Angela Merkel and the Euro Crisis: Women in Leadership

German men have often underestimated her—much to their eventual regret. Hans Christian Plambeck / Laif-Redux

The Lady prefers blonds. Angela Merkel, 57, once dubbed the Queen of Europe, likes to surround herself with smooth-shaven, uncrumpled, and, yes, often blond courtiers and allies. Just look at her most successful spin doctor, the velvety Ulrich Wilhelm. Or the man she chose for Germany's president, the straight-backed Christian Wulff. Or the economic adviser she appointed as head of the Bundesbank, Jens Weidmann, who seems to have emerged from the same gene pool. It's not really their Germanic features and grooming that interest the chancellor, of course, but rather their sober, Germanic approach to global crisis: If in doubt, stick to the rules.

Some years ago, after an interview with Merkel, I had a run-in with the chancellery. I had, said the court of Angela, violated a vaguely defined embargo for publication. "The chancellor believes this to be unacceptable behavior!" yelped Wilhelm over the phone. "We thought Britain was the home of fair play!" The Mistress of Order had spoken. Now she and her team, baffled by the bond markets' sudden whistle-blowing power over individual euro-zone economies, are struggling to impose German order, not only on a scruffy correspondent but on the whole continent. It is not a pretty sight.

For the Germans, fair play has nothing to do with cricket. Rather, it derives from a sense of entitlement. The open question—and it goes to the core of the enigma of Angela Merkel—is how far the country's curdling resentment will congeal into a harder-edged national agenda. As the continent's biggest economy, and as the country that will therefore have to foot most of the bills, Germany is asserting the right to impose conditions and standards on the backsliders. Just as Germany once insisted that the European Central Bank replicate the Bundesbank's political independence and anti-inflationary principles—the country's absolute condition for abandoning its beloved Deutsche mark—so, now, it wants to impose German fiscal discipline everywhere and at all times, in return for bailing out the Greeks and the rest of the stragglers. So far, five European governments have stumbled because of their inability to deal with the crisis, and Merkel's people quietly nod their approval that the so-called PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain) are now being punished for their sloppy housekeeping. Mario Monti, the head of Italy's newly technocratic government, is said to be "very German," as is the European Central Bank's new president, Mario Draghi. "No nation wants to have its money thrown out of the window," says a senior Christian Democrat. "We want cast-iron guarantees, promises in writing, reassurance that miscreants will be punished."

Germany's voters are almost marginal in Berlin's handling of the euro crisis. Decisions are made by a handful of insiders clustered around the chancellor and her Bundesbank chief. Ultimately the responsibility for holding the European Union together has fallen on the shoulders of a woman who grew up in the country then known as East Germany and came to political maturity as the communist empire fell apart. When the Berlin Wall collapsed in November 1989, she didn't rush off to watch history in the making. Instead she went for her weekly sauna session. Her critics, dismayed by her delayed response to a crisis that has been unfolding for so long, joke that she seems to have retreated to the sauna again—this time for two steamy years. Opposition leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier says there's a Merkel Law: "The more fiercely Merkel rules something out, the more certain it is that she will eventually adopt that policy." Hence the flip-flops, not only on how to handle the euro crisis but also on issues like her previous commitment to nuclear energy, after Fukushima.

So why is the chancellor such a sluggish crisis manager? One biographer, Margot Heckel, has truffled out an anecdote that supposedly sheds light on this most secretive of leaders. As a schoolgirl learning to swim, the chancellor had an inordinate fear of diving. One day she ascended the highest board and stood immobile, apparently fighting with herself. At the precise moment when the school bell rang, she dived into the pool's deep end. And lived. Personally, I cannot pin down the moral of this story. The obvious reading is that she is a woman who hesitates, broods, and eventually finds the courage to act. But you don't have to train as a psychiatrist (in Germany that's still a nine-year process, by the way) to think of other reasons for the Delayed High Dive. For one thing, Merkel is singularly uncoordinated. A slow developer, she trained herself at the age of 5 to go up and down stairs, one step after another; even now, physical activity requires deep concentration. Could it be that she was, and is, afraid of failing in front of others? And, more telling, why did she insist on jumping exactly within the allocated time of the lesson, not three minutes later, when the pool was empty of people? A stickler for the rules, even then? She stayed on the board until she had stretched the rules to the very limit—but she remained within them. Was that a Rosebud moment, the key to her present attempt to create a euro zone credible to the markets because it adheres to a German rulebook?

My own favorite Merkel story comes from 1981, when she left the husband whose surname she still carries, Ulrich Merkel. They had met while studying physics in Leipzig, married, moved to East Berlin, and for three years Ulrich had the apartment done up while Angela completed her doctorate. When the place was spick-and-span, she decided to leave. "One day, she just packed her things and moved out," her ex-husband recalls. An almost wordless operation, apparently. She took only one item—the refrigerator, removed while Ulrich was out of the house. That's Angela Merkel for you: a woman who runs away with a refrigerator.

Nobody really gets close to the chancellor. Her current husband, Joachim Sauer, a stellar figure in the field of quantum chemistry, is regularly identified as a future Nobel laureate, but little is publicly known about him beyond his love of Wagner—the German press has nicknamed him "the Phantom of the Opera"—and his fondness for hill climbing. Those who have eavesdropped on the couple's conversations are astonished by their formality. At the dinner table, it's said, their talk centers on science (the subject of Merkel's own doctoral research was quantum chemistry), music, and Sauer's two grown children. There's little intermingling of her political and private life, in sharp contrast to the persona that enabled her erstwhile mentor, Helmut Kohl, to promote his vision of Europe.

Merkel's approach to Europe is mirrored in her relationship with Kohl, now frail and wheelchair-bound at 81. It's a conflict between the older, flawed visionary and the younger, self-doubting pragmatist—between his effusive, often arrogant style of tribal government and her ceaseless efforts to calculate outcomes and slow down the pace of change. As a member of the wartime generation (he used to say that the first time he experienced hunger was as a teenager, when he trekked across Germany back to his bombed-out hometown of Ludwigshafen), Kohl found a common language with the likes of François Mitterrand. Hearing a speech in which the French president recalled his own wartime experiences, Kohl broke into tears. In fact, he often wept. Merkel never does, at least not in public.

Kohl took the connection between France and Germany, their shared commitment to avoiding another disastrous war, and expanded it across Europe. He developed personal friendships with the likes of Felipe González, the Socialist leader of Spain, creating a bridge between the prosperous Northern elites and the hard-pressed South. Merkel, in contrast, is deeply suspicious of her French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, and is said to hate the epithet the press has given to their supposedly symbiotic partnership: "Merkozy." It's a largely simulated friendship, a performance put on to calm the markets that would run wild at any hint of their deep differences. "We are really worried that Germany is coming adrift," says a French diplomat. EU leaders' brows remain furrowed over Germany's abstention in the U.N. Security Council's vote on the Libyan no-fly zone.

As the two Germanys became one, Kohl was baffled by the East. He brought Merkel into the cabinet to be his minis-ter of women and youth, knowing only three facts about her: she had made herself useful to the East German Christian Democrats; she came from a Protestant background (her father was a pastor); and despite her stint in the communist Free German Youth, she seemed to have no Stasi connections (when approached by the secret police she refused to cooperate, she has said, arguing implausibly that she was too much of a blabbermouth to be a snitch). After all, back then it was impossible to get ahead in the East without joining the Free German Youth. Kohl treated her as he treated the Easterners in general, with benign condescension. "Das Mädchen," he called the 36-year-old Merkel: "The Girl."

Like many other German politicians, Kohl underestimated her. A few years later, The Girl made her move—she published an article calling on the Christian Democrats to dump their old leaders. It was a Refrigerator moment, an act of sheer self-interest. The party's eager young regional chieftains, all male, many of them blond, stood by and watched, thinking she would do their dirty work by accelerating Kohl's departure and opening the way for succession. Much to their surprise, however, she took his role for herself, ending up at the head of a Christian Democrat–Social Democrat coalition that became the precursor of technocratic governments across Europe. Nervous about public opinion, she simply excluded it from tricky decisions.

That formula doesn't work anymore for Germans or for Europe. Kohl knew the value of passion in mobilizing public support. The euro, he told the German people, was a matter of war and peace. He understood that only the German fear of another European war could outweigh the German fear of hyperinflation. Germans grumbled, but they bought into his program. For her part, Merkel hasn't bothered to sell her public on the importance of saving European unity, even though the country's voters have become more sophisticated and more skeptical of Brussels than they were under Kohl. Instead, the chancellor seems to be betting that the Germans' dislike of chaos and disorder will keep them loyal to Europe. "If the euro fails, then so does Europe," she told the German Parliament. She almost certainly does not believe that; it clearly doesn't come from her heart. Privately, her team draws a clear distinction between the euro zone—which could conceivably be reshuffled, with Greece dropping out, Poland coming in—and the European Union, which Merkel tells colleagues is destined to survive, albeit as a more efficient and tightly run ship. Her priority is to protect the German nation-al interest, which means above all protecting the European single market. It's not a matter of German nationalism, even if much of Europe will now have to dance to tunes written in Berlin and Frankfurt. But neither does it arise from the slightest spark of sentimental attachment to the idea of Europe.

Driven by the bond markets, worried that the German electorate will turn on her, under pressure from her EU colleagues and the White House, Merkel is relying on what she knows best: rules, rules, rules. Her plan to toughen oversight of euro-zone treasuries will need to win over a great many players—and fast. But Katinka Barysch of the Center for European Reform says it's at least starting to help. The tabloids' cries for the Greeks to sell the Acropolis have given way to a calmer attitude. "Now that the government talks about new treaties and institutions, it looks more in charge," says Barysch. "Politically, the strategy is working: almost two thirds of Germans now approve of Merkel's management of the euro crisis, up from 45 percent in October."

Even so, these are not easy times for the woman who is supposed to rescue a continent. Her scientist's soul revolts against the conflation of short-term priorities—particularly the urgent need to halt the spreading decay of confidence in the euro—with the long-term goal of reshaping Europe. She sleeps little, bites her nails, is constantly sending text messages; a terrifying study in the loneliness of leadership.