The chancellor : the remarkable odyssey of Angela Merkel

There are three major "firsts" in Angela Merkel’s lifetime of public service. She was the first female Chancellor of Germany. She was the first leader of Germany with a doctorate in quantum chemistry who had done extensive research in the field of quantum theoretical chemistry.  She was the first Chancellor, raised in East Germany, to be elected to govern a post-World War II unified Germany. As Chancellor she transformed Germany’s economy and its status as a world leader. Never forgetting her own past that was lived under a despotic government where she could only dream about a better future, she ethically led her country to open its borders to people running from wars and persecution, accepting one million refugees from the Middle East. Under her low-key governance Germany became a leader in helping to build a cooperative Europe that would create a strong alliance. A hallmark of her work is endurance when negotiating with domestic and/or international leaders. She will sit, listen and discuss for hours on end, until some type of deal is reached. There have been times when talks have gone on for so long that the only way Merkel knows what time of day it is, is by the food being served:  jam and bread, or roast meat.

Her achievements as a woman are unique because Merkel's life is a composite of innate attributes and even more unusual life experiences. She has never overtly espoused feminism as a social or political movement, but her life is an example of how women can overcome insurmountable obstacles. Merkel is known to be exceptionally guarded about her private life, quite possibly that is a reflection of the first 35 years of her life having lived and worked in East Germany.

Angela Merkel was born in 1954 in what was then West Germany. Her father, a Lutheran pastor, responded to a request to lead a Lutheran Church in East Germany, where Angela and her two siblings grew up. At that time East Germany was the very model of a totalitarian country. The officially known enforcers who controlled all aspects of people’s lives were the Stasi officers, who in turn recruited thousands of informers, the IM. These IM people could be someone's own family member or a neighbor, and their role as informer was not known, except to a Stasi official. At a very early age Angela and her siblings were taught by their mother how not to be recruited by the Stasi. She instructed them not to talk to anyone, and if the children were questioned about becoming informers, they should say they were chatterboxes and could not keep a secret. In later life Angela Merkel was often referred to as the pastor’s daughter, and was asked, “Does it annoy you to still be referred to as the pastor’s daughter? At your age?”  Without hesitation she answered, “Not at all. That is who I am.”  Angela Merkel has always known who she was and what she was capable of doing, and this self-knowledge has been very potent because for most of her life, as a young girl and as a young woman forging a new career in German politics, she has been underestimated.

She was once asked what she contributed to German political life, and answered, “Someone who lived thirty-five years of her life in a system without freedom, and who therefore understands the unique value of freedom." For that reason she knows, “We have to think and act globally, not nationally. Together, instead of alone … Take nothing for granted. Our individual freedoms are not guaranteed. Democracy, peace and prosperity aren’t either."  Her position as Chancellor has not been without problems, and she has steadfastly faced her detractors with quiet strength. In negotiations she is open-minded, exceedingly well prepared and indomitable in seeking a solution to problems.

Angela Merkel is fluent in German and in Russian which served her exceptionally well in meetings with Vladimir Putin. There is irony in the lives of these two people, who were both living and working in East Germany at the time the Berlin Wall was torn down. She was working as a scientist who walked by The Wall every day and dreamed about freedom, especially the ability to speak openly. He was working as a KGB agent in Dresden. When The Wall was being torn down, she did not rush to the event along with thousands of others, perhaps doubting that such an event could take place without the Stasi making note of who was there. Instead she went to work. Only when it was confirmed that freedom was a reality did Angela Merkel find work in politics as a volunteer. By contrast, Vladimir Putin was in a KGB Office in Dresden that was being stormed by protestors. He contacted his bosses in Moscow for directions, but no one answered. With The Wall down, and the possibilites for freedom and a reunified Germany, Angela Merkel was encouraged and inspired for a new life. By sharp contrast, Vladimir Putin was angry, bitter and resentful. He was a KGB operative left out in the cold, and the Soviet Union that he had been schooled to work for was falling apart. Years later when they met, each of them a major world leader, she had a very good measure of the man she was facing. Putin was someone who had a great deal to prove and therefore was not willing to contribute to problem solving. There is information in two chapters that is far-seeing and prophetic:  Angela Merkel's meeting with Vladimir Putin, and Russia's first recent incursion into Ukraine, which is especially pertinent given current events in Ukraine.

Being both idealistic and pragmatic, Angela Merkel chose the time and place to move on with her life. In 2021 she decided to step down from her role as Chancellor, which she held for 16 years.  What Angela Merkel will do with the rest of her life, only she knows. She has made it very clear that she will not seek any type of public office, but that does not mean the world has seen the last of her.                                                                                                      

Kati Marton's biography of Angela Merkel is engaging and informative and will definitely not be the last book about this remarkable woman.  For those who want more detailed information about Angela Merkel's political career and about the German political system through which she navigated, Matthew Qvortrup's Angela Merkel:  Europe's most influential leader, is excellent.   

Note: The photograph of Angela Merkel on the cover of this book is very unusual because it is of a smiling, relaxed woman. During her time as Chancellor she rarely smiled and purposely maintained an inscrutable look. However, there is a new book that came out this year, Angela Merkel: Portraits 1991 - 2021, photographs by Herlinde Koelbl, who regularly began photographing Angela Merkel years before she became Chancellor. These photographs promise to bring us a different person than the one regularly seen as Chancellor.