Officially, Angela Merkel, 57, is the Chancellor of Germany, but in reality, she holds sway over much of Europe. As the continent has descended into its most severe economic crisis since World War II, Merkel's power has grown to a level almost unparalleled in modern European politics. Germany, Europe's largest economy, plays such a dominant role in the 17-nation euro zone that nothing can happen without a nod from Merkel.
To optimists, she has become the fearless general, guiding Europe (albeit slowly) out of the debt debacle toward its lofty goal of democratic integration. For pessimists, her persistent reluctance to pursue rapid and broad reform of the monetary union has put its future and the stability of the entire global economy at serious risk. Whichever story line proves true, Merkel will leave her mark on the lives of millions of Europeans for decades to come.
Schuman is TIME's economics correspondent