Angela Merkel, the most powerful woman in the world, is no friend of her biographers.
It’s not only that the groundbreaking German chancellor routinely refuses to be interviewed. Merkel apparently has kept no diaries and left no trail of heartfelt letters. Her aversion to revealing the personal has prompted many of those who know her best to eschew cooperation, at least on the record. Her two siblings have never spoken out. Her ex-husband has released exactly one public statement, and that was to defend her controversial decision in 2015 to admit a flood of refugees.
Even after a generation in power – including four years in which she emerged as the unofficial leader of the West against rising right-wing forces in the United States and elsewhere – Angela Merkel remains an enigmatic figure.
Lucky, then, that veteran author Kati Marton brings considerable personal assets to the effort to understand Merkel in “The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel” (Simon & Schuster, 368 pp., ★★★½ out of four) as she is poised to leave public office after 16 years as chancellor, a record matched over the past century only by Helmut Kohl.
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Merkel was shaped by the oddest of childhoods, her aloof father a Lutheran pastor who chose to move his family to East Germany from the West at a time many East Germans were desperate to head in the opposite direction (“The Pastor’s Daughter,” the book’s prologue is titled). Her wariness, her comfort with silence and her sharp awareness of the uses and abuses of power reflect lessons learned as a minister’s child growing up in atheist East Germany, a police state under Soviet control.
Merkel would learn to listen more than talk, to be a “cautious realist” rather than an “indignant idealist,” to let others take the credit but to hone the ability to be ruthless when the times demanded. She was an unlikely pol – a woman and a research scientist from East Germany, and someone who seems constitutionally unable to deliver an inspiring address. Her rise to power, and her hold on power, was hardly guaranteed.
And yet that is what she did.
The complexities of all that resonated with Marton, who was born in a Soviet satellite herself, Hungary, raised as a Catholic and an outsider by definition. Marton’s parents were prominent journalists and the object of constant official suspicion until they immigrated to the United States. As an adult, Marton worked as a foreign correspondent in Germany, and she married diplomat Richard Holbrooke, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany.
This smart, readable biography chronicles Merkel’s “remarkable odyssey,” weaving her career with the context of European politics of the day. The personal side of that journey is knit from a thousand threads of details revealed over the years. But even in an era when social media makes it seem possible to scrutinize every moment and every movement, the very private Merkel manages to keep part of herself out of sight.
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 provoked a more public test, and one that prompted her to run for a fourth term rather than retire. She had forged a close though sometimes prickly relationship with President Barack Obama. Now she would lead the Western alliance at a time of global turmoil and incoming fire from the new American president.
But the most intriguing accounts of her leadership are her dealings with another mercurial rival, Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both had grown up under Soviet rule. Once in power, the two spent hundreds of hours in each other’s company and spoke regularly by phone – sometimes both speaking in Russian, or both speaking in German.
Merkel had no illusions about what sort of man Putin was or what he would be willing to do. One chilling photograph in “The Chancellor” shows the two of them seated in arm chairs in front of a formal fireplace in his palatial residence in Sochi. He knows she is afraid of dogs, and in what was surely an act of intimidation he has unleashed in the room his big black Labrador, who has parked himself in front of her, his head in her lap.
She doesn’t flinch.
Susan Page is the Washington Bureau chief of USA TODAY and the author of “Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi and the Lessons of Power,” published by Twelve in April. (Full disclosure: Page is now writing a biography of Barbara Walters for Simon & Schuster, publisher of “The Chancellor.”)
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Chancellor': How Angela Merkel became the world's most powerful woman