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In the public eye, Merkel still strives to remain private

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For someone who might make history as Germany's first woman chancellor, Angela Merkel has been surprisingly reluctant to live her life in the public eye.

All that changed the evening of Sept. 18, when Germany and the world could see the disappointment etched on her face and feel the sag in her gestures after she failed to cruise to an expected election victory as leader of the Christian Democrats and clinch the chancellery.

Over the ensuing days, the public has been able to watch Merkel literally recover her stride. After the men in her party rallied round and refused to buckle to a clear attempt by their Social Democrat opponents to get them to oust Merkel, she perked up visibly. Her hair was once again well coiffed; her smile, never broad, returned; there was a new bounce in her step.

Regardless of whether Merkel, 51, becomes chancellor in the protracted political wrangling that seems to be going her way, she has exposed herself in a fashion new to those who have for years watched her circumspect manner the product, perhaps, of her formative years in Communist East Germany.

There, as the daughter of a pastor who gathered leftist intellectuals at his house each week and even discussed writing by the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov she must have learned the guardedness that has marked her since.

She also, according to friends from that time, learned to treasure liberty.

"Merkel is an intellectual who believes deeply in freedom," said Michael Schindhelm, a close friend when the two of them worked at East Germany's prestigious Academy of Sciences in the 1980s.

Merkel is so reticent in public that it was only during the closing days of the ever-tighter campaign in September that she allowed the public a glimpse of what has formed her.

During a packed news conference on Sept. 14, she suddenly departed from the script. "I want to say something personal," she began.

A hush fell over the gaggle of reporters who knew that, for all the campaign attempts to cast her as approachable Angie, heroine of a Rolling Stones song played at every appearance, the public Merkel is smart, stubborn, systematic, but scarcely ever personal.

"My life changed completely in 1989 with the fall of the Wall," she said, referring to that momentous night in November 1989 when, after 28 years, the Berlin Wall came down in one joyous surge of East Germans pouring through it.

"I have had many opportunities in the last 15 years. I would like to give my country back what I myself have gained in terms of the opportunities from reunification."

It was the sort of straightforwardness with which Merkel has approached the tortuous negotiations of the last three weeks a directness rather untypical of those who often had to deceive, or live on their wits, to survive under Communism.

But Merkel had no ordinary life then, either. Just months after she was born in July 1954, her father, Horst Kasner, took the unusual step of uprooting his family from Hamburg in West Germany to a small town in East Germany. There, she was raised by her parents to compensate for Communist suspicions of a Christian family from the West by simply excelling at everything. Prevented by the Communists from pursuing her love of languages, she studied physics in Leipzig, where in 1977 she married Ulrich Merkel, whom she later divorced. She then moved to the Academy of Sciences, where she met Joachim Sauer, whom she married in 1993 only after pressure from her Christian Democrat party to do so. She was devoted to her career; she has no children and, as she does now, worked surrounded by much older male colleagues. But, according to friends from those days, nothing in this fairly humdrum existence dampened her intellect or curiosity. Where her pastor father worked for social justice, his daughter was among a small minority of East Germans who believed quietly but absolutely in freedom. "It is so difficult to grasp what freedom meant for us at that time," said Schindhelm, recalling Merkel's deep excitement with the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev after he came to power in the Soviet Union in 1985.

"When the Wall fell, it was an extraordinary time," he continued. "For those of us who were in our 20s or 30s, we simply seized that moment. It was an immensely deep experience. It was a defining moment for those who grabbed it."

Merkel, like Schindhelm, jumped at the chances suddenly available. Both ditched their professions as physicists, Schindhelm for the theater and Merkel for the gritty and male-dominated world of German politics.

At first, she joined the East German movement known as Awakening, which had emerged from a small, Protestant-based peace movement in the 1980s to flourish as a group spearheading the popular unrest and mass flights West that in 1989 preceded the Wall's collapse.

In March 1990, Merkel became a spokeswoman for the conservative government of Lothar de Maiziere, the last prime minister of East Germany before reunification that year. Six months later, she was in the Christian Democrats a young woman, raised Protestant, from the East, in a clubby conservative party dominated by Catholic men from Western Germany.

But she caught the eye of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who towered over the German political scene in those years before and after reunification. She so visibly rose under his protection that she was dubbed, somewhat pejoratively, "Kohl's Madchen," or Kohl's girl. Merkel bided her time, rising steadily through party ranks and serving first as minister of women and youth, and later environment. After Kohl lost power in 1998 to Gerhard Schroder, he and other senior leaders were embroiled in a scandal over illegal funding of the Christian Democrats.

In 2000, Merkel broke with all these powerful men, publicly calling for change and for a truthful accounting of the scandal. In one sweep, she ended the grip of the older generation and was duly elected party leader.

Sniping has scarcely ceased since. Edmund Stoiber, the conservative head of the Christian Democrats' Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, won the race to challenge Schroder for the chancellorship in 2002. But Stoiber lost, and, because of Schroder's sudden decision in May to call federal elections a year ahead of time, he had no choice but to show a somewhat awkward united public front with Merkel in this campaign. Other, younger Christian Democrats known in the slang of Berlin political commentators as "the princes" have arrived from different provinces with ambitions to push Merkel out and become chancellor. She has outmaneuvered them all, although her failure to build a strong party base could hurt her now that she is beholden to these men for their postelection support and if she has to push through change in a far bigger arena than her small circle of trusted advisers.

"She has had to fight people to get to the top," said Karsten Voigt, a Social Democrat who has served as Schroder's special envoy to the United States and whose wife was an East German classmate of Merkel. "She is very tough." This explains why she rarely lets her guard down. When she does, she is sure of her company and with small groups of people.

Indeed, on the day that she was chosen to run against Schroder, despite numerous meetings, Merkel turned up on time to a longstanding private dinner invitation. As she entered the room, still bright from a sunny day, she quickly cast her eyes around the assembled guests. There were no politicians or pundits present. She took a glass of Champagne and started relaxing.

During the election campaign, Merkel kept underlining that she wanted to be a chancellor for all Germans, rarely addressed her past and rarely made any distinction between east and west. More tellingly, where Schroder often spoke about the importance of peace, Merkel spoke about freedom. Her political fate and place in history are unclear. But her life to date and the curious twists of her quest for power make it clear that she has the potential to be what Schindhelm called simply an "Ausnahme," an exception.

"Angela Merkel is not your typical Ossi," he said, using the slang word designating an East German. "She is not an Ossi politician who identifies with East Germany. She gets no bonuses for being an Ossi. Some even say she has done nothing for them."

On the other hand, he noted, she is "still a foreigner for the Wessis," or West Germans. If she is chancellor, he said, "the old West Germany will be over."

(C) 2005 International Herald Tribune. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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