Book review: “The Chancellor”, by Kati Marton

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is famous for her simple but straightforward style. “I don’t have charisma,” she once complained to Tony Blair, “and I’m not good at communicating.”

She was wrong on both points. His anti-exuberance, in a world gone mad, has become magnetic. As for communication, his comical air – those imperceptible smiles, those subtly wrinkled eyebrows – speaks volumes.

When she shared stands with Donald J. Trump, she rolled her eyes incredulously, as if he was spitting out a series of pods of detergent.

Merkel is a counter-power to ignorance and swagger, and she will be missed by the free world when she is gone. (She is stepping down this year after four terms.) She has become her de facto moral leader by displaying steel mixed with a seemingly vanished trait: humility.

Kati Marton’s new biography, “The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel,” is a bit like Merkel herself: calm, serene, not afraid to bore us. Many readers will find it a balm. It is instructive to spend time in Merkel’s competent and caring company.

Marton is the author of nine previous books, including “True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy” (2016) and “Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America” ​​(2009). She was an NPR correspondent and was ABC News bureau chief in Germany. She was married to diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who in 1993 and 1994 was the US ambassador to Germany.

It is not a simple task to write a biography of Merkel. It is notoriously private. She does not use email and rarely SMS. Even longtime staff members never visited his modest private residence. There are no revealing books. She ejects the indiscreet from her life.

Merkel did not speak to Marton for this book. When the author gets a quote from someone close to Merkel, it’s often a trivial matter, like “she’s funny as hell” or “she loves to read”. But give Marton some credit. She stubbornly traced Merkel’s trail, and the story she tells is a good one.

Merkel, who was born in 1954, grew up in Soviet-controlled East Germany, ultimately behind the Berlin Wall. Her father was a pastor who never really approved of her. Standing out was dangerous in East Germany, so she learned not to.

She studied physics at university, she said, “because even East Germany was not able to suspend basic arithmetic and the rules of nature.” She got married for the first time at 23. It didn’t last long. Marriage was partly a practical matter, her ex-husband later suggested: married students were more likely to get an apartment.

Credit…Billy Bustamante

Merkel’s most important reading during this time was history. The East Germans had been fed a false story about WWII. They were led to believe that East Germany had resisted Hitler. Jews were rarely mentioned.

The truth was a shock. Merkel realized that Germany had a permanent debt to the Jews, and this belief – her feeling for the mistreated – led her to the moral decision, in 2015, to accept hundreds of thousands of Syrian and other refugees. in his country.

Merkel drifted into politics only slowly. She chose a right-wing party; she had had enough of the socialist experiences. She worshiped America. Among his heroes was George HW Bush, for helping Germany unify after the fall of the wall.

“I remember well when Angela came to our first meeting,” recalls a contemporary. “She was very reserved, very modest and looked less than 35 years old. She wore a shapeless corduroy skirt and some sort of Jesus sandal. Her hair was cut in a Dutch bob.

In 15 years, after having been Minister of the Environment under Helmut Kohl, she became the first female Chancellor of Germany.

Marton follows the issues that matter to Merkel. She is a trained physicist who gradually abandoned Germany’s nuclear power program after the 2011 accident in Fukushima, Japan. We watch it struggle to keep the European Union together. We are witnessing the evolution of its positions on immigration.

There are his close relations with Barack Obama and Emmanuel Macron; his gaze contests with Vladimir Poutine; his attempts to reach Trump by courting his daughter Ivanka.

Marton calls this book “a human rather than a political portrait”, and personal details emerge. Merkel enjoys getting up and making coffee for her guests in a kitchenette, taking advantage of the informal opportunity to ask questions and break the ice. She does her own shopping. She is a football fan and tends to curse only for missed goals. Her husband, a quantum chemist – they don’t have children together, although he has two adult sons from a previous marriage – remains in the spotlight.

There are allusions to a more playful side. She is famous for her social stamina and, Blair once said, “likes to sit late and have fun.” She is said to be a gifted impersonator, especially of Putin. She is known to tell jokes about one aspect of Putin’s anatomy.

Occasionally, “The Chancellor” veers into hagiography, but he quickly retreats again. Marton is a critical observer, especially of Merkel’s tendency not to express her deepest feelings, her frequent failure to win hearts as well as minds.

German politicians, Merkel realizes, have reason to be wary of oratory speeches.

This book is a bedtime story of a nauseous kind, or so it may seem. It is as if Marton, via his subject, returned to the old liberal order and wished him good night, because tomorrow he might die.


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