The purpose of the Deep End is to take a step back from the day’s screaming headlines and explore some of the world’s most absorbing in-depth journalism. As many others have noted, an undoubted highlight of 2014 was George Packer’s profile of Angela Merkel for the New Yorker – which at 15,000 words is more of a concise biography.
Packer describes Merkel’s decision to enter politics as the “central mystery of an opaque life.” He doesn’t quite explain the mystery, but does describe it in fascinating detail.
Merkel, of course, grew up under Communism in East Germany. Though there are indications of a private interest in politics, there was no public involvement – and certainly no dissident activity. Even the fall of the Berlin Wall didn’t seem to overly excite her:
“Merkel’s second life began on the night of November 9, 1989. Instead of joining the delirious throngs pouring through the Wall, which had just been opened, she took her regular Thursday-evening sauna with a friend. Later, she crossed into the West with a crowd at the Bornholmer Strasse checkpoint, but instead of continuing with other Ossis to the upscale shopping district of Kurfürstendamm she returned home, in order to get up for work in the morning.”
But then she really got to work. Within weeks of the fall she entered politics. The next year, following reunification, she was elected to the Bundestag – becoming a minister the year after that. By the end of the decade she had played a key role in deposing her political patron, Helmut Kohl, winning the leadership of the CDU in 2000. She became Chancellor in 2005, achieving a dominant position not only within Germany, but the whole of the Eurozone. Her stature as a world leader is now rivalled only by Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin (her relationship with the latter being an especially intriguing facet of Packer’s profile).
In short, this is a woman who knows when to choose her moment:
“People who have followed her career point to Merkel’s scientific habit of mind as a key to her political success. ‘She is about the best analyst of any given situation that I could imagine,’ a senior official in her government said. ‘She looks at various vectors, extrapolates, and says, ‘This is where I think it’s going.’’ Trained to see the invisible world in terms of particles and waves, Merkel learned to approach problems methodically, drawing comparisons, running scenarios, weighing risks, anticipating reactions, and then, even after making a decision, letting it sit for a while before acting. She once told a story from her childhood of standing on a diving board for the full hour of a swimming lesson until, at the bell, she finally jumped.”
Anyone making confident assumptions about the prospective success or failure of the Britain’s renegotiation of its relationship with the EU is doing so prematurely. In all likelihood, Angela Merkel hasn’t decided on a response yet – but when she does, we’d better be ready.
As for underlying motivations, we can only guess – however, George Packer does provide some clues. There is, for instance, an episode in which Merkel reportedly uttered the words “we West Germans” – a slip of the tongue that may reflect a deep-seated sense of identity:
“Merkel was born in Hamburg, West Germany, in 1954. Her father, Horst Kasner, was an official in the Lutheran Church, one of the few institutions that continued operating in both Germanys after the postwar division of the country. Serious and demanding, he moved the family across the frontier just a few weeks after Angela’s birth—and against his wife’s wishes—to take up ecclesiastical duties in the German Democratic Republic. That year, almost two hundred thousand East Germans fled in the other direction. Kasner’s unusual decision led West German Church officials to call him ‘the red minister.’”
The reintegration of Germany – or, to be more precise, the reincorporation of the East into the West can therefore be seen as a deeply personal mission on Merkel’s part. For both good and ill, German leaders have always had a tendency to play out national preoccupations on a continental scale, and clearly Merkel’s priority in matters European is to pick up the pieces and put them back together.
In this respect, the greatest threat to her life’s work comes not from Greece or Britain, but France – and in particular from another remarkable woman: Marine Le Pen – leader of the French National Front. The Eurozone and the wider EU could probably survive a ‘Grexit’ or a ‘Brexit’. However, if Le Pen succeeds in her mission to restore the French Franc, then that would change everything.
In an equally fascinating profile for the New Statesman, Charles Bremner charts Le Pen’s rise to prominence – and her chances of winning the French presidency. As things stand, she may well win the first round of voting in 2017, but is likely to lose out to a united front of mainstream voters in the second round. That, however, assumes that the Eurozone won’t enter into a new crisis between now and then – something that can’t be ruled out.
In holding Europe together, Angela Merkel is squeezing the life out of the weaker economies – thus providing the far left and the far right with the opportunity of a lifetime. As one expert on the National Front says, “Marine Le Pen has only to stay in her armchair and watch the news.”