Merkel rose to command Europe — thanks to her East German humility

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At the close of Angela Merkel’s political career, she is Europe’s leader, the steady and principled German chancellor who has withstood the storms of populism and the erosion of democracy, insisting on the traditional verities of European unity, the American alliance and openness to refugees.

But when I met her 32 years ago on the streets of East Berlin, she was a shy, provincial physicist who had emerged as one of the unlikeliest revolutionaries in the ragtag legion of churchgoing dissidents, poets, musicians and scientists daring to demand reform in the harsh reality of communist East Germany.

At a hinge moment in history, Merkel, who had found refuge in a physics lab from the sclerotic bureaucracy and mind-numbing jargon of the ruling regime, saw with prescient clarity that East Germany was a Cold War relic that would quickly vanish from the map. While her fellow dissidents were resolutely focused on making East Germany better, Merkel knew immediately that her country was not on the verge of a new day; it was toast.

From the start of her unplanned career in politics, Merkel was just naive enough about how power worked in the West, just savvy enough about the insidious ways of the communist regime, and just uncharismatic enough to win the hearts and minds of Germans East and West, Europeans beyond her country’s borders, and small-D democrats around the world.

When she exits the chancellery in Berlin in the coming weeks or months, after a new governing coalition emerges from the six-party mess that anxious German voters created last weekend, she will depart as the only world leader who can claim to have forged a middle path. She became a symbol of the fading dream of a united Europe.

Merkel’s blend of tradition and reform, principle and practicality kept her adversaries at bay, kept her country from spinning toward the extremes, and kept the noise and tumult of the Internet age from corroding the authority of government and other institutions.

Merkel prevailed over and over as a curiously contradictory anti-politician — a power player who presented as quiet, even dull, she resented the idea of politics as theater and remained suspicious of ideologies. Raised in a totalitarian society, she entered public life at a time of upheaval, yet from start to finish, she was comfortingly traditional in her embrace of old-school values, committed to compromise and alliances. Merkel’s career was born in revolution but became an enduring quest for stability.

In November 1989, East Germany seemed to be experiencing rebirth and collapse simultaneously in the days after the Berlin Wall opened. That was when I first met Merkel, as she struggled to make sense of the jumble of East German street movements and nascent political parties — a mass of young people gathering in churches, bars and abandoned buildings to argue over what should and would happen to their country.

She was a 35-year-old press spokeswoman for a tiny opposition party called Democratic Awakening. I was the Bonn bureau chief of The Washington Post. We were at a street demonstration where thousands of East Berliners had gathered on a cold, crisp…

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