By Paul Carrel and Samuel Granados
By Paul Carrel and Samuel Granados
Once upon a time, a girl named Angela grew up in a house surrounded by woods in a small town called Templin.
The Waldhof compound – ‘forest court’ in English – served as a Protestant seminary run by her father, Horst, but for young Angela it was an oasis of freedom and safety in the Communist German Democratic Republic (GDR), a haven where her parents safeguarded intellectual freedom.
A high-flying student, she competed in the national Russian-language Olympiad and was rewarded for her outstanding performance with a trip to Moscow.
On that trip, ironically, she bought her first Beatles record.
Merkel became a student at the University of Leipzig, where she studied physics. She married a fellow student, Ulrich Merkel. They soon grew apart and separated four years later.
She earned a PhD while working for the East German Academy of Sciences, where she was the only woman in the theoretical chemistry section.
When the Stasi recruiters came calling, she drew on the presence of mind nurtured in the Waldhof.
She used the excuse that she could not keep secrets well enough to be an effective spy. That soon stopped their efforts to enlist her.
When the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989, Merkel was in the sauna with a friend. Afterwards, she crossed to the West and at one stage found herself in an apartment with total strangers.
She went back to the West the next day with her sister. Then she got into politics, swiftly working her way up the ranks of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) — a remarkable achievement for a young, Protestant woman from the East in a party dominated by older, Catholic men from the West.
On an overcast Wednesday in November 2005, Germany's new chancellor, Angela Merkel, gave her first policy speech from the podium of the Bundestag and opened up her soul. "The biggest surprise of my life is freedom," she told lawmakers. "I expected many things, but not the gift of freedom before my retirement age."
Her time in office - and the 'togetherness' she called for in that maiden 2005 speech - got off to a strong start with the magical summer of 2006, when Germany hosted a glorious soccer World Cup that endeared the country to fans from around the globe, and allowed the population to feel good about itself.
Soon, the challenges of a world leader loomed and Merkel’s past life experiences helped her face crises and strong men. In 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin brought his dog Koni into a meeting despite her well-known fear of dogs, and asked if she was bothered. Merkel responded in Russian with irony: “She doesn’t eat journalists, after all.”
Years later, Merkel kept engaging with him despite Russia's annexation of the Crimea, meddling in Ukraine and support for Belarus - and despite Putin's macho behaviour towards her.
When the 2009 global financial crisis gave way to the euro zone crisis, Merkel soon realised the future of the European Union was at stake - but that German taxpayers could not simply bail out Greece and other southern European countries without undermining their support for the project.
The upshot - over interminable meetings and summits - was that she granted them aid only on condition that they reform their economies and that the EU future-proof itself against a re-run of such a crisis.
Casting her characteristic caution aside, Merkel moved much more quickly with her 2015 decision to open Germany's borders to around 1 million migrants fleeing war and hardship in the Middle East. She took the lead, advisers said, to avoid an imminent humanitarian disaster. "We can do this!" she implored the country.
At this point of her career, many agreed that Merkel had become one of the most influential people in the world. Time magazine declared Merkel person of the year 2015 while describing her as ‘de facto leader of the European Union’. Forbes listed her at the top of its 100 most influential women, and second in their overall ranking.
The migrant crisis had its downsides for Merkel, who was mocked when a 14-year-old Palestinian girl burst into tears after the chancellor told her she might be deported. The decision to open Germany's doors also fuelled the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and cost Merkel support at home.
But the chancellor showed what former U.S. President Barack Obama called 'stick-to-itiveness' and, when Donald Trump replaced him in the White House in 2017, Merkel stood alone as the West's last great hope for liberal democracy. "I wish I could be there to lighten her load somewhat, but she is tough," Obama said on a farewell trip to Berlin in November 2016.
Merkel's legacy includes plenty of blemishes: anti-Semitism is on the rise, Germany's mature economy has been painfully slow to adapt to the digital era, east-west divides remain more than 30 years after reunification and the political landscape is fractured, pointing to awkward coalition talks after September's federal election.
But, for the majority of Germans, their sense of nationhood has evolved into a more multicultural one under Merkel. West Germany won the 1990 soccer World Cup with an all-white team. The German squad that won in 2014 included Jerome Boateng, son of a Ghanaian immigrant, Sami Khedira, son of a Tunisian father, and Mesut Ozil, grandson of a Turkish gastarbeiter, or ‘guest worker’.
Merkel's international standing and calm leadership have also given her a credibility with the German people during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I trust the citizens. Trust is the principle. If we no longer have this trust that district councils, mayors and health authorities work well, then we can pack our bags. That is not our Federal Republic of Germany," she said in May last year.
What will Merkel do when she packs up in the chancellery? "There are demands made of me while I am in office and I will continue in that way until my last day," she said in July, pledging to keep working on issues such as climate change while still in office. She betrayed no emotion about her impending departure, merely noting: "You usually only notice what you miss once you no longer have it."