By Karl Vick / Berlin with Simon Shuster
￼￼Photograph by Steffen Kugler
Fairy tales are where you find them, but any number seem to begin in the dark German woods where Angela Merkel spent her childhood.
The girl who would grow up to be called the most powerful woman in the world came of age in a glade dappled by the northern sun and shadowed by tall pines.
Her family’s house stood three stories, and the steep rake of its tile roof held an attic window in the shape of a half-open eye. Strangers walked on the paths below, passing residents who often moved at curious gaits. Cries of anguish were sometimes heard. To adults, Waldhof was home to the Lutheran seminary run by Merkel’s father, an isolated compound—“forest court” in English—that hosted students and other short-term visitors while also functioning as a home and workplace for mentally disabled adults. But to a child of 3, Angela’s age when her family arrived, it was a world unto itself, and would remain so until she went to school in the adjoining town of Templin. There, she came to realize that, like the 17 million other residents of East Germany, she actually was living within the walls of a fortress.
Merkel remained a captive for the first 35 years of her life, biding her time. As an adult, she lived in East Berlin, riding an elevated train beside the barricade whose 1961 construction she recalled as the first political memory of her life. When it fell in 1989, she gathered the qualities cultivated as a necessity in the East—patience, blandness, intellectual rigor and an inconspicuous but ferocious drive—and changed not only her life but the course of history.
The year 2015 marked the start of Merkel’s 10th year as Chancellor of a united Germany and the de facto leader of the European Union, the most prosperous joint venture on the planet. By year’s end, she had steered the enterprise through not one but two existential crises, either of which could have meant the end of the union that has kept peace on the continent for seven decades. The first was thrust upon her—the slow-rolling crisis over the euro, the currency shared by 19 nations, all of which were endangered by the default of a single member, Greece. Its resolution came at the signature plodding pace that so tries the patience of Germans that they have made it a verb: Merkeling.
The second was a thunderclap. In late summer, Merkel’s government threw open Germany’s doors to a pressing throng of refugees and migrants; a total of 1 million asylum seekers are expected in the country by the end of December. It was an audacious act that, in a single motion, threatened both to redeem Europe and endanger it, testing the resilience of an alliance formed to avoid repeating the kind of violence tearing asunder the Middle East by working together. That arrangement had worked well enough that it raised an existential question of its own, now being asked by the richest country in Europe: What does it mean to live well?
Merkel had her answer: “In many regions war and terror prevail. States disintegrate. For many years we have read about this. We have heard about it. We have seen it on TV. But we had not yet sufficiently understood that what happens in Aleppo and Mosul can affect Essen or Stuttgart. We have to face that now.” For her, the refugee decision was a galvanizing moment in a career that was until then defined by caution and avoidance of anything resembling drama. Analysts called it a jarring departure from form. But it may also have been inevitable, given how Angela Merkel feels about walls.
What was not inevitable but merely astounding was that the most generous, openhearted gesture of recent history blossomed from Germany, the country that within living memory (and beyond, as long as there’s a History Channel) blew apart the European continent, and then the world, by taking to gruesome extremes all the forces its Chancellor strives to hold in check: nationalism, nativism, self-righteousness, reversion to arms. No one in Europe has held office longer—or to greater effect—in a world defined by steadily receding barriers. That, after all, is the story of the E.U. and the story of globalization, both terms as colorless as the corridor of a Brussels office building. The worlds Merkel has mastered carry not a hint of the forces that have shaped Europe’s history, the primal sort a child senses, listening to a story, safe in bed.
In some ways, living in East Germany was like living on a stage set. The German Democratic Republic called itself a sovereign nation, but it was Moscow’s closest satellite in the Soviet bloc. Its deeply paranoid government put great store on appearances, employing thousands to spy on other citizens. It minted coins that felt strangely light in the palm—they were made of aluminum—and many streets were facades. “I stayed there for six or nine months in 1981. My impression is it was 1947 or ’48,” says Peer Steinbrück, a Social Democrat who both lost to Merkel and served as her Finance Minister. “Behind Unter den Linden, all these buildings were still destroyed. Bullet scars on the walls.”
Erika Benn had the same feeling when she arrived in Templin in 1965 from university at Leipzig to teach Russian: “I said, Where have I ended up? My God.” The medieval town had a history, with a church that dates to the 14th century. But churches were merely tolerated in the GDR, which was officially atheist.
That made public life delicate at Waldhof. Merkel’s father, Horst Kasner, had moved his family there in 1957, after leaving Hamburg, where Angela, the first of three children, was born. Most people were moving in the other direction, to the West. But the Lutheran Church enjoyed a standing in German society that brought a measure of deference even from Marxist-Leninists. Its parishes in the East became refuges for dissidents, something like embassies. That in turn brought anyone associated with them additional scrutiny, though Kasner’s situation was tempered by his enthusiasm for socialism—at least as he understood it—and an evident talent for navigating the state apparatus.
It also helped that the pastor embraced a school of theology that steered clear of social activism and instead sought to reconcile the work of modern philosophers like Immanuel Kant with religious belief, according to a former adviser to Merkel. The discussions young Angela grew up amid in the parsonage were erudite and rigorous. Her mother Herlind, trained as an English teacher, was never allowed to teach the language. At school, Angela enrolled in Russian with Frau Benn.
The retired teacher keeps a file folder on her star student. Pulling out a black-and-white group photo, she points out Merkel in the back row, recognizable mostly by her helmet hair. “That’s how she was: the girl in the back,” says Benn. “She’s about almost invisible. It’s so typical of her, I can’t even tell you.”
As an adolescent, Merkel both lived inside her head and exulted in the outdoors. Physically clumsy, she avoided sports but camped with friends, all while excelling at school. As she got older, she explored as much of the world as a citizen of the Soviet bloc was permitted. The system’s limits on wanderlust rendered Merkel, waiflike in her youth, with her face pressed up against the glass of a warm shop window.
She journeyed to Bulgaria and stared over the border toward the forbidden hillsides of Greece. She watched, as almost everyone in the GDR did, television stations beamed from West Germany, and dreamed of visiting California. Merkel understood that she would not be permitted to go there until she was 60, the age at which East Germany trusted its citizens to travel to the West. Yet she began to plan for it. Patience was a lesson of life in the East, as was realism.
“You know I grew up in the GDR,” Merkel told a security conference in Munich in February, where she was peppered with demands that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s incursion into Ukraine be answered with military force rather than the economic pressure Merkel had spearheaded. “As a 7-year-old child, I saw the Wall being erected. No one—although it was a stark violation of international law—believed at the time that one ought to intervene militarily in order to protect citizens of the GDR and whole Eastern bloc of the consequences of that, namely to live in lack of freedom for many, many years. And I don’t actually mind. Because I understand this, because it was a realistic assessment that this would not lead to success.”
Merkel plays the long game, in other words. For a career, she shrewdly chose a path in the field that communists worshipped instead of God: science. She studied physics at Leipzig University and married another scientist, Ulrich Merkel. She ended the marriage after five years but kept his name, even after marrying her current husband, Joachim Sauer, a quantum chemist, after years spent living together.
More than that, she retained the disciplines of scientific inquiry learned on the way to a Ph.D. in quantum chemistry—intellectual diligence and a quest for the most reliable data. In combination with her natural, seemingly endless curiosity, the result was an inquisitiveness rare for a politician. Merkel also retained the survival instincts honed in a country where any citizen might prove to be a Stasi informant—the GDR’s security agency had 274,000 agents—and the discretion intended to mask beliefs that emerged only when it was safe. But they did emerge.
“We’ve always had this experience that things take long, but I’m 100% convinced that our principles will in the end prevail,” she told the audience in Munich. “No one knew how the Cold War would end at the time, but it did end. This is within our living experience … I’m surprised at how fainthearted we sometimes are, and how quickly we lose courage.”
The day the Berlin Wall came down, Nov. 9, 1989, Merkel was about to have her regular Thursday-night sauna with a friend. A creature of habit, she kept to her routine, finishing her sweat before venturing with the crowds into West Berlin. She stopped in an apartment, talked to the people there and had a beer. The label on it was unfamiliar. Then she went back across no-man’s-land and changed her life. She was 35 years old.
No obvious natural boundary separates Austria from Germany. The snowy mountains of Bavaria look an awful lot like the snowy mountains of Austria, and the two-lane highway from Kiefersfelden, in one country, to Kufstein, in the other, is a smoother transition than from Maryland to Pennsylvania—not even the road surface changes. You almost have to ask a local to know what country you’re in.
This uncertainty counts as one of the great triumphs of the modern age. In the past 70 years, supreme efforts have been made to erase national boundaries in Europe or at least render them harmless. This effort is known as the European Union, which includes 28 countries and, it must be said, is reliably boring. But that’s the whole idea. For thousands of years, the Continent generated not white papers but wars too numerous to mention—especially to Americans, who know them only from textbooks and strain to recall them only until the written test. “Europe’s Wars, 1648–1789: A Selection” takes up two pages in Appendix III of Norman Davies’ Europe: A History.
But everyone knows World War II, the cataclysm that still defines Germany for many, not least because the Nazis are a staple of global popular culture as a stand-in for unqualified evil. That war claimed at least 50 million lives worldwide, most of them civilians, and produced a raft of international institutions—from the United Nations to the International Monetary Fund—aimed at preventing anything like it from happening again. The one that ultimately mattered most was thought up by the countries with the bloodiest records: the postwar leaders of France and Germany began the European Coal and Steel Community, which grew even blander as it expanded. By the time it was called the European Union, in 1991, the supranational organization had been washed of all color. Countries surrendered elements of sovereignty to it in exchange for access to shared markets and an overarching identity as European, their citizens able to move among 26 countries without showing a passport and among 19 without having to change money. Founded on a series of interlocking treaties, the E.U. exists, a cynic could say, largely as an endless series of meetings and nearly endless regulations.
On the other hand, none of its members has raised more than a voice against another for seven decades—a modern record. In 2012, the E.U. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The gold medal was accepted by three officials, none of whom actually ran the union. By then, that responsibility had fallen, more or less, to Merkel.
To a large extent, the job came with the territory. Merkel was Chancellor of Germany, and Germany was the most populous and prosperous member in a union that had become a lucrative club. As globalization rewarded scale and standardization, E.U. membership became a ticket to prosperity, especially for members of the former East bloc. German manufacturers, working in concert with labor outsourced to its poorer neighbors, built an export economy that remains the healthiest in Europe and the fourth largest in the world.
But Merkel was made for the job. The E.U.’s mission of removing barriers and spreading democracy was her mission too. And the plodding, patient style she brought from the laboratory meshed with the E.U. mandate encouraging decision by consensus. She appeared to be the perfect person to navigate the euro crisis, which began in 2010 and reached equilibrium this year. By then, she was being caricatured with Hitler’s mustache, and Germans had coined the word Merkeling.
The problem was Greece. The country that gave the world democracy was supplying it with headaches. Athens was broke and carried debts it could never hope to pay. If the country still had its own currency, it might at least dilute the problem by printing more of it. But like 18 other E.U. countries, Greece had exchanged its money, the drachma, for the euro—and the only way to pay its debts was by asking its neighbors for more euros. Merkel stood by the cash register, with her lessons from East Germany. There the collapse of the Wall had been swiftly followed by the collapse of the economy, an event as traumatic as the breach had been euphoric, but experienced only by the Ossies, as East Germans were called. What’s more, the trigger had been a common currency: the abrupt introduction of the West German deutsche mark to the East shuttered factories, putting millions out of work, including Merkel.
“I come from a country in which I experienced economic collapse,” Merkel reminded reporters in 2012. If Greece’s debt was not reduced “sustainably and with a view to the long term, Europe simply will no longer be the prosperous continent that the world listens to and that gets people’s attention.”
What got people’s attention during the saga of Greece—and Portugal, and Ireland, and briefly Italy, but first and last, Greece—was Merkel’s stern mien. She wasn’t the only Northerner preaching austerity to the sunny Mediterranean nations that spent money they did not have. But it was Merkel who became the face of the European banker, caricatured here as a dominatrix, there as a storm trooper. The crisis went on for years, and Merkel’s image grew as entrenched as her position: rescue only if Greece ended its spendthrift ways.
It wasn’t entirely Athens’ fault; the euro had a deeper problem that dated from its birth: the currency bound nations together economically without a parallel political apparatus, a problem Merkel diagnosed and set out to eventually solve through lengthy treaty renegotiations. But the immediate political problem was the civic culture of Greece, where the rich avoided taxes and governments spent lavishly. Greeks rioted, a government fell. But in the end, the leaders who hoped to defy Merkel’s E.U. had no choice but to back down. It was either face expulsion from the euro zone or swallow austerity measures that gutted pensions and public services. The saga cemented Merkel’s status as leader of Europe, if a chilly one.
“They call me ‘Little Angela Merkel’ when they think I’m being too strict,” says Angela Klingbeil, of her colleagues at the Berlin firm where she heads accounting. Klingbeil smiles grimly, looking into the remains of the cappuccino she was sipping at an outdoor café in Alexanderplatz, the former center of East Berlin. Today its retail temples outshine the Kurfürstendamm, the marquee shopping street deliberately fashioned to advertise the attractions of capitalism to East Germans like Merkel. The Chancellor has recalled darting from shopping basket to shopping basket “like a lynx” to see who had emerged from a store with a line worth joining. Toothbrushes and underwear were particular treasures.
But life in a consumer paradise begs a modern question: How much shopping can you do? In December 2014, Pope Francis traveled to Strasbourg to chide the European Parliament—one of the vaguer institutions—about being and nothingness. The Argentine called Europe “less and less a protagonist” in a world that regards the continent as “somewhat elderly and haggard.” Said the Pontiff: “The great ideas which once inspired Europe seem to have lost their attraction, only to be replaced by the bureaucratic technicalities of its institutions.” He accused Europe’s leaders of confusing unity with uniformity and “the reality of democracy with a new political nominalism.”
It was Merkel who most famously framed the euro crisis in existential terms—“If the euro fails, Europe fails,” she said—but did that mean the union was at bottom only about money? Merkel often says Ossies know that after working hard in exchange for almost nothing, the ability to procure a decent living in exchange for hard work matters in the competition between ideologies. But that’s not the same as being coldhearted, the reputation stalking both Germany and its Chancellor when Merkel, with the euro crisis just winding down, appeared at a meeting with students on July 16. It was for a televised discussion called Living Well in Germany, and a young girl named Reem raised her hand and explained that her family members were Palestinian refugees and faced deportation to Lebanon.
“As long as I don’t know that I can stay here, I don’t know what my future will be,” the 14-year-old said in fluent German. “I want to study. It’s really painful to watch how other people can enjoy life and you can’t enjoy it with them.”
The Chancellor looked taken aback. “I understand,” she began, “and yet I have to …” There was an easy way out: deflect the plea, perhaps promise to have someone look at the family’s file. Merkel went another way. “Sometimes politics is hard,” she informed the girl. “You’re a very nice person, but you know that there are thousands and thousands of people in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, and if we say, ‘You can all come,’ and, ‘You can all come from Africa,’ and ‘You can all come,’ we just can’t manage that.”
Merkel broke off a moment later because the girl was weeping. “Oh Gott,” she muttered, moving across the room. “I want to comfort her.” But the girl was inconsolable, and the footage went viral.
Thirty-five when the Wall fell, Merkel was all of 36 when she took office as a minister in the first government of a united Federal Republic of Germany. Everything moved fast in the heady days that ended the Cold War—the East bloc nations threw off their communist governments in the space of weeks—but even by the standards of the time, Merkel’s transformation had a storybook quality, a sword pulled from a stone.
Suddenly freed of the pressing eyes of the Stasi, the quietly political household at the Waldhof was allowed to participate in the open. Merkel went to the Berlin office of a new East German party calling itself Democratic Awakening, which was going to stand in the first (and last) elections in a divided Germany. She ended up as deputy press secretary for the man elected as the East’s Prime Minister, thanks to a quiet word from an official in Awakening’s sister party in the West, the Christian Democratic Union.
On the surface, the CDU was not a natural fit. Merkel’s mother, whose father had been a politician in Danzig, would win local office with the Social Democrats, a center-left party. Before his 2011 death, her father, according to Benn, aligned with the Green Party, leftists with an environmental bent. The Christian Democrats were center-right, Catholic, culturally conservative and something of a boys’ club. By choosing them, Merkel—a divorced Protestant from the East bloc who lived with her lover—would presage a tidal shift in German society, which a quarter-century later would be less formal, more liberal and more comfortable with itself.
But at the time, the choice spoke more to Merkel’s ambition. The CDU controlled the government, and after seeking out an introduction to Helmut Kohl, the novice counted the then Chancellor of Germany as her political mentor. His party made Merkel its candidate for a constituency in the far north of Germany, on a peninsula extending into the Baltic Sea. A photograph shows her in a denim skirt and collarless shirt, looking a bit lost as she gets the feel for retail politics by drinking brandy in a hut with bearded fishermen.
After the CDU won the unified election, Kohl put Merkel in his Cabinet as Minister for Women and Youth. Later that year she was in California, the place she’d longed to see, on a state visit that proceeded to the White House. She shook hands with Ronald Reagan, a girlhood hero of hers for standing up to the Soviets. But if her dreams were coming true, they carried a price. She was “Kohl’s girl,” introduced to delegations like a novelty item, an exotic creature from the East. Merkel bristled and withdrew to the background she preferred. At the same time, she craved acknowledgment on her own terms, crying tears of frustration when she felt slighted on her first trip to Israel—“a weakness that Merkel quite often displayed early on in her political career,” according to biographer Stefan Kornelius.
“Even when she was awkward and shy, you could feel her energy, you could feel her power, from the beginning,” says Herlinde Koelbl, a prominent German photographer who in 1991 began taking portraits of 15 up-and-coming politicians, including Merkel. The portraits were retaken each year for a book titled Traces of Power, a kind of longitudinal study of ambition in pictures. Obtaining the pols’ cooperation was not a problem. “They love it. They love to be photographed and filmed,” Koelbl says. “Merkel is not like that. She’s not vain. To be vain, if you’re familiar with Wagner, it’s an Achilles’ heel for everyone, I would say. That’s one way she was protected, in a certain way. And is still protected.”
Germany’s male politicians were the first to make the mistake of underestimating Merkel. At one point, Gerhard Schröder, the preening peacock who headed the Social Democrats and was Chancellor from 1998 to 2005, publicly called her “pitiful” as Environment Minister, the position she assumed after the CDU was re-elected in 1994. “I will put him in the corner, just like he did with me,” she told Koelbl the next time they met. “I still need time, but one day, the time will come for this. And I am already looking forward.”
By the available evidence, Merkel’s performance as Environment Minister was not bad at all. She mounted the second major global conference on climate change, in Berlin, which ended with the first promise to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. But that’s what Merkel does—work a system, persevere, seek consensus. It’s all very worthy and is probably the key to her success, but it can’t compete with the flash of a knife’s blade that then disappeared into her sleeve for most of a decade.
When she finally put Schröder in that corner, he appeared not to know it, and she pretended not to. It was election night 2005, and neither his party nor Merkel’s had won a majority. That did not stop Schröder from “mansplaining” the results at length during the television show known as the “elephant round,” where, by German tradition, candidates gather to parse the returns. Schröder would not shut up, fairly shouting that no one else would be able to create a government. Merkel looked on with a blank expression. Two months later, she was sworn in as Chancellor.
By then she had dispatched Kohl, her mentor and patron, by publicly calling in December 1999 for his removal after he became tangled in a campaign-finance scandal. She had served him for eight years, plus another year in the opposition, and simply announced his time was up. “She doesn’t take on fights she can’t win,” says Kornelius. “There are a couple of examples out there, lying in their coffins, of people who got in her way.”
Yet Germans call her Mommy. The word in German, Mutti, is even cozier, summoning the sense of being cared for that accumulated over Merkel’s 10 years in office. The country has grown steadily more prosperous on her watch, thanks in part to changes put in place by her predecessor, but also to the sure hand by which she navigated the global recession. Germany overtook France as the most competitive major European economy and found trading partners outside the continent, especially China.
Critics complain that she governs by poll, moving cautiously in order to test the limits of policy. Der Spiegel reported that in the space of four years, her Chancellery commissioned more than 600 such surveys. “It’s a funny kind of boldness, when you wait until you have public opinion behind you,” says Hans Kundnani, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund. Rivals attribute that caution to the hair’s-breadth closeness of her first national election. But caution has also been her calling card nearly from birth. “She moves very, very carefully,” says Steinbrück, the former Finance Minister, “and I think that follows from growing up in the GDR.” Merkel once said that in school, she preferred to sit in the middle of the classroom if not all the way in the back, because she “liked to have the overview.”
The back is also where a ship’s captain stands, and Merkel likes the freedom to make course corrections as needed, with all other eyes to the front. Her method is to study a problem to its foundations, vacuuming up data and asking endless questions. “She knows details you wouldn’t expect a Cabinet minister to know,” says Matthias Wissmann, who served beside her in Kohl’s Cabinet. In Germany’s version of the White House, so airy and light-filled it could be a museum, the massive desk at the far end of Merkel’s seventh-floor office is mostly decorative. She uses it for making telephone calls to foreign leaders—something she does a lot—and ceremonial events. Every other visit is a working visit and takes place at the long conference table near the door, where she spends most of her day. When, after much study, she decides on a course, she is unlikely to announce what it is, preferring the freedom of proceeding step by step on a map never made public. “She says she has a plan,” Steinbrück says, “but she doesn’t tell anyone what it is.”
Merkel’s hands-on approach carries a constant danger of getting lost in the weeds, as many said she did during the euro crisis. But she also has a record of scanning the globe from a high altitude, focusing intently on dangers not yet apparent to others. At that Munich security conference, almost every questioner wanted to know why she favored economic sanctions on Putin’s Russia instead of sending arms to the Ukrainian republic he had invaded. “Frederick the Great said that diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments,” a former U.K. Defense Minister pointedly observed, to applause.
Merkel knows Putin’s bullying at a visceral level. In 2007, on a visit to his Black Sea residence, the Russian strongman opened the door during a photo opportunity and let in his massive Labrador, named Koni. Merkel, whose fear of dogs is well known, eyed the canine with visible distress as it sniffed around her. Cameras whirred, and from the next chair Putin watched with a broad smile and legs spread wide. But she refused to be drawn.
Her analytical, cerebral approach to governance has brought Merkel closer to U.S. President Barack Obama than either of them would have thought after she denied him permission to make a 2008 campaign speech at Brandenburg Gate, a historic Berlin venue reserved for leaders who have already been elected. Their relationship has warmed steadily over the years, surviving Edward Snowden’s revelations that the U.S. tapped the smartphone she carries in her handbag.
That may be because the two have found they react similarly to crises—with stubborn rationalism—even if they don’t always agree on the right response. Obama praised Merkel’s stand on refugees as “courageous.” The President and his aides were less excited about the impasse on Greek debt, which precipitated Obama’s July intervention with calls to Merkel and Greek leader Alexis Tsipras in pursuit of a deal. For her part, Merkel regards Germany’s alliance with the U.S. as the keystone to its foreign policy.
“She has demonstrated particularly bold moral and practical leadership on the refugee crisis, welcoming vulnerable migrants despite the political costs,” says Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice. “The President values her as a good friend and one of his closest and most trusted international partners.”
Merkel holds her people’s confidence, to judge by the polls—both at election time and in between. Her party has gained more seats with each ballot, reaching nearly 50% in 2013, when she won a third term. “In the beginning, she was considered weak. ‘She doesn’t like to take positions.’ ‘She’s so slow.’ All that. But that’s the way she works,” says Sylke Tempel, editor of the Berlin Policy Journal.
Unlikely as it may sound in the era of Donald Trump and Barack Obama, the blandness is an asset. “Politics is a talent,” says Koelbl, the photographer. “But it’s different in Germany. We don’t like so much the performers. In America, you say, ‘I’m fantastic. I’m great. I did this.’ You don’t do this in Germany.”
Part of it has to do with history. “I’ve heard lots of Germans talk about Obama and then bring up Hitler,” says Kundnani of the German Marshall Fund. “They find charismatic leadership worrying. And rhetoric.” Another part is surely the particular qualities of the speaker herself. Merkel used to fidget at the podium, never sure what to do with her hands. When she finally found a comfortable position, fingertips pressed to each other like Spock, it became a signature. The “Merkel rhombus,” or “raute,” inspired an emoticon, -<>-, flash mobs and a 2013 CDU campaign ad with 2,150 supporters holding the pose to pledge “Germany’s future in good hands.”
By her own account, though, she still can’t deliver a speech. “Merkel has this rare talent to put these very clear, direct thoughts into mushy rhetoric,” notes Tempel. “Usually it’s the other way around. But she really means what she says.” And in churches, people have noticed, she can actually manage eloquence. Her Nov. 23 eulogy for Helmut Schmidt, the tetchy former Chancellor who died at age 96, stood out for its potency and because many listeners believed she was talking as much about herself as the deceased.
“We trusted him,” she said. “We trusted that he would get the situation under control and well in hand … If Helmut Schmidt was convinced of the right thing to do, then he did it … He was steadfast … Even with all his willingness to act, he was convinced that a decision was only ripe once it had been thought out and imbibed with reason … The greatness of his chancellorship was in the wisdom and consistency of his governance.” Most of all, she said, “he was willing to pay the highest price, because he always factored the risk of failure into his actions—even including the risk of losing his chancellorship.”
The public face that Koelbl has been photographing since 1991 is “her mask,” the photographer says, a deadpan expression with bangs that also serves as comic trope, Photoshopped into vamps and nuns. Her attire is equally predictable: a colored blazer, black pants. On Nov. 22, the day marking a solid decade in office, the daily Die Welt noted the anniversary with a front-page montage of 10 photos from her annual New Year’s address: 10 frames, same outfit. When Hillary Clinton was U.S. Secretary of State, Merkel presented her with a framed copy of a German newspaper that ran a photo of the women, both in blazers and black slacks, their hands clasped in front of them but their heads cropped. Angela Merkel? Hillary Clinton? the headline asked.
By the accounts of colleagues and visitors, Merkel is as entertaining in private as she is stolid in public. In the right mood, she will caricature other public figures to devastating effect, and finds an edge in conversation to make pointed jokes, both at her own expense and that of others. Bombastic males are a specialty. When, in her first term, then French President Nicolas Sarkozy gestured to a Toulouse crowd and remarked to Merkel how happy the people were to see them, she told him, dryly, “Nicolas, I think compared to you, I am an energy-conserving lamp.”
“I think most of the time I’ve spent with her she is smiling,” says Robert Kimmitt, a former ambassador who has known her since 1991. Select reporters can see the playful and barbed side of Merkel when, on trips abroad, she calls them into the salon on her Airbus A319 or in occasional small-group briefings at the Chancellery. But the occasions are strictly off the record, and no one dares disobey.
Glimpses are visible sometimes, however, in the behavior of world leaders emerging from closed-door sessions with her. Sarkozy went from narcissist to wingman on the euro. George W. Bush famously sneaked up on her from behind at a G-8 summit and started to give her a neck rub. She clenched and shook him off, then turned and came up with a smile. There are photographs of Merkel with current French President François Hollande in which she appears to have her head on his shoulder.
“Behind the doors I think she’s very convincing. She’s very clever and very fast and picks up the information you give her,” says Steinbrück. “She’s reliable. When you come to some conclusion, she’s always going to stick to that.” But she enforces extremely strict controls on information, emphasizing the necessity of absolute confidentiality in all matters. “When you violate that, you never get another chance,” says Steinbrück. Merkel’s Chancellery is an extraordinarily tight ship, as buttoned down as she is. Her inner circle is more like a knot consisting of just six or seven key aides, two of whom have been with her the whole 10 years.
In the mid-1990s, Merkel told Koelbl she was thinking of leaving politics. The strain of government service was wearing on her, she recalls her saying: “She didn’t want to be ‘emptied out.’” The feeling obviously passed, and a few years later, she began showing up for her portrait wearing makeup. Her body language grew more confident. Looking back, Koelbl notes the change coincided with her decision to run for Chancellor. Whatever reserve Merkel located within herself, associates say it is replenished by her private hours. This is the part of her life at once most closely guarded and well known, at least to Germans, who regard Merkel’s lifestyle as authentic, even endearing evidence that whatever her flaws, their Chancellor is one of them.
Unified Germany is a relatively new democracy. It has no finished official residence, and if it did, Merkel would continue to live in the central Berlin apartment she shares with her husband, whose name is on the buzzer. “I always show it to Latin American visitors,” says Wissmann, who was Transportation Minister when Merkel ran the environment department. “I don’t know if it’s 100 square meters or 120, but that’s for a world leader. She is living modestly.”
The most powerful woman in the world does her own grocery shopping, dragging a small security contingent to the German equivalent of Kroger’s. “If you have good luck, you meet her on a Friday afternoon at the supermarket buying a bottle of white wine and a fish for dinner for her and her husband,” says Wissmann. “That’s not a show.”
By the time Reem burst into tears, Germany’s refugee crisis was already under way, though no one was calling it a crisis yet. About 200,000 people had applied for asylum since January at that point, twice the number of the previous year, but the baseline says a lot about what the country had become used to. There are many ways that Germany has made payments on its Nazi past—like its emphatic support for Israel (flights from which are met at Germany’s airports by armed guards), its reluctance to use its military and the intensely felt, almost constant reminders of collective guilt embedded in school curricula and every other facet of public life that make up what Germans call, after taking a deep breath, Vergangenheitsbewältigung—roughly translated as “wrestling the past into submission.”
But perhaps the least known is its embrace of new arrivals. National Socialism built a fascist state on the ideal of a master race and a myth of genetic purity, but postwar Germany has become something of a nation of immigrants. The first wave of refugees were fellow Germans displaced by World War II. They were taken in by those whose homes survived, the foundation of Willkommenskultur, the “welcome culture” that later embraced asylum seekers.
Then, in the 1960s, came the Turks, guest workers from small-town Anatolia who were needed to fill a labor shortage. Though not immediately integrated into German society, a half-century later their absorption is regarded as a model for other Muslim arrivals. “Where I come from, in my city, 10% of people came from Turkey. There was no problem,” says Hans-Peter Friedrich, a former Interior Minister. “They came to Bavaria. They had to send their kids to kindergarten. They are German now. My sister-in-law is Turkish.”
Next were the Spanish, Portuguese, Greeks, Italians—workers from the Mediterranean countries that would later falter—all for jobs. In 1988 Düsseldorf, a priest recalls, only half the students he taught in Catholic school had been born in Germany. All learned the language of Goethe, which was the key to integrating in a culture that, along the way, lost some of its heaviness.
Few miss it. In her youth, Tempel says inviting the neighbors over for a meal required formal invitations and elaborate preparation. Today people just drop by, and many Germans are seeking out direct contact with refugees, even taking them into their homes. “My parents are conservative, parochial people, like all parents are conservative parochial people,” Tempel says, “but they’re very happy with the changes made in the last 10 to 15 years.”
None of which prepared anyone for what has become known as the Hungarian weekend. Syrians had been coming to Germany for months, even years, in a steady trickle that also included Afghans, Pakistanis and other nationalities. But the numbers were limited by the difficulty of the journey, which for three years had involved finding one’s way to Libya, then crossing the Mediterranean, usually to Italy. The journey was expensive and as risky as staying in a war zone. Libyan police locked people up. Smugglers stole. And boats capsized. After 800 people drowned on April 19, the E.U. sent patrol boats to turn them back.
Then a new route opened. It was safer: crossing maybe 3 miles (5 km) of sea, between Turkey, where more than 2 million Syrians had taken shelter, and Greece, Europe’s doorstep. Under E.U. rules, migrants seeking asylum were supposed to stop there and await a decision, the idea being to use the outermost ring of E.U. members as a fence, protecting the freedom of movement among the 26 nations (called the Schengen Area for where the treaty was signed) where no passport is required. But no one wanted to stay in economically struggling Greece. Everyone had heard good things about Germany. Sweden, just beyond, was even more famously receptive.
“In Europe,” says Jamil Ahmad, just arrived from Syria,“we feel human.” The Balkan route ran northwest from Greece, across Macedonia and Serbia to Hungary, then on to Austria and finally Germany. And just as it was pioneered, marked and published to fellow refugees on Facebook and WhatsApp, events in the Middle East conspired to further encourage migration. Inside Syria, press gangs from the government of Bashar Assad were going door to door, forcing young men into the stalemated conflict. Life was also taking a wrenching turn for Syrians who had fled to neighboring countries—Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, the north of Iraq, where the U.N. had set up facilities to house and feed refugees convenient to the nation to which they would presumably return. After four years and 250,000 deaths, Syria was no longer compelling enough. “Donor fatigue” brought shortfalls in U.N. budgets. In July, the word went out to refugees in Jordan and Lebanon that, from August, they would be expected to feed themselves on half as much as before, just 50¢ a day. Aid officials say thousands then headed for the exit toward Europe.
Migrants are expert at urban camouflage. Their uncertain legal status makes them skittish, anxious to avoid attracting attention. But there was no hiding the numbers moving across Europe in August, hundreds at a time tramping through fields, across pastures and in a wide column down the emergency lane of European freeways, while Citroëns and Volkswagens whizzed by.
Every saga has its galvanizing moment. In this one, it was on Sept. 2, with the publication of the photograph of the body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. The image instantly lifted Syria’s refugees to the top of the global agenda. People who in the Middle East had remained foreigners became in Europe protagonists whose almost biblical exodus was charted by the hour on satellite news. When the story reached Hungary, a villain emerged in Viktor Orban, the right-wing Prime Minister who refused to allow the refugees to board trains toward Austria, the last stop before Germany. The standoff stranded hundreds at Budapest’s Keleti station on platforms that doubled as the world stage.
Merkel watched along with everyone else on the planet. She knew Keleti station—Hungary was one of the few places she was permitted to travel as a citizen of the GDR. “In East Germany,” she told News time in an interview six years ago, “we always ran into boundaries before we were able to discover our own personal boundaries.” Austria’s Chancellor phoned. His tone was urgent. The first weekend in September passed in a flurry of calls and logistics. Finally, an arrangement was struck to usher the refugees through Vienna, where they boarded trains for Germany. When they lurched into Munich’s central station, hundreds of Germans greeted them with cheers, flowers and diapers. Welcome, the signs read. “Thank you, Germany!” the refugees chanted. The scene was transcendent, almost too good to be true.
Many say it was. “The country was simply carried away with this,” Kornelius recalls in his Munich office. “People were drunk with how good they were.” Three months later, Germans are still nursing a buzz. But as the refugees keep coming—nearly a million so far, with no end in sight—they’re also wondering what got into them, and into Mutti. “This crisis really shows a new Merkel,” her biographer says. “You’ve never seen the soft side of Merkel until now.”
The Chancellor has not spoken publicly about the decision to admit the refugees, and her office, citing the press of events that flowed from it, declined interview requests from News time. But the source of the action—certain to be her legacy, for good or ill—is more apparent than where it will lead. Those who know her say it followed logically from the sight of Hungarian border guards holding back refugees at gunpoint in order to build a fence topped with razor wire.
“She has one principle—an emotional belief, I think—as one who in her younger years was not able to travel around the world,” says Wissmann. “She does not want to see people surrounded by walls. I think she has an instinctive reaction if someone asks for a wall. I know her well. If you ask me what is her main principle belief, it’s around this issue: Let us be free. From the station of a person, up to the free-trade pact of a nation.”
That’s not what she told little Reem, of course. But if good public policy balances head and heart, one of the minor marvels of the refugee crisis was that it forced Merkel’s decisionmaking process—usually so heavily guarded—into the public realm. Her prudent “We can’t take you all” message on television was balanced against all the times she had urged Germans in the months before to lay out the welcome mat. Refugees were the centerpiece of Merkel’s 2015 New Year’s address: “Many literally escaped death. It goes without saying that we will help them and take in people who seek refuge with us.” As their numbers increased over the summer, she visited refugee shelters inside Germany, posing with smiling migrants for selfies uploaded immediately on social media, where would-be migrants discussed whether now was the time to go, and where. “She opened the door for our needs,” says Israa Ibrahim, 25, and seven months pregnant, as she prepared to board a bus bound for Bavaria. “She can feel in her heart how tired we are.”
The paradox is that by opening the gates to Syrians, Merkel threw into doubt the larger project of Europe. The most immediate danger is the free movement between Schengen countries. That barely visible border between Austria and Germany is now backed up for miles, as police open every truck looking for smugglers. Sweden has shut its doors, recently imposing border checks. And France declared a state of emergency after the Paris attacks, which amplified fears that terrorists may be entering with refugees, as two of the Paris attackers reportedly had. Many Germans share those fears, but elected officials in Berlin seem more concerned that all the other attackers evidently grew up in Europe and were radicalized in the ethnic ghettos that spring up when immigrants are not integrated in society, a prevalent problem in Belgium, for example.
At the same time, Merkel’s bluff confidence—“We can handle this!”—is running up against the exhaustion of the volunteers. Social-service centers in Berlin alone were receiving 500 to 600 people a day in late November. They were housed everywhere from school gymnasiums (displacing kids by day and adult leagues by night) to the old Stasi headquarters (where wiretap listening rooms turned out to serve wonderfully as bedrooms). “I think she said one sentence too much: ‘Everybody is welcome,’” says Silvia Kostner, spokeswoman for the Berlin office of LaGeSo, the federal social-services agency, but speaking personally. “People took it as an invitation. It wasn’t an invitation … They have to find a solution to reduce the flow.”
Merkel is working on that, negotiating with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to shut off the faucet. Armed with €3 billion from the E.U. to help care for refugees on its side of the Aegean, Turkey on Nov. 30 made its first significant sweep of smugglers, sending 250 police to raid beaches facing Lesbos. Meanwhile, Germany struggles to hasten asylum decisions, certifying those fleeing war and sending home those fleeing poverty. Merkel speaks now of “legal migration.” Rules. Germans still like those, and it’s become clear why.
But the Chancellor is in an unfamiliar place—out front. For years she was accused of governing so effectively from the center that her coalition sucked all the oxygen out of German politics. Today there’s so much oxygen that some fear combustion. Right-wing parties across Europe have found an updraft in what is being called Merkel’s naiveté, as well as her (so far largely vain) call for other E.U. members to accept a share of asylum seekers. The conservative Law and Justice Party swept into power in neighboring Poland on Oct. 25, in an election dominated by the refugee crisis. “You cannot call it solidarity when some countries try to, in a way, export problems that they brought on themselves,” said incoming Prime Minister Beata Szydlo. In France, polls showed that Marine Le Pen’s nativist National Front would win a national election if one were held today. In the initial round of local elections held on Dec. 6, the party finished first in six of 13 regions.
Germany’s right wing has surged as well, with thousands attending weekly anti-immigrant rallies in Dresden, the benighted city where television from the West did not reach. “What unites us,” says Lutz Bachmann, co-founder of the movement, called Pegida, “is the feeling that the politicians are no longer paying attention to us.”
Some analysts share that concern, arguing that by stigmatizing all right-wingers as neo-Nazis, German postwar politics offers no legitimate outlook for those who find no ear in center-right parties that, lately, are far more center than right. “There are a great many people who hold right-wing views but feel totally unrepresented in German politics,” says Frank Richter, an adviser to the regional government of Saxony, whose capital is Dresden. “Grand coalitions by their nature create these conditions. Everyone is trying to cram into a tiny space in the political center, and no one is engaging with the people closer to the edges.” Pegida is not a political party, but the right-wing Alternative for Germany is, and its support has grown since this summer. It could enter Parliament in 2017, the next national ballot.
Merkel has given no indication whether she will seek a fourth term. Her popularity is sharply down—polls showed uneasiness over Muslim immigrants even before the events of the summer, which her own Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, termed an “avalanche.” The turmoil is most pronounced in the CDU’s sister party in Bavaria, where most refugees arrive. The faction’s male leader lectured Merkel from the podium on Nov. 20 as she stood with her eyes downcast.
Still, there’s no competitor on the horizon, and Merkel has more than a year to restore the equilibrium to which Germans had grown accustomed. All she has to do is end the refugee crisis, persuade the rest of the E.U. to take a few hundred thousand Muslims amid galloping fears of terrorism, end the war in Syria and parry any unforeseen setbacks, like a scandal at Volkswagen, flagship of the nation’s largest industrial sector. Along the way she has to convince Germans that what many call the ultimate rash move is, in fact, visionary. Merkel never claimed to have a vision, and in fact quoted Schmidt as saying anyone who did should have his eyes examined. But those who study her say it’s been visible, if not always audible, in what one calls “her mumbled speeches.”
“The heart and soul of Europe is tolerance,” she said in one, years before the refugee crisis. “It has taken us centuries to understand this. We have persecuted and annihilated one another. We have laid our own country to waste … The worst period of hatred, devastation and destruction happened not even a generation ago. It was done in the name of my people.”
Germany owns the Holocaust as no other nation owns its crimes. Berlin’s historic center is stippled with memorials to the nation’s victims. It makes for a variegated tourist experience in one of Europe’s most vibrant and affordable cities. Here’s the Reichstag, the seat of National Socialism, transformed by a glass dome into a Parliament synonymous with transparency. Here’s a man changing out of a bear costume—a bear being the symbol of Berlin—outside the memorial to the slaughter of Gypsies. The memorial to the 6 million Jews exterminated by the Nazis takes up an entire city block, exceptional both as a commitment and an experience. Moving through the grid is not so much disorienting as unsettling. You see a person, and an instant later the person is gone.
Merkel’s legacy—her bold, fraught, immensely empathetic act of leadership—challenges more than the comfort of European life. It also challenges the comfort of assumptions about any group, including, if it works out, Germans. And it’s a legacy that flows not only from her childhood experience as a girl trapped behind a wall. It also follows from what she learned as an adult, applying her disciplined, methodical approach to what she calls “the things that matter to us most.” The Chancellor of Germany put anti-Semitism under her microscope, followed prejudice to its roots and found fear. Not only of Jews but of any “other,” including foreigners. Which takes in the whole world.
“Fear has never been a good adviser, neither in our personal lives nor in our society,” Merkel told a middle-aged woman who rose from an audience on Sept. 3 to ask what the Chancellor intended to do to prevent “Islamization,” with so many Muslims entering the country. “Cultures and societies that are shaped by fear,” Merkel said, “will without doubt not get a grip on the future.”
The ending has yet to be written. But that’s the moral of the story. —With additional reporting by Massimo Calabresi / Washington