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Author Kati Marton explores Angela Merkel's impact on the world in 'The Chancellor'

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

It seems as though Angela Merkel has been the leader of Germany forever, and in fact, she's governed the country for close to a generation. But when the most powerful woman in the world first won the chancellorship some 16 years ago, it marked an unlikely outcome for this female East German scientist who'd entered politics a little more than a decade earlier. Now, as Merkel prepares to leave office, journalist, writer and one-time NPR correspondent Kati Marton has written a new biography of, as she describes her, this triple outsider. Kati Marton joins me now.

Welcome to the program.

KATI MARTON: Thanks so much. It's wonderful to be back on NPR.

MCCAMMON: We are glad to have you. And first of all, I want to start with her biography. How do you think growing up in East Germany, you know, a surveillance state at the time, a Communist country, how did that shape her personally?

MARTON: Oh, well, that's - I mean, you hit the nail on the head. That's the crucial piece of the puzzle. So she was not only raised in the Stasi state, where something like 1 out of 4 people were informing on the others. But she was also the daughter of a pastor in an atheist state, so she learned to keep her own counsel, to trust very few people and to call no attention to herself very early. And these were all very useful skills as she made her way in German political life. She's a woman who really, to this day, has an air of mystery and an almost impenetrable wall around her private life, which you can trace to her East German roots. But guess what? They turned out to really, really help her ascent.

MCCAMMON: I want to talk about some of her relationships with other world leaders. Central to understanding Merkel is, of course, her relationship with Donald Trump. And you talk in the book about how she rigorously prepared for her first meeting with him. Tell us about that.

MARTON: Yes. Well, she prepared harder for that meeting because she knew that it would be the most challenging one. So she read back issues of People magazine and more surprisingly, Playboy, where Trump back in the '80s already displayed, you know, the bluster and bravado that we came to know so well. And she was determined because he was the president of the United States - never mind his background - she was determined to have a working relationship with him. She didn't ultimately succeed in that because he wasn't interested in having a working relationship. He was interested in scoring points. But she did ultimately defend what was left of the West and democracy and rule of law and all those things that proved to be rather fragile in recent years. She was its most stalwart defender and was completely unintimidated by him.

MCCAMMON: Well, speaking - on that note, you know, there was a small moment that came after what was captured in that iconic photograph from the 2018 G-7 where Merkel is leaning in and facing off with Trump. But what came after, it seems to be an apt and telling example of how she ultimately came to manage Trump during those years. He threw a Starburst toward her?

MARTON: Yes. So when he was still trying to find a way to get under her skin. And he just fished out a bunch of candies from his pocket, probably covered in lint, and tossed them at her. And he said, don't say I never gave you anything, Angela, ha-ha-ha. And she neither laughed nor scowled. She pretended she hadn't noticed, which is how she deals with men who misbehave. She pretends she hadn't noticed. Just as, you know, Putin did the same thing. Putin tried all his KGB tricks on Merkel and, you know, unleashed his dog, knowing that she has a fear of dogs from having been bitten. But, you know, she's just unshakable because her brand of politics is that she depersonalizes politics. For her, it's a job to be done.

MCCAMMON: Where does she get that strength and unflappability?

MARTON: She gets that from having spent 35 years behind a wall that she and everyone thought would be permanent. And she had to rely on her own personal resources. This was in East Germany during the '70s and '80s, when it really did look like the Soviet empire was forever. And she has never gotten over those early years of having only herself to rely on.

MCCAMMON: One of her legacy defining decisions was to let a million Middle Eastern refugees into Germany. And I think to many, that seemed like an impulsive decision, but you suggest - right? - that it was consistent with her worldview.

MARTON: Absolutely. She went against the grain for her own conservative Christian party, and it was a decision based partly, I would say, on pure emotion. That was an emotional moment. She had an encounter with a Palestinian refugee girl who burst out in tears at a public forum and somehow just broke through to the chancellor and really changed history in that moment.

MCCAMMON: That decision - of course, many Germans supported that decision, but it also sort of galvanized the far-right in Germany. What have the consequences been of that decision for Germany?

MARTON: Merkel is not a perfect politician. She is not without blind spots. And one of her blind spots has been about the growth of the far-right. Much of that comes from her own region of East Germany, and she's had trouble confronting that fact. And she, until recently, has not really engaged fully with her fellow East Germans' disappointment with unification and how not everybody was as quick to assimilate into the West as she had been. And now she's been making up for that, but it's a little bit late because there is a far-right party in the German Parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time. And that too is on her watch. But I would say that she understands now that she should have paid more attention.

MCCAMMON: We began this conversation by noting that it's hard, especially for younger Germans, to think of a time when Angela Merkel was not leading Germany. What do you think her departure will mean, both for Germany and for the world?

MARTON: I think it will be a seismic event for all of us because, frankly, I don't see anybody who has that stamina, has that determination, has that focus - and another thing - has that talent to stay normal. I don't know any other head of state, especially one for 16 years, who has stayed as normal as Angela Merkel. So I would say that those are among the things that we will miss and that her successor will be hard-pressed to match because power is a corrupting influence. We know that. And she was very powerful, but she was uncorrupted.

MCCAMMON: Journalist and writer Kati Marton is the author of the new book "The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey Of Angela Merkel."

Thank you for talking with us.

MARTON: Thank you, Sarah. It was really my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.