TEMPLIN, Germany — Soon after Germany reunified in 1990, a Lutheran pastor in the formerly communist east wondered whether capitalism could be reconciled with Christianity.
"Germany and even its churches are dominated by economic thinking," the pastor anxiously observed in 1991. "But the Bible's message calls on us to judge political and economic systems from the perspective of their victims." Concerned for impoverished people and the devastation of the natural environment, he warned of "suffocating in our waste and exhaust."
The pastor, Horst Kasner, was not well known. Today, however, his daughter is perhaps the most powerful woman in the world. She is Angela Merkel, seeking a fourth term as Germany's chancellor in elections this month. Victory would guarantee her a remarkable 16-year tenure, marked by her unyielding defense of the global liberal order.
Merkel's father rarely appeared at her political events, and his story seldom is told by the reserved chancellor. But a visit to the site of the seminary he oversaw, interviews with people who knew him and a review of his private notes and public lectures archived in Berlin offer insight into the world in which Merkel, 63, was raised.
This was a world of faith-based idealism bounded by state repression.
In 1954, the year Merkel was born, her father moved the family across the Iron Curtain — east into the German Democratic Republic (GDR), against the tide of hundreds of thousands fleeing into West Germany. In 1957, the Kasner family settled on the edge of Templin, this small city in the Brandenburg countryside, where rivers wind through farmland. The pastor's mission was to build a distinctly East German Protestantism but to separate state and church — rendering, as the scriptures taught, to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's.
"I never felt that the GDR was my natural home," Merkel said in 1991, the year after she was first elected to the German Parliament as a member of the Christian Democratic Union representing a constituency on the Baltic coast. "But I always made use of the opportunities that it provided."
In interviews, Merkel has stressed her close relationship with her mother, Herlind Kasner, saying her father was busy studying theology and teaching seminars on topics such as "God — our father — our mother — our friend." The pastor required Merkel and her two younger siblings to be "orderly and perfect," she recalled. On her 30th birthday, when he saw her modest lodgings in Berlin, where she was a researcher at the Academy of Sciences, her father remarked, "You haven't gotten very far in life," according to the German news outlet Die Welt.
Horst Kasner died in 2011, six years after his daughter became the first German chancellor from the east — and the first woman to hold the office. Her start in politics came soon after the Berlin Wall fell, when she joined a party called Democratic Awakening that would quickly merge with the Christian Democrats. Her mother, who had been barred from working as a teacher in East Germany, joined the Social Democrats, her brother the Greens.
Her father's political convictions are harder to pinpoint. The seminary relocated after the wall came down, and in the 1990s, Kasner spent much of his time rebuilding an 18th-century church on the edge of Templin, called "Little Church in the Green."
Officials in the West German Lutheran Church called him "Red Kasner" because of his exodus to the east. Allegedly, his status as a pastor with western roots brought special benefits in the GDR, including access to dissident texts and two cars for his family's use. One view holds that he continued to believe in socialism after the GDR's dissolution; another, that he found scriptural basis for communist principles but grew disillusioned with the policies imposed by the Soviet satellite state.
"He sympathized with really old ideas of socialism described in scripture, ideas about sharing with your neighbor, and thought they could be realized here," said Jobst Reifenstein, who worked with Merkel's father at Waldhof, the ecclesiastical center — and residence for disabled people — where Kasner came to train ministers on the outskirts of Templin. Founded in 1852 as a school for unruly boys, Waldhof remains a home for the disabled, although the seminary Kasner led for more than three decades is gone.
At Waldhof, Merkel lived with her family in rooms on an upper floor of a drab stucco house that they shared with seminary students. She excelled in school and spent time in the gardens of Waldhof and among its disabled population.
As the Cold War intensified, church leaders in the east feared impressment into the service of the totalitarian state. At first, the Protestant church — which counted 80 percent of the eastern population as members — thought it could be a "fortress, protected from the state," said Detlef Pollack, a scholar of religious studies at the University of Munster. But the introduction of a secular equivalent of Confirmation toward the end of the 1950s, just as Kasner was arriving in Templin, shook loose the church's hold on young people. "The government had won the power struggle," Pollack said.
Tensions simmered in the following decade, Pollack said, but by the 1970s, church leaders accepted that "the main goal was building up socialism."
Merkel's father embraced this goal because he was committed to socialist ideals, said Reifenstein, a former head of Waldhof. Kasner took part in the Soviet-influenced Christian Peace Conference based in Prague as well as the Weissenseer working group that defined the Protestant church as the "church in socialism." But Reifenstein said Kasner came to oppose the East German state as it obliterated free discussion within the church and pursued stricter models of economic planning. In 1989, he said, as unrest mounted across Eastern Europe, the pastor joined in anti-government protests occupying GDR security offices.
"He was socialist, but he knew that many things went wrong," said Jacqueline Boysen, a German journalist and biographer of Merkel.
Even as an adherent of socialism, Boysen said, Kasner engaged with its critics, introducing Merkel to the work of the Russian dissident Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn. The pastor came under the suspicion of the secret police, who tried to get him to work as an informer. They would later try to recruit Merkel.
The chancellor's first campaign appearance this summer was at a former Stasi prison, where she called on Germans to be a "force for freedom."
"We can only shape a good future if we accept the past," she said.
In handwritten notes from the 1970s, Kasner meditated on "the meaning of life," citing philosophers such as Epicurus and Karl Marx. "A person hasn't been given his purpose by nature, but needs to go on a quest to find it and realize it," he wrote. "If he resigns from this task, he stops being human."
Merkel, too, has a reputation for being cerebral, even enigmatic, Boysen said: "There's always the comparison to the sphinx who keeps her secret."
Three years ago, Merkel returned to the church in Templin where she had been confirmed — and where her father sometimes preached — to speak about her faith.
She addressed the religious dilemmas involved in controversial political decisions, such as arming Kurdish rebels or succoring refugees.
"God created every human being," she said. "We should strive for perfection. But we can make mistakes."
Prosaic responsibilities also draw her back to Templin, where her mother still lives. Sometimes residents see the chancellor shopping for groceries. Mostly they leave her alone.