Merkel's Moment

A trailblazer and the unchallenged leader of Europe's largest economy, Germany's Chancellor now faces an uncomfortable question, How should her country use its power?

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Oliver Mark / Focus

Angela Merkel

Diminutive in the imposing vastness of her office, Angela Merkel appears surprisingly frail for someone who's spent the past 20 years upending political norms. Now 55, Merkel, Germany's first Chancellor raised in the communist East, is the head of a democratic form of government and the guardian of individual freedoms that she was denied until her 30s. She outsmarted phalanxes of gray-haired, gray-suited machine politicians to set two other precedents, becoming the first woman to occupy the Chancellery as well as its youngest incumbent. Then in September, after four tricky years helming a coalition that yoked her conservative Christian Democrat bloc with the Social Democratic Party, she won a new mandate, with center-right coalition partners of her choosing. Now, as the emboldened leader of Europe's most populous nation and most powerful economy, Merkel has the ability to make her personality and priorities count on a global stage. But what, exactly, does she want to do with her power? And how will she go about doing it?

Merkel has spent decades being underestimated. There are still plenty of observers of the German political scene who regard her myriad achievements as flukes. "Merkel has never given a speech that stayed in the memory," wrote her most recent biographer. She can indeed seem reserved and self-effacing at times, but there should be little doubt that she has confidence and ambition aplenty. "You could certainly say that I've never underestimated myself," she says with a smile that in another context could only be described as kittenish. "There's nothing wrong with being ambitious."

The daughter of a Protestant pastor who settled in the East German state of Brandenburg, Merkel excelled at math and science and originally pursued a career as a physicist. But growing up where she did, she discovered early on that there were limits to what she would be permitted to do. "In East Germany," she says, "we always ran into boundaries before we were able to discover our own personal boundaries."

Paradoxically, Merkel's life under communism may have helped when it came to starting a political career as the Iron Curtain began to crumble. She knew how to navigate around blockages and when to keep a low profile. Her rise to prominence went all but unnoticed, except by the rivals she deftly derailed along the way. Elected to the first parliament of the reunited Germany, she was appointed a Cabinet minister by Chancellor Helmut Kohl just one year later. He called her das Mädchen, "the girl." She was used to sexism. "There was no real equality in the German Democratic Republic," she says. "There were no female industrialists or members of the politburo." So she smiled her feline smile and made no protest but quickly distanced herself from her patronizing patron once he became entangled in a party finance scandal.

Childless and twice married, Merkel was cast as an indulgent mother to the electorate during the 2009 campaign. Though she claims to bake the occasional plum cake, she doesn't exactly match the ideal of a German hausfrau. Her second husband, an eminent chemist, often ducks out of official events. "He needs the working day for his science," says Merkel. Such attitudes may have annoyed traditionalists, but her quiet determination has helped her gain broad support well beyond the Christian Democrats' core voters. Even among those who identify themselves as Social Democrats, Merkel's unstuffy pragmatism, social liberalism and commitment to fighting climate change — a key issue in Germany — have made her surprisingly popular. A December poll by Germany's Infratest Dimap Institute showed Merkel was Germany's favorite politician, with 70% of Germans proclaiming themselves satisfied with her work.

The Quiet Giant
So what will she do now? Given Germany's modern history, it is hardly surprising that the nation — and whoever leads it — rarely seeks to thrust itself into acrimonious global issues. German political debate overwhelmingly concerns itself with sustaining and extending the widely shared prosperity and personal security that was a hallmark of the old West Germany. When the Great Recession began at the end of 2008, Merkel initially drew fire for her handling of the crisis, and in 2009, the German economy contracted 5% overall. Critics said she was doing too little, too slowly and that her efforts were targeted at the wrong industries. She argues that her response has been vindicated. The German economy began to rebound in the second half of 2009, and helped by an aggressive "short time" work program, its unemployment rate has steadily declined to 7.5%, compared with 10% in the U.S. No economy is free from the threat of backsliding yet, however, and the head of Germany's federal labor agency has predicted joblessness will rise again this year. But as world trade picks up, the mighty German export machine should click into gear once more, delivering decent growth.

While Merkel may be able to look at Germany's domestic conditions with some confidence, there are profound international challenges ahead. Some sense of Merkel's priorities can be gleaned from her Nov. 3 speech to Congress. (She is only the second German Chancellor accorded the honor.) The speech, with its heartfelt and moving thanks and tributes to the U.S., could have been made only by someone who grew up in a Soviet satellite state. Throughout, it was easy to see how her past had shaped her view of the world. There should be, she said, "zero tolerance towards all those who show no respect for the inalienable rights of the individual and who violate human rights." That is one reason she has taken a tough line on Iran's nuclear program, criticized its crackdown on protestors after last summer's elections and risked the ire of China by meeting with the Dalai Lama.

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