Is Angela Merkel the world’s most powerful woman?

She may be the world’s most powerful woman, but German chancellor Angela Merkel has governed with the utmost caution—one of several contradictions that make her an enigma at home and abroad. After a year that forced Merkel into confrontations with Putin and Obama, Maureen Orth explores how a once frumpy physicist has led her reluctant country to new prominence on the global stage.

Photograph by Jock Fistick

As the old Market Church bells tolled in Hannover last October 3 on German Unity Day, commemorating Germany’s re-unification, Angela Merkel walked briskly over the cobblestones and paused at the entryway of the church to greet a few members of a children’s choir, dressed untraditionally in red sweatshirts and black pants. She herself was in her chancellor-of-Germany uniform: a brightly colored jacket, simple necklace, black pants, and low heels. She had TV pancake makeup on, but her sensible-matron look—cropped, softly colored blond hair, little lipstick—is always carefully calibrated to appear as if she were wearing no makeup at all. Only a couple of security guards could be seen anywhere in the church; there was no fanfare like the playing of “Hail to the Chief,” and, going up the aisle, she did not pause to shake hands with any of the congregation of 1,200 religious leaders, dignitaries, and diplomats. To think that only 25 years ago Angela Merkel was a divorced 35-year-old East German physicist specializing in quantum chemistry, who was not allowed to set foot in West Berlin and had never uttered a political opinion in public, was a striking affirmation of both the ability of Germany to recover and her own ability to succeed.

After nine years of her rule, however, many Germans still see her as from the East, not really one of them. They understand that as Merkel plays an ever enlarging role in the world—going head-to-head with Putin, charming China, exasperating and infuriating her European Union partners with her unyielding demands—she, who wants nothing to do with being seen as a “female” leader, has become The Man striding across the global stage. But, even so, Germans seem puzzled by Angela Merkel.

“She came as an outsider and she stayed an outsider,” Ines Pohl, editor of the Berlin alternative daily, Die Tageszeitung, commonly known as Taz, told me. “She’s spooky, because how can she manage all these things? She’s not really a woman you can love—admire and be proud of, yes. But you always feel her killer instinct.”

“She governs by silence,” says Dirk Kurbjuweit of Der Spiegel, who wrote a 2009 biography of Merkel. “It’s her biggest advantage and disadvantage. She never says something fast. She waits and waits to see where the train is going and then she jumps on the train. Part of this she learned in the G.D.R. [Communist East Germany]. She knew she had to watch her words—there’s nobody better at [vague] words than Angela Merkel.”

She is often referred to as the world’s most powerful woman, although those in Merkel’s immediate circle will fix you with looks of utter disdain for even bringing up such a concept. “That’s done for media lists—it has no meaning,” an official close to her told me. In fact, 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germans instinctively recoil at the idea of being powerful because that presumes responsibility on a global scale that they do not yet seem ready to take. The older generation still remembers the ravages of Hitler and the Third Reich, and the younger generation has grown up under the defense umbrella of the U.S. and NATO, which has been in place for nearly 70 years.

“Germans are just coming out of a phase where they didn’t see the world the way it was—now they are half in and half out,” former U.S. ambassador to Germany John Kornblum, who has lived in Germany for more than 40 years, told me. “Merkel is very smart and she is trying to manage these illusions while not losing elections.”

In Germany’s parliamentary system, Merkel is head of the center-right Christian Democratic Union party (C.D.U.). A year into her third term, she governs in a grand coalition with the center-left Social Democratic Party (S.P.D.), many of whose programs she has appropriated as her own, outflanking them at every turn and leaving little to debate. “We are a democracy,” Kurbjuweit says. “Government needs fights and arguments. We have none anymore.” Der Spiegel recently revealed that between 2009 and 2013 Merkel commissioned 600 secret public-opinion polls on the German electorate’s feelings. These are what often guide her actions.

Merkel has the added advantage that her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, instituted a number of unpopular structural reforms of the welfare state—giving management more leeway in laying off employees and streamlining various government benefits—that probably cost Schröder the 2005 election that saw Merkel come to power. Ironically, these reforms now allow Merkel to lecture other E.U. countries about their structural lassitude: the E.U. has only 7 percent of the world’s population but 50 percent of the world’s social spending. “All the reforms she has demanded from Greece, Italy, and Spain, she would never, ever, ever ask the German people to do, not remotely,” says Mariam Lau, another Merkel biographer, who is a political correspondent for Die Zeit. “I asked her, ‘How do you imagine the German voter out there?’ She always said, ‘People are afraid—the economy might not hold, their jobs might not be there.’ She thinks of her voters as risk-averse, anxious, and nervous.”

Two recent polls illuminate this. In one, 60 percent of the German people said that Germany should continue to exercise restraint in foreign policy. In another, 43 percent said if they ever had to buy anything on credit they’d be embarrassed.

“She’s very popular among the German people, but she doesn’t appreciate the German people so much. She doesn’t have much trust in them,” says another biographer, Ralph Bollmann, of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the leading conservative daily. “She had an enthusiastic image of the state of West Germany, that the people were very dynamic there, were oriented to compete; it was a long and hard process to learn that Germans are not like that.” According to Bollmann, the chancellor treats the German electorate—which recently gave Merkel a 74 percent approval rating—“as if they were children.” Her nickname in Germany is Mutti, or Mommy. (A sticker on a litter can outside my Berlin hotel said, “Be careful. Mutti is watching you.”)

Thus, her mantras: There are no problems, but rather “tasks” to be resolved using the scientific method of imagining every possible outcome. Take small steps. Explain very little. “For me, it is always important that I go through all the possible options for a decision,” Merkel said in a TV interview last summer. The process is rigorous. Merkel, adept at rapid texting, sits in Germany’s Parliament, the Bundestag, say observers, and frequently texts to an exclusive network of informal advisers who feed her information during the proceedings. (Her tight inner circle is led by two women, known as the “girls’ camp.”) After meticulously making a decision, Merkel then must decide how much “reality” she can spoon out at a time to her ever wary country.

After the Unity Day church ceremony, the diplomats and religious heads boarded buses to Hannover’s Neues Rathaus (New City Hall) to watch a nationally televised commemoration devoted to diversity and the voices of immigrants—a hot topic, since a few days previously smartphone pictures and videos had emerged of two asylum seekers who were abused in a German refugee center. Merkel’s speech was far more direct than usual, observers told me. I thought it might have even been stirring had she not raced through its delivery in a monotone, but it sounded as if she was laying the groundwork for Germany to become more involved in the world.

Barely looking up from the page and not using a teleprompter, Merkel said the threat of terrorism was “a challenge to the entire world—not just the U.S.A., not just the Arab states of the region,” and the battle against it was in “Germany’s interest. Jihadists threaten our security here as well. That is why we take up our responsibility, together with our partners and allies.” Merkel mentioned that the German military is involved in 17 different international missions, including humanitarian. To an American audience used to exalted talk of making the world safe for democracy and global leadership, the speech would have sounded like complete boilerplate, but to the Merkel tea-leaf readers at the diplomatic reception afterward, there was a definite buzz in the air, as if the chancellor had just given Germany the go-ahead to wake up—slowly, cautiously, meticulously—after seven decades of slumber.

“Did you just hear what I heard?” a high-ranking staff member of the German government asked the current U.S. ambassador, John Emerson. “The times they are a-changing.”

In her Unity Day speech Merkel had quoted a German newspaper calling 2014 “a year of pestilence, war, and terror.” Indeed, the past year has hit Merkel like a ton of bricks. For someone who prefers to rule by baby bites, Merkel has had a great deal on her plate.

By the time she had won her third term, in September 2013, Merkel had already stubbornly maneuvered the euro crisis to Germany’s will, demanding, in exchange for not overly generous bailouts, painful structural reforms of the spendthrift South—Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy—and Ireland. She made few friends along the way. The Greeks even waved placards of her with a Hitler mustache. But the German economy, the richest in the Eurozone, seemed to be purring, if not exactly roaring. During her 2013 campaign, Merkel said that by 2015 Germany would have a balanced budget—“black zeros”—for the first time since 1969, and even today she still insists she will not back down from that pledge; she will not go into deficit spending to stimulate the German economy despite two consecutive flat quarters of growth in 2014 and ominous warnings of recession and stagnation in Europe. Germany’s recalcitrance with regard to stimulating its own economy has been a continuing thorn in the side—if not a source of outright rage—to markets worldwide.

On the security front, when the Iraq war began, in 2003, Germany refused to be part of the Coalition of the Willing. It also markedly abstained from voting in the U.N. Security Council to join the U.S. in its late bid to intervene in Libya in 2011. It did, however, send 3,000 troops to Afghanistan, where about 800 will remain. For years, though, the euro crisis, with Merkel ultimately calling the shots for all 28 member nations, was the major international story for Germany: America’s relationship with Germany had shifted from being a security-based relationship to a largely economic one.

But 2014, the year Merkel turned 60, changed all that. It brought the crisis in Ukraine, which saw Merkel—not Barack Obama—become the point person in the transatlantic alliance for dealing with Putin; the continued diplomatic fallout from the National Security Agency’s infamous tapping of Merkel’s cell phone, followed by the revelation that the C.I.A. was attempting to recruit spies in the German government; and the war in Gaza, which sparked incidents of German anti-Semitism, causing Merkel to send police to guard synagogues. By early fall Germany had to contend with the news that an estimated 500 isis jihadists had grown up in Germany. For the first time in its postwar history, Germany pledged to send weapons to a foreign country, in this case to Kurdistan in order to help the Kurds fight isis on the Syrian border.

Merkel’s Unity Day speech gave voice to these examples of Germany’s broadening engagement all over the world. But she omitted the embarrassing fact that the first shipment of weapons—symbols of the country’s willingness to demonstrate its military preparedness and to take on greater challenges—had been delayed when the military plane scheduled to transport it broke down, leading to further reports describing the “shocking state of disrepair of Germany’s military hardware.”

Back in the G.D.R.

Twenty-five years ago, when the Berlin Wall fell, on November 9, 1989, Merkel took her regular Thursday-night sauna. She did not immediately accompany the elated throngs of East Germans tearing down the wall and breaking through. “When I came back out with my sauna bag,” Merkel recently told a group of high-school students in Frankfurt, “I saw how people were running along the street. What happened then I will never forget; it was perhaps half past 10 or 11 at night—I just started following the crowd. Grandparents were dragging their grandchildren, and the grandchildren did not even know what was happening to them.” She and a small group landed in a nearby apartment on the other side of the wall. After phoning an aunt who lived in West Germany and drinking one beer—“I remember it came in a can which was not familiar to me”—she called it a night, even though it was such an historic one. “I had to work again early the next morning and was an orderly person,” Merkel explained.

Merkel was also an insatiably curious person and a secretly avid follower of West German politics. She often fantasized about the West. She and her mother, Herlind Kasner, had a pact that if they could ever freely travel to West Berlin they would go to the famous Kempinski hotel and eat oysters. “Back then I knew exactly what I was going to do at 60—go to the police station here in the West. That’s where you gave them your G.D.R. passport, get a West German one, and then you could travel to America. That was my clear plan. But then it all came to pass a little earlier.”

Angela Merkel’s father, Horst Kasner (nicknamed “Red” for his political beliefs), raised his and Herlind’s three children to be very tight-lipped. “Her father frequently said, ‘Don’t tell your colleagues or your teachers at school what is spoken at our table,’ ” says Dirk Kurbjuweit. A Lutheran minister with lifelong anti-capitalist views, Kasner had brought his wife and the two-year-old Angela from the West to live in East Germany. “He was a striking character, very opinionated but also open-minded,” says his longtime neighbor Werner Foth, who taught English at the high school Angela graduated from in 1972 before heading to Leipzig University to study physics, eventually earning a doctorate in 1978. “He loved discussions and arguing.” Kasner was the head of a seminary that trained ministers to be administrators and also educated 200 mentally and physically handicapped people who boarded at Waldhof, the compound where Angela grew up, outside the small rural town of Templin, 44 miles north of Berlin. She has a younger brother, Marcus, and sister, Irene, the baby of the family. Her widowed mother, now 86, still lives in Templin and gives adult English classes; she was not allowed to teach under the Communists.

Templin today is picturesque and immaculately kept, with large pieces of the original city walls, constructed in the year 1300, still intact. Only a few unrestored houses suggest how dreary and ugly it must have been during the 41 years Templin was part of East Germany and everyone was constantly looking over his or her shoulder in fear of the regime and its henchmen, the Stasi. In addition, thousands of the Soviet Union’s Red Army soldiers were stationed at a nearby base. Religious families like the Kasners were automatically suspect under an atheistic government, yet Angela’s intellectual father was determined his three children should have university educations. That was not going to be easy unless one got along with those in power.

“Kasner made his arrangements with the state so that his children could get ahead,” charges Ulrich Schöneich, the former mayor of Templin. Schöneich was also the child of a minister, but he was not allowed to attend a pre-college high school, as Angela and her brother were. According to Schöneich and other sources, Angela joined the official Communist youth organization Free German Youth. Marcus, at age 14, went as far as to undergo the Jugendweihe (“youth consecration ceremony”), a kind of Communist Bar Mitzvah meant to be the “atheist replacement” of Lutheran confirmation, an act that, Schöneich said, shocked their religious community. Angela—well liked for helping other students—and Marcus both got straight A’s. “She could do everything but gym and singing,” Wolf Donath, her math teacher for four years and principal of the high school, told me.

Merkel’s notorious caution had already manifested itself. During swimming class one day, she stood at the edge of the high diving board at the Templin pool looking down for 45 minutes, until just before the class bell rang. Then she finally took the plunge. That hesitation was not unlike her waiting, in 2008, until 15 minutes before the markets opened in Tokyo to rescue an ailing German bank in order to avoid a domino effect that could have been catastrophic to the German economy.

After the collapse of the East German regime, in 1989, Merkel joined one of the political civic groups forming in the East, Democratic Awakening, then volunteered for the campaign of Lothar de Maizière, who became the G.D.R.’s only democratically elected prime minister, in 1990. After college, Merkel had been the secretary for agitprop in the Free German Youth, a post she claims was basically about organizing events. At any rate, she soon became de Maizière’s deputy government spokeswoman. After de Maizière signed the unification treaty, on May 18, 1990, which would put Helmut Kohl—who had served since 1982 as West Germany’s chancellor—in charge of the entire country, he joined Kohl’s right-of-center Christian Democratic Union and took Merkel with him. De Maizière was soon forced to resign from the C.D.U., after reports surfaced that he had been a Stasi informer.

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