The mind of Angela Merkel

How the German chancellor – a cautious, understated former physicist – has become the most powerful woman in the world.

Matthias Schrader/AP
A profile of German chancellor Angela Merkel is the cover story in the Sept. 23 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Merkel's Germany

As a child growing up in East Germany, Angela Merkel dreamed of becoming a figure skater. The country at the time was an athletic powerhouse, and the young girl was fascinated by the agility and elegance of the sport.

Yet there was something else, according to biographer Margaret Heckel, that made her want to perform pirouettes on ice: She couldn't do it. Ms. Merkel, who was physically awkward as a child, had trouble crossing a balance beam. Landing on the edge of a blade, after an aerial spin, would have been an almost unimaginable feat for her.

Even though figure skating turned out to just be a childhood fantasy, the idea of conquering what seemed impossible was a recurring theme in Merkel's youth. In school, she was always at the top of her class, with one notable exception: She once failed physics. Yet it was physics that she went on to choose as her first career.

Merkel's determination to do what she seemingly couldn't, or what others perceived she couldn't, is a telling side of a person who has risen to become one of the most powerful German leaders in the postwar era – and arguably the most powerful woman in the world today.

Now the politician whom many Germans call "Mummy" looks poised to win a third term as chancellor and cement her position as the de facto head of Europe during its greatest challenge in more than a half century.

For all her power and prominence, Merkel is an intensely private leader. Her family and advisers are so loyal that, even after two terms in office, most Germans – allies and foes alike – say they still don't really know what the woman who sits in the chancellery in Berlin really thinks. For as often as she's called flexible and pragmatic, she's called hardheaded and opportunistic.

But clearly most Germans like what they do see: "a simple girl," authentic, a bit frumpy, someone who has always tested her limits – in the classroom as well as in the male-dominated world of German politics. Leading into national elections Sept. 22, Merkel's party, the Christian Democratic Union, is polling more than 15 points ahead of its leftist rivals. Her party is not expected to win an outright majority, so the central question for political analysts is with whom the CDU will have to ultimately form a coalition. Still, Merkel maintains remarkable support after eight years in office during a turbulent time when fellow incumbents across Europe have fallen.

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is quoted as once asking: "Who do I call if I want to call Europe?" As Germany's export-driven economy continues to outpace the rest of Europe and as the CDU dominates in the polls, the answer for now is unequivocally Angela Merkel.

It is an amazing rise for her and for a country whose very participation in the European Union was intended to prevent it from ever becoming too powerful again. The EU, with its open borders and common currency, has certainly been a stabilizing and equalizing force for years. But today, as the EU struggles economically and as the political split between northern and southern Europe continues to divide, the question is where a newly elected Merkel might lead the Continent. Will she "save" Europe or drive it apart?

Merkel's supporters say she is uniquely positioned to confront what would be anyone's challenge of a lifetime. She has a "fundamental self-confidence in herself," says Ms. Heckel. Merkel moves slowly and cautiously. "Step by step" is her mantra. She eschews ideology and is prone to switching course. Her allies say this is a scientist's method of trial and error, caring about the goal, not about how one arrives at it.

For her foes, however, Merkel's movements are not a scientist's methods but demonstrate a simple desire to hold onto power. They say Germany, and by default Europe, is being led not by someone with a vision, but by someone who wants to stay in charge of an electorate fearful of paying for what they largely believe are the reckless mistakes of southern Europe. Outside the country, her influence has been hugely controversial. Her effigy, dressed up in Nazi uniform, has been burned across Greece, where the eurocrisis has hit hardest.

The parallels with Adolf Hitler are grossly wrong – flashes of anger that speak to Europe in the depths of crisis. But they do remind us of how far Germany has come from the shameful shadows of Nazi atrocity. If postwar Germany by reflex acquiesced to the EU – its ticket to redemption – it no longer puts Europe's stability ahead of its own, says Markus Meckel, a German politician and theologian and former foreign minister of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). "German stability is the priority, and that's a shift [under Merkel]," he says.

And this might be what voters find most appealing about her: She reflects what Germans feel is their role in the world today. "She's identified herself with the hopes, fears, and ambitions of the German voter in a way that no one else has been able to do," says John Kornblum, a former American ambassador to Germany. "She embodies their sense of caution, their sense of stability, their sense of self-righteousness.... She and the society have become virtually the same."

•     •     •

Merkel was born in 1954 in Hamburg, West Germany. But when she was 6 weeks old, the family moved east, to the GDR, because her father, a Lutheran minister, was asked to head up a congregation there. As the family moved in one direction, it faced a wave of Germans moving west to escape communism. Eventually, the family settled in Templin, East Germany, in 1957.

Templin is a picturesque town of 17,000, still enclosed by medieval brick walls and watchtowers, with an old district of timbered houses and cobblestone streets that amble among baroque churches. An hour from Berlin, it lies in the Uckermark, a rural region of forests and glacial lakes. The area is soothing and somnolent – not the kind of place that readily spawns power. It is here that Merkel has said she feels most at home.

Templin was closed off from Western Europe in the 1960s, at the height of the cold war. Its citizens, especially outsiders like Merkel's family – Protestants from the West – were tracked by the East German secret police. There was little liberty and no freedom of expression. The constant surveillance was why she learned to be wary and careful in dealing with others, says Stefan Kornelius, international affairs editor at Süddeutsche Zeitung, who has covered Merkel since 1991 and recently wrote a book about her. It also contributed to what has become her almost sacred sense of privacy.

The young Angela Kasner (her family name) excelled in school, particularly at math and Russian. According to Alan Crawford, a journalist for Bloomberg in Berlin who co-wrote "Angela Merkel: A Chancellorship Forged in Crisis," she rose to be No. 1 in her class, which was perhaps fitting for the daughter of bookish parents: Her father was a pastor and theologian, and her mother taught English and Latin.

When she went off to university, she chose science, at the University of Leipzig, in part because she has said ideology could not interfere with the laws of nature. It was also during her university years that she married Ulrich Merkel, another physics student. The marriage lasted only five years, but she has kept his last name.

Merkel later worked and studied at the German Academy of Sciences at Berlin, where she earned her doctorate in quantum chemistry. While there, in her 30s, she became increasingly interested in politics, although her precise motivation for and evolution into politics – almost inexplicably for a world leader today – are ambiguous.

Mr. Crawford notes that early on in her life, when just 14 years old, Merkel once hid in a school lavatory to listen to the radio broadcast of a West German presidential election. It appears that what political inclinations she did have diverged from those of her father, who was granted more liberty than many citizens – often being allowed to travel to West Germany, for instance – and who is said to have sympathized with the communist regime while Merkel found it stifling.

Most experts speculate that the real impetus for Merkel getting into politics was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which was a tumultuous moment for everyone living in East Germany. Everybody at the time went to the demonstrations. Factories halted production. Jacqueline Boysen, in her book "Angela Merkel," says that Merkel checked out various political groups and went to events after the wall fell. She ended up joining the Democratic Awakening party, which later merged with the CDU.

Democratic Awakening was not well organized at the time, and Merkel helped with office management, including hooking up computers in the party's headquarters that no one else knew how to use. Leaders soon elevated her to be the party's press manager.

Later she would briefly become a spokeswoman for the pre-reunification government of the East and also, at this time, was elected to the Bundestag from the region in northern Germany that she still represents today.

Her drift into politics during these years may also have been motivated by something more practical: The East German scientific community, already overstaffed, would now be going petri dish to petri dish with its often more-advanced colleagues in the West.

"They were simply not competitive enough," says Mr. Kornelius of Süddeutsche Zeitung. "I think she made the final push [into politics] after she realized that being catapulted so high within only one year, she could make a living becoming an MP [member of parliament]."

Merkel is famously determined and hardworking. Her sheer intelligence helped vault her through the party ranks in those early years. "Underestimated," in fact, is what foes and allies most often answer when asked how she rose so rapidly throughout her political career. Yet timing also helped, as did her background as an understated scientist from small-town East Germany.

After German reunification, then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl needed a representative cabinet, and Merkel, a Protestant woman from the East, was a perfect fit for a party whose leaders were mostly Roman Catholic men trained as lawyers. Mr. Kohl mentored her through two cabinet positions, calling her at one point "my girl."

But her true elevation to the top echelons of German politics came after Kohl was implicated in a funding scandal. In 1999, Merkel shocked the political establishment as the first in her party to publicly demand that the CDU move beyond its leader. With that decision, a political risk at the time, she cleared the way for herself to become the future face of the party.

It was the first – but hardly the last – instance of Merkel being underrated, according to Wolfgang Nowak, once an adviser to former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, from the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD). "She has always been underestimated because she doesn't tick like a politician," he says.

•     •     •

Author Crawford agrees that Merkel is an "atypical politician," which is one reason he says Germans like her: She is modest. She does her own shopping at supermarkets. She lives in the apartment in central Berlin that she occupied before becoming chancellor.

Her private life is devoid of paparazzi. Her second husband, Joachim Sauer, a chemistry professor whom she married in 1998 (they have no children together), has never once given an interview to a journalist. He is rarely seen in public, except for an annual Wagner music festival that the two attend each summer. So little is known about him, in fact, that when she mentioned in August that her husband prefers more "crumble" on the crumble cake she makes, it became something of a national sensation. The Internet exploded.

Behind a scowl that's often captured at meetings at the EU headquarters in Brussels, Merkel harbors a sense of humor that those around her call legendary. She's known to mimic the leaders she deals with, from former US President George W. Bush to Russian President Vladimir Putin. When she was once asked to say what Germany, her homeland, evoked in her – clearly a journalistic query to elicit a rare sound bite – she answered, deadpan, "I think of well-sealed German windows."

Mr. Nowak says that he was once asked to moderate a meeting among bankers, industrialists, and her advisers. He was struck, he says, that her aides didn't participate during the debate. Afterward he thanked the attendees and told Merkel that, when he was a presidential adviser, he talked often during meetings. "That's why your party is no longer in power," she quipped. The room erupted in laughter.

Even her hometown, Templin, seems to effuse a no-nonsense attitude that reflects the appeal of Merkel. Right off the main plaza, a carving on the facade of an old timbered bank exhorts residents on the values of financial prudence. "The saver of today is the winner of tomorrow," it says.

In one local restaurant, Grundling, a cozy haunt of low wooden ceilings and brick and yellow-painted walls, a group of city employees settles into a corner booth for the day's special – sausages and mounds of potato salad – as they do every day. Martina Wenzer, who has been a waitress here for 19 years, walks out the door with plates to deliver to businesses nearby. Other residents bring back plates, washed, and pay their checks.

As rare as it is for a small town like Templin to claim a German chancellor, Ms. Wenzer says there is no Merkel mania. In fact, Wenzer's English teacher of eight years is Merkel's elderly mother, but, despite having taken two-hour classes each week from her, the waitress didn't know who her teacher's daughter was for three years. "She never talks about her daughter," Wenzer says.

The waitress guesses that in the restaurant – and the town at large – loyalties are evenly divided. "But I'm voting for her [party]," says Wenzer. "I think she understands the problems of the East."

•     •     •

Much of Merkel's style of governance is, in fact, a product of national context. She has to navigate a political system that was created precisely to rein in the power of national figures. And she speaks for a populace that is historically wary of inflation and today anxious about having to shoulder too much of the burden of bailing out other countries in the EU.

During the election campaign, the euro­crisis hardly featured in any party's platform until Germany's finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, said on the campaign trail in August that Greece would need a third bailout. The opposition Social Democrats tried to capitalize on the statement, but in reality there is little policy difference between the parties on the crisis.

"German leaders know there is a high premium for projecting stability, and there is a risk factor for grandiose ideas," says Mr. Kornblum, the former ambassador. But he says the national mood intersects with Merkel's nature – with remarkable success today.

Nikolaus Blome, author of a new book on the chancellor, says Merkel has managed to turn the notion of "hesitancy," which carries a slightly negative connotation, into the characteristic that Germans like most about their chancellor.

Supporters and critics alike say she's shown an aptitude for moving Germany and Europe toward the goal she wants. Her tone is never dictatorial, says a high-level European diplomat in Berlin. "She never faces anyone down. She is never publicly antagonistic," he says. At the end, she has an ability to "bring people with her."

While she is stern in public, especially at the European level, those who interact with her in smaller groups call her warm and inclusive. At meetings with campaign staff, she asks for all opinions, says Lutz Meyer, the founder of Blumberry, which is running her advertising campaign. "She'll say, 'OK, now this person is speaking, no one interrupt,' " says Mr. Meyer. She digests all information. If she doesn't like an idea, she'll never dismiss it outright. She is never late. Meyer says she's always impeccably prepared.

She not only wants the opinions of those around her, she peppers experts with questions, unafraid to appear unknowing about any subject. "She doesn't suffer from the affliction of vanity," says Heckel. That was clear in her early career when she wore no makeup, despite relentless derision, believing her words mattered, not what she looked like. But it trickles into her management style, too, Heckel says.

Coming from a center-right party, she often adopts the policies of her leftist SPD opposition. This includes her decision to end military conscription, which went into effect in 2011, and her support for calls to institute a mandatory minimum wage during the campaign – both trademark issues of the left. Her clearest switch came on nuclear power. Her center-right government had extended the life span of the country's reactors. But when the nuclear meltdown happened at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan after an earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, she called an abrupt end to all nuclear energy by 2022.

To her rivals, it fits a pattern of political expediency that has created hapless policy. It has also caused rifts within her own party, especially among conservatives who say she has betrayed the right in moving further left.

Yet it never seems to have a lasting effect at the polls. That she is nicknamed today not "my girl" but "Mutti," or "Mummy," attests to that. "[The CDU] is always changing their program, but the population is not angry about it," says Meckel, the former GDR foreign minister. "There are so many examples of broken promises on very important issues. But everyone believes she is doing her best, the mother caring for her country."

Many explain the zigzagging as a rejection of her past, having grown up in a communist state where the government forced its rhetoric and policies on people despite the evidence on the ground.

Merkel doesn't make grand speeches laced with romantic visions of Europe in 100 years, but speaks plainly. Analysts describe her as steady. Many Germans feel she is protecting them from falling into Europe's abyss. They see her as safeguarding not just their savings but their values, their cautious approach to life, and prudent nature.

"She is more self-confident, but not too much," says Mr. Blome, a prominent German journalist. "She takes risks but doesn't put all her eggs in one basket. This is how 80 percent of Germans manage their lives."

•     •     •

While Merkel's cautiousness and fealty to thrift may play well in Germany, the bigger question is what it means for the rest of Europe. One of the few anecdotes Merkel herself has shared from the past is that of standing on a three-meter diving board in grade school, unwilling to jump. It was only after 45 minutes of weighing the risk, when the bell was about to ring, that she took the plunge. The story has been told over and over as a metaphor for her hesitation on Europe's sovereign debt crisis.

Merkel's guardedness in pushing a bolder political union or stronger vision for Europe is certainly rooted in her personality and her Germanness. But it is also shaped by history. The EU, after all, was founded in the fatigue of war and a near religious quest for peace. One motivation behind the union was to keep Germany from once again evolving into the dominant power on the Continent.

Even before the EU, Germany was a founding member of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, and its motivation for pooling resources and giving up some national sovereignty then, similarly, was the desire to join a larger community of nations after ripping them apart in World War II. Through the end of the cold war and reunification, Germany always preferred to take part in the community, not power it. To this day, it often defers to France on matters of international affairs.

William Paterson, a German expert at Aston University in Birmingham, England, calls Germany a "reluctant hegemon." That means, he says, a country both unwilling to pay the price of being a major power, as well as afraid of its own history. "In the 20th century they tried to be a hegemon twice with disastrous results," he says.

Yet today Germany as a country, and Merkel as its leader, undoubtedly sits at the fulcrum of power in Europe, however reluctantly. The size of its economy dictates Germany's influence. But so does the lack of other emerging political leaders in the EU. For several years, Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy forged a close relationship, dubbed "Merkozy." But that ended when Socialist François Hollande won presidential elections in 2012. Highly unpopular at home, Mr. Hollande has done little on the European stage.

The European diplomat says that part of Merkel's prominence in Europe today is being at the helm during an era of weak European leadership. "There is very little alternative," he says.

Although it is the EU and the International Monetary Fund that technically steer fiscal policy, Germany's economic clout puts its hand on the wheel. And so far, Berlin has moved slowly and cautiously in dealing with the Continent's fiscal crisis. From the first Greek bailout in 2010, through to the most recent emergency package for Cyprus, Germany demanded first that governments reform and enforce austerity measures to slash budgets.

To Merkel's supporters, Germany's actions fit into a long-term vision to create a stronger Europe that can compete in a globalized world, especially with the rise of China. Merkel knows that Germany can only stay relevant as an economic power within the context of a bigger union. To get there, she takes incremental steps.

"Chancellor Merkel has a long-term perspective. She sees big changes, and the shift of economies in the global world," says a member of her staff in Berlin. "She not only wants Germany to come out stronger from the crisis, but Europe to come out stronger, too."

Critics say her "step-by-step" approach is actually just patching up the problems as they arise, without the commitment to structural change needed to transform the EU – from a currency union to a true fiscal and political one. While calling for deep reforms from other nations, Germany has consistently blocked initiatives like a banking union or "eurobonds" to collectivize debt.

Today, as Greece enters its sixth year of recession, unemployment in Spain affects more than a quarter of the working population, and the Portuguese flee to their former colonies of Brazil and Angola in search of work, many in these countries say Merkel's hardheaded focus on austerity has gravely exacerbated Europe's problems. For them, she is a woman on a diving board not daring to jump.

She's not been a leader, says Gayle Allard, an economist at IE Business School in Madrid; she has been an obstructionist. "Her priority is Germany all the time," says Ms. Allard. "In each moment, she's shown resistance to having more Europe."

At home, while most Germans don't want to underwrite the rescue of Europe, some do question her commitment to the EU. Merkel's main challenger in the current election, Peer Steinbrueck of the SPD, recently caused a stir by saying Merkel lacks passion for Europe because she grew up in the communist East. It echoes criticism by rivals who say she is not guided by history or the notion of how important Europe is.

Most dismiss the accusations as nonsense, and say that if anything informs her views on Europe, it's her age: She's the first German chancellor born after World War II. "She and the younger generation, we are strong believers in European peace but we are not as burdened with an historic mission or German guilt that guides the way we think about Europe," says Michael Wohlgemuth, an economist and director of the think tank Open Europe Berlin.

Merkel has been a clear defender of maintaining the integrity of the euro, saying that if the common currency fails, Europe does, too. But her vision ends at the eurocrisis, says Meckel. She's not about to push political or economic reforms that cede all power to Brussels.

Her unofficial leadership of the EU comes as political support for the organization has fallen dramatically. In a recent global attitudes poll by the Pew Research Center, from 2012 to 2013, the favorable rating of the EU dropped from 60 percent to 41 percent in France; in Spain it fell from 60 percent to 46 percent.

Favorability is still among the highest in Germany, but as elections have loomed, Merkel has not effectively communicated to Germans that big sacrifices could lie ahead – if a third Greek bailout is needed, for example – nor has she communicated to the crisis-hit southern countries that Germany really does believe in the European project.

"What is striking now is the declining popularity of the European Union and Europe in general," says Mr. Paterson, the academic in England. "It is a great misfortune that the 'leader' is not going to be someone to do anything about that."

•     •     •

When she first came to power, Merkel was often called Germany's "Margaret Thatcher." The two women, both conservative and trained as scientists, rose to the top of traditional, male-dominated parties, in large part on sheer smarts. But the late Mrs. Thatcher was an ideologue who believed she was right and who was willing to take to the streets, so to speak, to prove it. Merkel, says Mr. Wohlgemuth, is the opposite: She measures the mood on the streets and governs by it.

In Merkel's office hangs a portrait of Catherine the Great, the longest-ruling female leader of Russia. Kornelius says that Merkel plays down the portrait – in fact she calls no one a role model – not attributing any larger meaning to the choice of office décor than simply liking the painting.

Still, under Catherine the Great, Russia grew larger and stronger – just as Germany has under Merkel – emerging as an undeniable world power.

"What [Merkel] brings from previous experience is to know how a system can collapse," says Kornelius. "In very dark moments, she is extremely worried that the system might not be stable.... She fears our democratic system is not entirely safe and especially in Europe. We have this wonderful union, but it's not a given that it will stay forever, that old resentments won't boil up again."

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