EACH weekday morning, Angela Merkel would wake up at 5 am, put on her cardigan and corduroy trousers, skirt the perimeter of the Berlin Wall and catch the 6:15 from Friedrichstrasse to Adlershof.
If she was very lucky, she might pick up a copy of Pravda to read on the way. The rest of the time the only broadsheet on the newsstands was Neues Deutschland, a meticulously censored snoozefest issued by the communist regime of East Germany: tractor production in Romania, Comrade Gorbachev in Yakutsk, devious fascists in Bonn.
Getting off the train she’d pass through the tangle of barbed wire and sloe bushes surrounding the physical chemistry faculty of the National Academy of Sciences, a gloomy concrete box on the southeastern outskirts of Berlin.
She spent her days punching calculations for the decomposition of hydrocarbons into a 20-year-old wind-up computer from Hewlett-Packard.
But in the evenings, returning to the flat she’d squatted in Mitte, she would retreat into her secret world. She watched the West German television news, noting down every name, every face, every political speech of significance. She read, furiously: Bulgakov, Gorbachev, the liberal philosopher Karl Popper, the Marxist critic of capitalism Herbert Marcuse. She was, she later said, like a hamster gathering bedding for the long winter ahead.
Until the wall fell in November 1989, this was Merkel’s double life: unassuming, industrious, circumspect, concealing a wild whirr of intellectual activity behind a façade of dull scientific diligence.
This year, scarcely three decades after those grey days of hibernation under the shadow of Moscow, and after 16 years at the helm of reunified Germany, Merkel (67) is preparing to retire.
At some point in the next few months, she’ll become the first German leader to leave office not because she has, to but because she wants to.
For years her classic slogan for voters has been “You know me”. But they don’t really. Merkel’s guiding beliefs are as much of a mystery to the electorate in 2021 as they were to her scientific colleagues in the late 1980s. She remains the most enigmatic leader in Western politics.
Occasionally, little details will trickle out about her private life. We know she likes singing and making potato soup. She listens to Richard Wagner and Bruce Springsteen. She’s a superb impressionist and can mimic other world leaders to perfection. She’s afraid of dogs and had difficulty walking until she was 12.
She used to smoke but gave up when she got her first ministerial job. Sometimes on Saturday afternoons, she treats herself to a pilsner and a Bayern Munich game on television.
She lives with her second husband, Joachim Sauer, an internationally respected chemist, in a modest two-bedroom apartment on Am Kupfergraben, a street in Mitte, the museum quarter in Berlin where she once lived in a squat.
What we don’t know is what she really thinks about the things that matter: China, abortion, Russian gas pipelines, genetic engineering, refugees, her political succession, nuclear power, Joe Biden, the urgency of global warming. What, in short, has it all been for?
MERKEL’S Yoda-like motto, which she once let slip to one of her old rivals, is In der Ruheliegt die, Kraft – in quiet there is power. Her public statements tend to be guarded, noncommittal, sometimes contradictory, veiled with flannel and scraps of dry humour. Almost nothing leaks out of her inner circle unless she wants it to.
To understand the most powerful woman in the world and how she wields that power, you have to go back to the beginning –in a red-roofed, three-storey building in the then East German town of Templin.
Like Britain’s two female prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, Angela Merkel (née Kasner – she took her surname from a short-lived first marriage in her 20s) is a Protestant preacher’s daughter. Unlike Thatcher and May, she grew up under communism in a totalitarian quasi-dictatorship, the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
Her father, Horst Kasner – nicknamed “Red Kasner” – moved his young family from Hamburg in the west to Templin in the east when she was nearly three years old. He ran a training centre for young ordinands and an institute that looked after 200 people with disabilities.
By the standards of the GDR, it was a privileged little world – the Kasner family had access to books and conversations that would have been forbidden outside the walls of their home. But it was also a dangerous one. The Stasi, which mistrusted the church and deemed Horst Kasner an enemy of the state, watched him like a hawk.
“We were always the outsiders,” Merkel said many years later. Her mother used to tell her each morning before she left for school, “You’ve got to be better than all the others, or they’ll never let you go to university.”
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