarchy. Yet what will the EU as a functioning body do without the woman who invested her political capital in marathon sessions to hold it together? ‘European summits without the “empress of Europe” will probably feel like Agatha Christie’s detective stories without Miss Marple,’ the European Council on Foreign Relations opined in a recent study, Beyond Merkelism.
Barren of leadership material seems the land that Merkel led for sixteen years. Germans themselves will have to shake off the Merkel zeitgeist of submerged debate and create a more robust political culture. Great-power conflicts and EU difficulties with Poland and Hungary are looming, which will require Germany to get off the fence. Whether the three-party coalition government that Germany is steering towards can bring that about is hard to see, yet devoutly to be wished.