European Affairs

Review—Two European Women Who Count     Print
By Michael D. Mosettig, former Foreign Editor of PBS News Hour

mikemossettig Angela Merkel: A Chancellorship Forged in Crisis. By Alan Crawford and Tony Czuczka. Wiley/Bloomberg. 240 pages. $19.
Margaret Thatcher  From Grantham to the Falklands. By Charles Moore. Alfred Knopf. 859 pages. $35.

In the procession of mostly colorless men who have crossed the European political stage since the demise of Charles de Gaulle and the last of the World War II giants 44 years ago, two women have come to overshadow them all. The first was Margaret Thatcher, easily the most consequential British leader of the last half of the 20th century. And now, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose thumbs up or down to any European fiscal, monetary or banking project is the 21st century equivalent to Nero's hand signals to whet or sate the appetite of lions in the Coliseum.

Coincidentally, both leaders are subjects of new biographies-- each book reflecting the strengths and weaknesses of its genre. Two Bloomberg journalists have produced a compact Merkel biography, helping explain to an American audience how she leaped out of the obscurity of an East Berlin chemistry lab to become the dominant leader of a crisis-torn European Union. From a veteran British journalist and editor (Telegraph and Spectator) we have the authorized biography of the longest-serving British Prime Minister of modern times, a vastly researched tome that only reaches her first term in office after more than 800 pages.

There are a few common threads between the two subjects. They are both daughters of Protestant preachers. Both studied science in university, though Thatcher later coupled that with law. Reticence about personal matters, a lack of introspection and a better sense of humor than usually seen in public also are shared characteristics. And both reached the top of conservative parties. There are differences, too, of course. Thatcher was a strident English patriot, a believer in the Tory verities of parliament, monarchy and the military. She was also a phrase-maker par excellence who loved political combat and the rough give and take of House of Commons debate. Merkel was born in post-war West Germany, grew up in Stalinist East Germany and without any trappings of nationalism has an innate sense of what moves the German people. But it is hard to recall a memorable utterance from her. As her biographers note, she can easily give a 90-minute news conference without making any news.

But as these books make clear, what truly divides them politically is their attitude about Europe. Thatcher's instincts, some might say her prejudices, that Europe was as foreign as it was devious and troublesome inflamed divisions in her Conservative party and were a key factor behind her ouster in a Tory coup in 1990. Merkel's elevation from Chancellor of Germany to the ultimate decision maker of the EU is rooted in the euro crisis. And on that we are years or decades from either resolution or definitive historical judgment.

The European thread is the key to Merkel's biography by Alan Crawford and Tony Czuczka. They covered nearly every twist and turn in this story since the first signs of the Greek collapse in 2009 and all the summits and emergency meetings that followed.

As the authors write, "Whatever overview Merkel has of Europe today from the Chancellery in Berlin, it is colored by Greece and its repercussions."

They assert she was too slow to realize the problem would metastasize or could be handled by more than minimal measures. Her thinking was colored by a distrust of markets and bankers. She is not above U-turns, most notably from her initial view that a Greek exit from the euro would not be a catastrophe to her support of the declaration of European Central Bank president Mario Draghi that the ECB will do whatever it takes to preserve the common currency. But her zigs and zags are guided by a sense of how far the German electorate will let her go in spending their money on wayward debtors.

As France's economy has waned, and as the defeat of Nicolas Sarkozy ended the "Merkozy" duopoly over EU decision making, Germany's and Merkel's power has waxed.

"In private, Merkel says she's resigned to the role assigned to Germany during the debt crisis," the authors write. "She compares Germany's relationship with other euro countries to that of the U.S. and the rest of the world: the nation at the top cannot be expected to be loved and neither can its leader. That is something Merkel is prepared to live with while she goes about tackling the causes of the crisis to re-equip Europe for the future."

For Thatcher, Europe was not a front-burner issue when she assumed office in 1979. As Moore explains, her preoccupations were the flagging and strike-ridden domestic economy, runaway inflation and IRA terrorism. Her cautious instincts for political survival were balanced against her desire to advance radical measures. Indeed, there is so much detail here about politics and policy one wonders how well this book will hold American readers not in the grip of excessive Anglophilia or who had not spent some of their  peak career years enmeshed in the Thatcher saga.

More than 30 years after the fact, Moore's book is a vivid reminder of just how close Thatcher came to being a failed, one-term prime minister, with her cabinet divided and even in her own party much less the London chattering classes doubters aplenty of her seemingly radical ideas about curbing union power, cutting government spending, giving more rein to market economics and abandoning a centrist or center-left consensus that had dominated post-war Britain.   It was only the successful outcome of the 1982 Falklands War that sealed her supremacy, asserts Moore.

But if there is a fault in the Moore tome, it does not get to the depth and intensity of anti-Thatcher sentiment and hatred that ranged from the academic and literary and journalistic left to the unemployed in what had been Britain's industrial heartlands. The biography also should serve to convince the skeptical, if not her bitter foes, that this most controversial and divisive political leader --even as her funeral procession journeyed through central London -- was a far more subtle, flexible and calculating political figure than the caricature portrayed in much of the British press and even in movies.

What pushed Europe more center stage for Thatcher, and which presumably will fill more of the next volume, was the battle over a rebate of British contributions to the common budget of what was still known then as the European Economic Community. Her fight for the rebate and the stridency with which she pursued it certainly went against the grain not only of fellow heads of government but of Foreign Office grandees for whom the pursuit of a united Europe was a given. While she supported British entry into the EEC from the start of entry negotiations in the early 1960s through accession in 1973, she always looked upon it more in Cold War terms, to build a stronger Europe to stand with the United States and against the Soviet Union.

As Moore writes, "...the budget row contained the seeds of most of the problems which were to become toxic by the end of the 1980s, the experience confirmed in Mrs. Thatcher a constant irritation, even a deeper resentment at the way the EEC operated...For her the encounter with the EEC was a series of mostly unpleasant surprises in which she discovered that more power had been ceded than she realized.

Of course, a biography has to have some good gossipy bits.(In Merkel's case, gossip is harder to come by, but inevitably questions linger about anyone who managed to cope in a totalitarian society such as East Germany. The authors insist she was denied a university professorship because she would not become a Stasi informer). Thatcher's relationship with Ronald Reagan was nowhere near blissful as portrayed.   Giscard d'Estaing irritated her from the start, serving himself first a dinner on the dubious protocol grounds he was a head of state and she a head of government. She thought more highly of Helmut Schmidt than vice versa, but he did admire how well she prepared herself for meetings. And Francois Mitterrand was among a gallery of men from the novelist Kingsley Amis to former foreign secretary David Owen and her economic adviser Alan Waters who found her sexually alluring. (Much of this the author stuffs in a footnote, while omitting the famous Mitterrand line that Thatcher had the eyes of Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe).

Which leads to a question that both biographies can only partially answer: how did these two remarkable women hit the peak of a profession dominated by males in societies with traditional views of the sexes?  And in the British case, sometimes  bordering on the misogynistic?  Neither were feminists nor saw themselves advancing that agenda.  Thatcher certainly enjoyed fancy frocks and subtle by-play with friendly men. Both were married (Merkel twice) to men ready to slip into the background of their wives' political careers.

Neither book delves into psychological explanations. But a couple of quoted monikers make telling points. In Berlin and Germany, a common nickname for the childless Merkel is "Mutti' (mother). As Der Spiegel pointed out, that term manages to combine respect but subservience and insult in one word.

In Britain, "TBW --that bloody woman" surfaces more often. As a civil servant shouted when she was a junior sub-cabinet minister and asked to sign letters she thought were Double-Dutch, "Bloody woman. Her job is to sign them, not read them."

And the most vivid example of the class fissures and sexism embedded in British society is exemplified in a quote from Foreign Secretary Lord Peter Carrington. According to the author, Carrington had great respect and affection for the grocer's daughter but exclaimed to an aide after one of their rows:

"...if I have any more trouble with this f...ing stupid, petit-bourgeoisie woman, I'm going to go."

(Another example of the enduring power of pedigree in British life-- Every biographical footnote lists not only the subject's university but where he or she went to secondary school, or the equivalent of high school).

But as the authors of both biographies assert, a common strength of the leaders was that they said what they believed.  And they were ready, more dramatically in Thatcher's case, to take sometimes seemingly reckless risks and that created the space for them to move ahead while their male colleagues temporized.

Within their allotted research time spans (brief for Crawford and Czuczka, far more lengthy for Moore), the authors have attempted to come up with material that explains the two strongest leaders of modern Europe. What ultimately separates the books, beyond length and depth, is the quality of the writing. Moore's is steady and efficient, respectful but not fawning and begins with two clever lines about this least introspective of subjects: "

At his trial, Socrates famously said that 'the unexamined life is not worth living.'  He had not, of course, met Margaret Thatcher.

Alas, the Bloomberg authors, in their straight-forward journalistic style, do not come anywhere close. Far too often, in efforts to leap beyond wire-service prose, they produce clunkers such as this:

"Cannes, the Riviera town that hosts the eponymous film festival, was the moment that all the strands came together in the crisis, and Merkel was the principal actor."

Clearly these authors are not William Shirer or Edward R. Murrow. Those journalistic giants harnessed the new medium of radio to bring the deadly drama of World War II Europe into American living rooms. Just as Churchill and Roosevelt were radio's political masters. Thatcher's 11 years in office saw the arrival of global 24-hour television news.   Merkel's tenure has coincided with the spread of social media on the internet.  And now American intelligence spying on hundreds of thousands of German social media users looms as a potential issue in her re-election campaign this fall.

As Moore points out, Thatcher was a media star, but not media minded and certainly not obsessed with spin as the last three occupants of 10 Downing Street. Crawford and Czuczka  suggest the same of Merkel. It will fall to the next round of biographers and authors to explore the ever more pressing question of how much media management and mastery of rapidly changing technologies are integral to or separate from success in politics and achievement in government.