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The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has been in Washington visiting her fourth US president on the American leg of a world auf wiedersehen tour (earlier this month she was in London with her fifth UK prime minister). She leaves office in September, after 16 years as the most powerful woman in world politics.
How important has she been in that time? When Merkel, now 66, became the first female chancellor in 2005, Germany was widely regarded as the “sick man of Europe”, say Matthias Matthijs and R Daniel Kelemen in Foreign Policy. Four Merkel cabinets later, no one is in any doubt about Germany’s political, financial and economic leadership of Europe.
How much of that is down to her? During the Trump presidency, commentators on both sides of the Atlantic gushed that Merkel had become the de facto “leader of the free world”. But if she saw it that way, she never let on. In an age of explosive “men of action”, says her biographer Matthew Qvortrup, Merkel has made a virtue of being a “woman of inaction”. That may be a sensible strategy. In a country where “passionate rhetoric and macho strutting” so recently led to “ruin”, says George Packer in The New Yorker, Merkel’s lack of ego is a political strength. Especially in Europe, where fear of the Germans is far from dead, her “air of ordinariness” makes a resurgent Germany less threatening.
Is she really so ordinary? Apparently, yes. She lives in a modest, rent-controlled flat in central Berlin (she has no children) with a solitary policeman standing outside. The brass buzzer reads “Prof Dr Sauer”, the name of her husband, a celebrated chemist who shuns publicity and refuses interviews on anything other than his scientific research. (His standoffishness and his love of Wagner have earned him the nickname Phantom of the Opera.) Her modest retirement dreams amount to reading “thick books”, visiting the Rocky Mountains and taking a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway (she hasn’t booked anything yet). According to the boss of her local supermarket, the chancellor does her own shopping and “always carries her own bags”. And when she’s on a mission abroad, he says, “her husband comes”. She even does her own cooking, serving guests at the Chancellery German “comfort food”: potato soup and stuffed cabbage.
That sounds gross It’s not her fault, she most likely learnt it during her childhood in communist East Germany. Thanks to her free-thinking parents (there was a fat file on her dad at the local Stasi offices), she was never a committed communist, despite the propaganda she was force-fed at school. When she won East Germany’s Russian-language Olympiad as a schoolgirl, earning herself a trip to Moscow, she bought a copy of Yellow Submarine to smuggle home. (Beatles records were not available in East Germany.)
When did she get into politics? Not until her mid-thirties. Before then, she had been too busy studying to become something called a quantum chemist and took little interest in political goings-on. She spent the evening the Berlin Wall came down at the sauna. “It was Thursday, and Thursday was my sauna day,” she told The Guardian, “so that’s where I went – in the same communist high-rise where we always went.” The fall of the USSR may not have been enough to interrupt her wellness routine, but it did end up sparking a political awakening.
How did she get started? Her first job in politics was unpacking computers in the offices of a new East German centre-right party Demokratischer Aufbruch (Democratic Awakening). Democratic Awakening soon merged with the East German CDU and formed a government. Because nobody else wanted the job, Merkel agreed to be deputy spokesperson, but the main spokesperson was “scared of flying”, so Merkel, with her fluent Russian, was sent to Moscow to negotiate a new relationship with the motherland. Just four months earlier, she had never been to a political meeting. She went from handing out her first political leaflet to becoming a cabinet minister in under a year.
Did she make a big splash? Far from it. “She looked like a typical GDR scientist,” remembered East Germany’s one and only democratically elected prime minister, Lothar de Maizière, “wearing a baggy skirt and Jesus sandals”. (De Mazière eventually asked his PA to take young Merkel out to find some more acceptable clothes.) A lack of interest in her appearance seems to have been a lifelong trait. According to her childhood Russian teacher her clothes were “always colourless” and “her haircut was impossible – it looked like a pot over her head”. A former schoolmate once labelled her “a member of the Club of the Unkissed”. (That schoolmate later became police chief of the town they grew up in and almost lost his job when the comment came out.) But some colleagues see it as part of an act. “She’s so careful not to show any pretensions,” a senior German official told The New Yorker, “which is a kind of pretension.”
What will her legacy be? For all her electoral triumphs, it’s not obvious at all how she will be remembered. She and Boris Johnson share the same political strategy, says James Forsyth in The Times: “to sprawl across the centre ground and deny opponents oxygen”. Her ability to maintain power may be unmatched, “but at what cost?” The rise of populism across Europe was boosted both by her support for austerity after the financial crisis and her decision to throw open Germany’s borders to a million refugees in 2015. The one time she acted decisively, urging Germans to accept more and more refugees – “Wir schaffen das!” (“We can do it!”) – she got stung. Would-be migrants heard an invitation and far-right Europeans heard a threat. In trying to assert German humanity, she inadvertently gave the neo-fascist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), and others, a new lease of life. “Future historians may struggle to set out precisely what Merkel’s achievements were,” says Forsyth, “beyond her longevity.”
🩱⌛ Merkel is known for dithering so much the word merkeln (literally “Merkeling”) has become a byword for delaying or prevaricating. As a child she once stood on a diving board for the full hour of a swimming lesson until, at the bell, she finally jumped.
🇷🇺🐕🦺 During a 2007 meeting at the Russian president’s palace in Sochi, Putin summoned his black lab, Koni, into the room. Merkel froze: she had once been bitten and her fear of dogs was clearly obvious to Putin, who sat back and enjoyed the moment, legs spread wide. “I’m sure it will behave itself,” he said. “It doesn’t eat journalists, after all,” she replied in perfect Russian. Reflecting on the event later, Merkel told reporters: “I understand why he has to do this – to prove he’s a man. He’s afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this.”
🏰 🌳 After a rocky start, Merkel and David Cameron became quite chummy. There was truth, says Forsyth, in the rumour that she saw him as a kind of “naughty nephew”. They shared an enthusiasm for Midsomer Murders and she, in a rare move, invited his whole family to her country retreat. Showing her the countryside surrounding Chequers, Cameron joked: “Angela, if things had been different, this could all have been yours.”