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Merkel the great!



Henry Kissinger famously asked what Europe's phone number is. Well, now he knows: Dial Angela Merkel. After eight years in office spanning an economic crisis that has shaken nations from the United States to Greece, Merkel lifted her Christian Democratic party to a share of the vote not seen for two decades. In an election devoid of a theme, she was the subject matter. Her slogan was "The Chancellor." It was a personal triumph, this near-absolute majority, and it was that alone.

"Larger-than-life great, Angela Merkel," pronounced Thomas Schmid in a front-page commentary in Die Welt.

Yet she is the face in the crowd rather than the face that stands out. Rumpled, awkward, with her de rigueur blazer and slacks (the former often just a touch too tight), Merkel can seem a study in orchestrated ordinariness, a brilliant creation of election strategists attuned to the post-traumatic German psyche. Perhaps it costs a lot of money to look this plain.

But over time it becomes clear that she just is who she is, unchanged by power; a woman, like Margaret Thatcher, who is "not for turning."

Merkel is a phenomenon. She has captured something in the zeitgeist. In this look-at-me age of image traffickers and spin merchants, she is the sobering antidote. She works hard and is humble. "Power to the Imagination," went the slogan of the 1968 revolutionaries in Europe. The chancellor is the diametric opposite of that. She is a study in predictability. In the words of Rainer Stinner of the ousted Free Democratic Party, she is "the ultimate incrementalist." For a post-ideological age, that works.

This Germany does not indulge in experiments. It is stable and rich, with its 5.3 per cent unemployment rate, balanced budget and steady growth. Europe's largest nation, with its taste for doing one thing at a time, is in a phase of consolidation. Here again Merkel fits the spirit of the moment. A leader issued from the former East Germany, she is knitting together the united country with prudence. She represents a pragmatic Germany generation whose dictum seems to be: After the big debates, after the agonizing, let's just get on with being prosperous.

It is easy to forget that agonizing. Yet what is perhaps most striking, returning here a little over a decade after I finished a tour as a correspondent here, is the intellectual timeout Germany has taken. With each postwar German generation another debate was engaged: The silence of the Adenauer years gave way to angry demands for an accounting from the 1960s generation; and then there was Willy Brandt on his knees in the Warsaw ghetto; and the back-and-forth over détente; and the polemics over the stationing of Pershing-2 missiles; and the miracle of unification; and the immense cost of that long process; and finally the pained self-questioning as to whether, after Auschwitz, Germany could ever be "normal" and Germans "proud" — questions that found an answer in the flag-wrapped euphoria of the 2006 World Cup.

Merkel closed the book on all that. She is the great consolidator.

That is why she is loved in a nation weary of self-questioning. Sell cars, balance the books, stay competitive, avoid surprises and live happily ever after.

Is this enough for Europe's most powerful state? Schmid entitled his commentary: "Will the Chancellor Finally Emerge from Under Her Covers?" I suspect she has already emerged: This is who Merkel is. Legacies are not her thing if legacy involves some artificial straining for historical achievement.

She has walked the fine line between her nation's demand for fiscal prudence and the salvation of the euro. She has also walked the very fine line for Germany between demands for leadership and perceptions of ominous dominance. Perhaps, in a likely grand coalition with the Social Democrats (the people's party no more), and without the neo-liberal Free Democrats, she will show a little more growth-oriented indulgence toward the likes of Greece. She should, but any change will be marginal.

What else? Merkel, more drawn to the Anglo-Saxon than Gallic world, will do all she can to keep Britain in the European Union, probably trading some devolution of powers back to nation states in return for fiscal integration. She will push hard for a more competitive Europe. She will exercise quiet power in Germany's mould: Against militarism and interventionism, for a more balanced world order where American leads but accepts its limits. The legacy she wants is a strong Germany in a united Europe in a freer world.

She has already changed Germany more than people acknowledge. A generation ago anyone suggesting that a childless woman from the East could lead the Christian Democrats and Germany with a gay foreign minister and a vice chancellor of Vietnamese descent would have been dismissed as crazy. She has afforded Germany the space to evolve.

Giovanni di Lorenzo, the editor of the weekly Die Zeit, told me that the other day he was out with his five-year-old daughter who, seeing all the election posters of Merkel, turned to him and asked: "Is this woman the leader of the world?" Good question.

- The New York Times News Service



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