Angela Merkel: Germany's Wonder Woman

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives at the NATO Summit in Portugal on November 20, 2010. Guillaume Horcajuelo / EPA-Corbis

The arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn had gone down 48 hours earlier, and Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, was still absorbing the news. Settling into a chair in a vast conference room in the glass-and-steel Chancellery in Berlin, Merkel grimaced and shook her head when asked about her reaction to the International Monetary Fund chief’s plummet from grace. She had been scheduled to meet Strauss-Kahn to discuss the worsening euro crisis, but the meeting had been scrapped after he was charged with sexual assault. “I will say that the presumption of innocent until proven guilty applies to everybody,” the careful Merkel said, shifting in her chair. “I will wait and see how the legal process proceeds.”

It was early afternoon in Berlin, and Merkel was taking time out of her rigidly programmed schedule to meet with an American reporter—a rare concession for a politician who almost never talks to the foreign press. And Merkel exerted as much control as she could over the process.

Wearing a prim beige jacket and black pants, Merkel kept her answers concise, in German, and with her press attaché firmly at her side as a timekeeper. But her unyielding demeanor—and insistence on speaking her native tongue—was broken when I paused to admire the view from the window. The Germans, after unification, built a dazzling, celebratory cityscape along the former East-West fault line. Switching to English, Merkel, who grew up in the Communist East, admitted she still found it surprising to be going to work each day “on this side”—in the former West Berlin—“and not on the other side.”

More surprising, perhaps, is the fact that in her nearly six years as chancellor, Merkel, now 56, has established herself as Europe’s strongest and most durable leader. She has, in turbulent times, guided her Christian Democratic Union to healthy wins in two elections. Forbes magazine has repeatedly named her “the world’s most powerful woman.” And though her standing at home has slipped this year, among the current crop of European leaders, who almost comically embody national stereotypes—who, after all, is more Italian than Silvio Berlusconi, more French than Nicolas Sarkozy, more British than David Cameron, and, indeed, more German than Merkel?—she still seems the most assured in her office.

“Angela is the very opposite of the flashy glad-hander as a politician,” says former British prime minister Tony Blair. “She is one of the easiest politicians to underestimate, and it’s one of the stupidest things any politician can do.”

She has steered Germany through the worst global financial meltdown since the Great Depression, keeping budgets down and confidence high. Last year, Germany enjoyed a growth rate of 3.6 percent—the highest in Western Europe—and the economy is on track to remain strong this year. In the euro crisis, Merkel has been a strong voice for fiscal discipline while diligently (if sometimes reluctantly) cobbling together rescue plans for Europe’s profligate nations—Greece, Ireland, and Portugal, who have chafed loudly at German demands. (A Greek newspaper wrote that Germany was turning debtor countries into “colonies of the Fourth Reich” and Europe into a “financial Dachau.”) But beyond such hissy fits, there’s little the poorer EU nations can do. Without Berlin, the euro would be kaput. Germany is Europe’s only truly global economy—the world’s second-largest exporter after China and the fourth-largest economy after the U.S., China, and Japan.

“Her constant fear, her constant desire, will be to make sure that any help that’s given to Greece is given on a basis that cures the problem rather than merely postpones it,” says Blair. “Her concern—naturally—is to make sure that any help that is given is help that she can justify to her own people. It really is as simple as that.”

In what is still a men’s club of world leaders, she holds her own. During a February phone call, she rebuked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his refusal to extend a settlement freeze. When he castigated her for an anti-settlement U.N. vote, she barked back: “How dare you?” according to the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. When I pressed her on the conversation, she told me that she never talked about her private phone conversations, but then added: “I believe that finding a two-state solution is now more urgent that ever … and a suspension of settlement-building would be a justifiable step to make progress. As a friend of the Jewish state, I’m profoundly convinced that a negotiated solution is in the best interests of Israel.”

For all her apparent grandeur, close friends describe her as uneitel—a term connoting modesty. She still vacations in the same cottage in the former East Germany that she owned before the fall of the Wall, and her husband, Joachim Sauer, a fellow scientist, commutes regularly from their unpretentious apartment in central Berlin to the institute of chemistry at Humboldt University.

Merkel is efficient, in part because she has kept her independence and her private life to herself, says James Wolfensohn, the former World Bank president. “She’s not someone running around the world in tiaras and things, trying to gain recognition because of her presidency,” says Wolfensohn, who admires her toughness. “I don’t know how you run Germany without being very strong—I don’t think it’s for weaklings.”

On the world stage, she has been a vocal supporter of human rights, repeatedly pointing to her own remarkable journey from Lutheran priest’s daughter in the Communist East to leader of a united Germany. “Above all, it influenced me in terms of recognizing that freedom is not a given,” she says. “That led me to becoming, and I believe I still am, a fervent advocate of freedom, and also of freedom of opinion.”

Merkel will meet with President Obama in D.C. next week to discuss the economy, the ongoing wars, and transatlantic relations. Afterward she will dine at the White House, where the president will present her with the Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor. Ironically, her award comes at a time of growing tensions in the German-American alliance. In contrast to the back-slapping (and shoulder-massaging) she shared with George W. Bush, Merkel regards Obama warily, though they share the same cerebral style.

The relationship between the two got off to a bad start in July 2008, when Merkel criticized the prospect of Obama using Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate as a backdrop for a campaign rally. A year later, Obama, now president, declined an invitation to attend the 20th-anniversary celebration of the fall of the Wall, prompting one American wag to write that Obama had replaced John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” with the more prosaic “Ich bin beschäftigt” (“I’m busy”). Obama still hasn’t taken time to visit Berlin, feeding the perception in the Merkel camp that he doesn’t view Europe as a priority.

Not surprisingly, Merkel herself insists that she gets along just fine with Obama. “I had a reliable, friendly relationship with President Bush, and I have a very good and friendly relationship with President Obama,” she told me. “We have very different biographies, but we work well together, and the fact that he invited me to Washington to receive the Medal of Freedom speaks for the quality of our relationship.” she says.

Playing well with others has become a Merkel hallmark, at home as well as abroad. In December 2008, with the German economy slowing to a crawl, roughly 30 people—CEOs, economists, and union brass—gathered around a table in Merkel’s office. Peter Löscher, chief executive of Siemens AG, who attended the meeting, recalls that Merkel asked each person in the room what was wrong with the economy and what could be done to fix it. Eventually, Löscher says, Merkel helped forge an agreement that is remarkably German in its consensus: the business leaders said they would avoid laying off a considerable number of workers in the coming year, and instead cut back their hours. The government, in turn, would offset a portion of the costs and allow companies to keep their skilled employees until the downturn passed. The idea, says one German politician, originated with her political opponents, but Merkel embraced it and managed to convince the naysayers in her party. “Her mantra is collaboration and not confrontation,” says Löscher. “She has a great capacity to build trust.”

But recently there has been blowback and public awkwardness. Last month, at the American Academy in Berlin, Helmut Kohl, the 81-year-old former German chancellor, passionately defended the euro zone. Sitting in his wheelchair, Kohl spoke in a faint voice. His speech was slurred and his words were hard to decipher. But his message—that Germany was not doing enough to preserve the union—seemed clearly intended for Merkel, his former, now estranged, protégée, who appeared frosty as she watched from the front row. “Germany’s future is with its neighbors,” Kohl said. “We have to follow our path with the Greeks, too, even if it costs us something.”

And earlier this year, Merkel was criticized for the German decision to abstain on the March U.N. Security Council vote on the “no-fly zone” over Libya and NATO intervention. “The rest of the West is perplexed, sensing a drift toward stay-apart-ism,” says Josef Joffe, editor and publisher of Die Zeit, the German daily. “Germany has never been so alone.” Merkel insists that Germany remains strongly supportive of its NATO allies and denies that she was pandering to Germany’s notoriously noninterventionist electorate. “We are all in agreement with our friends and allies that the Gaddafi regime must be brought to an end, that Libyans deserve freedom and democracy just as much as the people of Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and the entire region,” Merkel says. “But in the end a purely military solution will not be feasible; politics will have to play its part.”

Merkel spent what she describes as a contented youth in the rural East German town of Templin, about 60 miles northwest of Berlin. Her father had brought the family there from Hamburg when she was an infant, before the Berlin Wall went up. It was, she says, “a very beautiful and nature-filled childhood.” Her parents fostered an atmosphere of intellectual inquiry; Merkel recalls being surrounded at home by “many books, frequent visitors, and interesting conversational partners.” Yet the family had no illusions about the restrictions and dangers of life in the East German police state. “We knew we were living in a dictatorship, with constant caution required as to what you could and could not say,” she told me, adding that her parents advised her to ward off overtures from the Stasi, the secret police, by telling them that she was a chatterbox and would make a lousy informer. Merkel remained passive politically, throwing herself into the study of physics at the University of Leipzig. She graduated in 1978, and got a job as a chemist at the prestigious Academy of Sciences in Berlin.

A decade later, the Berlin Wall fell. In March 1990, just before East Germany’s only democratic election, Merkel walked into the East Berlin office of the fledgling Democratic Awakening Party and signed on as a volunteer. “She was late to the revolution, but she learned fast,” says Hans-Christian Maaß, an East German politician who met Merkel during this period, and often invited the young physicist over to his home, where she would bake cookies for his children. Their party was crushed in the polls—the leader turned out to be a Stasi informer—but Maaß found Merkel a job as deputy spokesperson in the transitional government. In late 1990, she ran for Parliament and made a favorable impression on then-chancellor Helmut Kohl; after her election, he appointed her minister of women and youth in the first cabinet of a unified Germany. “For her, it was like the first light of a new future,” says Maaß.

Merkel rose rapidly through the ranks of the Christian Democratic Union. She recalled, “I was sitting at the same table with Helmut Kohl. I hardly knew anyone in Bonn, and at first I didn’t know how to lead a ministry. I kept saying to myself, you have to make sure that you keep your feet on the ground. There was a great deal to learn in a very short time.” She learned fast. Kohl appointed her minister of the environment in his next government, and later, deputy chairman of the Christian Democratic Union.

Lord George Weidenfeld, an Austrian-born publisher, who ran in the same circles as Merkel back when she was a junior politician, recalls a “very friendly and very informal” woman who was often a good listener during boat rides and weekend getaways. “She is a sort of a Margaret Thatcher figure in the sense that she is a very strong person,” he says. “[But] she is the best representative of what I have called the three Ms—the movement of the militant middle.”

As one of the only women, and one of the only former East Germans, in the party’s upper echelons, she was dismissed—foolishly—as a lightweight by party bosses. When Kohl, and the party’s secretary general, Wolfgang Schäuble, became embroiled in a scandal over a secret campaign slush fund, Merkel showed no mercy to her former mentor. She published a letter in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, criticizing the pair for their lack of transparency and demanding reforms. Schäuble was forced to step down as party boss, and Merkel took over, opening the way to her election five years later as chancellor. “The western boys never believed that the eastern girl would treat them the way she did,” says a prominent Berliner. “But she knows how to play the game of power politics.”

Understated she may be, and underrated. But Angela Merkel, with her quiet steel and very Lutheran common sense, is a leader without whom Europe would be in disarray.

With R. M. Schneiderman