By Dwight Garner
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel is famous for her plain but direct style. “I have no charisma,” she once complained to Tony Blair, “and I’m not good at communicating.”
She was wrong on both counts. Her anti-exuberance, in a world gone mad, has grown magnetic. As for communication, her droll mien — those imperceptible smiles, those subtly wrinkled eyebrows — speaks volumes.
When she shared daises with Donald J. Trump, she would roll her eyes toward him incredulously, as if he were belching up a series of detergent pods.
Merkel is a counterforce to ignorance and bluster, and the free world will miss her when she is gone. (She is stepping down this year after four terms.) She rose to become its de facto moral leader by displaying steel blended with a seemingly vanished trait: humility.
Kati Marton’s new biography, “The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel,” is a bit like Merkel herself: calm, dispassionate, not afraid to bore us. Many readers will find it a balm. It’s instructive to spend time in Merkel’s competent and humane company.
Marton is the author of nine previous books, including “True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy” (2016) and “Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America” (2009). She has been an NPR correspondent and was the ABC News bureau chief in Germany. She was married to the diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who in 1993 and 1994 was the United States ambassador to Germany.
It’s no simple task to write a biography of Merkel. She is famously private. She doesn’t use email and rarely texts. Even longtime staffers have never visited her unassuming private residence. There are no tell-all books. She ejects the indiscreet from her life.
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Merkel didn’t talk to Marton for this book. When the author does get a quote out of someone close to Merkel, it’s often a banality, such as “she’s funny as hell” or “she loves to read.” But give Marton credit. She has doggedly retraced Merkel’s trail, and the story she brings is a good one.
Merkel, who was born in 1954, grew up in Soviet-controlled East Germany, eventually behind the Berlin Wall. Her father was a pastor who never quite approved of her. Standing out was dangerous in East Germany, so she learned not to do it.
She studied physics in college, she said, “because even East Germany wasn’t capable of suspending basic arithmetic and the rules of nature.” She married for the first time at 23. It didn’t last long. The marriage was in part a practicality, her former husband later suggested: Married students were more likely to get an apartment.
Merkel’s most important reading, during this period, was history. East Germans had been fed a false narrative about World War II. They were led to believe that East Germany had resisted Hitler. Jews were rarely mentioned.
The truth was a shock. Merkel grew to realize that Germany owned a permanent debt to Jews, and this conviction — her feeling for the mistreated — led her to the moral decision, in 2015, to accept hundreds of thousands of Syrian and other refugees into her country.
Merkel drifted only slowly into politics. She chose a right-leaning party; she’d had enough of socialist experiments. She revered America. Among her heroes was George H.W. Bush, for helping Germany unify after the wall fell.
“I remember well when Angela came to our first meeting,” a contemporary recalled. “She was very reserved, very modest and looked younger than 35. She wore a shapeless corduroy skirt and sort of Jesus sandals. Her hair was cut in a Dutch boy bob.”
Within 15 years, after serving as minister of the environment under Helmut Kohl, she rose to become the first female chancellor of Germany.
Marton tracks the issues that matter to Merkel. She’s a trained physicist who phased out Germany’s nuclear energy program after the 2011 accident in Fukushima, Japan. We watch her struggle to hold the European Union together. We witness the evolution of her positions on immigration.
There are her close relationships with Barack Obama and Emmanuel Macron; her staring contests with Vladimir Putin; her attempts to get through to Trump by wooing his daughter Ivanka.
Marton calls this book “a human rather than a political portrait,” and personal details do emerge. Merkel likes to stand up and make coffee for her guests in a kitchenette, using the informal occasion to ask questions and break the ice. She does her own grocery shopping. She’s a soccer fan and tends to curse only over missed goals. Her husband, a quantum chemist — they have no children together, though he has two grown sons from a previous marriage — stays out of the limelight.
There are hints of a more playful side. She is famous for her social stamina and, Blair once said, “likes to sit up late and have a lively time.” She is said to be a gifted mimic, especially of Putin. She has been known to tell off-color jokes about an aspect of Putin’s anatomy.
On occasion “The Chancellor” veers toward hagiography, but it steps quickly away again. Marton is a critical observer, especially of Merkel’s tendency not to articulate her deeper feelings, her frequent failure to win over hearts as well as minds.
German politicians, Merkel is aware, have reason to beware soaring oratory.
This book is a bedtime story of a queasy sort, or so it can seem. It’s as if Marton, via her subject, were tucking the old liberal order in and wishing it a good night, for tomorrow it may die.
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