Forbes magazine has named her the world’s most powerful woman. President Obama has awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She is one of the longest-serving European leaders, and her country has been rated the most respected one in the world. Wildly popular at home, where she is affectionately called “mutti” or “mom,” she is detested by many elsewhere in Europe.

She, of course, is German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The European economic crisis, now entering its fifth year, has made Merkel an international household name. Yet little is known about her other than her inspiring outsider’s origins: daughter of a Protestant minister from the former East Germany who grew up to be a trained physicist and enjoyed an unlikely and meteoric political rise after German reunification.

In this biography, Stefan Kornelius, an editor of the respected center-left newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and a close political observer of Merkel from the earliest days of her political career, fills in critical gaps in our understanding of Europe’s most powerful political figure and Germany’s first female chancellor. Books like this are written because readers yearn to understand what makes successful leaders tick. How did their childhoods, idyllic or troubled, shape their worldviews? How do personal proclivities influence policy decisions? Can we predict how a leader will respond to future crises by understanding her formative experiences? These questions are not easy to answer in the case of Merkel, an intensely private person who shuns all forms of self-aggrandizement.

Kornelius takes us on a journey through Angela Krasner’s earliest years as a child under communist rule in the German Democratic Republic. While there was rigorous debate inside the Krasner household about contemporary East German political life and developments, beyond the family doorstep young Angela knew she must keep her thoughts and opinions to herself, distrusting everyone. Her academic training as a physicist profoundly shaped her approach to any challenge she encountered: hard work; methodical “step by step” analysis; an unemotional, scientific dissection of the problem; a cautious and risk-averse perspective; and a steely determination to find the answer.

“Angela Merkel: The Authorized Biography” by Stefan Kornelius (Alma )

All these traits are visible in the day-to-day functioning and policy approach of the German chancellery under Merkel. She surrounds herself with long-serving aides who are intellectually vigorous, fiercely loyal and unwilling to divulge their conversations with the chancellor to others, perpetuating her mystery as a person and politician.

Throughout Kornelius’s account run certain major threads: Merkel never takes the value of freedom for granted, and she believes that with freedom comes great responsibility. These certitudes — which she learned painfully from the absence of freedom in her childhood — have on occasion overwhelmed her innate sense of caution. As an opposition politician in 2003, she asserted in a Washington Post op-ed that, despite her rival Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s objections to the Iraq war, the freedom and related Western values that lie at the core of the transatlantic relationship must never be challenged. At the time this was an unheard-of tactic by a German opposition figure.

Yet she is inconsistent in implementing her convictions. When as chancellor she was called upon to stand up for that same transatlantic relationship on behalf of the Libyan people in 2011, she had Germany abstain rather than support a pivotal U.N. resolution. A regional election was coming up in Germany, and to her critics Merkel had allowed political expediency to trump one of her core values.

Today Merkel is intent on helping to prepare Europe for the global competition of the new century. She is afraid that Europe is falling dramatically behind the rest of the world, and this fear has driven her to push Germany to become a global economic force to be reckoned with.

As both a person and a politician, she reflects the German penchant for savings and avoidance of debt. She and her husband live in a modest flat, and she does her own grocery shopping. Her solution for Europe’s current crisis is a rational, step-by-step reform process devoid of quick or all-encompassing solutions. No flash, just hard work and dedication to living within each country’s means. But this approach contrasts sharply with the views of economists who believe that her policies have only exacerbated Europe’s economic woes by drastically reducing government spending at a time when more spending could stimulate growth.

As she enters her third and likely final term in office, will Merkel be able to save the euro and Europe? Thus far, her conclusion has been that if the euro collapses, Germany will suffer, and the German government has estimated that breaking up the European Union could cause the German economy to contract by up to 10 percent. So she will do what is necessary for the euro to survive — for now.

But Merkel will not agree to save the euro at any price. She will have to see that indebted countries undertake reforms in exchange for financial support. She will be flexible in how she pursues this objective, at times giving in to the rest of Europe’s demands for less austerity, at the next moment refusing to yield.

Why are Germany and Merkel so important? Simply put, Germany will shape the economic and political future of Europe. One way or another, Berlin will craft Europe’s policy toward Russia and the post-Soviet region and will set the terms for Europe’s relationship with Turkey. Germany’s growing economic ties with emerging powers such as China will influence geo-economic patterns for decades to come.

As mutti of such an economically powerful country, Merkel will cautiously lead the way, pursuing her conviction that with freedom comes fiscal and monetary responsibility.

Heather A. Conley is a senior fellow and director of the Europe program at the bipartisan Center for Stragetic and International Studies.


The Chancellor and Her World

By Stefan Kornelius

Translated from the German by Anthea Bell and Christopher Moncrieff

Alma. 279 pp. $34.95