NPR’s Sarah McCammon speaks with author Kati Marton about her biography of Angela Merkel, the chancellor, and what the politician’s departure means for Germany and the world.
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SARAH MCCAMMON: It seems that Angela Merkel has been the leader of Germany forever, and in fact she has ruled the country for almost a generation. But when the world’s most powerful woman first won the chancellorship some 16 years ago, it represented an unlikely outcome for this female East German scientist who had entered politics just over a decade earlier. As Merkel prepares to leave, journalist, author and one-time NPR correspondent Kati Marton has written a new biography of, as she describes her, this three-time outsider. Kati Marton joins me now. Welcome to the program.
KATI MARTON: Thank you very much. It’s great to be back on NPR.
MCCAMMON: We’re glad to have you. And first of all I want to start with her biography. How do you think she grew up in East Germany, you know, a surveillance state at the time, a communist country, how did that shape her personally?
MARTON: Oh, well, that’s – I mean, you hit the nail on the head. That is the crucial piece of the puzzle. So not only did she grow up in the Stasi state, where about 1 in 4 people informed the others, but she was also the daughter of a preacher in an atheist state. So she learned to follow her own advice, to trust very few people, and very early on not to draw attention to herself. And these were all very useful skills as she made her way into German political life. She is a woman who to this day has a touch of mystery and an almost impenetrable wall around her private life, which you can trace back to her East German roots. But guess what? They turned out to really, really help her take off.
MCCAMMON: I want to talk about some of her relationships with other world leaders. Central to Merkel’s understanding is, of course, her relationship with Donald Trump. And you talk in the book about how she rigorously prepared for her first meeting with him. Tell us about it.
MARTON: Yes. Well, she prepared harder for that encounter because she knew it would be the most challenging. So she read previous issues of People magazine and, surprisingly, Playboy, where Trump back in the ’80s showed, you know, the roar and bravado we came to know so well. And she was determined because he was the President of the United States – regardless of his background – she was determined to have a working relationship with him. She ultimately failed to do that because he didn’t feel like a working relationship. He was interested in scoring points. But in the end she defended what was left of the West and democracy and the rule of law and all those things that have turned out to be quite fragile in recent years. She was the most ardent defender and was not intimidated by him at all.
MCCAMMON: Well, on that front, you know, there was a little moment that came after what was captured in that iconic 2018 G-7 photo where Merkel leans forward and faces Trump. But what came next seems to be a striking and telling example of how she eventually came to lead Trump during those years. He threw a Starburst at her?
MARTON: Yes. So when he was still trying to find a way to get under her skin. And he just fished out a bunch of candies from his pocket, probably covered in fluff, and threw them at her. And he said don’t say I never gave you anything, Angela, haha. And she neither smiled nor frowned. She pretended she didn’t notice, and that’s how she treats men who misbehave. She pretends she didn’t notice. Just like, you know, Putin did the same. Putin tried all his KGB tricks on Merkel and, you know, let his dog loose knowing she’s afraid that dogs have been bitten. But you know, she’s just unwavering because her kind of politics is she depersonalizes politics. It’s a job for her to get done.
MCCAMMON: Where does she get that strength and imperturbability?
MARTON: She gets that because she spent 35 years behind a wall that she and everyone else thought would be permanent. And she had to rely on her own personal resources. This was in East Germany in the 1970s and 1980s, when it really looked like the Soviet Empire was gone forever. And she never got over those early years when she could only rely on herself.
MCCAMMON: One of her decisive decisions was to let a million refugees from the Middle East into Germany. And I guess that seemed like an impulsive decision to many, but you’re suggesting – right? – that it was in line with her worldview.
MARTON: Absolutely. She went against the grain for her own conservative Christian party, and it was a decision based in part, I would say, on pure emotion. That was an emotional moment. She met a Palestinian refugee girl who burst into tears in a public forum and somehow just broke through at the chancellor’s office and that’s when history really changed.
MCCAMMON: That decision – of course many Germans supported that decision, but it also excited the far right in Germany. What have been the consequences of that decision for Germany?
MARTON: Merkel is not a perfect politician. She is not without blind spots. And one of her blind spots was about the growth of the far right. Much of it comes from her own region of East Germany, and she struggled to face that fact. And until recently, she wasn’t really concerned with her fellow East Germans’ disappointment at unification and how not everyone assimilated into the West as quickly as she had been. And now she’s making up for that, but it’s a bit late because for the first time there is a far-right party in the German parliament, the Bundestag. And that is also waiting for her. But I would say she now understands that she should have paid more attention.
MCCAMMON: We started this conversation by noting that it is difficult, especially for younger Germans, to think of a time when Angela Merkel was not leading Germany. What do you think her departure will mean, both for Germany and for the world?
MARTON: I think it’s going to be a seismic event for all of us because I honestly don’t see anyone who has that stamina, that determination, that focus — and something else — that has a talent for staying normal. I know of no other head of state, certainly not for 16 years, who has remained as normal as Angela Merkel. So I would say these are some of the things we will miss and her successor will have a hard time matching because power is a corrupting influence. We know that. And she was very mighty, but she was not corrupted.
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Kati Marton’s book is “The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey Of Angela Merkel.” Her conversation with Sarah McCammon of NPR aired last month. It was now announced this week that the Merkel government will hand over to a new three-party coalition in the coming weeks.
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