angela merkel: time’s 2015 person of the year

Fairy tales are where you find them, but any number seem to begin in the dark German woods where Angela Merkel spent her childhood.

The girl who would grow up to be called the most powerful woman in the world came of age in a glade dappled by the northern sun and shadowed by tall pines.

Her family’s house stood three stories, and the steep rake of its tile roof held an attic window in the shape of a half-open eye. Strangers walked on the paths below, passing residents who often moved at curious gaits. Cries of anguish were sometimes heard. To adults, Waldhof was home to the Lutheran seminary run by Merkel’s father, an isolated compound—“forest court” in English—that hosted students and other short-term visitors while also functioning as a home and workplace for mentally disabled adults. But to a child of 3, Angela’s age when her family arrived, it was a world unto itself, and would remain so until she went to school in the adjoining town of Templin. There, she came to realize that, like the 17 million other residents of East Germany, she actually was living within the walls of a fortress.

Merkel remained a captive for the first 35 years of her life, biding her time. As an adult, she lived in East Berlin, riding an elevated train beside the barricade whose 1961 construction she recalled as the first political memory of her life. When it fell in 1989, she gathered the qualities cultivated as a necessity in the East—patience, blandness, intellectual rigor and an inconspicuous but ferocious drive—and changed not only her life but the course of history.

The year 2015 marked the start of Merkel’s 10th year as Chancellor of a united Germany and the de facto leader of the European Union, the most prosperous joint venture on the planet. By year’s end, she had steered the enterprise through not one but two existential crises, either of which could have meant the end of the union that has kept peace on the continent for seven decades. The first was thrust upon her—the slow-rolling crisis over the euro, the currency shared by 19 nations, all of which were endangered by the default of a single member, Greece. Its resolution came at the signature plodding pace that so tries the patience of Germans that they have made it a verb: Merkeling.

The second was a thunderclap. In late summer, Merkel’s government threw open Germany’s doors to a pressing throng of refugees and migrants; a total of 1 million asylum seekers are expected in the country by the end of December. It was an audacious act that, in a single motion, threatened both to redeem Europe and endanger it, testing the resilience of an alliance formed to avoid repeating the kind of violence tearing asunder the Middle East by working together. That arrangement had worked well enough that it raised an existential question of its own, now being asked by the richest country in Europe: What does it mean to live well?

Merkel had her answer: “In many regions war and terror prevail. States disintegrate. For many years we have read about this. We have heard about it. We have seen it on TV. But we had not yet sufficiently understood that what happens in Aleppo and Mosul can affect Essen or Stuttgart. We have to face that now.” For her, the refugee decision was a galvanizing moment in a career that was until then defined by caution and avoidance of anything resembling drama. Analysts called it a jarring departure from form. But it may also have been inevitable, given how Angela Merkel feels about walls.

What was not inevitable but merely astounding was that the most generous, openhearted gesture of recent history blossomed from Germany, the country that within living memory (and beyond, as long as there’s a History Channel) blew apart the European continent, and then the world, by taking to gruesome extremes all the forces its Chancellor strives to hold in check: nationalism, nativism, self-righteousness, reversion to arms. No one in Europe has held office longer—or to greater effect—in a world defined by steadily receding barriers. That, after all, is the story of the E.U. and the story of globalization, both terms as colorless as the corridor of a Brussels office building. The worlds Merkel has mastered carry not a hint of the forces that have shaped Europe’s history, the primal sort a child senses, listening to a story, safe in bed.

Merkel, here hosting heads of G-7 nations ahead of a June meeting in southern Germany, has marshaled international consensus on crises in Ukraine and Syria
Jesco DenzelPack Leader Merkel, here hosting heads of G-7 nations ahead of a June meeting in southern Germany, has marshaled international consensus on crises in Ukraine and Syria

In some ways, living in East Germany was like living on a stage set. The German Democratic Republic called itself a sovereign nation, but it was Moscow’s closest satellite in the Soviet bloc. Its deeply paranoid government put great store on appearances, employing thousands to spy on other citizens. It minted coins that felt strangely light in the palm—they were made of aluminum—and many streets were facades. “I stayed there for six or nine months in 1981. My impression is it was 1947 or ’48,” says Peer Steinbrück, a Social Democrat who both lost to Merkel and served as her Finance Minister. “Behind Unter den Linden, all these buildings were still destroyed. Bullet scars on the walls.”

Erika Benn had the same feeling when she arrived in Templin in 1965 from university at Leipzig to teach Russian: “I said, Where have I ended up? My God.” The medieval town had a history, with a church that dates to the 14th century. But churches were merely tolerated in the GDR, which was officially atheist.

That made public life delicate at Waldhof. Merkel’s father, Horst Kasner, had moved his family there in 1957, after leaving Hamburg, where Angela, the first of three children, was born. Most people were moving in the other direction, to the West. But the Lutheran Church enjoyed a standing in German society that brought a measure of deference even from Marxist-Leninists. Its parishes in the East became refuges for dissidents, something like embassies. That in turn brought anyone associated with them additional scrutiny, though Kasner’s situation was tempered by his enthusiasm for socialism—at least as he understood it—and an evident talent for navigating the state apparatus.

It also helped that the pastor embraced a school of theology that steered clear of social activism and instead sought to reconcile the work of modern philosophers like Immanuel Kant with religious belief, according to a former adviser to Merkel. The discussions young Angela grew up amid in the parsonage were erudite and rigorous. Her mother Herlind, trained as an English teacher, was never allowed to teach the language. At school, Angela enrolled in Russian with Frau Benn.

The retired teacher keeps a file folder on her star student. Pulling out a black-and-white group photo, she points out Merkel in the back row, recognizable mostly by her helmet hair. “That’s how she was: the girl in the back,” says Benn. “She’s about almost invisible. It’s so typical of her, I can’t even tell you.”

As an adolescent, Merkel both lived inside her head and exulted in the outdoors. Physically clumsy, she avoided sports but camped with friends, all while excelling at school. As she got older, she explored as much of the world as a citizen of the Soviet bloc was permitted. The system’s limits on wanderlust rendered Merkel, waiflike in her youth, with her face pressed up against the glass of a warm shop window.

She journeyed to Bulgaria and stared over the border toward the forbidden hillsides of Greece. She watched, as almost everyone in the GDR did, television stations beamed from West Germany, and dreamed of visiting California. Merkel understood that she would not be permitted to go there until she was 60, the age at which East Germany trusted its citizens to travel to the West. Yet she began to plan for it. Patience was a lesson of life in the East, as was realism.

“You know I grew up in the GDR,” Merkel told a security conference in Munich in February, where she was peppered with demands that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s incursion into Ukraine be answered with military force rather than the economic pressure Merkel had spearheaded. “As a 7-year-old child, I saw the Wall being erected. No one—although it was a stark violation of international law—believed at the time that one ought to intervene militarily in order to protect citizens of the GDR and whole Eastern bloc of the consequences of that, namely to live in lack of freedom for many, many years. And I don’t actually mind. Because I understand this, because it was a realistic assessment that this would not lead to success.”

Merkel plays the long game, in other words. For a career, she shrewdly chose a path in the field that communists worshipped instead of God: science. She studied physics at Leipzig University and married another scientist, Ulrich Merkel. She ended the marriage after five years but kept his name, even after marrying her current husband, Joachim Sauer, a quantum chemist, after years spent living together.

More than that, she retained the disciplines of scientific inquiry learned on the way to a Ph.D. in quantum chemistry—intellectual diligence and a quest for the most reliable data. In combination with her natural, seemingly endless curiosity, the result was an inquisitiveness rare for a politician. Merkel also retained the survival instincts honed in a country where any citizen might prove to be a Stasi informant—the GDR’s security agency had 274,000 agents—and the discretion intended to mask beliefs that emerged only when it was safe. But they did emerge.“We’ve always had this experience that things take long, but I’m 100% convinced that our principles will in the end prevail,” she told the audience in Munich. “No one knew how the Cold War would end at the time, but it did end. This is within our living experience … I’m surprised at how fainthearted we sometimes are, and how quickly we lose courage.

”The day the Berlin Wall came down, Nov. 9, 1989, Merkel was about to have her regular Thursday-night sauna with a friend. A creature of habit, she kept to her routine, finishing her sweat before venturing with the crowds into West Berlin. She stopped in an apartment, talked to the people there and had a beer. The label on it was unfamiliar. Then she went back across no-man’s-land and changed her life. She was 35 years old… read more at time.com

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