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The Betrayal of Angela Merkel

She loved America more than any other European leader. So why did the NSA target her?

Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty

I'm not sure whether German journalists have a phrase for "dog-bites-man story" (Mannbeissthunderzaehlung?), but it would be useful in describing the heated reaction there to the latest NSA revelations. Yes, Germans were outraged to discover the extent of the United States' surveillance dragnet. But outrage, in this context, is something of a chronic condition. Before Germany felt betrayed by Barack Obama, it felt betrayed by Bill Clinton for organizing military intervention in the Balkans, by Jimmy Carter for pushing for nuclear-armed missiles on German territory, and by George W. Bush for, well, pretty much everything. The masochistic streak in German culture has always figured into the transatlantic relationship—Germans want to maintain a relationship with America if just to maintain the enjoyable indulgence of resenting Americans. The same dynamic is sure to dampen the political fallout this time.

The personal damage, however, is another matter. If it's mostly theater when Germans claim to feel betrayed by the United States, then in the case of Angela Merkel—who recently learned that her cell phone conversations have been monitored from the top floor of Berlin's U.S. embassy for the past ten years—it’s probably the real thing.

Merkel is the first German chancellor to feel a closer affinity with the United States than any other foreign country. That's not to say that German chancellors haven't tried to forge close ties with Washington—given how Germany depends on the United States for security guarantees, to do otherwise would be political malpractice. But France has tended to exert the strongest pull on German politicians, in both a diplomatic and a cultural sense. Underneath it has always been an unmistakable air of continental chauvinism. Yes, yes, America has always been admirable—but France is European, you see.

Merkel never shared that view. That’s partly explained by her biography. Growing up in Eastern Germany, Merkel was alienated from Western Europe, both geographically and culturally. (In grade school, Merkel excelled in the compulsory Russian language classes, but her French teacher moved away one summer after marrying a Canadian and was never replaced.) And her no-nonsense personality has never meshed very well with the pomp of French officialdom. To this day, she is said to find the formal diplomatic protocols demanded by Paris to be faintly ridiculous.

At the same time, Merkel has always betrayed a degree of sentimentality towards America that she’s managed to suppress in other aspects of her work. Merkel’s biographer Stefan Kornelius describes how, during her youth, Merkel cultivated an image of an idealized America, cobbled together from the snippets of news broadcasts, Hollywood movies and rock music that she managed to discover. (Though the political wonk was apparent even then; among her personal heroes was Ronald Reagan, whom she later arranged to meet as a member of Helmut Kohl’s cabinet in 1991.) For Merkel, America was a country “fully invested with her dreams and emotions…the anchor of her desires to be free.” Just a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, at the age of 36, she and her husband chose California as the destination of their first trip abroad. “We will never forget our first look at the Pacific Ocean,” she said 20 years later. “It was simply grand.” California remained her preferred vacation spot throughout the 1990s, until political pressures demanded she stay closer to home. (She tried southern France once in the interim, but never returned.)

Throughout her career, Merkel has been the rare European not to condescend to America’s political idiosyncrasies. She doesn’t think the widespread opposition to a welfare state is a sign of America’s barbarity; she admires the way the political system in the United States invites no-holds-barred philosophical discussions about the very purpose of the state. Kornelius, her biographer, says that Germany’s emphasis on consensus sometimes seems cramped to her by comparison. And Merkel has always endorsed America’s unabashed commitment to meritocracy. Indeed, one of the ways that she and Obama have bonded has been over the fact that they were each outsiders—he an African-American, she an East German woman—who had managed to ascend to the pinnacle of their respective countries.

And anyone who doubts that Merkel’s attachment to America can affect her decision-making should remember Iraq. During the run-up to the war in 2002, Gerhard Schroeder, the German chancellor at the time, gave a blanket rejection of German participation in any American “military adventures.” Schroeder’s jauntiness won cheers from the German public. But Merkel, who was then leader of the opposition in parliament, was so outraged that she felt compelled to take the biggest (and least advisable) gamble of her political career, taking to the op-ed page of the Washington Post to declare that “Schroeder Doesn’t Speak for All Germans.”

It’s remarkable that Merkel’s career overcame her support for Bush’s war. Equally remarkable is that she never repudiated her op-ed. For Merkel, there was an inviolable principle at stake. As Kornelius puts it, Merkel believed that “German politics could never oppose Israel, the European Union, or the United States.” After becoming chancellor in 2005, Merkel still refused to demonize Bush, however convenient it would have been for her in Germany. Even when he was at his most toxic, she accepted an invitation to visit him at his west Texas ranch and invited him in return to her home district to a festive roast of local wild boar. Preserving the partnership with the United States was simply too important.

Merkel’s days of going out on a limb to support the United States, it seems safe to say, are probably over. Not that Merkel's disappointment will have any dramatic political consequences; her caution generally precludes rash decisions and there’s nothing on the political agenda of as much significance as the Iraq War, in any case.

Still, there’s a sad irony in the fact that the European official least likely to indulge in anti-Americanism, the one who had an un-ironic attachment to the American dream, turns out to have been the NSA's highest-profile target. What this scandal lacks in real tragedy, it’s worth noting, it more than makes up for in personal pathos.