Angela MerkelThe most powerful woman in the world, her biographers have no friends.
Not only that, the phenomenal German chancellor routinely declines to be interviewed. Merkel has apparently kept no diary and left no trace of heartfelt letters. Her aversion to revealing the individual has inspired many of those best known, at least on the record, to avoid collaborations. His two siblings never spoke. Her ex-husband has issued a fine public statement, and he was to defend his controversial decision to accept the influx of refugees in 2015.
Even after a generation in power – including four years in which she emerged as the West’s unofficial leader against rising right-wing forces in the United States and elsewhere – Angela Merkel remains an enigma.
Lucky, then, that veteran writer Katie Marten brought considerable personal wealth to her attempt to understand Merkel in “The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel” (Simon & Schuster, 368 pp., ★★★ out of four). He is set to step down from public office after 16 years as Chancellor, a record matched only by Helmut Kohl in the previous century.
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Merkel was shaped by the strangest childhood, her estranged father being a Lutheran pastor who had chosen to move his family from West to East Germany, at a time when many East Germans were desperate to move in the opposite direction (” The Pastor’s Daughter,” is the preface to the book). His alertness, his comfort with silence and his sharp awareness of the use and abuse of power, reflect the lessons he learned as a minister’s child in atheistic East Germany, a police state under Soviet control.
Merkel will learn to listen more than talk, learn to be a “cautious realist” rather than an “angry idealist” to give others credit, but enhance her ability to be ruthless when the times demand. She was an unlikely poll—a woman and a research scientist from East Germany, and someone who seems constitutionally incapable of delivering a motivational speech. His rise to power, and his hold on power, was hardly guaranteed.
And yet this is what he did.
The complexities of all that resonated with Marten, who herself was born in Hungary, a Soviet satellite, raised as a Catholic by definition and an outsider. Marten’s parents were prominent journalists and were under constant official suspicion until they immigrated to the United States. As an adult, Marten worked as a foreign correspondent in Germany, and she married diplomat Richard Holbrook, a former US ambassador to Germany.
This smart, readable biography chronicles Merkel’s “remarkable odyssey,” weaving her career into the context of European politics of the time. The personal side of that journey is woven from a thousand threads of details revealed over the years. But even in an age when social media has made it possible to scrutinize every moment and every activity, the very private Merkel manages to keep herself out of sight.
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 provoked a more public trial, and one that prompted him to run for a fourth term rather than retire. She had a close, though sometimes thorny, relationship with President Barack Obama. She will now lead the Western Coalition in a time of global turmoil and fire from the new US president.
But the most interesting accounts of his leadership are his dealings with another business rival, Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both grew up under Soviet rule. Once in power, the two spent hundreds of hours in each other’s company and regularly spoke on the phone – sometimes both spoke in Russian, or both in German.
Merkel was under no illusions about the kind of man Putin was or what he was willing to do. A chilling photograph in “The Chancellor” shows the two of them sitting in armchairs in front of a formal fireplace in their palatial residence in Sochi. Knowing that she is afraid of dogs, and in what was certainly an act of intimidation, she opened her large black Labrador into the room, who propped herself up in front of her, his head on her lap.
She doesn’t move.
Susan Page is Granthshala’s Washington bureau chief and the author of “Madame Speaker: Nancy Pelosi and the Lessons of Power,” published by Twelve in April. (Full disclosure: Page is now writing a biography of Barbara Walters for Simon & Schuster, publisher of “The Chancellor.”)