Why Everybody Loves to Hate Angela Merkel

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Odd Andersen / AFP / Getty Images

The distance between them Hollande's France and Merkel's Germany are growing apart economically and politically

When George Soros talks about European currencies, it's worth listening. In 1992, the U.S. financier famously made more than $1 billion by betting against the British pound's being able to maintain its exchange rate with the German mark. On June 26, as European Union leaders prepared to gather for yet another crisis summit to address their mounting economic and financial woes, Soros again had a strong message to send. But this time it was political, and it was aimed at German Chancellor Angela Merkel. If she continued to be unbending in her economic demands on the rest of Europe, Soros told the newsmagazine Der Spiegel, "The result will be a Europe in which Germany is seen as an imperial power that will not be loved and admired by the rest of Europe — but hated and resisted, because it will be perceived as an oppressive power."

For once, Soros is behind the curve, because in Europe's popular political imagination, Merkel is already the bogeyman — and worse. She's regularly vilified in Greek newspapers and on TV as a fascist set on taking over Greece. She has been Photoshopped in a Nazi uniform on the cover of a national newspaper. And outside Greece, the idea that she is a throwback to an uglier age — and that the country she leads wields disproportionate power — is also gaining traction as Germany helps prop up ailing economies even as it demands that recipients of its largesse behave more like Germans in showing greater fiscal discipline.

The June 25 issue of the New Statesman, a left-leaning British magazine, not only labeled Merkel "the most dangerous German leader since Hitler" — presumably including the brutal East German dictators under whose repressive rule she grew up — but also declared her a greater risk to world stability than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong Un. Elsewhere she has been depicted as a bully, a latter-day Nero who fiddles while Europe burns and, on the cover of the Spanish magazine El Jueves, a sadomasochistic dominatrix whipping Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy into submission.

If she's looking for sympathy, she's unlikely to find it among her fellow politicians. In the Mexican resort city of Los Cabos last month, leaders of the G-20 countries spent more time trying to twist Merkel's arm than patting it consolingly. And she didn't exactly warm hearts at the June 28 and 29 E.U. summit in Brussels when she declared shortly beforehand that never in her lifetime would she agree to a plan to pool European debt.

But the tough talk works: at the summit, nobody made a serious attempt to push through the issuance of joint eurobonds that would bail out countries in trouble, knowing that this would immediately meet with a German veto. Instead there was a much smaller compromise on whether emergency funds given to Italy and Spain could flow directly to those nations' banks. Merkel, initially opposed, agreed — and immediately faced heat back home. The daily Die Welt, echoing much of the German press, harrumphed about "Merkel's defeat."

She has good reasons for her resistance to grand plans and acceptance of the smaller moves. To use Germany's wealth to prop up a system that is unsustainable without radical reform — and integration — would be to risk the source of that wealth. Germany is doing better than the rest of Europe because it doesn't behave like the rest of Europe and because, increasingly, it is looking beyond Europe. But turmoil in Europe still endangers German prosperity. And so this small, soft-spoken woman is damned if she does and damned if she doesn't. She finds herself simultaneously blamed for global turmoil and expected to end it with a snap of her fingers; she is seen as Public Enemy No. 1 and the world's potential savior. Neither extreme is true, but she is the most significant player in the crisis. She is no dictator, but she can dictate terms. And that, perhaps more than anything, is why so many people are mad at her.

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