For many Australians, the most memorable image of German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a photo at the 2018 G7 summit in Quebec where, at the head of a band of world leaders, she leans across a desk glaring at a grumpy Donald Trump.
The image encapsulates the role that Ms Merkel, who is about to step down as German Chancellor after 16 years in the job, has played especially in recent years, in fighting against Mr Trump’s brand of demagogic, nationalist populism.
The differences between Ms Merkel and Mr Trump start with her style which is low-key. She likes gardening and walking holidays. She is sometimes known as “mutti” or mum.
A physicist by training, she talks precisely and calmly about climate change and the pandemic. When a million refugees from the Syrian civil war burst across the border into Germany in 2015, her catchphrase was: “Wir schaffen das” or “We will manage this.” She is a technocratic compromiser rather than a leader. But at a time when the lunatics seemed to have taken over the asylum, that was just what the world needed.
Under her, Germany was a rock of stability even as Britain went Brexit, protesters stormed the US Capitol and far-right parties leapt ahead in other EU countries.
Ms Merkel, who grew up in East Germany under the shadow of both Communism and Nazism, outfoxed the populist, xenophobic fringe, which was stirring in Germany just as it was in other countries, by appealing quietly to Germany’s historic obligation to reconcile the divisions of Europe and prevent a repeat of its terrible past.
In 2011, the right of German politics and the tabloid press was screaming for Ms Merkel to throw Greece, Italy and other indebted European Union countries out of the single currency, but she convinced voters that Germany could not go back to the Deutschmark and abandon its EU partners.
When the migrants flooded across the borders in 2015, she justified her decision to keep the borders open by evoking the still fresh memory of the Berlin Wall.
Ms Merkel is no liberal saint. As the price for saving the eurozone, she imposed brutal austerity policies on Greece. While Germany has absorbed the Syrian refugees, Ms Merkel in subsequent years has driven the EU to build borders almost as impenetrable to asylum seekers as Australia’s.
Here in Australia, Ms Merkel is sometimes seen as an example of how pragmatic the world would be if it was ruled by women but she has not made gender a major part of her political identity. She has only recently started to describe herself as a “feminist” and the party that she leads is socially conservative.