10 years in charge: A portrait of Angela Merkel | Germany | News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 21.11.2015

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10 years in charge: A portrait of Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel's way of doing politics seems understated when you first see it: she's reserved and makes her decisions late. But in a crisis she sticks to the task - and she's been doing it that way for 10 years.

Sometimes, she surprises everyone. This past summer, refugees from the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans started to flood into Germany. It wasn't thousands, or tens of thousands - it was hundreds of thousands of people. As many started to think aloud about when the borders would be closed, Chancellor Angela Merkel took a different tack, saying "asylum laws have no upper limit."

Merkel, normally so cautious, had taken a road less travelled. It was sudden and it was against all expectations. The main question since then has been: Does she know what she's doing?

At the moment, Merkel is dealing with unsettled times. The refugee situation in Germany is her biggest challenge, and now there is the danger of terrorism as well. But following the attacks on Paris, she has argued that life should go on, as normally as possible.

"We know that our freedom is more important than acts of terror," she said in the days after the attacks. "Let's give the terrorists the answer by adhering to our values and helping strengthen them for all of Europe. Now, more than ever."

Ausstellung Bronzezeit - Europa ohne Grenzen St. Petersburg Merkel Putin

Putin tried to block Merkel from making a speech at the opening of an exhibition of stolen World War II artwork

Merkel has also shown an ability to deal with difficult characters. In 2013, during a visit to St. Petersburg, she nearly walked into a political trap. Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to block Merkel from making a speech at the opening of an exhibition of so-called "trophy art," art stolen during World War II. In return, Merkel threatened to shorten her trip to Russia. In the end, after the event was almost about to be cancelled, she got the chance to speak at a joint press conference. It was just one of many clear examples of Merkel's tactical prowess.

Key to success

Merkel showed very different skills when dealing with the scandal surrounding the National Security Agency (NSA) in 2013, as it became clear that US authorities had been spying on the German government and, apparently, even on Merkel herself. "Spying among friends, that's just wrong," she said at the time. "The Cold War is over."

Her tactics are clear: when a problem first pops up, she often remains quiet, then she uses her spokesman to express her outrage. "She tries to deflate all controversial topics," said historian Edgar Wolfrum. She tends to just sit problems out, and then - in the end - often goes with the majority opinion. Critics call her style of politics, in German, merkeln - a new word that shows both the public's respect and scorn at the same time.

Deutschland Angela Merkel Nazi-Vergleich Plakat

Merkel hasn't made many friends in Greece with her handling of the eurozone crisis

But it's on the European stage that she shows her true toughness. Since 2008, the German chancellor has become known for her ability to deal with a crisis. As Greece started to weaken, she tried to save the euro.

"I have said it again and again since 2010, Germany relies on Greece remaining a member of the eurozone," she once said. "The basis of our way of doing politics always remains the same: We want countries to make their own way, but at the same time there has to be solidarity."

In Athens, Merkel is not a popular figure. In fact, it's the same through most of southern Europe. But the overriding international opinion is that she was right in her stance on the euro.

Merkel's world: numbers, dates, facts

You have to know Merkel's background to really understand why she governs in the way that she does. Never before in Germany's postwar history has there ever been such an underrated politician.

Merkel, the daughter of an East German pastor, has always been a pragmatist. And that means that she's able to change her political course. After the nuclear accident at Fukushima in 2011, she went from being a supporter of nuclear power to an opponent. "We can't just go back to normality," she said after the accident. "Our nuclear facilities may be secure, but we need to take time to reflect on these events."

Her tendency to change tack hasn't been a problem, though. In fact, the opposite seems the case. The woman who was once patronizingly dubbed Helmut Kohl's "Mädchen," or girl, has matured into the "mother of the nation" according to many commentators. She has her party and the government under control, and there are clear reasons for that.

Deutschland Merkel mit Porträt von Helmut Kohl

From Kohl's "Mädchen" to the "mother of the nation"

Late entry into politics

Merkel actually entered politics relatively late - and it was more of a coincidence, rather than being part of a master plan. She was deputy press spokesperson for Lothar de Maiziere, the only democratically elected prime minister of East Germany. The job gave Merkel - 35 years old at the time - the chance to use her organizational and communication skills to good effect. She had only recently joined the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party but was hard-working, and then she started to become ambitious.

Under former Chancellor Helmut Kohl she became environment minister, where she also dealt with nuclear reactor safety. It was an important and fitting job for Merkel, a trained physicist. Back then she followed an uncompromising line on nuclear waste storage, a big issue then as it continues to be today. She believed the waste was containable and that nuclear power was an obvious choice. But the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima changed her thinking, of course.

When Kohl lost the parliamentary election in 1998, the CDU was in shock. But that wasn't a problem for Merkel, who saw an opportunity to cement her position after the end of the Kohl era. Wolfgang Schäuble, the new party chairman, made her CDU general secretary.

Her motto during this era can best be described as "the main thing is, we make headlines." After the CDU donation scandal broke - where the party was accused of taking hidden donations - Merkel helped bring down Kohl in the public's eyes, criticizing him in a newspaper article.

How will her era end?

In April 2000, Merkel was voted in as the new CDU leader, and in the parliamentary election in 2005 she was the party's main candidate for chancellor. The CDU was forced to form a grand coalition with the Social Democrats, but Merkel got the job as chancellor. Her goal had finally been achieved.

Deutschland Merkel besucht den Windpark Baltic 1

Merkel changed course on nuclear energy after Fukushima

For 15 years Merkel has lead the CDU, and she's been chancellor for a decade. She's managed to outlast any political opponents, including those in her own party. Yet still, Merkel manages to lead in a quiet, conscientious manner - while she lets the men in her party do their thing.

But, in her anniversary year, her political fate could finally be decided. There is no doubt she has earned her place in the country's history books; she has overseen an era. Still, at the same time, the success of her current refugee policy will heavily influence how she is thought of in the end, after she leaves office.