This is a book review of Kati Marton’s The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel (Simon & Schuster, 2021).
Many can plausibly claim to have had a hand in Germany’s remarkable transition from pariah state of the first order in 1945, to what British scholar Timothy Garton Ash termed in 2013 “about as solid a liberal bourgeois democracy as you can find on earth … civilized, free, prosperous, law abiding, moderate and cautious.” But on any list of contributors to Germany’s transformation, Angela Merkel would surely be at or near the top. A consistent and firm defender of the European Union and NATO, Merkel has also been arguably the twenty-first century’s most consequential advocate for “liberal bourgeois democracy,” to use Ash’s phrase. In December 2021, Merkel stepped off the national and world stage as Germany’s first female Chancellor after holding her position continuously since 2005.
In the first biography to assess Merkel’s sixteen years in power, The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel, Kati Marton portrays Merkel as the personification of the Germany Ash described. No leader on the world stage in our era “protected the post-World War II liberal democratic order as fiercely as [Merkel] did,” Marton contends, transforming Germany “into the leader of Europe—not just an economic leader but a moral one too.” In her tenure as Chancellor (roughly the equivalent of a Prime Minister in Germany’s parliamentary system), Merkel pursued liberal democratic ideals pragmatically: she learned from her own mistakes, was “not wedded to ideology or dogma, in politics or in economics,” and was “open to new ideas regardless of their source—as long as they work.”
Marton seems ideally situated to offer a comprehensive picture of Merkel. She was born in Hungary and spent her early years there, until her parents were forced to flee the country in 1956, when the Soviet Union invaded the country to squelch an apparent liberal democratic uprising. Marton’s childhood experience with Eastern European communism undoubtedly looms in the background as she seeks to cast light on how Merkel’s upbringing in the undemocratic German Democratic Republic—as communist East Germany was officially termed—shaped her character and approach to governance. Freedom of expression and movement are “more than hackneyed phrases for a politician who spent her first thirty-five years lacking both,” Marton observes. Surviving the East German police state unbroken is an “accomplishment in itself and offers the key to her personal and political resilience.” Merkel’s “deepest conviction” is that democracy is “fragile and if treated carelessly, can slip away.”
To an unusual degree among contemporary politicians, Merkel guarded her privacy zealously and for the most part successfully throughout her years in the political limelight, a practice that can be attributed at least in part to her East German background. Characteristically, Merkel refused Marton’s request for an interview for the book. With no pretense of producing a “tell-all” exposé, Marton nonetheless makes some headway in peeking behind Merkel’s personal iron curtain, providing her readers with a fuller picture of the woman who dominated German and European politics for a decade and a half.
Marton follows a generally chronological approach in her easy-to-read biography. She starts with Merkel’s youth and early adult years as a professional scientist in East Germany, then tracks her rise in politics in the 1990s after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. In the last two thirds of the book, Marton zeroes in on the defining events of Merkel’s Chancellorship. Although plainly impressed with her subject, Marton does not hesitate to point out Merkel’s weaknesses and missed opportunities along with her strengths. The “supremely rational scientist” frequently failed to appreciate the “irrational, emotional elements behind human behavior,” Marton notes.
Marton gives Merkel highest marks for her handling of the 2015 refugee crisis, when Germany admitted close to a million people fleeing from wars in the Middle East. Less praiseworthy are the austerity policies which Merkel pursued to deal with the 2008–2010 economic downtown (often termed the ‘Great Recession’), and the accompanying crisis of the euro, the European common currency. Merkel became the West’s lead negotiator in dealing with Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea and invaded two provinces of Eastern Ukraine, in what now appears almost as a dress rehearsal for its full-scale invasion of February 2022. Writing a few months before this year’s invasion of Ukraine, Marton concludes that Merkel—although far from fully successful if one is to judge purely by results—did about the best she could under the circumstances.
Marton provides much insight into Merkel’s relationship with Putin, who warrants an entire chapter, “Dictators.” There are also full chapters on George W. Bush (“Her First American President”), Donald Trump (“Enter Trump”), and Emmanuel Macron (“A Partner at Last!”). To round out her portrait, Marton adroitly includes observations about Merkel’s unique leadership style and her methodical, understated and sometimes perplexing character.
An East-German upbringing
Merkel’s father, Horst Kasner, was a Lutheran pastor whom Marton describes as an “austere, demanding man of God.” Shortly after his oldest child Angela was born in Hamburg, West Germany, in 1954, he moved his family to the officially atheist East Germany to further his church’s mission on the other side of Germany’s Iron Curtain. Although young Angela was a precocious and exceptionally high-performing schoolgirl, excelling in math, science and Russian, she faced many forms of petty discrimination at her primary and secondary schools because of her family’s “bourgeois” background. Even after earning a PhD in Physics and establishing unquestioned brilliance in that field, Merkel found prestigious university level teaching positions closed to her because of the same “bourgeois” background.
Merkel’s start in politics followed in short order after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Bored with her position in a Leipzig research laboratory and attracted to the opportunities which open political life seemed to offer, she abandoned physics for politics. Fueled by “self-control, strategic thinking and, when necessary, passive aggression,” Merkel and a handful of fellow East Germans formed an Eastern center-right party, the Demokratischer Aufbruch (the D.A., or ‘Democratic Awakening’). The fledgling party went on to merge with then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (C.D.U.), a mostly male, Catholic and conservative organization. After Germany reunited in 1991, Merkel as an Easterner and a woman proved to be precisely what Kohl was looking for in his cabinet.
Kohl, the primary architect of German unification who had been Germany’s chancellor since 1982, considered Merkel a “trophy” or “talking point” from East Germany. What the “garrulous and normally shrewd Kohl did not calculate,” Marton writes, was that “his ‘trophy’ had plans and ambitions of her own and was willing to bide her time to realize them.” Kohl nominated Merkel initially to the position of Minister for Women and Youth and subsequently to the higher-visibility Minister for Environment and Nuclear Safety. In the latter position, at age forty-one, she presided over a 1995 Climate Conference held in Berlin which attracted representatives from 160 nations and produced the foundation for the landmark Kyoto Protocol two years later. This was Merkel’s debut on the world stage.
Merkel in the limelight
In 1998, Kohl was defeated in his fifth run for Chancellor after sixteen years in office (as it turned out, his term of office was one week longer than Merkel’s). When Kohl was caught a year later in a financial scandal, Merkel, in “one of the boldest acts in contemporary German politics,” wrote in a Frankfurt newspaper opinion piece that Kohl’s actions had damaged the party and that it was time for him to step aside as party leader. Merkel, the only one within her party willing to take on the man who had jumpstarted her political career, thereby demonstrated that “beneath her stolid façade lay a fierce will.” Two years later, at age forty-five, Merkel nominated herself for CDU chairmanship and was elected without opposition. When Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder called for early elections in 2005, Merkel was the C.D.U.’s unanimous choice as the party’s standard bearer.
As a fresh political face, Merkel appealed to the German public for her “humility, her plain but direct style, her absence of theatrics, and the fact that she had made the transition from East to West with seeming ease,” Marton writes. “Little more was really known about her beyond the remarkable sangfroid with which she had dispatched Kohl.” In an election that turned out to be closer than early polls predicted, Merkel’s C.D.U. edged Schröder’s Social Democrats with barely enough votes to control the Bundestag, Germany’s national parliament, and form a government for Merkel to lead.
Rather than a program of specific policies, Merkel brought to the Chancellorship her steadfast character and a singular leadership style, “working sideways,” as Marton puts it, “indirectly and without calling attention to herself.” She repeatedly demonstrated “how much a leader can get done quietly, without boasting of her achievements.” The Chancellor’s public allocutions were anything but inspiring. Marton characterizes Merkel as an “almost aggressively dull speaker. Her relationship to words is one of wariness: the fewer the better; it’s results that matter. Thus, she sometimes fails to capture a distracted world’s attention, however urgent her message.”
One crisis after another
But if less than inspiring at the podium, Merkel was a fearsome negotiator, almost invariably the best-informed person in the room whose grasp of minutiae was her own form of intimidation. A master of face-to-face diplomacy, she was highly skilled at careful reading of unspoken cues, body language, and silences. Her “near-photographic memory, her trained scientific ability to break down problems to their component parts, and her ravenous appetite for work” all helped her gain or hold the upper hand in meetings and negotiations. But the Great Recession of 2008, Merkel’s first major international test, demonstrated the limits to these qualities in dealing with the messy realities of politics and economics on a global scale.
At the time of the 2008 economic downturn, Germany, like Merkel herself, believed deeply in the “virtues of hard work, thrift, and living within one’s means,” one of the reasons Europe’s wealthiest country and its Chancellor were ill-equipped to help the continent’s lesser economies, especially Greece. Merkel thought a bailout for Greece would build dependency; she prescribed belt tightening instead, with no financial assistance until the country demonstrated more responsible behavior. When she went to Athens, she was met with overt hostility—and Nazi swastikas. Her “stern mien and her pieties sent exactly the wrong signal to Europe’s hardest hit economies,” Marton writes.
Merkel’s insistence on austerity as a policy seemed to omit the role of the banks in the crisis. Her policies appeared to punish ordinary people for the wrongs of their governments and the international financial system. Merkel and her hyperactive French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy—an “impulsive publicity hound” who seemed to “embody everything Merkel scorned”—finally worked out a series of bailouts for Europe’s most beleaguered economies. But she had “dawdled as millions suffered and took too long to appreciate the human cost of the global recession.” Her excess caution “gave the impression that she was impervious to human suffering.”
By contrast, Merkel’s “breathtakingly bold decision” in 2015 to admit close to one million refugees, mostly from Syria, but also from Iraq and Afghanistan, transformed Germany into what Marton terms the “moral center of the world.” No other leader in Europe or elsewhere “spoke with such moral clarity about the West’s obligation toward the causalities of its never-ending wars.” With nations across the globe increasingly succumbing to xenophobia, Merkel’s three-word explanation of why she had gone against the current in a refugee-weary Europe became famous worldwide: “Wir schaffen das.” “We can handle this”—which Marton characterizes as “pure Merkel in its undramatic, calming tone.”
The rise of the A.f.d.
Germans turned out the welcome mat for the refugees in numbers that surprised both the refugees and the Germans themselves. But not all Germans were welcoming. The German Alternative Party (Alternative für Deutschland, or A.f.D.), a party with neo-Nazi tendencies, arose in response to the Syrian immigrant crisis. In the parliamentary elections of 2017, A.f.D. gained a previously unthinkable ninety-four seats in the Bundestag, enough to make their voices difficult to ignore. Merkel ruled out any collaboration with A.f.D., even if her party needed its support on a particular issue. But the A.f.D. “did not vanish just because she refused to acknowledge its presence.” A.f.D.’s followers were among the hardest hit by the 2008 economic crisis. By insisting that the A.f.D.’s rise required no change of approach, Merkel missed an opportunity to “connect with people whose grievances—imagined and real—made them ripe for populist exploitation,” Marton writes.
It was no coincidence, moreover, that A.f.D. was concentrated geographically in the former East Germany. A.f.D.’s rise highlighted the extent to which the two Germanies were still separate and unequal. Until late in her tenure, Marton indicates, Merkel underestimated how rocky the road since unification had been for many of her fellow East Germans. In her relationship with the former East Germany, she appeared “cut off from a segment of her population and unwilling or incapable of dealing with the emotional content of their dissatisfaction.” But the Covid pandemic of 2019-2020, which she described as her country’s “greatest crisis since World War II,” provided an opportunity to clip A.f.D.’s wings.
Merkel insisted that rapid and coordinated transnational relief was the only way to confront a contagion that had no respect for international borders. She seized the global health crisis to “forge a new solidarity among European nations,” sending a powerful message to authoritarians, populists and nationalists around the world. Her competence in fighting the Covid-19 crisis “temporarily silenced the A.f.D.’s empty bluster.” A party that was fueled by rage “found little political traction in indignation against a virus.” Marton suggests that Merkel’s handling of the Covid pandemic sealed her legacy for calm, fact-based leadership.
Merkel’s legacy on Russia
Today, however, assessments of Merkel’s legacy gravitate inescapably to her handling of the 2014–2015 Ukraine crisis and her relationship with Vladimir Putin. The two leaders are contemporaries, separated by two years, having similar backgrounds but opposite world-views. Both speak fluently the language of the other. In one of the pair’s earliest meetings by the Black Sea, Putin seemed to have sensed that the German Chancellor would be a tough match for him. Having learned of her childhood fear of dogs (she was bitten twice), Putin brought his Labrador retriever to the meeting. The childish maneuver annoyed but did not intimidate Merkel. “He has to do this, to show his manhood,” she reportedly told her staff subsequently. “Russia has no successful politics or economy.”
Merkel became the West’s lead negotiator on Ukraine in 2014 after American president Barack Obama concluded he could no longer deal effectively with the duplicitous Putin (Merkel’s uneven relationship with Obama is one of the book’s more surprising revelations). It was not a role Merkel sought for herself or for Germany, but one she fulfilled doggedly nonetheless. During Russia’s 2014 offensive in Ukraine, Merkel spoke to Putin several times a week. “Seething quietly” on each call, she was nonetheless “determined to provide Putin with an off-ramp from what she saw as a fundamentally nefarious and unprovoked war.”
Merkel ruled out the use of force and resisted growing calls for increasing arms shipments to Ukraine. Her main weapons in dealing with Putin were her own “focus and steely determination,” as Marton puts it. By talking, she felt she might “eventually bring Putin back to reality.” Merkel’s resistance to more bellicose measures was influenced in part by the German public’s pacifist streak and its memory of the dark consequences of militarism, but even more by Germany’s Cold War experience, in which the West “ultimately defeated the Soviet Empire through containment, patience and strategy.” But pursuit of a bargain with Putin revealed the limits of Merkel’s negotiation skills in an “increasingly lawless, authoritarian era.”
Merkel expended considerable political capital to talk German businesses into imposing sanctions on Russia, at a significant cost to the German economy, and persuaded all E.U. members except Hungary and Italy to join in a coordinated sanction effort. Two major agreements, the “Minsk Accords” and “Minsk II,” sought to end the fighting in Eastern Ukraine and restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity, but were never fully implemented and failed to put an end to the conflict. In Marton’s estimation, Merkel nevertheless emerged from the 2014–2015 Ukraine crisis as the West’s “most determined defender of established democratic norms,” proving that she could “stand up to Putin when others would not (or could not)”—an unsubtle dig at Obama. In a passage that she would probably excise were she writing today, Marton writes that Putin “seems to have learned his lesson, so for now, at least, the other countries that made up the former Russian Empire are safe.”
In June of this year, in her first public interview since leaving the Chancellorship, Merkel reflected upon the lessons she learned from her Ukraine experience in 2014–2015. Relying upon her penchant for understatement when a little more emotion might have been warranted, she described the 2022 invasion as a “big mistake on Russia’s part.” Asked whether she should apologize for having been too soft on Putin seven years earlier, the ex-Chancellor responded, “I tried to work toward calamity being averted, and diplomacy was not wrong if it doesn’t succeed … It is a matter of great sorrow that it didn’t succeed, but I don’t blame myself now for trying.” The sanctions imposed in 2015 “could have been stronger,” the ex-Chancellor conceded, but she added that there was no majority sentiment for strengthening them at the time.
The world, Marton writes in conclusion, is in many ways a “much rougher place than the one [Merkel] inherited as chancellor in 2005.” After Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, the world seems to be a still rougher place than the one Merkel left when she stepped down in December 2021, after sixteen years of battling in her methodical, understated manner for democratic norms and values, internationally and domestically. More Merkel biographies are likely to follow what Kati Morton has produced here, some longer and more granular. Merkel might even provide an interview to a fortunate future biographer and, with or without a Merkel interview, a 900-page Robert Caro-type doorstopper may see the light someday. Until then, Morton’s initial effort to assess the ex-Chancellor’s full tenure and pierce her personal space will serve as the lodestar for readers hoping to gain more insight into this still-enigmatic figure.
Image Credits: Simon & Schuster, 2022 (Fair Use)