A summer afternoon at the Reichstag. Soft Berlin light filters down through the great glass dome, past tourists ascending the spiral ramp, and into the main hall of parliament. Half the members’ seats are empty. At the lectern, a short, slightly hunched figure in a fuchsia jacket, black slacks, and a helmet of no-color hair is reading a speech from a binder. Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany and the world’s most powerful woman, is making every effort not to be interesting.
“As the federal government, we have been carrying out a threefold policy since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis,” Merkel says, staring at the binder. Her delivery is toneless, as if she were trying to induce her audience into shifting its attention elsewhere. “Besides the first part of this triad, targeted support for Ukraine, is, second, the unceasing effort to find a diplomatic solution for the crisis in the dialogue with Russia.” For years, public speaking was visibly painful to Merkel, her hands a particular source of trouble; eventually, she learned to bring her fingertips together in a diamond shape over her stomach.
The Reichstag was constructed under Kaiser Wilhelm I and Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, in the eighteen-eighties, when a newly unified Germany was making its first rise to preëminence in Europe. Two days before the end of the First World War, with a Bolshevik revolution spreading across the country, a social-democratic politician interrupted his lunch inside the Reichstag, stood at a second-floor balcony, and declared the end of imperial Germany: “Long live the German republic!” The Reichstag was the turbulent seat of parliament through the Weimar era and into the start of Nazi rule, until, on the night of February 27, 1933, a suspicious fire broke out in the session chamber and nearly gutted the building. Germany’s new Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, rushed to the scene with his aide Joseph Goebbels and blamed the fire on the Communists, using the crisis to suspend civil liberties, crush the opposition, and consolidate all power into the Nazi Party. Parliament voted to render itself meaningless, and the Nazis never repaired the damaged building. At the end of the Second World War, the Soviets saw the Reichstag as the symbol of the Third Reich and made it a top target in the Battle for Berlin, laying heavy siege. A photograph of a Red Army soldier raising a Soviet flag amid the neoclassical statuary on the roof became the iconic image of German defeat.
During the Cold War, the Reichstag—its cupola wrecked, its walls bullet-pocked—was an abandoned relic in the no man’s land of central Berlin, just inside the British sector. The Wall, built in 1961, ran a few steps from the back of the building. A minimal renovation in the sixties kept out the elements, but the Reichstag was generally shunned until the Wall came down, in 1989. Then, at midnight on October 3, 1990, President Richard von Weizsäcker stood outside the Reichstag and announced to a crowd of a million people the reunification of Germany, in freedom and peace. Berlin became its capital.
For the next decade, until the Bundestag began convening there officially, the Reichstag was reconstructed in an earnestly debated, self-consciously symbolic manner that said as much about reunified Germany as its ruin had said about the totalitarian years. The magnificent dome, designed by Norman Foster, suggested transparency and openness. The famous words on the colonnaded entrance, “DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE” (“To the German People”)—fabricated out of melted-down French cannons from the Napoleonic Wars and affixed during the First World War—were preserved out of a sense of fidelity to history. But, after parliamentary argument, a German-American artist was commissioned to create a courtyard garden in which the more modest phrase “DER BEVÖLKERUNG”—“To the Populace,” without the nationalistic tone of the older motto—was laid out in white letters amid unruly plantings. During the Reichstag’s reconstruction, workers uncovered graffiti, in Cyrillic script, scrawled by Red Army soldiers on second-floor walls. After another debate, some of these were kept on display as historical reminders: soldiers’ names, “Moscow to Berlin 9/5/45,” even “I fuck Hitler in the ass.”
No other country memorializes its conquerors on the walls of its most important official building. Germany’s crimes were unique, and so is its way of reckoning with the history contained in the Reichstag. By integrating the slogans of victorious Russian soldiers into its parliament building, Germany shows that it has learned essential lessons from its past (ones that the Russians themselves missed). By confronting the twentieth century head on, Germans embrace a narrative of liberating themselves from the worst of their history. In Berlin, reminders are all around you. Get on the U-Bahn at Stadtmitte, between the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the Topography of Terror Gestapo museum, and glance up at the train’s video news ticker: “80 years ago today PEN Club-Berlin forced into exile.” Like a dedicated analysand, Germany has brought its past to the surface, endlessly discussed it, and accepted it, and this work of many years has freed the patient to lead a successful new life.
At the lectern, Merkel continues addressing parliament, recounting a meeting, in Brussels, of the Group of Seven, which has just expelled its eighth member, Russia, over the war in Ukraine. “We will be very persistent when it comes to enforcing freedom, justice, and self-determination on the European continent,” she says. “Our task is to protect Ukraine on its self-determined way, and to meet old-fashioned thinking about spheres of influence from the nineteenth and twentieth century with answers from the global twenty-first century.” Merkel has reached her rhetorical high point—signalled by a slowing of her monotone and a subtle hand gesture, fingers extended. To the non-German speaker, she could be reading out regulatory guidelines for the national rail system.
The Chancellor finishes to sustained applause and takes a seat behind the lectern, among her cabinet ministers. Merkel has lost weight—bedridden last winter after fracturing her pelvis in a cross-country-skiing accident, she gave up sausage sandwiches for chopped carrots and took off twenty pounds—and her slimmer face, with its sunken eyes and longer jowls, betrays her fatigue. She’s been Chancellor since 2005, having won a third term last September, with no challenger in sight.
After the Chancellor, it’s the turn of the opposition to speak—such as it is. The ruling coalition of Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats has eighty per cent of the seats in the Bundestag. The Greens, who did poorly in last year’s election, have had trouble distinguishing their agenda from Merkel’s, and often lend her support. On this day, the role of opposition is left to Die Linke, the leftist party of mostly former East German politicians, which has just ten per cent of parliament. Sahra Wagenknecht, an orthodox Marxist in a brilliant-red suit, steps behind the lectern and berates Merkel for her economic and foreign policies, which, she says, are bringing Fascism back to Europe. “We must stop abusing a highly dangerous, half-hegemonic position that Germany slid into, in the ruthless old German style,” Wagenknecht declares. She then cites the French historian Emmanuel Todd: “Unknowingly, the Germans are on their way to again take their role as bringers of calamity for the other European peoples, and later for themselves.”
Merkel ignores her. She’s laughing about something with her economics minister, Sigmar Gabriel, and her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, both Social Democrats. While Wagenknecht accuses the government of supporting Fascists in Kiev, Merkel gets up to chat with her ministers in the back row. She returns to her seat and rummages in an orange-red leather handbag that clashes with her jacket. When she glances up at Wagenknecht, it’s with a mixture of boredom and contempt.
“We’re finding that the ones we tested perfume and makeup on are extremely attractive to me.”
The speaker ends her jeremiad, and the only people to clap are the members of Die Linke, isolated in the far-left section of the chamber. One by one, Social Democratic and Green parliamentarians come forward to defend Merkel. “How can you connect us Germans to Fascists?” Katrin Göring-Eckardt, a Green leader, asks, to applause. Another woman from Die Linke throws a quote of Bertolt Brecht at Göring-Eckardt: “Who does not know the truth is simply a fool, yet who knows the truth and calls it a lie is a criminal.” Göring-Eckardt is outraged. The vice-president of the Bundestag orders the woman from Die Linke to observe protocol. Merkel keeps ignoring the exchange, at one point turning her back, at another leaving the hall. Later, German news accounts will speak of high drama in the normally drowsy Bundestag, but Merkel’s body language tells the story: the drama has been provided by an insignificant minority. Chancellor Merkel has the parliament under control.
The historian Fritz Stern calls the era of reunification “Germany’s second chance”—a fresh opportunity to be Europe’s preëminent power, after the catastrophic period of aggression that began a century ago. Merkel seems perfectly matched to the demands of this second chance. In a country where passionate rhetoric and macho strutting led to ruin, her analytical detachment and lack of apparent ego are political strengths. On a continent where the fear of Germany is hardly dead, Merkel’s air of ordinariness makes a resurgent Germany seem less threatening. “Merkel has a character that suggests she’s one of us,” Göring-Eckardt told me. Germans call the Chancellor Mutti, or Mommy. The nickname was first applied by Merkel’s rivals in the Christian Democratic Union as an insult, and she didn’t like it, but after Mutti caught on with the public Merkel embraced it.
While most of Europe stagnates, Germany is an economic juggernaut, with low unemployment and a resilient manufacturing base. The ongoing monetary crisis of the euro zone has turned Germany, Europe’s largest creditor nation, into a regional superpower—one of Merkel’s biographers calls her “the Chancellor of Europe.” While America slides into ever-deeper inequality, Germany retains its middle class and a high level of social solidarity. Angry young protesters fill the public squares of countries around the world, but German crowds gather for outdoor concerts and beery World Cup celebrations. Now almost pacifist after its history of militarism, Germany has stayed out of most of the recent wars that have proved punishing and inconclusive for other Western countries. The latest E.U. elections, in May, saw parties on the far left and the far right grow more popular around the Continent, except in Germany, where the winners were the centrists whose bland faces—evoking economics professors and H.R. managers—smiled on campaign posters, none more ubiquitous than that of Merkel, who wasn’t even on the ballot. American politics is so polarized that Congress has virtually stopped functioning; the consensus in Germany is so stable that new laws pour forth from parliament while meaningful debate has almost disappeared.
“The German self-criticism and self-loathing are part of the success story—getting strong by hating yourself,” Mariam Lau, a political correspondent for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, told me. “And Merkel had to reëducate herself, too. She’s part of the self-reëducation of Germany.”
Among German leaders, Merkel is a triple anomaly: a woman (divorced, remarried, no children), a scientist (quantum chemistry), and an Ossi (a product of East Germany). These qualities, though making her an outsider in German politics, also helped to propel her extraordinary rise. Yet some observers, attempting to explain her success, look everywhere but to Merkel herself. “There are some who say what should not be can’t really exist—that a woman from East Germany, who doesn’t have the typical qualities a politician should have, shouldn’t be in this position,” Göring-Eckardt, another woman from East Germany, said. “They don’t want to say she’s just a very good politician.” Throughout her career, Merkel has made older and more powerful politicians, almost all of them men, pay a high price for underestimating her.
Merkel was born in Hamburg, West Germany, in 1954. Her father, Horst Kasner, was an official in the Lutheran Church, one of the few institutions that continued operating in both Germanys after the postwar division of the country. Serious and demanding, he moved the family across the frontier just a few weeks after Angela’s birth—and against his wife’s wishes—to take up ecclesiastical duties in the German Democratic Republic. That year, almost two hundred thousand East Germans fled in the other direction. Kasner’s unusual decision led West German Church officials to call him “the red minister.” Joachim Gauck, a former East German pastor and dissident, who, in 2012, was elected Germany’s largely ceremonial President, once told a colleague that people in the Lutheran Church under Communism knew to stay away from Kasner, a member of the state-controlled Federation of Evangelical Pastors. By most accounts, Kasner’s motives were as much careerist as ideological.
Angela, the oldest of three children, was raised on the outskirts of Templin, a cobblestoned town in the pine forests of Brandenburg, north of Berlin. The Kasners lived in the seminary at Waldhof, a complex of around thirty buildings, many from the nineteenth century, belonging to the Lutheran Church. Waldhof was—and remains—home to several hundred physically and mentally disabled people, who learned trades and grew crops. Ulrich Schoeneich, who managed the estate in the eighties and knew the Kasners, described Waldhof under the East Germans as a grim place, with up to sixty men crammed into a single room, and no furniture except cots. Merkel once recalled seeing some residents strapped to benches, but she also said, “To grow up in the neighborhood of handicapped people was an important experience for me. I learned back then to treat them in a very normal way.”
Merkel’s upbringing in a Communist state was as normal as she could make it. “I never felt that the G.D.R. was my home country,” she told the German photographer Herlinde Koelbl, in 1991. “I have a relatively sunny spirit, and I always had the expectation that my path through life would be relatively sunny, no matter what happened. I have never allowed myself to be bitter. I always used the free room that the G.D.R. allowed me. . . . There was no shadow over my childhood. And later I acted in such a way that I would not have to live in constant conflict with the state.” During her first campaign for Chancellor, in 2005, she described her calculations more bluntly: “I decided that if the system became too terrible, I would have to try to escape. But if it wasn’t too bad then I wouldn’t lead my life in opposition to the system, because I was scared of the damage that would do to me.”
Being the daughter of a Protestant minister from the West carried both privileges and liabilities. The Kasners had two cars: the standard East German Trabant, an underpowered little box that has become the subject of kitschy Ostalgia, and a more luxurious Wartburg, their official church car. The family received clothes and food from relatives in Hamburg, as well as money in the form of “Forum checks,” convertible from Deutsche marks and valid in shops in large East Berlin hotels that sold Western consumer items. “They were élite,” Erika Benn, Merkel’s Russian teacher in Templin, said. But the Church retained enough independence from the state that the Kasners lived under constant suspicion, and during Angela’s childhood religious organizations came to be seen as agents of Western intelligence. In 1994, an official report on repression in East Germany concluded, “The country of Martin Luther was de-Christianized by the end of the G.D.R.”
Angela’s mother, Herlind, suffered the most in the family. An English teacher who imparted her passion for learning to Angela, Herlind wrote to the education authorities every year asking for a job, and every year she was told that nothing was available, even though English teachers were in desperately short supply. “She always felt oppressed by her husband,” Schoeneich, the Waldhof manager, told me.
“All right, buddy, that’ll be a ten-dollar corkage fee.”
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.”
When Angela was in the eighth grade, Benn recruited her for the Russian Club and coached her to compete in East Germany’s Russian-language Olympiad. During skits that the students practiced in the teacher’s tiny parlor, Benn had to exhort her star student to look up and smile while offering another student a glass of water in Russian: “Can’t you be a little more friendly?” Merkel won at every level, from schoolwide to countrywide, a feat that she managed three times, to the glory of Frau Benn, a Party member with small-town ambitions. In her tidy apartment in Templin, Benn, who is seventy-six, proudly showed me a victory certificate from 1969. “I have the Lenin bust in the cellar,” she said. Not long before Horst Kasner died, in 2011, he sent a newspaper clipping to a colleague of Benn’s, with a picture of Merkel standing next to Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin. To Benn’s delight, Putin was quoted expressing his admiration for the first world leader with whom he could converse in his mother tongue.
In 1970, an incident exposed the fragile standing of the bürgerlich Kasner family. At a local Party meeting, the Russian Club’s latest triumph was announced, and Benn expected praise. Instead, the schools supervisor observed acidly, “When the children of farmers and workers win, that will be something.” Benn burst into tears.
Merkel studied physics at Leipzig University and earned a doctorate in quantum chemistry in Berlin. She was allowed to pursue graduate studies, in no small part because she never ran afoul of the ruling party. Ulrich Schoeneich, who became Templin’s mayor after reunification, expressed bitterness to me that Merkel hasn’t been challenged much on her accommodation with the East German system. Schoeneich’s father, Harro, was also a Protestant minister, but, unlike Kasner, he openly dissented from the state. Ulrich Schoeneich refused to join the Free German Youth, the blue-shirted “fighting reserve” of the ruling party which the vast majority of East German teen-agers joined, including Angela Kasner, who participated well into adulthood. “Not just as a dead person in the files but as the officer responsible for agitation and propaganda,” Schoeneich told me, referring to a revelation in a controversial recent biography, “The First Life of Angela M.” He added, “I’m convinced that she could get her doctorate only because she was active in the Free German Youth, even in her postgraduate days. Most people say it was forced, but I demonstrated that you didn’t have to join it.” Merkel herself once admitted that her participation in the Free German Youth was “seventy per cent opportunism.”
Schoeneich wasn’t permitted to finish high school, and he spent much of his early life in the shadow cast by his family’s principled opposition. Angela Kasner had other ideas for her future, and became, at most, a passive opponent of the regime. Evelyn Roll, one of Merkel’s biographers, discovered a Stasi document, dated 1984, that was based on information provided by a friend of Merkel’s. It described Merkel as “very critical toward our state,” and went on, “Since its foundation, she was thrilled by the demands and actions of Solidarity in Poland. Although Angela views the leading role of the Soviet Union as that of a dictatorship which all other socialist countries obey, she is fascinated by the Russian language and the culture of the Soviet Union.”
Rainer Eppelmann, a courageous dissident clergyman under Communism, who got to know Merkel soon after the fall of the Wall, refuses to criticize her. “I don’t judge the ninety-five per cent,” he told me. “Most of them were whisperers. They never said what they thought, what they felt, what they were afraid of. Even today, we’re not completely aware what this did to people.” He added, “In order to be true to your hopes, your ambitions, your beliefs, your dreams, you had to be a hero twenty-four hours a day. And nobody can do this.”
After 1989, when the chance came to participate in democratic politics, these same qualities became useful to Merkel, in a new way. Eppelmann explained, “The whisperer might find it easier to learn in this new life, to wait and see, and not just burst out at once—to think things over before speaking. The whisperer thinks, How can I say this without damaging myself? The whisperer is somebody who might be compared to a chess player. And I have the impression that she thinks things over more carefully and is always a few moves ahead of her competitor.”
In 1977, at twenty-three, Angela married a physicist, Ulrich Merkel, but the union foundered quickly, and she left him in 1981. She spent the final moribund decade of the G.D.R. as a quantum chemist at the East German Academy of Sciences, a gloomy research facility, across from a Stasi barracks, in southeastern Berlin. She co-authored a paper titled “Vibrational Properties of Surface Hydroxyls: Nonempirical Model Calculations Including Anharmonicities.” She was the only woman in the theoretical-chemistry section—a keen observer of others, intensely curious about the world.
People who have followed her career point to Merkel’s scientific habit of mind as a key to her political success. “She is about the best analyst of any given situation that I could imagine,” a senior official in her government said. “She looks at various vectors, extrapolates, and says, ‘This is where I think it’s going.’ ” Trained to see the invisible world in terms of particles and waves, Merkel learned to approach problems methodically, drawing comparisons, running scenarios, weighing risks, anticipating reactions, and then, even after making a decision, letting it sit for a while before acting. She once told a story from her childhood of standing on a diving board for the full hour of a swimming lesson until, at the bell, she finally jumped.
Scientific detachment and caution under dictatorship can be complementary traits, and in Merkel’s case they were joined by the reticence, tinged with irony, of a woman navigating a man’s world. She once joked to the tabloid Bild Zeitung, with double-edged self-deprecation, “The men in the laboratory always had their hands on all the buttons at the same time. I couldn’t keep up with this, because I was thinking. And then things suddenly went ‘poof,’ and the equipment was destroyed.” Throughout her career, Merkel has made a virtue of biding her time and keeping her mouth shut.
“She’s not a woman of strong emotions,” Bernd Ulrich, the deputy editor of Die Zeit, said. “Too much emotion disturbs your reason. She watches politics like a scientist.” He called her “a learning machine.” Volker Schlöndorff, the director of “The Tin Drum” and other films, got to know Merkel in the years just after reunification. “Before you contradict her, you would think twice—she has the authority of somebody who knows that she’s right,” he said. “Once she has an opinion, it seems to be founded, whereas I tend to have opinions that I have to revise frequently.”
Every morning, Merkel took the S-Bahn to the Academy of Sciences from her apartment in Prenzlauer Berg, a bohemian neighborhood near the city center. For several stretches, her train ran parallel to the Wall, the rooftops of West Berlin almost in reach. Sometimes she commuted with a colleague, Michael Schindhelm. “You were confronted every day, from the morning on, with the absurdity of this city,” he told me. Schindhelm found Merkel to be the most serious researcher in the theoretical-chemistry section, frustrated by her lack of access to Western publications and scientists. Whenever her colleagues left the building to cheer the motorcade of a high-profile guest from the Communist world on its way from Schönefeld Airport, she stayed behind. “She really wanted to achieve something,” Schindhelm said. “Others just liked sitting in that comfortable niche while the country went down the drain.”
“You know how some writers are known as a ‘writer’s writer’? I’m what’s known as a driving instructor.”
In 1984, Schindhelm and Merkel began sharing an office and, over Turkish coffee that she made, became close. They both had a fairly critical view of the East German state. Schindhelm had spent five years studying in the Soviet Union, and when news of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika policy seeped into East Germany, through West German television, Merkel questioned him about the potential for fundamental change. They both felt that the world on the other side of the Wall was more desirable than their own. (Years later, Schindhelm, who became a theatre and opera director, was revealed to have been coerced by the Stasi into serving as an informer, though he apparently never betrayed anyone.)
One day in 1985, Merkel showed up at the office with the text of a speech by the West German President, Richard von Weizsäcker, given on the fortieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Weizsäcker spoke with unprecedented honesty about Germany’s responsibility for the Holocaust and declared the country’s defeat a day of liberation. He expressed a belief that Germans, in facing their past, could redefine their identity and future. In the West, the speech became a landmark on the country’s return to civilization. But in East Germany, where ideology had twisted the history of the Third Reich beyond recognition, the speech was virtually unknown. Merkel had procured a rare copy through her connections in the Church, and she was deeply struck by it.
Being an East German meant retaining faith in the idea of Germany even though many West Germans, who needed it less, had given up on reunification. As East Germany decayed, its citizens had nothing else to hold on to, whereas Westerners had been taught to suppress feelings of nationhood. “People were really lacking identity—there was an enormous vacuum to making sense of your existence,” Schindhelm said. Merkel’s excitement about the speech showed that “she had a very particular passion for Germany as a country, its history and culture.”
The next year, Merkel was granted permission to travel to Hamburg for a cousin’s wedding. After riding the miraculously comfortable trains through West Germany, she returned to East Berlin convinced that the socialist system was doomed. “She came back very impressed, but she came back,” Schindhelm said. “She stayed not out of loyalty to the state but because she had her network there, her family.” Merkel, in her early thirties, was looking forward to 2014—when she would turn sixty, collect her state pension, and be allowed to travel to California.
Merkel’s second life began on the night of November 9, 1989. Instead of joining the delirious throngs pouring through the Wall, which had just been opened, she took her regular Thursday-evening sauna with a friend. Later, she crossed into the West with a crowd at the Bornholmer Strasse checkpoint, but instead of continuing with other Ossis to the upscale shopping district of Kurfürstendamm she returned home, in order to get up for work in the morning. Her actions on that momentous night have been ridiculed as a sign of banality and a lack of feeling. But, in the following months, no East German seized the new freedoms with more fervor than Merkel. Few irreducible principles have been evident in her political career, but one of them is the right to the pursuit of happiness. “There aren’t many feelings that she’s really into, but liberty and freedom are very important,” Göring-Eckardt, the Green leader, said. “And this is, of course, linked to the experience of growing up in a society where newspapers were censored, books were banned, travel was forbidden.”
A month after the Wall fell, Merkel visited the offices of a new political group called Democratic Awakening, which were near her apartment. “Can I help you?” she asked. She was soon put to work setting up the office computers, which had been donated by the West German government. She kept coming back, though at first hardly anyone noticed her. It was the kind of fluid moment when things happen quickly and chance and circumstance can make all the difference. In March, 1990, the leader of Democratic Awakening, Wolfgang Schnur, was exposed as a Stasi informer, and at an emergency board meeting Rainer Eppelmann, the dissident clergyman, was chosen to replace him. Merkel was asked to handle the noisy crowd of journalists outside the door, and she did it with such calm assurance that, after the East German elections that March, Eppelmann suggested Merkel as a spokesman for the country’s first and last democratically elected Prime Minister, Lothar de Maizière.
“She was fleissig—the opposite of lazy,” Eppelmann recalled. “She never put herself in the foreground. She understood that she had to do a job here and do it well, but not to be the chief. Lothar de Maizière was the chief.” De Maizière already had a spokesman, so Merkel became the deputy. “The No. 1 press speaker showed off while she did all the work,” Eppelmann said. In this way, she earned de Maizière’s trust, and he brought her with him on visits to foreign capitals. He once described Merkel as looking like “a typical G.D.R. scientist,” wearing “a baggy skirt and Jesus sandals and a cropped haircut.” After one foreign trip, he asked his office manager to take her clothes shopping.
In the early nineties, Volker Schlöndorff began attending monthly dinners with a small group that included Merkel and her partner, Joachim Sauer, another scientist. (They married in 1998.) Some participants were from the East, others from the West; at each meal, the host would narrate his or her upbringing, illuminating what life was like on one side of the divide. Schlöndorff found Merkel to be an earnest but witty conversation partner. One evening, at the extremely modest country house that Merkel and Sauer had built, near Templin, she and Schlöndorff went for a walk through the fields. “We spoke about Germany, what it is going to become,” Schlöndorff recalled. “I was trying irony and sarcasm, which didn’t take with her at all. It was as if she were saying, ‘Come on, be serious, matters not to be joked about.’ ”
Merkel’s decision to enter politics is the central mystery of an opaque life. She rarely speaks publicly about herself and has never explained her decision. It wasn’t a long-term career plan—like most Germans, she didn’t foresee the abrupt collapse of Communism and the opportunities it created. But when the moment came, and Merkel found herself single and childless in her mid-thirties—and laboring in an East German institution with no future—a woman of her ambition must have grasped that politics would be the most dynamic realm of the new Germany. And, as Schlöndorff dryly put it, “With a certain hesitation, she seized the day.”
Reunification really meant annexation of the East by the West, which required giving East Germans top government positions. Merkel’s gender and youth made her an especially appealing option. In October, 1990, she won a seat in the new Bundestag, in Bonn, the first capital of reunified Germany. She got herself introduced to Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and de Maizière suggested that Kohl bring her into his cabinet. To Merkel’s surprise, she was named minister of women and youth—a job, she admitted to a journalist, in which she had no interest. She wasn’t a feminist politician, nor was economic parity for the former East her cause. She had no political agenda at all. According to Karl Feldmeyer, the political correspondent for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, what drove Merkel was “her perfect instinct for power, which, for me, is the main characteristic of this politician.”
Kohl, then at his height as a statesman, presented Merkel to foreign dignitaries as a curiosity, belittling her by calling her “mein Mädchen”—his girl. She had to be taught how to use a credit card. Cabinet meetings were dominated by Kohl, and though Merkel was always well prepared, she seldom spoke. But inside her ministry Merkel was respected for her efficient absorption of information, and feared for her directness and temper. According to her biographer Evelyn Roll, she acquired the nickname Angie the Snake, and a reputation for accepting little criticism. When, in 1994, Merkel was given the environment portfolio, she quickly fired the ministry’s top civil servant after he suggested that she would need his help running things.
“Yes, but know it’s a recliner.”
In 1991, Herlinde Koelbl, the photographer, began taking pictures of Merkel and other German politicians for a study called “Traces of Power.” Her idea was to see how life in the public eye changed them in the course of a decade. Most of the men, such as Gerhard Schröder, a Social Democrat who became Chancellor in 1998, and Joschka Fischer, who became his foreign minister, seemed to swell with self-importance. Merkel remained herself, Koelbl told me: “in her body language, a bit awkward.” But, she added, “You could feel her strength at the beginning.” In the first portrait, she has her chin slightly lowered and looks up at the camera—not exactly shy, but watchful. Subsequent pictures display growing confidence. During the sessions, Merkel was always in a hurry, never making small talk. “Schröder and Fischer, they are vain,” Koelbl said. “Merkel is not vain—still. And that helped her, because if you’re vain you are subjective. If you’re not vain, you are more objective.”
Democratic politics was a West German game, and Merkel had to learn how to play it in the methodical way that she had learned how to command her body as a “little movement idiot” of five. She became such an assiduous student that some colleagues from the former East found it unsettling. Petra Pau, a senior member of the Bundestag from Die Linke, once caught Merkel saying “we West Germans.” But what made Merkel a potentially transformative figure in German politics was that, below the surface, she didn’t belong. She joined the Christian Democratic Union after Democratic Awakening merged with it, ahead of the 1990 elections; the C.D.U. was more hospitable than the Social Democrats were to liberal-minded East Germans. But the C.D.U. was also a stodgy patriarchy whose base was in the Catholic south. “She never became mentally a part of the C.D.U., until now,” Feldmeyer, of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, said. “She is strange to everything in the Party. It is only a function of her power, nothing else.”
Alan Posener, of the conservative newspaper Die Welt, told me, “The things that motivate the heartland of the C.D.U. don’t mean a thing to her”—concerns about “working mothers, gay marriage, immigration, divorce.” The same was true of the transatlantic alliance with America, the cornerstone of West German security: Posener said that she studied its details in “the C.D.U. manual.” Michael Naumann, a book publisher and journalist who served as culture minister under Schröder, said, “Her attitude toward the United States is a learned attitude.” Dirk Kurbjuweit, a biographer of Merkel and a correspondent for Der Spiegel, said, “Merkel really is a friend of freedom, because she suffered under not being free in the G.D.R. But in the other way she’s a learned democrat—not a born democrat, like Americans.”
West German politicians of Merkel’s generation were shaped by the culture wars that followed the upheavals of 1968, which didn’t touch her at all. Over dinner one night in the mid-nineties, Merkel asked Schlöndorff, a former radical, to explain the violence perpetrated by the Baader-Meinhof Group. He told her that young people had needed to break with the authoritarian culture that had never been repudiated in West Germany after the defeat of the Nazis. The more he explained, the less Merkel seemed to sympathize—she wasn’t against authority, just the East German kind. What did kids in the West have to protest about? She didn’t always hide a feeling that West Germans were like spoiled children.
For all the catching up Merkel had to do in her political education, being East German gave her advantages: she had learned self-discipline, strength of will, and silence as essential tools. Feldmeyer said, “The G.D.R. shaped her in such an extreme and strong way as no one who grew up in the Federal Republic can imagine. Everything was a question of survival, and it was impossible to make errors if you wanted to succeed.”
Early in her career, Merkel hired a young C.D.U. worker named Beate Baumann to run her office. Baumann, who remains her most influential adviser, was the perfect No. 2—loyal, discreet to the vanishing point, and, according to some insiders, the only aide who addressed the boss with complete candor. “Baumann could not be a politician, and Merkel didn’t know the West,” Bernd Ulrich, of Die Zeit, who knows both women well, told me. “So Baumann was her interpreter for everything that was typically West German.” Fed up with Kohl’s smug bullying, the two women practiced a form of “invisible cruelty”: they played hardball but relished their victories privately, without celebrating in public and making unnecessary enemies. Their style, Ulrich said, is “not ‘House of Cards.’ ” On one rare occasion, Merkel bared her teeth. In 1996, during negotiations over a nuclear-waste law, Gerhard Schröder, two years away from becoming Chancellor, called her performance as environment minister “pitiful.” In her interview with Herlinde Koelbl that year, Merkel said, “I will put him in the corner, just like he did with me. I still need time, but one day the time will come for this, and I am already looking forward.” It took nine years for her to make good on the promise.
In 1998, amid a recession, Schröder defeated Kohl and became Chancellor. The next summer, Volker Schlöndorff, at a garden party outside his home, in Potsdam, introduced Merkel to a movie producer, half-jokingly calling her “Germany’s first female Chancellor.” Merkel shot Schlöndorff a look, as if he had called her bluff—How dare you?—which convinced him that she actually wanted the job. The producer, a C.D.U. member, was incredulous. Schlöndorff said, “These guys whose party had been in power forever could not imagine that a woman could be Chancellor—and from East Germany, no less.”
In November, 1999, the C.D.U. was engulfed by a campaign-finance scandal, with charges of undisclosed cash donations and secret bank accounts. Kohl and his successor as Party chairman, Wolfgang Schäuble, were both implicated, but Kohl was so revered that nobody in the Party dared to criticize him. Merkel, who had risen to secretary-general after the C.D.U.’s electoral defeat, saw opportunity. She telephoned Karl Feldmeyer. “I would like to give some comments to you in your newspaper,” she said.
“Do you know what you want to say?” Feldmeyer asked.
“I’ve written it down.”
Feldmeyer suggested that, instead of doing an interview, she publish an opinion piece. Five minutes later, a fax came through, and Feldmeyer read it with astonishment. Merkel, a relatively new figure in the C.D.U., was calling for the Party to break with its longtime leader. “The Party must learn to walk now and dare to engage in future battles with its political opponents without its old warhorse, as Kohl has often enjoyed calling himself,” Merkel wrote. “We who now have responsibility for the Party, and not so much Helmut Kohl, will decide how to approach the new era.” She published the piece without warning the tainted Schäuble, the Party chairman. In a gesture that mixed Protestant righteousness with ruthlessness, Kohl’s Mädchen was cutting herself off from her political father and gambling her career in a naked bid to supplant him. She succeeded. Within a few months, Merkel had been elected Party chairman. Kohl receded into history. “She put the knife in his back—and turned it twice,” Feldmeyer said. That was the moment when many Germans first became aware of Angela Merkel.
Years later, Michael Naumann sat next to Kohl at a dinner, and asked him, “Herr Kohl, what exactly does she want?”
“Power,” Kohl said, tersely. He told another friend that championing young Merkel had been the biggest mistake of his life. “I brought my killer,” Kohl said. “I put the snake on my arm.”
In 2002, Merkel found herself on the verge of losing a Party vote that would determine the C.D.U.’s candidate for Chancellor in elections that fall. She hastily arranged a breakfast with her rival, the Bavarian leader Edmund Stoiber, in his home town. Disciplined enough to control her own ambitions, Merkel told Stoiber that she was withdrawing in his favor. Schlöndorff sent her a note saying, in effect, “Smart move.” By averting a loss that would have damaged her future within the Party, Merkel ended up in a stronger position. Stoiber lost to Schröder, and Merkel went on to outmaneuver a series of male heavyweights from the West, waiting for them to make a mistake or eat one another up, before getting rid of each with a little shove.
John Kornblum, a former U.S. Ambassador to Germany, who still lives in Berlin, said, “If you cross her, you end up dead. There’s nothing cushy about her. There’s a whole list of alpha males who thought they would get her out of the way, and they’re all now in other walks of life.” On Merkel’s fiftieth birthday, in 2004, a conservative politician named Michael Glos published a tribute:
Careful: unpretentiousness can be a weapon! . . . One of the secrets of the success of Angela Merkel is that she knows how to deal with vain men. She knows you shoot a mountain cock best when it’s courting a hen. Angela Merkel is a patient hunter of courting mountain cocks. With the patience of an angel, she waits for her moment.
German politics was entering a new era. As the country became more “normal,” it no longer needed domineering father figures as leaders. “Merkel was lucky to live in a period when macho was in decline,” Ulrich said. “The men didn’t notice and she did. She didn’t have to fight them—it was an aikido politics.” Ulrich added, “If she knows anything, she knows her macho. She has them for her cereal.” Merkel’s physical haplessness, combined with her emotional opacity, made it hard for her rivals to recognize the threat she posed. “She’s very difficult to know, and that is a reason for her success,” the longtime political associate said. “It seems she is not from this world. Psychologically, she gives everybody the feeling of ‘I will take care of you.’ ”
When Schröder called early elections in 2005, Merkel became the C.D.U.’s candidate for Chancellor. In the politics of macho, Schröder and Fischer—working-class street fighters who loved political argument and expensive wine, with seven ex-wives between them—were preëminent. The two men despised Merkel, and the sentiment was reciprocated. According to Dirk Kurbjuweit, of Der Spiegel, Schröder and Fischer sometimes laughed “like boys on the playground” when Merkel gave speeches in the Bundestag. In 2001, after photographs were published of Fischer assaulting a policeman as a young militant in the seventies, Merkel denounced him, saying that he would be unfit for public life until he “atoned”—a comment that many Germans found strident. During the 2005 campaign, Fischer said in private talks that Merkel was incapable of doing the job.
At the time, Schröder’s Social Democrats ruled in a coalition with the Greens, and the public had grown weary of prolonged economic stagnation. Through most of the campaign, the C.D.U. held a large lead, but the Social Democrats closed the gap, and on Election Night the two parties were virtually tied in the popular vote. Alan Posener, of Die Welt, saw Merkel that night at Party headquarters—she seemed deflated, flanked by C.D.U. politicians she had once disposed of, who didn’t conceal their glee. Merkel had made two near-fatal mistakes. First, just before the Iraq War—unpopular in Germany, and repudiated by Schröder—she had published an op-ed in the Washington Post titled “Schroeder Doesn’t Speak for All Germans,” in which she stopped just short of supporting war. “One more sentence for Bush and against Schröder, and she would not be Chancellor today,” Ulrich said. Second, many of her advisers were free-market proponents who advocated changes to the tax code and to labor policies which went far beyond what German voters would accept. After fifteen years, she still didn’t have a fingertip feel for public opinion.
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.
Those who know Merkel say that she is as lively and funny in private as she is publicly soporific—a split in self-presentation that she learned as a young East German. (Through her spokesman, Merkel, who gives few interviews—almost always to German publications, and all anodyne—declined to speak to me.) In off-the-record conversations with German journalists, she replays entire conversations with other world leaders, performing wicked imitations. Among her favorite targets have been Kohl, Putin, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, former Pope Benedict XVI, and Al Gore. (“Ah have to teach mah people,” she mimics, in a Prussian approximation of central Tennessee.) After one meeting with Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, during the euro crisis, she told a group of journalists that Sarkozy’s foot had been nervously jiggling the entire time.
Schlöndorff once asked Merkel what she and other leaders discuss during photo ops. The Chancellor described one such moment with Dmitri Medvedev, who briefly interrupted Putin’s fifteen-year reign as Russia’s President. She and Medvedev were posing for the cameras in Sochi when, gesturing toward the Black Sea, she said, in the Russian she had learned from Frau Benn, “President Putin told me that every morning he swims a thousand metres out there. Do you do things like that?” Medvedev replied, “I swim fifteen hundred metres.” To Schlöndorff, the story showed that, “even when she is involved, she is never so totally involved that she could not observe the way people behave and be somehow amused by it.”
“She is a master of listening,” the longtime political associate said. “In a conversation, she speaks twenty per cent, you speak eighty per cent. She gives everybody the feeling ‘I want to hear what you have to say,’ but the truth is that her judgment is made within three minutes, and sometimes she thinks another eighteen minutes are wasted time. She is like a computer—‘Is this possible, what this man proposes?’ She’s able in a very quick time to realize if it’s fantasy.”
Nor is she above embarrassing her minions. Once, in a hotel room in Vienna, in the company of Chancellery aides and foreign-ministry officials, Merkel was telling comical stories of camping trips she’d taken as a student. Her aides fell over themselves laughing, until Merkel cut them short: “I’ve told you this before.” The aides insisted that they’d never heard the stories before, but it didn’t matter: Madame Chancellor was calling them sycophants. After last year’s elections, she met with the Social Democratic leader, Sigmar Gabriel, who is now her economics minister. Gabriel introduced Merkel to one of his aides, saying, “He’s been keeping an eye on me for the past few years. He makes sure I don’t do anything stupid in public.” Merkel shot back, “And sometimes it’s worked.”
“Schadenfreude is Merkel’s way of having fun,” Kurbjuweit said.
Throughout her Chancellorship, Merkel has stayed as close as possible to German public opinion. Posener said that, after nearly losing to Schröder, she told herself, “I’m going to be all things to all people.” Critics and supporters alike describe her as a gifted tactician without a larger vision. Kornblum, the former Ambassador, once asked a Merkel adviser about her long-term view. “The Chancellor’s long-term view is about two weeks,” the adviser replied. The pejorative most often used against her is “opportunist.” When I asked Katrin Göring-Eckardt, the Green leader, whether Merkel had any principles, she paused, then said, “She has a strong value of freedom, and everything else is negotiable.” (Other Germans added firm support for Israel to the list.)
“Wait for it.”
“People say there’s no project, there’s no idea,” the senior official told me. “It’s just a zigzag of smart moves for nine years.” But, he added, “She would say that the times are not conducive to great visions.” Americans don’t like to think of our leaders as having no higher principles. We want at least a suggestion of the “vision thing”—George H. W. Bush’s derisive term, for which he was derided. But Germany remains so traumatized by the grand ideologies of its past that a politics of no ideas has a comforting allure.
The most daunting challenge of Merkel’s time in office has been the euro-zone crisis, which threatened to bring down economies across southern Europe and jeopardized the integrity of the euro. To Merkel, the crisis confirmed that grand visions can be dangerous. Kohl, who thought in historical terms, had tied Germany to a European currency without a political union that could make it work. “It’s now a machine from hell,” the senior official said. “She’s still trying to repair it.”
Merkel’s decisions during the crisis reflect the calculations of a politician more mindful of her constituency than of her place in history. When Greek debt was revealed to be at critical levels, she was slow to commit German taxpayers’ money to a bailout fund, and in 2011 she blocked a French and American proposal for coördinated European action. Germany had by far the strongest economy in Europe, with a manufacturing base and robust exports that benefitted from the weakening of the euro. Under Schröder, Germany had instituted reforms in labor and welfare policies that made the country more competitive, and Merkel arrived just in time to reap the benefit. Throughout the crisis, Merkel buried herself in the economic details and refused to get out in front of what German voters—who tended to regard the Greeks as spendthrift and lazy—would accept, even if delaying prolonged the ordeal and, at key moments from late 2011 through the summer of 2012, threatened the euro itself. The novelist and journalist Peter Schneider compared her to a driver in foggy weather: “You only see five metres, not one hundred metres, so it’s better you are very careful, you don’t say too much, you act from step to step. No vision at all.”
Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who was Germany’s defense minister between 2009 and 2011, said that Merkel took a “Machiavellian” approach to the crisis. She had the stamina to keep her options open as long as possible, and then veiled her decisions behind “the cloud of complexity.” Guttenberg said, “This made it easier for her to change her mind several times rather dramatically, but at the time no one noticed at all.” In the end, under pressure from other European leaders and President Obama, Merkel endorsed a plan for the European Central Bank to prevent Greek sovereign default by buying bonds—much as the Federal Reserve had done during the U.S. financial crisis. In exchange, the countries of southern Europe submitted to strict budget rules and E.U. oversight of their central banks. Merkel realized that she could not allow the euro-zone crisis to capsize the project of European unity. “If the euro falls, then Europe falls,” she declared. The euro was saved, but at the price of ruinous austerity policies and high unemployment. Across much of Europe, Merkel—that Protestant minister’s daughter—is resented as a rigid, self-righteous puritan, while support for the E.U. has fallen to historic lows.
Merkel’s commitment to a united Europe is not that of an idealist. Rather, it comes from her sense of German interest—a soft form of nationalism that reflects the country’s growing confidence and strength. The historic German problem, which Henry Kissinger described as being “too big for Europe, too small for the world,” can be overcome only by keeping Europe together. Kurbjuweit said, “She needs Europe because—this is hard to say, but it’s true—Europe makes Germany bigger.”
Yet Merkel’s austerity policies have helped make Europe weaker, and Europe’s weakness has begun affecting Germany, whose export-driven economy depends on its neighbors for markets. The German economy has slowed this year, while European growth is anemic. Nevertheless, Germany remains committed to a balanced budget in 2015, its first since 1969, and is standing in the way of a euro-zone monetary policy of stimulating growth by buying up debt. In recent weeks, with global markets falling, a divide has opened between Merkel and other European leaders.
After 2005, Merkel had to mute her free-market thinking at home in order to preserve her political viability. Instead, she exported the ideas to the rest of the Continent, applying them with no apparent regard for macroeconomic conditions, as if the virtues of thrift and discipline constituted the mission of a resurgent Germany in Europe. Merkel is obsessed with demography and economic competitiveness. She loves reading charts. In September, one of her senior aides showed me a stack of them that the Chancellor had just been examining; they showed the relative performance of different European economies across a variety of indicators. In unit-labor costs, he pointed out, Germany lies well below the euro-zone average. But the population of Germany—the largest of any nation in Europe—is stagnant and aging. “A country like that cannot run up more and more debt,” the senior aide said.
Stefan Reinecke, of the left-wing daily Die Tageszeitung, said, “Half an hour into every speech she gives, when everyone has fallen asleep, she says three things. She says Europe has just seven per cent of the world’s people, twenty-five per cent of the economic output, but fifty per cent of the social welfare—and we have to change this.” Merkel frets that Germany has no Silicon Valley. “There’s no German Facebook, no German Amazon,” her senior aide said. “There is this German tendency, which you can see in Berlin: we’re so affluent that we assume we always will be, even though we don’t know where it will come from. Completely complacent.”
It makes Germans acutely uneasy that their country is too strong while Europe is too weak, but Merkel never discusses the problem. Joschka Fischer—who has praised Merkel on other issues—criticizes this silence. “Intellectually, it’s a big, big challenge to transform national strength into European strength,” he said. “And the majority of the political and economic élite in Germany has not a clue about that, including the Chancellor.”
The two world leaders with whom Merkel has her most important and complex relationships are Obama, who has won her reluctant respect, and Putin, who has earned her deep distrust. When the Wall fell, Putin was a K.G.B. major stationed in Dresden. He used his fluent German and a pistol to keep a crowd of East Germans from storming the K.G.B. bureau and looting secret files, which he then destroyed. Twelve years later, a far more conciliatory Putin, by then Russia’s President, addressed the Bundestag “in the language of Goethe, Schiller, and Kant,” declaring that “Russia is a friendly-minded European country” whose “main goal is a stable peace on this continent.” Putin praised democracy and denounced totalitarianism, receiving an ovation from an audience that included Merkel.
After decades of war, destruction, and occupation, German-Russian relations returned to the friendlier dynamic that had prevailed before the twentieth century. German policymakers spoke of a “strategic partnership” and a “rapprochement through economic interlocking.” In 2005, Schröder approved the construction of a gas pipeline that crossed the Baltic Sea into Russia. He and Putin developed a friendship, with Schröder calling Putin a “flawless democrat.” In the past decade, Germany has become one of Russia’s largest trading partners, and Russia now provides Germany with forty per cent of its gas. Two hundred thousand Russian citizens live in Germany, and Russia has extensive connections inside the German business community and in the Social Democratic Party.
As a Russian speaker who hitchhiked through the Soviet republics in her youth, Merkel has a feel for Russia’s aspirations and resentments which Western politicians lack. In her office, there’s a framed portrait of Catherine the Great, the Prussian-born empress who led Russia during a golden age in the eighteenth century. But, as a former East German, Merkel has few illusions about Putin. After Putin’s speech at the Bundestag, Merkel told a colleague, “This is typical K.G.B. talk. Never trust this guy.” Ulrich, of Die Zeit, said, “She’s always been skeptical of Putin, but she doesn’t detest him. Detesting would be too much emotion.”
“According to the map, the treasure should be right behind this door.”
When Putin and Merkel meet, they sometimes speak in German (he’s better in her language than she is in his), and Putin corrects his own interpreter to let Merkel know that nothing is lost on him. Putin’s brand of macho elicits in Merkel a kind of scientific empathy. In 2007, during discussions about energy supplies at the Russian President’s residence in Sochi, Putin summoned his black Lab, Koni, into the room where he and Merkel were seated. As the dog approached and sniffed her, Merkel froze, visibly frightened. She’d been bitten once, in 1995, and her fear of dogs couldn’t have escaped Putin, who sat back and enjoyed the moment, legs spread wide. “I’m sure it will behave itself,” he said. Merkel had the presence of mind to reply, in Russian, “It doesn’t eat journalists, after all.” The German press corps was furious on her behalf—“ready to hit Putin,” according to a reporter who was present. Later, Merkel interpreted Putin’s behavior. “I understand why he has to do this—to prove he’s a man,” she told a group of reporters. “He’s afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this.”
In early 2008, when President George W. Bush sought to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, Merkel blocked the move out of concern for Russia’s reaction and because it could cause destabilization along Europe’s eastern edge. Later that year, after Russia invaded two regions of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Merkel changed her position and expressed openness to Georgia’s joining NATO. She remained careful to balance European unity, the alliance with America, German business interests, and continued engagement with Russia. Kaiser Wilhelm I is supposed to have remarked that only Bismarck, who tied Germany to a set of countervailing alliances, could juggle four or five balls. Bismarck’s successor, Leo von Caprivi, complained that he could barely manage two, and in 1890 he ended Germany’s treaty with Russia, helping set the stage for the First World War.
When, this past March, Russia annexed Crimea and incited a separatist war in eastern Ukraine, it fell to Merkel to succeed where earlier German leaders had catastrophically failed.
The Russian aggression in Ukraine stunned the history-haunted, rule-upholding Germans. “Putin surprised everyone,” including Merkel, her senior aide told me. “The swiftness, the brutality, the coldheartedness. It’s just so twentieth century—the tanks, the propaganda, the agents provocateurs.”
Suddenly, everyone in Berlin was reading Christopher Clark’s “The Sleepwalkers,” about the origins of the First World War. The moral that many Germans drew was to tread carefully—small fires could quickly turn into conflagrations. During a discussion about the First World War with students at the German Historical Museum, Merkel said, “I am regarded as a permanent delayer sometimes, but I think it is essential and extremely important to take people along and really listen to them in political talks.”
Merkel ruled out military options, yet declared that Russia’s actions were unacceptable—territorial integrity was an inviolable part of Europe’s postwar order—and required a serious Western response. For the first time in her Chancellorship, she didn’t have the public with her. In early polls, a plurality of Germans wanted Merkel to take a middle position between the West and Russia. A substantial minority—especially in the former East—sympathized with Russia’s claim that NATO expansion had pushed Putin to act defensively, and that Ukrainian leaders in Kiev were Fascist thugs. Helmut Schmidt, the Social Democratic former Chancellor, expressed some of these views, as did Gerhard Schröder—who had become a paid lobbyist for a company controlled by the Russian state oil-and-gas giant Gazprom, and who celebrated his seventieth birthday with Putin, in St. Petersburg, a month after Russia annexed Crimea. The attitude of Schmidt and Schröder deeply embarrassed the Social Democrats.
A gap opened up between élite and popular opinion: newspapers editorializing for a hard line against Russia were inundated with critical letters. Merkel, true to form, did nothing to try to close the divide. For most Germans, the crisis inspired a combination of indifference and anxiety. Ukraine was talked about, if at all, as a far-off place, barely a part of Europe (not as the victim of huge German crimes in the Second World War). Germans resented having their beautiful sleep disturbed. “The majority want peace and to live a comfortable life,” Alexander Rahr, a Russian energy expert who advises the German oil-and-gas company Wintershall, said. “They don’t want conflict or a new Cold War. For this, they wish the U.S. would stay away from Europe. If Russia wants Ukraine, which not so many people have sympathy with, let them have it.” In a way, Germany’s historical guilt—which includes more than twenty million Soviet dead in the Second World War—adds to the country’s passivity. A sense of responsibility for the past demands that Germany do nothing in the present. Ulrich, of Die Zeit, expressed the point brutally: “We once killed so much—therefore, we can’t die today.”
Germans and Russians are bound together by such terrible memories that any suggestion of conflict leads straight to the unthinkable. Michael Naumann put the Ukraine crisis in the context of “this enormous emotional nexus between perpetrator and victim,” one that leaves Germans perpetually in the weaker position. In 1999, Naumann, at that time the culture minister under Schröder, tried to negotiate the return of five million artifacts taken out of East Germany by the Russians after the Second World War. During the negotiations, he and his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Gubenko, shared their stories. Naumann, who was born in 1941, lost his father a year later, at the Battle of Stalingrad. Gubenko was also born in 1941, and his father was also killed in action. Five months later, Gubenko’s mother was hanged by the Germans.
“Checkmate,” the Russian told the German. Both men cried.
“There was nothing to negotiate,” Naumann recalled. “He said, ‘We will not give anything back, as long as I live.’ ”
Merkel takes a characteristically unsentimental view of Russia. Alexander Lambsdorff, a German member of the European Parliament, said, “She thinks of Russia as a traditional hegemonic power that was subdued for a while and now has reëmerged.” Ukraine forced Merkel into a juggling act worthy of Bismarck, and she began spending two or three hours daily on the crisis. Publicly, she said little, waiting for Russian misbehavior to bring the German public around. She needed to keep her coalition in the Bundestag on board, including the more pro-Russian Social Democrats. And she had to hold Europe together, which meant staying in close touch with twenty-seven other leaders and understanding each one’s constraints: how sanctions on Russia would affect London’s financial markets; whether the French would agree to suspend delivery of amphibious assault ships already sold to the Russians; whether Poland and the Baltic states felt assured of NATO’s support; the influence of Russian propaganda in Greece; Bulgaria’s dependence on Russian gas. For sanctions to bite, Europe had to remain united.
Merkel also needed to keep open her channel to Putin. Even after the E.U. passed its first round of sanctions, in March, it was not German policy to isolate Russia—the two countries are too enmeshed. Merkel is Putin’s most important interlocutor in the West; they talk every week, if not more often. “She’s talked to Putin more than Obama, Hollande, and Cameron combined have over these past months,” the senior official said. “She has a way of talking to him that nobody has. Cameron and Hollande call him to be able to say they’re world leaders and had the conversation.” Merkel can be tough to the point of unpleasantness, while offering Putin ways out of his own mess. Above all, she tries to understand how he thinks. “With Russia now, when one feels very angry I force myself to talk regardless of my feelings,” she said at the German Historical Museum. “And every time I do this I am surprised at how many other views you can have on a matter which I find totally clear. Then I have to deal with those views, and this can also trigger something new.” Soon after the annexation of Crimea, Merkel reportedly told Obama that Putin was living “in another world.” She set about bringing him back to reality.
A German official told me, “The Chancellor thinks Putin believes that we’re decadent, we’re gay, we have women with beards”—a reference to Conchita Wurst, an Austrian drag queen who won the 2014 Eurovision song contest. “That it’s a strong Russia of real men versus the decadent West that’s too pampered, too spoiled, to stand up for their beliefs if it costs them one per cent of their standard of living. That’s his wager. We have to prove it’s not true.” It’s true enough that, if Merkel were to make a ringing call to defend Western values against Russian aggression, her domestic support would evaporate. When eight members of a European observer group, including four Germans, were taken hostage by pro-Russian separatists in April—practically a casus belli, had they been Americans—the German government simply asked Putin to work for their release. Merkel was playing the game that had been successful for her in German politics: waiting for her adversary to self-destruct.
On at least one phone call, Putin lied to Merkel, something that he hadn’t done in the past. In May, after Ukrainian separatists organized a widely denounced referendum, the official Russian statement was more positive than the stance that Merkel believed she and Putin had agreed on in advance. She cancelled their call for the following week—she had been misled, and wanted him to sense her anger. “The Russians were stunned,” the senior official said. “How could she cut the link?” Germany was the one country that Russia could not afford to lose. Karl-Georg Wellmann, a member of parliament from Merkel’s party, who sits on the foreign-affairs committee, said that, as the crisis deepened and Germans began pulling capital out of Russia, Kremlin officials privately told their German counterparts that they wanted a way out: “We went too far—what can we do?” In Moscow restaurants, after the third vodka, the Russians would raise the ghosts of 1939: “If we got together, Germany and Russia, we would be the strongest power in the world.”
On June 6th, in Normandy, Merkel and Putin met for the first time since the crisis began, along with Obama, Hollande, Cameron, and Petro Poroshenko, the newly elected President of Ukraine, to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of D Day. News photographs showed Merkel greeting Putin like a disapproving hostess—lips pursed, eyebrows arched—while Putin’s hard features came as close to ingratiation as is physically possible. In the optics of power, she was winning. “This political isolation hurts him,” her senior aide said. “He doesn’t like to be left out.” (Russia had just been suspended from the Group of Eight.) Later, before lunch, Merkel orchestrated a brief conversation between Putin and Poroshenko. On the anniversary of D Day, Germany’s leader was at the center of everything. As Kurbjuweit put it, “That was astonishing, to see all the winners of the Second World War, and to see the loser and the country which was responsible for all this—and she’s the leader, everyone wants to talk to her! That is very, very strange. And this is only possible, I think, because it’s Merkel—because she’s so nice and quiet.”
The final ball Merkel has to keep in the air is the American one. Her opinion of Barack Obama has risen as his popularity has declined. In July, 2008, as a Presidential candidate, Obama wanted to speak at the Brandenburg Gate, in Berlin—the historic heart of the city, a location reserved for heads of state and government, not U.S. senators. Merkel rebuffed the request, so instead Obama spoke about European-American unity at the Victory Column, in the Tiergarten, before two hundred thousand delirious fans—a crowd Merkel could never have mustered, let alone mesmerized. “What puts her off about Obama is his high-flying rhetoric,” the senior official said. “She distrusts it, and she’s no good at it. She says, ‘I want to see if he can deliver.’ If you want to sum up her philosophy, it’s ‘under-promise and over-deliver.’ ”
In Obama’s first years in office, Merkel was frequently and unfavorably compared with him, and the criticism annoyed her. According to Stern, her favorite joke ends with Obama walking on water. “She does not really think Obama is a helpful partner,” Torsten Krauel, a senior writer for Die Welt, said. “She thinks he is a professor, a loner, unable to build coalitions.” Merkel’s relationship with Bush was much warmer than hers with Obama, the longtime political associate said. A demonstrative man like Bush sparks a response, whereas Obama and Merkel are like “two hit men in the same room. They don’t have to talk—both are quiet, both are killers.” For weeks in 2011 and 2012, amid American criticism of German policy during the euro-zone crisis, there was no contact between Merkel and Obama—she would ask for a conversation, but the phone call from the White House never came.
As she got to know Obama better, though, she came to appreciate more the ways in which they were alike—analytical, cautious, dry-humored, remote. Benjamin Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national-security adviser, told me that “the President thinks there’s not another leader he’s worked closer with than her.” He added, “They’re so different publicly, but they’re actually quite similar.” (Ulrich joked, “Obama is Merkel in a better suit.”) During the Ukraine crisis, the two have consulted frequently on the timing of announcements and been careful to keep the American and the European positions close. Obama is the antithesis of the swaggering leaders whom Merkel specializes in eating for breakfast. On a trip to Washington, she met with a number of senators, including the Republicans John McCain, of Arizona, and Jeff Sessions, of Alabama. She found them more preoccupied with the need to display toughness against America’s former Cold War adversary than with events in Ukraine themselves. (McCain called Merkel’s approach “milquetoast.”) To Merkel, Ukraine was a practical problem to be solved. This mirrored Obama’s view.
On the day I spoke with Rhodes, July 17th, the TV in his office, in the White House basement, showed the debris of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 strewn across a field in eastern Ukraine. The cause of the crash wasn’t yet clear, but Rhodes said, “If it was a Russian shoot-down, and Americans and Europeans were on board, that’s going to change everything.” In Germany, the change happened immediately. The sight of separatist fighters looting the belongings of dead passengers who had been shot out of the sky hit Germans more personally than months of ugly fighting among Ukrainians had. A civilian airliner, Dutch victims: “People realized that the sentimental attitude toward Putin and Russia was based on false assumptions,” a German diplomat said. The idea of maintaining equidistance between Russia and the West on Ukraine vanished. Though the crisis was beginning to hurt the German economy, Merkel now had three-quarters of the public behind her. In late July, the E.U. agreed on a sweeping new round of financial and energy sanctions.
Since then, Russian troops and weapons have crossed the border in large numbers, and the war has grown worse. In a speech in Australia last week, Merkel warned that Russian aggression was in danger of spreading, and she called for patience in a long struggle: “Who would’ve thought that twenty-five years after the fall of the Wall . . . something like that can happen right at the heart of Europe?” But, on the day she spoke, the E.U. failed to pass a new round of sanctions against Russia. Guttenberg, the former defense minister, said, “We are content with keeping the status quo, and kicking the can up the road—not down—and it keeps falling back on our feet.”
The close coöperation behind the scenes between Washington and Berlin coincides with a period of public estrangement. Germans told me that anti-Americanism in Germany is more potent now than at any time since the cruise-missile controversy of the early eighties. The proximate cause is the revelation, last fall, based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden to Der Spiegel, that the National Security Agency had been recording Merkel’s cell-phone calls for a decade. Merkel, ever impassive, expressed more annoyance than outrage, but with the German public the sense of betrayal was deep. It hasn’t subsided—N.S.A. transgressions came up in almost every conversation I had in Berlin—particularly because Obama, while promising that the eavesdropping had stopped, never publicly apologized. (He conveyed his regret to Merkel privately.) “Tapping her phone is more than impolite,” Rainer Eppelmann, the former East German dissident, said. “It’s something you just don’t do. Friends don’t spy on friends.” (American officials I spoke with, though troubled by the effects of the breach, rolled their eyes over German naïveté and hypocrisy, since the spying goes both ways.)
“The post-touchdown celebrations are getting out of hand.”
German officials approached the Americans for a no-spy agreement, and were refused. The U.S. has no such arrangement with any country, including those in the so-called Five Eyes—the English-speaking allies that share virtually all intelligence. German officials claimed that the U.S. offered membership in the Five Eyes, then withdrew the offer. The Americans denied it. “It was never seriously discussed,” a senior Administration official said. “Five Eyes isn’t just an agreement. It’s an infrastructure developed over sixty years.”
“I tend to believe them,” the German diplomat said. “The Germans didn’t want Five Eyes when we learned about it. We’re not in a position, legally, to join, because our intelligence is so limited in scope.”
In July, officials of the German Federal Intelligence Service, or B.N.D., arrested a bureaucrat in their Munich office on suspicion of spying for the U.S. He had been caught soliciting business from the Russians via Gmail, and, when the Germans asked their American counterparts for information on the man, his account was suddenly shut down. Brought in for questioning, he admitted having passed documents (apparently innocuous) to a C.I.A. agent in Austria for two years, for which he was paid twenty-five thousand euros. The Germans retaliated, in unprecedented fashion, by expelling the C.I.A. station chief in Berlin. Coming soon after the N.S.A. revelations, this second scandal was worse than a crime—it was a blunder. Merkel was beside herself with exasperation. No U.S. official, in Washington or Berlin, seemed to have weighed the intelligence benefits against the potential political costs. The President didn’t know about the spy. “It’s fair to say the President should expect people would take into account political dynamics in making judgments about what we do and don’t do in Germany,” Rhodes said.
The spying scandals have undermined German public support for the NATO alliance just when it’s needed most in the standoff with Russia. Lambsdorff, the E.U. parliamentarian, told me, “When I stand before constituents and say, ‘We need a strong relationship with the U.S.,’ they say, ‘What’s the point? They lie to us.’ ” Germany’s rise to preëminence in Europe has made Merkel a committed transatlanticist, but “that’s useless now,” Lambsdorff said. “It deducts from her capital. Rebuffing Washington is good now in Germany.”
Obama was concerned enough to dispatch his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, to Berlin in late July, to mollify German officials. During a four-hour meeting, they agreed to create a framework for clearer rules about spying and intelligence sharing. But the details remain to be worked out, and barely half the German public now expresses a favorable view of the U.S.—the lowest level in Europe, other than in perpetually hostile Greece.
In a sense, German anti-Americanism is always waiting to be tapped. There’s a left-wing, anti-capitalist strain going back to the sixties, and a right-wing, anti-democratic version that’s even older. In the broad middle, where German politics plays out today, many Germans, especially older ones, once regarded the U.S. as the father of their democracy—a role that sets America up to disappoint. Peter Schneider, the novelist and journalist, expressed the attitude this way: “You have created a model of a savior, and now we find by looking at you that you are not perfect at all—much less, you are actually corrupt, you are terrible businessmen, you have no ideals anymore.” With the Iraq War, Guantánamo, drones, the unmet expectations of the Obama Presidency, and now spying, “you actually have acted against your own promises, and so we feel very deceived.”
Beneath the rise in anti-Americanism and the German sympathy with Russia, something deeper might be at work. During the First World War, Thomas Mann put aside writing “The Magic Mountain” and began composing a strange, passionate series of essays about Germany and the war. They were published in 1918, just before the Armistice, as “Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man.” In it, Mann embraced the German cause in terms of national character and philosophy. He allied himself, as an artist, with Germany—“culture, soul, freedom, art”—against the liberal civilization of France and England that his older brother Heinrich supported, where intellect was always politicized. German tradition was authoritarian, conservative, and “nonpolitical”—closer to the Russian spirit than to the shallow materialism of democratic Europe. The war represented Germany’s age-old rebellion against the West. Imperial Germany refused to accept at gunpoint the universal principles of equality and human rights. Though Mann became a vocal supporter of democratic values in exile during the Nazi years, he never repudiated “Reflections.”
Several people in Berlin suggested that this difficult, forgotten book had something to say about Germany in the age of Merkel. The country’s peaceful reunification and its strength through the euro crisis might be returning Germany to an identity that’s older than the postwar Federal Republic, whose Basic Law was written under heavy American influence. “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. “Merkel took the politics out of politics,” Diez said.
Merkel, at sixty, is the most successful politician in modern German history. Her popularity floats around seventy-five per cent—unheard of in an era of resentment toward elected leaders. Plainness remains her political signature, with inflections of Protestant virtue and Prussian uprightness. Once, with a group of journalists at a hotel bar in the Middle East, she said, “Can you believe it? Here I am, the Chancellor! What am I doing here? When I was growing up in the G.D.R., we imagined capitalists with long black cloaks and top hats and cigars and big feet, like cartoons. And now here I am, and they have to listen to me!” Of course, there’s something calculated about her public image. “She’s so careful not to show any pretensions—which is a kind of pretension,” the senior official said.
Merkel still lives in central Berlin, in a rent-controlled apartment across a canal from the Pergamon, the great neoclassical antiquities museum. The name on the brass buzzer is her husband’s—“PROF. DR. SAUER”—and a solitary policeman stands outside. Dwarfed by her vast office in the massive concrete-and-glass Chancellery, Merkel works at an ordinary writing table just inside the door, preferring it to the thirteen-foot black slab that Schröder installed at the far end of the room. “This woman is neurotically busy,” the longtime political associate said. “She sleeps never more than five hours. I can call her at one o’clock at night. She’s awake reading bureaucratic papers, not literature.”
Merkel entertains guests at the Chancellery with German comfort food—potato soup and stuffed cabbage. When she eats at her favorite Italian restaurant, it’s with just a few friends, and she doesn’t look up from the conversation to greet her public, who know to leave her alone. When her husband calls the Philharmoniker for tickets (Merkel and Sauer are music lovers, with a passion for Wagner and Webern) and is offered comps, he insists on giving his credit-card number, and the couple take their seats almost unnoticed. A friend of mine once sat next to Merkel at the salon she frequents, off Kurfürstendamm, and they chatted about hair. “Color is the most important thing for a woman,” the Chancellor, whose hair style is no longer the object of ridicule, offered.
“And that's how babies are made.”
Earlier this year, President Joachim Gauck made headlines when he called on Germany to take its global responsibilities more seriously, including its role in military affairs. It was the kind of speech that Merkel (who had no comment) would never give, especially after a poll commissioned by the foreign ministry in May showed that sixty per cent of the public was skeptical of greater German involvement in the world. German journalists find Merkel nearly impossible to cover. “We have to look for topics in the pudding,” Ulrich Schulte, who reports on the Chancellor for Die Tageszeitung, said. The private Merkel they admire and enjoy but are forbidden to quote disappears in public. Any aide or friend who betrays the smallest confidence is cast out. The German media, reflecting the times, are increasingly centrist, preoccupied with “wellness” and other life-style issues. Almost every political reporter I spoke with voted for Merkel, despite the sense that she’s making their work irrelevant. There was no reason not to.
Meanwhile, Merkel has neutralized the opposition, in large part by stealing its issues. She has embraced labor unions, lowered the retirement age for certain workers, and increased state payments to mothers and the old. (She told Dirk Kurbjuweit, of Der Spiegel, that, as Germany aged, she depended more on elderly voters.) In 2011, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, in Japan, shocked Merkel, and she reversed her position on nuclear power: Germany would phase it out through the next decade, while continuing to lead the world’s large industrial economies in solar and wind energy. (A quarter of the country’s energy now comes from renewable sources.) Meanwhile, she’s tried to rid her party of intolerant ideas—for example, by speaking out for the need to be more welcoming to immigrants. Supporters of the Social Democrats and the Greens have fewer and fewer reasons to vote at all, and turnout has declined. Schneider, a leading member of the generation of ’68, said, “This is the genius of Angela Merkel: she has actually made party lines senseless.”
This fall, in elections held in three states of the former East Germany, a new right-wing party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), showed strength, capturing as much as ten per cent of the vote. AfD wants Germany to withdraw from the euro zone and opposes Merkel’s liberal policies on gay marriage and immigration. In moving her own party to the center, Merkel has created a space in German politics for a populist equivalent to France’s Front National and the United Kingdom Independence Party. If the German economy continues to slow, Merkel will find it hard to float unchallenged above party politics as Mutti, the World Cup-winning soccer team’s biggest fan.
For now, the most pressing political question in Berlin is whether she’ll stand for a fourth term, in 2017. Joschka Fischer described Germany under Merkel as returning to the Biedermeier period, the years between the end of the Napoleonic Wars, in 1815, and the liberal revolutions of 1848, when Central Europe was at peace and the middle class focussed on its growing wealth and decorative style. “She is governing Germany in a period where the sun is shining every day, and that’s the dream of every democratically elected politician,” Fischer said—but “there is no intellectual debate.” I suggested that every Biedermeier has to end. “Yes,” he said. “Mostly in a clash.”
A political consensus founded on economic success, with a complacent citizenry, a compliant press, and a vastly popular leader who rarely deviates from public opinion—Merkel’s Germany is reminiscent of Eisenhower’s America. But what Americans today might envy, with our intimations of national decline, makes thoughtful Germans uneasy. Their democracy is not old enough to be given a rest.
“We got democracy from you, as a gift I would say, in the forties and fifties,” Kurbjuweit told me. “But I’m not sure if these democratic attitudes are very well established in my country. We Germans always have to practice democracy—we’re still on the training program.” Kurbjuweit has just published a book called “There Is No Alternative.” It’s a phrase that Merkel coined for her euro policy, but Kurbjuweit uses it to describe the Chancellor’s success in draining all the blood out of German politics. “I don’t say democracy will disappear if Merkel is Chancellor for twenty years,” he said. “But I think democracy is on the retreat in the world, and there is a problem with democracy in our country. You have to keep the people used to the fact that democracy is a pain in the ass, and that they have to fight, and that everyone is a politician—not only Merkel.” ♦