In 2015, when Angela Merkel opened the borders of Germany to more than one million Syrian refugees, the German Chancellor grabbed my attention.
Now, reading her biography, I’m fascinated.
She was an unlikely candidate for Chancellor, a woman who grew up in East Germany (an ‘Ossi’) and trained as a nuclear scientist.
In the 1950s, her father, a Lutheran pastor, had opted to leave West Germany to minister in East Germany, an avowedly atheist state. He was one of few who made the journey from West to East. Angela was born there.
Her father, a stern man reluctant to offer praise, had a profound influence on her, not least in developing a life of faith.
Angela is intensely private but has said, ‘I am not always clear and sure in my faith. I sometimes have doubts.’
Nonetheless, it provides her with a sense of inner strength. She has publicly declared of Germany that it suffers not from ‘too much Islam’ but ‘too little Christianity.’ (This comment, I think, displays her wit and ability to approach contentious issues from new angles.)
Opening the German border suggested to me she had a left-leaning political worldview.
My assumption was inaccurate. She belongs to the CDU (Christian Democratic Union), a right-of-centre party, and Ronald Reagan is one of her heroes. (He played a significant role in bringing down the Berlin Wall in 1989).
She is very pragmatic, self-effacing, and not given to grand statements about ideology.
She is cautious about deploying high rhetoric because, like many Germans, she is aware of the disturbing legacy of Hitler’s fiery speeches.
What I knew little about was her international diplomacy, in defusing tensions with Russia after it invaded Ukraine in 2014, keeping Greece in the EU, maintaining the EU as a safe haven for liberal democratic values, notably after Trump distanced himself from it and Britain left.
Her style of negotiation is unusual. It is never about her ego. It is a model that should be studied and copied.
She prepares rigorously and consults widely.
She exercises remarkable restraint and keeps focused on the issues at hand. She has said, ‘If you believe in an idea and pursue it, and suffer through the highs and lows, you will reach your goal if the idea is right.’
When she first visited Russia, Vladimir Putin knowing her fear of dogs (she was bitten in 1995), organized for his large pet labrador to be present at their meeting!
She did not comment and appeared unmoved.
Afterwards, she said, ‘I understand why he has to do this — to prove he’s a man. He’s afraid of his own weakness.’
I imagine her comment was insightful, but during their meeting, it was more important to focus on finding common ground.
This is but one example of how she engages with others on the assumption that ultimately all are as rational as she is.
I don’t share her view about people’s rationality. However, what she has achieved in practising it is extraordinary.