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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

In the upcoming summit, the spotlight will be on German Chancellor Angela Merkel - arguably the most powerful person on the world stage now. She's called Europe's debt morass the continent's biggest crisis since the Second World War, and the leader of Europe's most powerful economy is the decider as the summit approaches. NPR's Eric Westervelt has this profile.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: The German TV satire show "Extra 3" has had its share of fun depicting Chancellor Merkel as a politically composed yet frumpy - and ultimately empty - leader.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

WESTERVELT: You are the woman with zero ideas, the rip-off of Barry Manilow's "Mandy" says. You come across as calm and cool, not a bead of sweaty fear upon your head. You're really beginning to annoy us, the song says.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

WESTERVELT: The spoof, like all good satire, has as kernel of truth. Merkel's approach to the debt crisis has been calm, logical, methodical, too slow and unimaginative, according to detractors - especially outside of Germany. They're seething that she insists on austerity as the medicine for debt-ridden southern neighbors while she offers no new ideas for growth and fiercely resists efforts to let the European Central Bank intervene more.

GAYLE ALLARD: The German leadership has been jump from crisis to crisis and too little too late. And her leadership, I think, has been very disappointing.

WESTERVELT: Economist Gayle Allard with Madrid's IE Business School says this moment cries out for a bold, visionary approach, not Merkel's timidity. She says the chancellor should communicate to the German people how much their export-dependent economy has gained from the euro and how its banks are partly to blame for the crisis by aggressively lending to their southern neighbors.

ALLARD: I think there is maybe fear, fear of telling the truth to German citizens that if the euro founders, it's going to hurt German industry badly. German industry has benefited hugely, and the slowdown right now in Germany is due to the crisis in so many of their export markets on the periphery of Europe.

WESTERVELT: But CDU politician Elmar Brok, a member of the European parliament, says Merkel is using the crisis as an opportunity to reshape European fiscal policy more in tune with German postwar sensibilities of frugality, caution and historical fear of inflation.

ELMAR BROK: She wants to have a long-term solution, not a cheap way. And this is sometimes difficult in politics, which look for the next election date.

WESTERVELT: That cautious, methodical manner is rooted in Merkel's personality, as well as her political and personal background. She is a bit of an anomaly as leader of her Christian Democratic Union, a party deeply influenced by Catholic social teachings with its core support traditionally in Western Germany. By contrast, she's the daughter of a Protestant minister who grew up in the then-Communist east of the country and trained to be a physicist before entering politics. Merkel biographer Gerd Langguth says her family had two cars and traveled relatively easily between East and West Germany, leading him to conclude that her pastor father had what he calls a sympathetic relationship with the Communist dictatorship. He says little in her orderly upbringing suggests she's capable of truly courageous leadership.

GERD LANGGUTH: She is not a dreamer, she is not a historian. She does not have big visions. She does not like to create big pictures of the future. She is a step-by-step decision-maker.

WESTERVELT: Langguth knows Merkel and finds the popular image of her as charismatically challenged and aloof unfair. She's a logical, unpretentious woman, he says, who still lives in the same apartment that she did before becoming chancellor, with her husband, a chemist who hates media or public attention. Yet Langguth says Merkel was not shaped by history the way her CDU predecessors Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl were. Kohl, he notes, as chancellor would sprinkle his speeches with personal memories of hardship, of American aid in the rough years after the war. His late wife had been raped by the Red Army and thrown out a window as a preteen. Experience shaped Kohl's efforts to build a united Europe and a strong trans-Atlantic relationship.

LANGGUTH: Helmut Kohl was much more European by heart. He knew what European unity means because he lived during the Second World War.

WESTERVELT: But Langguth says for Merkel the European project is much more a rational, matter-of-fact decision. She was born in 1954, nine years after the war, and learned about the conflict in school. It was an ideologically loaded communist curriculum, the biographer notes, which glorified so-called anti-fascist fighters, downplayed atrocities, and sidestepped the full historical picture.

LANGGUTH: It was not treated in the political and civic education in the same manner as in Western Germany. And of course, younger people do not feel personally responsible for the Second World War and for the Holocaust. So the experience never made Angela Merkel in her youth.

WESTERVELT: She is acutely aware of the European sensitivities toward a powerful, resurgent, economically dominant Germany, Langguth says, but adds she may not appreciate it the same way as her predecessors did. Merkel often says if the euro fails, so does Europe. But some wonder if she really feels the weight of history and her crucial role at this moment. As one biographer put it, in her years in power, Merkel has not made a single truly memorable speech. Yet that may not matter. A majority of Germans embrace their even-keeled chancellor. Her personal approval rating today remains near 60 percent, and more than half of her countrymen say they trust her to guide Europe out of the crisis. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Berlin.

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