Angela Merkel, who left office earlier this month, has been constantly underestimated, “which becomes in a way like her superpower,” says historian Jennifer Jenkins during “In Their Own Words: Angela Merkel.” Helmut Kohl, we learn, used to call her “the girl,” which may have been both affectionate and patronizing. But many German politicians who simply underrated her political genius are now, as the writer George Packer puts it, “in other walks of life.”
Ms. Merkel was the third-longest-serving chancellor in German history, if one counts Otto von Bismarck (her onetime mentor Kohl beats her for second place by a little more than a week). But she was the first in a number of historic ways—the country’s first female chancellor; the first former East German to run the country; the first woman to have risen as far as she had in any capacity in her nation’s politics (something achieved as early as 1998, when she became general-secretary of the Christian Democratic Union). As a leader, she has been devoted to never forgetting Germany’s 20th-century history and making paramount the “Christian” in Christian Democrat, which has proved ironic: Her humanitarian approach to the 2015 Syrian migrant crisis breathed life into a virulently racist, extremist movement in Germany.