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Angela Merkel remains an enigma in flawed biography

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Angela Merkel, seen here in 2004, a year before she rose to become Chancellor of Germany. Picture by Thomas Lohnes

Angela Merkel, seen here in 2004, a year before she rose to become Chancellor of Germany. Picture by Thomas Lohnes

The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel

The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel

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Angela Merkel, seen here in 2004, a year before she rose to become Chancellor of Germany. Picture by Thomas Lohnes

The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel Kati Marton William Collins, €17.99

A typical portrayal of Angela Merkel, the outgoing Chancellor of Germany, is that she is the most powerful woman in the world. That is an accurate but incomplete description. Indeed, she is, or perhaps was, one of the most powerful people in the world.

A new biography by journalist Kati Marton, coming out at the end of the politician’s career, shows Merkel to have been deeply influential in most of the international debates in the past two decades, much more so than many of the louder men that shared the same platform.

Her calm, and lack of ego, was a source of her power. She let others blow off steam, often allowing them space to make fools of themselves. She fed ideas to people, and made them feel like they had come up with them themselves.

As Merkel didn’t feel the need for plaudits, she achieved more than most of the alpha males she dealt with.

Her understated approach possibly emerged from her youth. Growing up in the former East Germany, the young Angela Kasner was constantly on her guard. Making rash statements was dangerous in the east.

If Merkel was frequently regarded as an outsider in German politics – a woman, an easterner, a scientist – then growing up she was also an outsider. She was the daughter of a Lutheran pastor from the West who chose to go East.

In the formally atheistic East, her religious upbringing was a source of suspicion. Her Christian faith was an important touchstone for her political decisions.

It is cited by Marton as influential in Merkel’s decision to abandon nuclear power, her insistence on bringing up human rights abuses in Russia with Vladimir Putin, and her unwavering support for Syrian refugees in spite of the obvious political downsides.

This biography offers a portrait of Merkel, based on published interviews, the author’s own interviews, and some of the author’s personal memories. Marton is the widow of Richard Holbrooke, once the US ambassador to Germany, and has access to an impressive list of interviewees to talk about Merkel, possibly the most private of world leaders. 

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Marton’s problem is that most of the interviewees are as puzzled by Merkel as the rest of us. Quoting Hillary Clinton at length looks good, but you never get the sense that Clinton really knew the Chancellor. And maybe Merkel’s personal story isn’t that important. Perhaps there is no inner Merkel we cannot really see.

The real puzzle for us must be how did this obviously intelligent and hardworking outsider, a woman from the East with no connections and no obvious charisma, rise so high and so quickly to eventually become the dominant leader in Europe?

For that, this book doesn’t really have any answers. It glides through her political apprenticeship at such a pace you’d almost wonder if the author is hiding something. Merkel goes from wandering into a party office to being a cabinet minister seemingly without a trace. Merkel must have done something.

The explanation is that she was lucky. Her party leader Helmut Kohl was looking for a woman from the East to put in his cabinet, essentially to fill a quota. She was available. Any successful political career relies on a bit of luck, but there must be more to it. Why did she get the nod?

Merkel may have seemed like a nondescript Mädchen (the German word for girl), but by the time of the fall of the Wall in Berlin, she was friends with an Oscar-winning film director, Volker Schlöndorff.

She was more than just a smart young woman, Merkel was also fiercely ambitious. In a telling quote on why she moved from her career in science to politics, she admits she was a good scientist but she would never win a Nobel Prize.

Merkel became indispensable in the Christian Democratic party (CDU), something that was unlikely in a conservative and, by this account, misogynist party. What we know is she was very good at letting people dig holes for themselves.

Her reticence to stake out a position might seem an unlikely trait for a political leader, but it gives you time. Why move before you have to? 

But it was a bold early step that secured her the leadership of the CDU. Helmut Kohl was digging in despite an emerging financial scandal. Merkel gave an interview effectively calling for her mentor’s head.

Her play to save the party from Kohl was popular among those who were thinking about their seats. It was highly risky, but she had thought it through. The gamble paid off.

Other opponents fell through hubris. After the inconclusive 2005 federal elections, Gerhard Schröder, who was then chancellor, publicly dismissed working with the Mädchen but in doing so lost support, and it was Merkel who became Chancellor.

Merkel managed to become incredibly popular in office. She steered Germany and Europe through the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis, and her steadying influence won her the moniker Mutti (mammy).

If she were a mother – she isn’t – then she behaved more like a Tiger Mom. She encouraged talent, but if anyone disappointed her, or didn’t perform, they were cut down unsentimentally. 

Merkel nearly always tried to steer a middle course, aware of what was politically acceptable and what was not.

If she had sympathy for the Greeks, Europe’s moral leader was keenly aware that pouring more German money into the countries most affected by the financial crash would be political suicide for her.

But she made some bold moves, which seem to have been motivated by her upbringing behind the Wall. Opening German borders to so many Syrian refugees may have been a deeply moral choice, but it gave oxygen to the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party.

Marton’s biography covers a lot of ground at breakneck speed, but she doesn’t get into domestic politics. If Merkel doesn’t have her head turned easily, Marton does. She is more comfortable talking about Merkel’s dealings with demagogues on the world stage than what she achieved at home.

What comes through is a leader with strong moral foundations who achieved a great deal. What’s missing is the story of how she did it.


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