When German Chancellor Angela Merkel gets up in the morning, she doesn't start her day by saving the euro. She doesn't behave like a woman who dominates Europe, dominates Germany and dominates the European Union, nor does she behave like a woman who supposedly shunted aside former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and Friedrich Merz, the former chairman of the parliamentary group of her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). When Angela Merkel gets up in the morning, she makes breakfast for her husband Joachim Sauer. She wants to make sure that he has a decent meal in his stomach before he leaves the house.
This breakfast tale was part of a story she recounted on a flight from Nigeria to Berlin in July of this year. During a lunch with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, Merkel asked him whether he cooked at home. Jonathan laughed. He, the president, and a man to boot, cook? She likes to cook, Merkel replied, and said that she even makes breakfast for her husband. Jonathan stood up and made a toast, saying that Nigerian women should follow the example of the German chancellor and make breakfast for their husbands every morning.
Merkel was amused when she told this story on the flight to Berlin. Obviously her intentions had been different. She had addressed Jonathan as a human being, as a person who could conceivably cook at home, just as she likes to cook and make breakfast. Instead Jonathan turned it into a political message, namely that women should be obliging to their men.
An Incomplete Picture
It is, in fact, difficult to imagine Merkel making breakfast in the morning, starting a pot of coffee and putting jam on the table, still a little drowsy and perhaps with the first vague thoughts about the euro forming in her head. As the German chancellor, she is constantly accompanied by the aura of her office, which can easily outshine the human side of a person who behaves just like anyone else.
Merkel has acquired the image of a bureaucratic machine, cool, eternally composed and unapproachable. Her standard outfit, trousers and a buttoned blazer, underscores the impression of aloofness she conveys. What this picture says about her is that she is not a person who makes breakfast.
It's the role she plays in public, the image she conveys to the world. But it's also an incomplete picture. I have spent many years accompanying Merkel on her trips, have participated in almost all off-the-record conversations and have often observed her during her press briefings. She was cool and composed, and while not unapproachable, she was usually somewhat aloof. And yet Merkel is no bureaucratic machine. There have always been moments, here and there, when she was different, moments when Merkel revealed a spirited, lively side to her nature. In fact, her behavior in small groups is often completely different from the way she behaves in public.
Disposition is the operative word here. What sort of disposition does Merkel have, and how does it affect her policies, especially her fight to save the euro? A disposition is made up of emotions, the ones that are evident and those that are hidden. Emotions move within a spectrum between the two extremes of love and hate.
The word "loved" appears once in my notes. The topic was conscription in Germany's Bundeswehr army, which Merkel said she loved. But that love didn't stop her from suspending compulsory military service at the drop of a hat this year. Apparently it wasn't a great love. Hate was something that doesn't figure prominently in her world, at least not audibly or visibly. But beyond these extremes, Merkel is someone who exhibits a broad range of emotions: anger, boundless exhilaration, affection, displeasure, joy and sadness.
Tears? I've never seen them, except tears of laughter. When a close advisor who spends a lot of time with Merkel was asked if the chancellor ever shed tears of sadness or rage, he replied: "There is the entire spectrum of emotional forms of expression."
"The entire spectrum."
Is this relevant? Critics accuse the media, including SPIEGEL, of excessively personalizing politics and not paying enough attention to the issues. Of course issues are important, but the disposition of a political leader, the human element, is also important. It makes a huge difference whether Merkel is Germany's chancellor or someone like the Social Democratic Party (SPD) politician and former Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück, not because of things like programs, ideologies and visions, which don't play such a huge role anymore, but because of personalities. The human being at the top echelon of politics is politically relevant in all of his perceptions, because it's the level where every aspect of a person plays a role.
Paradoxically, it is all the more difficult to write about a German chancellor the more access one has to her. Access means acquiring information that cannot be used in print. I have had dozens of conversations, but all have been off the record, meaning that reporting on those conversations is off-limits. The absurd thing about all this is that we don't take part in these off-the-record conversations for our own good, but for the benefit of our readers, and yet what transpires in the conversations cannot be divulged to them.
When Merkel was in Mongolia, the president received her in the official yurt, a tent set up in the government headquarters building in the capital Ulan Bator. She was offered mare's milk, which is traditionally given to guests in Mongolia. On the return flight to Berlin, a journalist asked government spokesman Steffen Seibert whether the chancellor had tried the mare's milk. Seibert answered the question, but then said that it was "off the record." In other words, the question of whether Merkel had tried the Mongolian mare's milk, absurdly enough, had suddenly become a state secret.
Almost everyone involved in Merkel's off-the-record conversations -- mainly the heads of the Berlin offices of major media organizations -- tweaks this system. Journalists drop hints, or they print quotes either without citing sources or while cautiously doing so. There is a gray zone.
This is a report from that gray zone. It digs deeply, but without revealing state secrets, at least not any important ones.
Merkel's Human Side
Merkel is laughing. She is standing in the government plane, laughing uncontrollably. In fact, she is laughing so hard that she can no longer speak. Her eyes are shiny with tears and her entire body is trembling. She would like to keep talking, but her words are quickly swallowed up by a snort and she keeps laughing. She is practically chortling as the tears run down her face.
She is on her way home from Lithuania, and she has just mentioned that the Lithuanians are worried about a nuclear power plant the Belarusians are building at the border. One day the Lithuanian prime minister apparently decided to cycle to the construction site with his family, disguised as tourists. Merkel is already looking rather amused at this point. But then, she says, the Belarusian police decided to detain the cycling prime minister. Merkel starts chuckling and, before long, she is laughing uncontrollably.
The German chancellor can be exuberant. She tends to be a cheerful person, and one of her main emotional states is one of amusement. She finds many of the minutiae of being chancellor amusing, especially all the things that can go wrong in her surroundings.
The laughing incident also reveals an awareness of status. Only someone for whom it would be inconceivable, as head of state, to cycle to a nuclear power plant construction site in a neighboring country could find this story so incredibly funny. Merkel's laughter is in fact similar to Nigerian President Jonathan's reaction to her story about making breakfast for her husband. In both cases, a country's leader is expressing sheer amazement at another leader's somewhat relaxed approach to the dignity of his or her office. Each leader has an understanding of the extent to which he or she can remain human, and yet in the end each leader also recognizes a line that cannot be crossed. In Merkel's case, that line was only shifted slightly in the direction of being a stateswoman.
Merkel Never Loses Her Cool
On the other hand, Merkel is a chancellor who has trouble expressing her pent-up emotions. I have never heard her shouting in anger, and members of her staff say that she never does. Her way of showing anger is to be icy. Once, during a series of discussions on the lifespans of German nuclear power plants, she became tangled up in numbers and facts and asked an official for help. He started talking, but his performance wasn't any better.
"That's a very impressive remark," Merkel said to the official with a sardonic smile, her tone of voice filled with malicious irony. The official turned beet-red before the color drained from his face. After that, he sat at the conference table looking like a corpse.
After the meeting, Merkel went up to him and said: "The answer was definitely correct, but it didn't help me at all." Her facial expression was friendly and mild, and her tone of voice was conciliatory. The official came back to life. As a political leader, Merkel is not interested in carrying cruelty to extremes.
She can make terrifying faces and, oddly enough, it often happens when she is asked a question. Let's say, for example, she is being asked how her meeting with the president of the United States or Angola went, or what's next for her coalition government. Her face looks threatening. She narrows her eyes, juts out her chin and firmly presses her lips together, which makes them look thin and pale.
Awkward at Expressing Feelings
But then she answers the question in a friendly way, even if it's an aggressive question. It's a mysterious aspect of her facial expression, which sometimes seems askew, as if there were a rift between her frame of mind and her face. She looks grim without being grim, and she knows it. When asked about it once, she said: "It's just the way I am."
It's a similar situation with her speech. Her words sometimes seem out of place when she is trying to express an emotion. When Merkel, who is a Christian, said that she was pleased about the death of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, her words seemed much too cold, suggesting that they did not in fact reflect her true feelings. When former German President Horst Köhler abruptly resigned from office in 2010, the chancellor said she regretted his departure "in the deepest of terms." Merkel is awkward when it comes to expressing feelings.
She has never shown surprise, always seems to expect things to happen and finds nothing overly dramatic. She characterizes the world to herself and her listeners in such a way that there is no need to react strongly to it. To the outside world, the brawling between the chancellor's CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), looks like serious political combat. In her verbiage, however, a dispute with the CSU is a "minor disturbance." With that approach, it's hard not to be relaxed.
Merkel's permanent assignment to herself could be described as reducing: dimming down, minimizing and de-dramatizing. The advantage of this approach is that the situation always seems controllable, and that hysteria is not something that can occur in her environment. The drawback, though, is that it makes her policies seem obtuse.
In the last few months, at least two senior politicians from the CDU/CSU have encouraged Merkel to give a major and preferably emotional speech on the situation of the euro, to be broadcast on television and the radio. But she refused. She is determined not to be in a situation that requires a significant display of emotion, as if she were worried that she would be unable to say the right thing in the right way.
Merkel deliberately ran an extremely bland campaign in 2009, so that no one could be upset with her and thus vote for a different party because of the chancellor. She minimized emotions and, in doing so, reduced voter turnout, a development she felt would be advantageous for the conservative CDU/CSU. And she was right. Nevertheless, she did democracy a disservice, because democracy needs high voter participation to be legitimized.
On three occasions, I experienced something resembling an emotional outbreak coming from Merkel. The first time, it had to do with Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. It was in March of this year, shortly before he resigned as defense minister in the wake of a plagiarism scandal involving his doctoral dissertation. Merkel was asked about it. Normally she sheds no tears for departing personnel, but this time she seemed moved, revealing a mixture of anger and sadness. She was angry because Guttenberg was being vilified, and sad because she was going to miss him.
She gave a brief, spontaneous and emotional speech, in which she praised Guttenberg for his ability to connect to people, and for his social skills and good looks. She revealed that she was pleased to have had someone in her immediate environment who was a star, not a political star but a pop star. During this speech, Merkel was so moved that she was constantly tugging at a loose thread on the button of her sleeve. At the end she said: "Clearly the great emotional skill of connecting with people is incompatible with bureaucratic meticulousness." She was referring to Guttenberg, but she could also have been talking about the incompatibility between her skills and Guttenberg's. Merkel is without equal among top politicians when it comes to bureaucratic meticulousness and obsession with detail.
She had already praised Guttenberg on another occasion, when she said: "I think it's great; I can't do everything and cover everything." He was a complement to her, her minister for emotions and political spectacle. Still, it is strange that she was able to give an emotional speech about a man whose task, in part, was to offset the emotional deficits of her policies.
The major anomaly of her chancellorship is that she once made a serious decision based on emotions: the nuclear phase-out after the Fukushima disaster. Merkel talked about how shaken she was by the images. She also saw the smoking reactor with the eyes of a physicist who had led everyone to believe that the residual risk was negligible. Feeling the need to make amends, she prescribed a precipitous phase-out to her party and Germany.
The Profession of Being Chancellor
Potato soup is being served, once again. Merkel likes to make her own potato soup at home, but she also has potato soup served during her off-the-record meetings with leading journalists from Berlin's top media bureaus, which are held in the dining room on the ninth floor of the Chancellery, Merkel's office. The chancellor begins with a short speech, which is followed by a question-and-answer session. When potato soup is on the menu, Merkel sometimes asks for seconds. "Two ladles, please," she says to the waiter.
This is how Merkel began her speech on Sept. 9, 2010: "The fall season has begun. There will be a verbal exchange that you can look forward to."
On Jan. 20, 2011, she began with the words: "This will be one of the most exciting years."
And, on Aug. 29, 2011, she said: "It promises to be an interesting autumn."
The language Merkel uses to talk about her work -- looking forward to things, exciting, interesting -- reveals something about her. She likes being the German chancellor. It's her dream profession. But why?
Merkel the Problem Solver
One answer could be that she wants to assert her positions or the positions of the CDU. But that isn't evident in what she says. The opening sentences of her speeches suggest that she is a woman who likes solving tasks. The more difficult these tasks are, the more exciting and interesting they are for Merkel, and the happier she is about her work.
In this respect, she is more of a scientist than a politician. Classic politics has to do with implementing an idea. The easier it is the better, because the reward lies in shaping the world according to one's own ideas.
That said, a scientist, strictly speaking, doesn't want to implement an idea but to solve a problem. The more difficult the problem, the greater the reward. This is the way Merkel sees her job. She is a problem solver, and the ideas are secondary.
This may explain why she finds it so easy to abandon her party's traditional ideas on the family, nuclear power and Germany's integration with the West. Merkel is more of a Marxist than a Hegelian. She doesn't try to make conditions conform to ideas, but instead aligns her ideas with conditions. One could call this pragmatism, or simply maneuverability.
Merkel had one of her rare outbursts when she was talking recently about the Green Party's strategy after the Berlin state parliamentary elections. She felt that it was unacceptable for the party to insist that a segment of highway not be expanded in the German capital city, which eliminated the Greens as a potential coalition partner for Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit. Merkel let it slip that she was truly incensed about the issue. Her voice grew louder and the words started flowing out of her mouth more and more quickly, as she heatedly described the deals the Greens would have had to make with each other and the SPD to make it into the Berlin government. In the end, Merkel's own CDU entered as a junior partner in a grand coalition government with the center-left SPD in the local government in the city, which has the status of a state.
Passionate about the Power Game
It was a moment in which the chancellor showed herself to be competent. She knows how these things go. It's her innate political instinct, the desire to capture a share of power. But it was also a sad moment. I have never seen her as upset about a practical issue before. Although it is not an original realization, there is no getting around it: Merkel is passionate about the power game.
A notoriously unflappable problem solver with a strong desire for power is an unpleasant adversary. It is difficult to wear her down, because she welcomes each new difficulty as a new challenge. And she can hardly be characterized as a loser, because every compromise, no matter how lazy, represents a solution to a problem -- like healthcare reform or the extension of the lifespans of nuclear power plants, a controversial decision by her government to freeze legislation by former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's government to phase out atomic energy in Germany that she would later reverse after Fukushima.
Merkel works with the steely strength of someone who is having fun. She enjoys perusing files and sitting in endless meetings. She still takes pleasure in the exotic aspects of her trips, like being offered mare's milk in the government yurt in Ulan Bator, or attending a luncheon in Nairobi that's halfway between a state banquet and a night at a club, complete with red tablecloths in a hotel ballroom, strings of green, white and red lights and a lively band that was a little heavy on the electric organ music. Merkel sipped her white wine and enjoyed herself.
Friendly and Confident
But there are also the journalists who are constantly clinging to her coattails. Perhaps she views these people the way Austrian playwright Peter Handke describes them in his play "Subday Blues": "It's you people again. And now I have to spend time with you again. Hallelujah. Miserere. Ebb without tide. You damned unavoidable people." During off-the-record meetings, the journalists sit in her dining room, in her cabinet room and in the lounge on her aircraft.
The lounge looks as if an oriental arms dealer had decorated it, complete with shiny, lacquered wood, thick, upholstered furniture, purple light and metal-rimmed monitors that show where the aircraft is at any given moment.
When Merkel arrives, she stands in stark contrast to the décor of the lounge. She is holding a steaming cardboard cup in her hand with the words "It's nicer to wake up in an HRS hotel" printed on it. She squeezes between two journalists in the small lounge, and says: "Okay, we're flying to New York, as you know." - "So. Mongolia is the subject." - "So. Well, hello and welcome to the Africa trip." - "Yes, as you know we are flying to Singapore." - "Okay, we're off to India." - "Yes, we're traveling to Malta and Cyprus."
Anyone who hasn't figured out where the trip is headed can rest assured that Merkel will fill him or her in. She is friendly to and confident with journalists, even if they have written unkind things about her. She also keeps her distance, which is appropriate. One exception is Kai Diekmann, the editor-in-chief of the German tabloid newspaper Bild. Seeing the chancellor with Diekmann offers a rare opportunity to witness her looking flushed, all ears and amiably frenetic. Not only does she depend on Bild, but she is a also a little afraid of the publication, which is Europe's largest newspaper with around 3 million buyers and 12 million readers each day.
Hiccups and Inhibitions
In her relationship with the other journalists, however, she exudes a certain sense of unfamiliarity and tension. This hasn't dissipated over the years, even though Merkel tried to overcome it once.
It is January, and Merkel is visiting Malta. She has sat through political meetings, visited a church and enjoyed herself at a state banquet. Now, at the end of a long day, she invites the journalists in her entourage to attend an off-the-record meeting. Her staff has set up sofas and chairs, arranging them so that the journalists are sitting across from the chancellor.
When Merkel walks into the room, she looks disappointed. She says that she had wanted "to sit together informally for a change." What she had had in mind was an informal get-together in the bar, without confrontation. Despite her misgivings, she gives it a try. "So what motivates you?" the chancellor asks, as red wine and snacks are served.
It's a situation no one seems prepared to handle. The tables have been turned and the person who normally answers the questions is asking them. And a woman who never talks about her private life is asking personal questions. What her staff had envisioned as an informal meeting quickly feels forced. No one manages to slip out of his or her normal role, and the conversation feels inhibited, until the talk turns to Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. Someone asks Merkel about her relationship with Westerwelle. She gets hiccups.
After about an hour, she gets up abruptly and says: "Okay, see you. We have an early morning departure tomorrow." As she passes the empty bar and marches out of the room, Merkel glances at a staff member and raises her lower arm to greet him. Sometimes her movements come off as being almost robotic.
The Loneliness of the Chancellor
The unspoken topic of that evening in Malta was loneliness. It goes with the territory of being chancellor that almost every relationship is completely defined by this role, because it is so dominant. As it happens, a journalist cannot simply chat with a chancellor about what motivates him or her.
This formality also applies to non-journalists. When Merkel buys shoes, she is a German chancellor buying shoes. All sense of normalcy is lost. The saleswomen freeze when faced with the petite feet of this powerful woman. Merkel has said that this is why she doesn't like shopping for shoes.
Her spontaneous encounters with normal people almost always seem stilted. When she visited the Temple of Literature in Hanoi in October, several German tourists approached her. "We're from Düsseldorf," and "we're from Thuringia," the tourists said. "Ah, you're from Düsseldorf, and you're from the beautiful Thuringia," she replied. People almost always want to pose for a photo with Merkel, and when she stands next to them, her smile is more than just thin. It often looks self-conscious, too.
I have never experienced an average person who has come up with something original to say or has shown a true interest in Merkel. Most normal people are only interested in the snapshot with her. Being Germany's chancellor is not a profession for someone seeking meaningful human contact.
The trip that followed Malta took Merkel to Asia. She had her staff organize a small, informal get-together for her entourage in Singapore. It is a humid night on the rooftop terrace at the Fullerton Hotel, with a view of the lights of a rich city and a giant ship lying on top of three tall buildings. It isn't really a ship, but it looks like one. In fact, it's a casino.
Merkel is late. The guests sweat, drink and eat finger food. Peter Löscher, the head of German engineering giant Siemens and a member of the business delegation, leaves after a while. He runs into Merkel at the bottom of the stairs. She implores him to return to the terrace with her, as if she were desperate not to be left alone with those cumbersome journalists.
A German Europe
The chancellor flew to St. Petersburg on Oct. 2, 2008 to meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Some of the things that were said on that trip attracted attention at the time, but their immense importance only became clear in the last few months.
The financial crisis had just begun, Ireland was in trouble, and Germany's Hypo Real Estate bank was on the verge of collapse. One of the key issues at the time was whether each country in Europe should have to cope with its own banking crisis or whether all countries should vouch for one another. On the flight to Russia, Merkel made it clear that Ireland would not be getting any money from Germany.
It was a stance that has characterized Merkel's policies in the last three years. No other German chancellor has made what he believed to be the national interest as much a guiding principle for his actions as Merkel has. This approach is also a product of her disposition.
Merkel has a dual identity. This becomes evident when she says "we," as in the following sentence: "We were certainly on Angola's side; we had a lot of workers from Angola." She couldn't have been referring to the Federal Republic of Germany. She was talking about the former East Germany, where guest workers came from Eastern bloc countries like Angola. Merkel uses the word "we" as a former citizen of East Germany , but in a different context she uses it as the chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. In this sense, Merkel has two approaches to the word "we."
This doesn't mean that Merkel isn't a German patriot. She is one. Her first "we" already suggested a yearning for the Federal Republic of Germany, but not a yearning for Europe. Her dreamy gaze jumped across the western part of the continent and went directly to America. It was where she desperately wanted to go, to the place where Levi's, the jeans that she had longed for in East Germany, came from.
For Merkel, Europe is historically a no-man's land between the two objects of her longing, and she has only gradually incorporated it into her second "we." She is a European, but not in a heart-rending or emotional way.
Creating a Europe that Is Useful to Germany
When she talks about her policy on the euro, she often mentions her oath of office. She says that she has sworn to protect the German people from harm. This is her goal. She wants to protect German money.
She also wants the euro zone and the EU to become more integrated. She wants this because she believes it serves Germany's national interest, but not because she wants to insert Germany into the interests of other countries, as was the case with her predecessors, former Chancellors Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl. She wants a Europe that is useful to Germany.
When Merkel traveled to India at the end of May, she did so with a tremendous amount of respect. She likes Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who she feels is a wise man. She speaks more warmly about him than about any other world leader, almost with the respectful tone of a daughter. Part of her respect stems from the fact that India is so large. On the flight to India, she said that her approach was not "to arrive there and tell them how to handle 1.2 billion people."
She often uses numbers in her arguments. She has recently pointed out repeatedly that no European country is home to more than 2 percent of the world's population, and that the entire continent only comes to 7 percent, which isn't much either.
She sees the power behind these numbers. And she wants to secure a reasonably powerful role for Germany in the world of the future, the world of China, India and Brazil, the world of populous nations. In the past, the key success factors for a country were its level of civilization, its mechanization and its military might. The smaller the difference becomes, the more the number counts.
This is how Merkel sees the situation: Germany is economically powerful enough to continue playing a major role in global markets in the future. She wants to safeguard this with political power, so that Germany doesn't become a commercial zone for China. This power is only accessible through the critical number, and that's why she needs Europe.
But she doesn't need just any Europe, a Europe that Germany has to keep above water, a heavily indebted, crippled and backward Europe. To that end, she has said that Europe cannot be allowed to become "a sort of partial museum." It is not quite clear what exactly she means by that. Merkel's linguistic creations are not always readily understood. But it doesn't sound promising.
This is why she wants the other European countries to try to make themselves at least somewhat like Germany, that is, prepared for the global market. It is with these strengthened neighbors that Germany intends to form closer ties and create a strong Europe. In a manner of speaking, the goal of Merkel's policy is an expansion of Germany, albeit with peaceful means.
A few weeks back she was in France to meet with President Sarkozy. Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti was also there. She explained the future financial policy in the press conference, and Sarkozy shot her a serious look twice during her speech, looking from her face to her shoes and back. When he spoke, he told the press how the two leaders make policy together, how they coordinate things almost daily and are not always in agreement, and that sometimes the chancellor explains the German approach to him "in long sentences." Merkel looked amused, especially when Sarkozy told a joke, which made her laugh, looking pleased to have this funny man standing next to her. When the two said their goodbyes, there was a lot of whispering, giggling and playfulness. It wasn't love, but it certainly wasn't hate, either.
A Patriot without Pathos
The tightly wound Sarkozy is the opposite of Merkel. He talks and talks and bubbles with emotion. Sometimes, during breaks in negotiations, the German delegation hears him shouting at his staff. And when he is sitting next to Merkel again, he vacillates between gallantry and the urgent desire to convince her to share his views. The two leaders make no concessions to each other.
I have never even experienced Merkel maligning or mocking Sarkozy, and she is a great mocker. She once said that whereas he talks too much, she says too little. Sarkozy seems to feel differently, given his remark about Merkel's "long sentences."
Merkel says that she does have conflicts with him, but that their meetings are "characterized by a deep understanding and the conviction that we always have to come together in the end," and by the "deep feeling that things are moving forward." She once said something similar about Guido Westerwelle when he was still her vice-chancellor. These are sentences without warmth, permeated with professionalism. She is sometimes irritated, but inexorably constructive. Her words are those of a problem solver.
Sarkozy is the dominant type, but Merkel has the dominant economy behind her. He wants German money and Germany's creditworthiness for the bailout programs, while she wants to hand over as little of these things as possible. He is getting less than he wants, while she is giving more than she wanted to.
Merkel's problem is that the two sides of her strategy are difficult to reconcile: holding onto Germany's money, on the one hand, and building a German Europe, on the other. For this reason, she is trying to fend off joint solutions for as long as possible -- that is, minimizing German contributions at first but relenting in the end, so that the European project can continue.
A Serious Mistake
She made a serious mistake at the beginning of the crisis. She should have given a speech in which she said: We are good Europeans, and we will use all the instruments at our disposal to resolve the crisis. But at this point we cannot determine what those instruments will be, because we don't know how the crisis will evolve.
This would have been an open approach, but Merkel chose a closed approach instead. It seemed as if others repeatedly had to negotiate the instruments out of her, or that it took her too long to recognize that it was time to use them. As a result, her crisis policy never seemed confident, and it also didn't seem particularly trustworthy.
She expressed skepticism about a debt haircut for Greece as recently as July. It was a month in which she seemed uncertain for the first time, even saying that there were some things she didn't understand. She visited a farm animal research center in Kenya, where she put on a lab coat, delved into biology for a short time, took a look at some cows and removed the lab coat again. When she had finished the tour, the usual suspects were waiting with questions about the euro. Merkel looked terrifying, and this time her facial expression probably matched her mood. She responded to the questions with an icy stare, stormed off to her limousine, got in and was driven away.
She seemed revitalized after the summer recess. She had decided to support a debt haircut, after all. When she convinced the banks to agree to the idea in Brussels in October, she looked like a winner, but it was also a victory over herself. The euro bond dispute could end in a similar way.
A Relative Indifference to History
Merkel's policy of German expansion is only possible because of her quiet, modest and cautious disposition. She is a patriot without pathos, which is why no one really notices how nationally oriented her policies are. But the fact that she has the nerve to pursue a German domination project in the euro zone only 66 years after the end of World War II is a sign of her relative indifference to history.
She is not a politician who leans heavily on history to shape her policies. I have only heard her speak about historical precedents once, when she was talking about the communist philosophy of history. The chairman of Germany's Left Party, Gesine Lötzsch, had said that communism remains a goal of her party.
Merkel, who was flying from Malta to Cyprus at the time, stood in the plane and explained that a discussion of communism had to take place in the context of Marx's theory of the goal of history. Her listeners, almost all Germans from the western part of the country, were amazed at the chancellor's level of knowledge on the subject. Her first "we" had been reactivated.
She cannot engage in the politics of history in the same was as former Chancellors Kohl or Willy Brandt, who were able to draw on their collective experiences from the war and the postwar period. Indeed, a large portion of her life history, the period in which she was confronted with a lack of freedom, is an idea only accessible to people in Germany's eastern states. People in the western states, on the other hand, are either indifferent or suspicious of that part of Merkel's life.
Merkel's approach to contemporary politics is unlike that of any of her predecessors. It is a policy of taking small steps in the here and now, steps that are conceived in the here and now. Perhaps this is the way to save the euro. But it isn't the way to create a Europe that is more than an economic zone.
An Interim Assessment
She is having a tremendously good time. The euro is far away, and so is the difficult Bavarian governor and CSU party leader Horst Seehofer. Merkel is spending time with a man she really likes.
He is a German tour guide in Hanoi, and he is showing her the Temple of Literature. He has a gentle, mellow way of telling her what he knows about the temple. She is standing under an archway. He shows her an old medal embossed with the animal signs of the Chinese zodiac. Merkel, with the happy pride of a knowledgeable person, says: "We're in the year of the rabbit."
Of course, a chancellor wants to show that she, too, knows something. She has known that this is the year of the rabbit since a debate on the euro that took place in the German parliament, the Bundestag, a week and a half earlier, when her possible challenger in the next election, Social Democrat Peer Steinbrück, ended his speech with a weak joke, saying that the current government's behavior is like the Chinese calendar: using the German term hasenfüssig, which loosely translates as "rabbit-footed" and means cowardly.
"It's the year of the rabbit in China," says the tour guide, "but in Vietnam it's the year of the cat."
"Oh, the cat," says Merkel.
Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam, not China, but the chancellor remains cheerful. The tour guide had corrected Merkel indulgently, not patronizingly. The two continue walking and come to a stop in front of giant stone turtles carrying stone tablets.
It is hot, everyone is sweating, and the Vietnamese are urging Merkel to finish the tour, because she still has political meetings scheduled. But Merkel doesn't want to leave. She wants to keep walking around the Temple of Literature with this soft-spoken, educated man, and she ends up getting her way.
Merkel felt extremely at ease with this man and in this place. It was the only time I was ever with the chancellor when, for an extended period of time, she allowed herself to be transported by a mood, an emotional frame of mind, without paying any attention to her duties.
Even Merkel feels that she runs around "like crazy" and "like a complete idiot." She has a somewhat coarse way of expressing herself sometimes, but what she means is that she works a lot. It doesn't bother her, though, even if her words make it seem that way.
When she talks about her own freedom, she refers to the "bits of freedom" in which, on weekends, she can read a book or cook without being disturbed, and without having to talk to the government spokesman, Steffen Seibert, on the phone. Seibert, for his part, is accustomed to hearing the sound of clattering pots in the background.
Democracy Has Experienced a Dry Patch Under Merkel
One of Merkel's strengths is this devotion to her job and her tremendous seriousness. I have never heard her use any of the dreadful hackneyed phrases politicians sometimes use, like: "I don't have to have fun in my job," or "I really don't have to be doing this." Merkel does have to do this, because the chancellor truly wants to do what she does, and nothing else. It's the appropriate position for a German chancellor to take.
We know that her intelligence is a strength. But one also has to wonder why, given that intelligence, she could have made such mistakes as advocating longer lifetimes for nuclear power plants as she did in 2010.
But it is an intelligence that seems to derive its main reward from the fact that there is an outcome in the first place. This isn't much for a person whose intelligence is considered substantial.
Politics isn't just about results; it also consists of the process. Merkel has never been able to control her coalition government (with the business-friendly Free Democrats and the CSU) in such a way that they have seemed even halfway harmonious, and she has been unable to foster a positive spirit. Perhaps an occasional emotional speech in the cabinet would have helped.
Democracy is a form of government that requires the participation of other people. Those people have to be motivated to support a government or the political system. It just doesn't work without any emotional appeals. Democracy has experienced a dry patch under Merkel, and that is a serious omission.
Her inhibitions also affect her chancellorship. She has a problem with public communication, but communication is extremely important in a democracy, which is why Merkel, no matter how hard she tries, is only half a chancellor. It would benefit Germany and Europe if her demeanor in public were occasionally the way it is in small groups.
But now the only important factor in shaping her legacy is the way she masters the European crisis, which is still up in the air. If she and her counterparts succeed in fostering new confidence in the euro and manage to hold Europe together in the process, historians will look back and conclude that Merkel did a good job on the whole. If not, she will go down in history as the chancellor of the broken euro.
For the moment, an assessment of Merkel also depends on the alternatives. Would someone else do a better job? Social Democrat Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the former foreign minister, has a personality similar to Merkel's, as does current Defense Minister and fellow Christian Democrat Thomas de Maizière. Under their leadership, democracy could very well feel just as arid. Former Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück, on the other hand, is an emotional type, but he has a problem with seriousness and could trip over his words and self-promotion. There is no ideal rival, which is one reason Merkel looks so unchallenged at the moment.
And now, in conclusion, let us reveal one state secret. The German chancellor, Dr. Angela Dorothea Merkel, did not take a sip of mare's milk in the government yurt in Ulan Bator.
Dirk Kurbjuweit is DER SPIEGEL's Berlin bureau chief.