At rallies in Saxony, she has been heckled as a “traitor.” In Greece, she has been depicted with a Hitler mustache. To her haters she is, as one reader emailed me this week, a “European dictator, who eliminated democracy, free speech, nearly destroyed her country.”
Others have called her “leader of the free world.” To many people, in Germany and across the world, she is a brave defender of Western values and of a proper tone in politics and diplomacy. Among my “blue-state” American friends, she is revered as the de facto “anti-Trump,” the understated embodiment of good in a world of looming evil.
Angela Merkel, whatever you think of her, is a complex and fascinating woman. Was she right or wrong in 2015 to open the borders to refugees? Was she too hard or too soft on the Greeks during the euro crisis? Too this or too that? Just for a moment, never mind all that. This week, as she revealed that she would not seek re-election, she showed yet again that she is both clever and dignified. What makes her so special, as a leader and as a human being?
In my years of watching her, two observations stand out. First, as one of her political enemies once told me in a tone of awe, she is almost totally “devoid of vanity.” Vanity is a common trait of Homo Sapiens, amplified in Homo Politicus. So even Merkel is allowed to be a wee bit vain. But to be in politics — among Trumps, Schröders, Kurzes, Macrons, Seehofers — and yet to be ruled by vanity so little: That is astonishing.
Just look at her during her summer vacations, as she takes the chairlift with her husband for a good walk in the Alps. Year in, year out, she dons the same plain boots and kit, her hair a mess, her expression bored with the paparazzi and eager for the simple pleasures ahead. Nor is she vain in other ways. She generally has little to prove. She needn’t (and doesn’t) dazzle with rhetoric. This gives her an unusual sort of freedom. She can de-escalate without fear of looking weak.
The second observation is her fundamental decency. This struck me with full force in the summer of 2015, about a month before the worst chaos of the refugee crisis. She was meeting a group of teenagers. One of them was Reem Sahwil, a Palestinian refugee from Lebanon with health problems, who spoke in perfect German about her fear of deportation.
Merkel responded gently but firmly that Germany cannot take in everybody because — ironically she used the exact inverse of the phrase she would make famous a few weeks later — “we just can’t manage it.” Part of leadership is toughness, and she has it. But then Merkel stopped in mid-sentence, because Sahwil started sobbing. Merkel walked up to her, comforting and caressing. She was not staging compassion for the cameras. Her empathy was genuine. She sees human beings in their individuality.
In a world of lies and deceit, of Putins and Dutertes and Bolsonaros, of pipe bombers, conspiracy theorists and demagogues, Angela Merkel is a complex woman who has stayed simple and decent. As world leaders go, that’s as good as it gets.
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