I’ve long been fascinated by Angela Merkel, and not entirely sure why. She’s been German Chancellor for nine years now, is the most powerful politician on the continent, and has approval ratings of over 70 percent. And yet she somehow eludes easy characterization and her studied affect of dullness deflects any serious scrutiny. And so she has hovered around the edges of my brain – a Thatcher who is also an un-Thatcher, a woman in power for a decade who somehow doesn’t prompt the polarization and drama of the Iron Lady.
George Packer’s long but rich profile manages to crack this puzzle a little. Merkel’s strain of tedium is mostly of the good kind. She’s so thoroughly a pragmatist that she has largely overcome the left-right ideological battle in Germany. And, partly because she was in East Germany at the time, she missed the culture war battles of the late 1960s and 1970s. And so she has risen above the fray – while never veering very much from the dead center of German politics. And yet, she is also a brilliant, revenge-seeking pole-climber of the first order (and I mean that very much as a compliment). This story is eye-opening:
Angela was physically clumsy—she later called herself “a little movement idiot.” At the age of five, she could barely walk downhill without falling. “What a normal person knows automatically I had to first figure out mentally, followed by exhausting exercise,” she has said. According to Benn, as a teen-ager Merkel was never “bitchy” or flirtatious; she was uninterested in clothes, “always colorless,” 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. (The schoolmate, who became Templin’s police chief, nearly lost his job when the comment was published.) But Merkel was a brilliant, ferociously motivated student. A longtime political associate of Merkel’s traces her drive to those early years in Templin. “She decided, ‘O.K., you don’t fuck me? I will fuck you with my weapons,’ ” the political associate told me. “And those weapons were intelligence and will and power.”
She bided her time but delivered a ballsy coup de grace to her party leader Helmut Kohl. And I loved this story of how she actually won the Chancellorship after a close election which her main rival, Gerhard Shröder, assumed guaranteed his victory over the schlubby, gray woman seated next to him:
On Election Night, Merkel, Schröder, Fischer, and other party leaders gathered in a TV studio to discuss the results. Merkel, looking shell-shocked and haggard, was almost mute. Schröder, his hair colored chestnut and combed neatly back, grinned mischievously and effectively declared himself the winner. “I will continue to be Chancellor,” he said. “Do you really believe that my party would take up an offer from Merkel to talk when she says she would like to become Chancellor? I think we should leave the church in the village”—that is, quit dreaming. Many viewers thought he was drunk. As Schröder continued to boast, Merkel slowly came to life, as if amused by the Chancellor’s performance.
She seemed to realize that Schröder’s bluster had just saved her the Chancellorship. With a slight smile, she put Schröder in his place. “Plain and simple — you did not win today,” she said. Indeed, the C.D.U. had a very slim lead. “With a little time to think about it, even the Social Democrats will come to accept this as a reality. And I promise we will not turn the democratic rules upside down.”
Two months later, Merkel was sworn in as Germany’s first female Chancellor.
In this deft political style and in her post-ideological politics, she reminds me of Obama but with far less rhetorical skill and far more political success. Packer is too kind, I’d say, about the consequences of her austerity program for the entire euro zone, but he captures something deeper about Merkel’s significance. The country’s strength perhaps needs this undemonstrative figure wielding it; it defuses opposition and calms neighbors’ fears. But her stolidity, complacency and risk-aversion at the helm of a satisfied and prosperous country also taps a deeper German longing and an old German past:
“West Germany was a good country,” Georg Diez, a columnist and author, told me. “It was young, sexy, daring, Western—American. But maybe it was only a skin. Germany is becoming more German, less Western. Germany has discovered its national roots.”
Diez didn’t mean that this was a good thing. He meant that Germany is becoming less democratic, because what Germans fundamentally want is stability, security, economic growth—above all, to be left in peace while someone else watches their money and keeps their country out of wars. They have exactly the Chancellor they want.
She is the very model of a modern German politician, a woman whose empiricism and skepticism makes her arguably the leading conservative figure of our age. And by “conservative”, I don’t in any way mean “Republican.”
(Photo: Photos of German Chancellor and Christian Democratic Union (CDU) candidate Angela Merkel are seen on the front pages of German newspapers on September 23, 2013, a day after general elections. By Barbara Sax/AFP/Getty Images.)