Europe’s most powerful leader is a refugee from a time and place where her power would have been unimaginable. The German Democratic Republic, where Angela Merkel grew up, was neither democratic nor a republic; it was an Orwellian horror show, where the Iron Curtain found literal expression in the form of the Berlin Wall.
The shy daughter of a Lutheran minister, Merkel slipped into politics as a divorced Protestant in a largely Catholic party, a woman in a frat house, an Ossi in the newly unified Germany of the 1990s where easterners were still aliens. No other major Western leader grew up in a stockade, which gave Merkel a rare perspective on the lure of freedom and the risks people will take to taste it.
Her political style was not to have one; no flair, no flourishes, no charisma, just a survivor’s sharp sense of power and a scientist’s devotion to data. Even after Merkel became Germany’s Chancellor in 2005, and then commanded the world’s fourth largest economy, she remained resolutely dull—the better to be underestimated time and again.
German pundits called her Merkelvellian when she outsmarted, isolated or just outlasted anyone who might mount a challenge to her. Ever cautious, she proudly practiced what Willy Brandt once called Die Politik der kleinen Schritte (the politics of baby steps), or as we call it in the U.S., leading from behind.