Angela Merkel, The Chancellor and her World, by Stefan Kornelius, (Alma books, RRP£20)
In the private hours of contemplation before receiving the results of Sunday’s German federal election, Angela Merkel might have pondered how history would judge her chancellorship.
The case for the prosecution is well known: her initial failure to realise the scale of the eurozone debt crisis delayed an effective response; she angers southern Europeans with her focus on fiscal austerity and structural reforms (she is portrayed as Hitler by cartoonists). For others, she is a soulless, risk-averse leader who recently said Germany’s best attribute was its “perfectly sealed windows”.
Yet to German conservatives, in helping save the euro, Ms Merkel has smashed the post-second world war model of Ordnungspolitik – the school of economic thought that pervades the country’s politics and emphasises individual and state responsibilities.
In his authorised biography, Stefan Kornelius, a journalist on the daily Süddeutsche newspaper, presents the case for the defence. It is hagiography but helps explain how a taciturn physicist from east Germany became such a towering figure in European politics and one of the world’s most influential women.
Her scientific past explains the methodical, pragmatic approach to the eurozone crisis that infuriates so many. She studied physics because she “lacked the courage for open revolt” against the Communist system, Kornelius writes. As a child, he quotes her as saying she wanted to know in advance what her Christmas presents were, “even if that spoiled the surprise. It mattered more to give structure to my life and avoid chaos.”
Ms Merkel was not a child of the EU. She grew up with a romanticised vision of the US – and retains an affinity with the English-speaking world. If she draws inspiration from any continental Europeans, it is disciplined, results-oriented football managers such as Spain’s Vicente del Bosque and Germany’s Jürgen Klinsmann.
Also unusual among German politicians is her sense of humour, which lay behind her comment about German windows and makes the reader think she laughs secretly at her critics. But it acts as a foil for her steely toughness: “She is most dangerous when she is perfectly calm … Merkel never shouts, she just gets sarcastic.”
Kornelius makes surprisingly little of Ms Merkel’s most important confrontation: with Helmut Kohl in 1999, when her erstwhile mentor was embroiled in a party funding scandal. Her courage in criticising the former “chancellor of German unity” set her apart from male challengers for the Christian Democratic Union leadership, which she assumed in 2000.
The book is much better on Ms Merkel’s firm handling of contemporaries on the global political stage. “Merkel doesn’t like men who make a lot of noise, and despises the exaggerated masculinity of Vladimir Putin, someone who likes to show off his muscles and hunting prowess.” She was “speechless” when Silvio Berlusconi, then Italy’s prime minister, left her standing on the red carpet at a Nato summit while he took a phone call.
With Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French president, she got even. “In the first months of the [eurozone] crisis, Sarkozy used his ministers to attack Merkel … but by October 2011 he had started using Merkel’s manual on crisis management, and even began preparing his compatriots to start making cuts.”
Her respect for Prime Minister David Cameron is surprising, given the UK’s often less-than-constructive behaviour towards the eurozone. But, in an account of a trip last November to 10 Downing Street, there is obvious bafflement, too. Her entourage noted “narrow corridors and staircases that were more reminiscent of a dog kennel than the heart of a national government”, and “a kitchen where the pots and pans didn’t seem to have changed since Churchill’s days”.
From early on, Ms Merkel proved proficient at negotiating EU deals. In the chapter on the eurozone crisis, there is much on her nascent ideas for how the eurozone should look – but some omissions. Kornelius skates over why Berlin was so determined at one stage to warn bondholders they would pay for future bailouts – which only intensified their fears. International readers would like to know what persuaded her to ignore the Bundesbank and back Mario Draghi, European Central Bank president, when he pledged “whatever it takes” to save the euro, if necessary by buying unlimited amounts of government bonds. Even the date given for Mr Draghi’s comments is wrong: it was July 26 2012, not July 2. It was a turning point for the eurozone.
This is not a critical history – and leaves the question of Ms Merkel’s legacy unresolved. As for the final judgment of her crisis management, Kornelius cites the view of her aides: “If it goes wrong, we will know at once, if it goes well then it might be appreciated in 20 years’ time.”
The writer, FT capital markets editor, is a former Frankfurt bureau chief