Her personal story is remarkable and her political triumph the more so. Angela Merkel has just led her party, Germany’s Christian Democrats, to its biggest victory in two decades. She could well be the first chancellor since Konrad Adenauer (in 1957) to not need a coalition partner in order to govern. She is only the third postwar chancellor (along with Adenaur and Helmut Kohl) to secure three successive election wins. And she has bucked the trend by become the only leader in the eurozone to be reelected since the eurocrisis (2010). By every measure she is a historic figure. And given the temper of the times – times in which democratically elected leaders the world over have a difficult time governing – her well-deserved victory yesterday is nothing short of striking.
Post World War II Germany is one of the greatest political and economic success stories ever. The country transformed itself – was transformed with considerable American help – from fascism to democracy with amazing alacrity. Not only was there within a generation scarcely a trace of the Nazism that had gripped the country between 1933 and 1945, democracy and also pacifism took such strong root that over a half century later they constitute an apparently enduring legacy.
After the collapse of communism, and then reunification, Germany became once again a powerhouse, without question the strongest country, politically and economically, in Europe. What’s been amazing for a student of leadership to watch is how this particular woman, Merkel, has led this particular country by downplaying her own strength in favor of a leadership style that seems in every way modest. In keeping with her own trajectory – she is the daughter of an East German pastor – her appearance is maternal, nondescript. Her manner of communicating is decidedly low key. Her way with a crowd is anything other than rousing. And she governs by consensus, not by command and control. She is pragmatic, plain, and even tempered. She is clear-headed and centrist. She has certain goals, but no one would ever describe her as visionary.
Europe is a continent and the euro is a currency both in need of help – help that Germany has turned out willing to provide, but only, apparently, reluctantly. Ironically, it is this apparent reluctance to lead – this leading in low gear – that has stood Merkel in such good stead. By seeming to lead only when she absolutely must, she has turned out to be the most powerful and successful leader in Europe, by far.