Angela Merkel: Europe’s Mrs. Nein

To mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, CNN’s week-long special Made in Germany will look at how the country’s economy has developed since the momentous event.

Story highlights

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has secured a third term in the office

Scientist-turned-politician came close to securing an absolute majority

Despite her popularity, she will have to govern at the head of a coalition

She is the first woman and the first former East German to take up the post

CNN  — 

She may be unpopular in many of the troubled countries of the eurozone, but of Europe’s leaders, Chancellor Angela Merkel is the one who managed to keep her sear throughout the crisis.

While voters in France, Spain, Italy and Greece her counterparts packing, Merkel has been reelected with one of the strongest mandates in the history of modern Germany.

As the leading figure in the fight against the region’s financial crisis, Merkel is used to saying no.

She has blocked bailouts, rejected proposals, denied pleas and stood up to the rest of Europe. For her pains she has earned praise at home – where she is nicknamed “Mutti” (“Mommy”) – and animosity abroad.

Photoshopped pictures of her with devil horns, or even worse, a Hitler-style moustache, became a regular feature during anti-austerity protests across Europe. She received threats and even a parcel bomb.

Opinion: Is Germany playing beggar-my-neighbor with the eurozone?

But Merkel, frequently dubbed Germany’s “Iron Lady” and hailed as the country’s answer to former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (a nickname she herself rejects firmly), isn’t scared by the crowds.

She is the first woman to be elected German chancellor, and the first former East German to take up the post. She came second in the most recent Forbes Powerful People list, trailing just behind U.S. President Barack Obama.

Yet she is often attacked by her critics for being prone to indecision and cautious. So how did she become world’s most powerful woman?

Merkel, 59, the daughter of a Protestant minister, was brought up in a little town in then-Communist East Germany. She trained as physicist before turning to politics as the spokesperson of former East Germany’s opposition movement “Democratic Awakening” during the revolution.

She entered parliament in the first post-unification election, serving in various ministerial posts and as the leader of the opposition before she was finally elected chancellor in 2005.

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Her rise to power has been governed by the same set of principles she enforced during the eurozone crisis: no shortcuts, no “big bazookas.” Her way of doing things reflects her scientific background: systematic, analytical and step-by-step – no surprises and definitely no extravagance.

“If you say you are going to do something then you must do it,” is her favourite maxim, according to her recently-published authorized biography – a biography that admits Merkel’s political profile is “almost dull.”

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Elsewhere in the Western world, such a “boring” approach to politics might not work. But commentators suggest her calm and methodical way of governing was precisely what Germans were looking for after several turbulent years under the extravagant Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Her approach has worked so far: she was re-elected in 2009 and won her third term in the office, according to preliminary results released Monday.

And it is Merkel’s popularity that pushed her party towards yet another election victory. It is no coincidence that most of the Christian Democrats’ election posters featured a giant photo of Merkel and rather miniscule party logo. People are voting for “Angie,” and not necessarily the CDU/CSU.

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In June’s popularity rankings by Forsa Institute for German magazine Stern, Merkel ended up with the highest rank of all German political leaders, with 70% of voters saying they are satisfied with her work.

Despite her high profile, comparatively little is known about the Chancellor’s private life. Her last name, now a political trademark, comes from her first husband Ulrich, whom she left, according to her biographies, almost overnight after four years of marriage.

Aides close to her say she never shouts. Instead, she turns to sarcasm. Her numerous biographies suggest she is a rather pragmatic boss, routinely getting rid of people she no longer needs.

She is terrified of dogs and horses, enjoys Wagner’s operas, breaks in her weekend cottage, and watches football - she is known to be a keen fan of the German national side, often cheering on the team from the stadium.

Her second husband, Joachim Sauer, is a scientist who stays away from the cameras as much as possible. The couple has no children.

During Europe’s debt crisis, she proved to be somewhat a reluctant leader, according to her biographer, Stefan Kornelius, who writes that she “did not seek the crisis, the crisis came to her.”

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She did not have a choice – as the head of Europe’s strongest economy, she was “catapulted into the leadership, constantly fending off the accusations that her sole aim is to make Europe more German,” Kornelius says.

And while the likes of Jose Manuel Barroso or Herman van Rompuy are virtually unknown outside Europe, yet the Chancellor is instantly recognized.

Some of the most important negotiations about Europe’s future took place not in Brussels, but in Berlin – which earned her nicknames such as the “New Bismarck” or the “Queen of Europe.” They are mostly a result of the German curse of power: first being asked to take action, then being accused of wanting to take over Europe.

Opinion: Angela Merkel’s real nightmare

Angela Merkel is close to becoming the most successful female politician ever.

Besides political posts and academic titles, appraisals and international recognition, she has also had a Barbie modelled on her. The doll’s message to girls? With determination and hard work they can become whatever they want. Just like Angela Merkel.