RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
On Sunday, millions of Germans will head to the polls to vote in a federal election that will determine who will succeed Angela Merkel. Merkel, one of Germany's most popular chancellors, is stepping down after 16 years. NPR's Rob Schmitz takes us to where her political career began.
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: It was a cold, misty morning in November of 1990 when the fishermen noticed a woman standing outside their hut. They'd been fishing on the Baltic Sea and were approaching shore. Hans-Joachim Bull was worried the stranger might be an inspectors sent by the government to enforce fishing quotas.
HANS-JOACHIM BULL: (Through interpreter) We asked her what she wanted. She said she was running for parliament and wanted to learn how we fishermen were doing. So naturally, we invited her into our hut to drink schnapps with us.
SCHMITZ: The young candidate was Angela Merkel, and a smoky, liquor-filled fishing hut was her first campaign stop. Bull's photograph of the visit shows five fishermen smoking, dressed in ragged blue work uniforms, seated around two tables. The 36-year-old Merkel in her jeans, white shirt and maroon cardigan almost looks like a time traveler visiting fishermen of the distant past. And in some ways she was. It was Germany's first election after reunification, and Bull was a fifth-generation fisherman who grew up in communist East Germany, and he was worried about the changes the Western world would bring.
BULL: (Through interpreter) We talked about fishing and EU quotas, new to us East Germans at the time. And Merkel said she'd take our concerns to parliament. It was a down-to-earth conversation, and she was easy to talk to.
SCHMITZ: Bull voted for Merkel then and has done ever since. So have many others here in this seaside region of northeastern Germany. Even as chancellor, Merkel is still a member of parliament, and she's represented this district in Germany's Bundestag for 31 years.
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SCHMITZ: Steffen Meisner cleans the deck of his sailboat in the harbor city of Stralsund. The 58-year-old has never once voted for Merkel and her conservative party. Climate change is his biggest concern. He's a diehard Green Party voter. But he's had a drink at a local bar with Merkel when she's come to visit her district. He says she's a good listener, humorous and down to earth. He's proud Merkel is his representative.
STEFFEN MEISNER: (Through interpreter) For her, being a politician wasn't just a job, but a duty. And she wasn't in it for the money or to prioritize profit above people. She is a good listener, and she is happy to hear views that contradict her own. And she has no issue with changing course or even apologizing. Politicians rarely apologize.
SCHMITZ: But Meisner says Merkel has never been a typical politician. She started her career as a scientist.
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UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: (Speaking non-English language).
SCHMITZ: A propaganda clip from 1983 shows U.S. congressmen visiting Moscow, a rare look into the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Even in communist East Germany, there was a hunger to understand what was happening there. In December of that year, East German Michael Schindhelm had traveled from the Soviet Union to present a paper at the Academy of Sciences in East Germany. In the audience was 29-year-old Angela Merkel, a quantum chemist who asked to chat with Schindhelm alone after his presentation. She didn't have questions about his scientific work.
MICHAEL SCHINDHELM: She was interested in the political situation in the Soviet Union and the life there and many of the details which were not even much known in East Germany about what does it mean to live in Russia.
SCHMITZ: The two struck up a friendship. They were both young Christians in an atheist society, they had both found science as an outlet, and they were both asking big questions about communism's future - questions that were answered in 1989.
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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Cheering).
SCHMITZ: Schindhelm says the fall of the Berlin Wall forced him, Merkel and many others to reevaluate their paths in life.
SCHINDHELM: In our generation, we felt that this is the most important moment in our life - the fall of the wall, the total collapse of the political system we had expected to be there forever. And of course, you had to make your choice. Do you want to become part of this, or do you want to cling on to where you came from?
SCHMITZ: Schindhelm gave Merkel a book when he left the sciences to become a writer and filmmaker. In it, he wrote a dedication to her, saying go out into the wide open. Merkel quit science, too, and entered politics. She later recounted Schindhelm's advice in speeches after she became chancellor. And as chancellor, Schindhelm says, Merkel has balanced this desire to go out into the open and take risks with her East German scientific side, an inclination to be cautious and analytical.
Merkel has been criticized for being too cautious and for a lack of drive and ambition while planning Germany's future. But biographer Stefan Kornelius says her balanced approach has helped Merkel maintain a calm, steady leadership at a time when Europe's cohesion was constantly under threat.
STEFAN KORNELIUS: She kept the euro from collapsing. She kept Europe united at a point where their economic crisis was tearing the continent apart. She calmed one of the major military crises we had in Ukraine with negotiating a cease-fire with Russia.
SCHMITZ: And even though she was heavily criticized for opening Germany's doors to hundreds of thousands of migrants from war-torn Middle East and North Africa in 2015, Kornelius says the decision lessened the impact on the rest of Europe. But he says Merkel's legacy is much bigger than all of this.
KORNELIUS: She keeps up the flame of a liberal-minded democracy in a time where the foundation of our democracies are shaken, where we are questioning whether this kind of government is the right one for us, where populists all over the world rise and where the West as a unifying idea (ph) of so many countries, with the United States at its helm, is collapsing.
SCHMITZ: Another biographer says Merkel was originally planning to step down in 2017 but thought better of it after a populist was elected president of the United States. The world needed a leader to fight for democracy, he said, and she stayed on. But after 16 years, she's finally stepping down, leaving Germany, say many of her constituents, better than she found it. Her old friend Michael Schindhelm has familiar advice for her.
SCHINDHELM: After such a long period of governing, it's about time to do something else - and you could say again, to go into the wide open.
SCHMITZ: He's convinced that after leading Germany for so long, Angela Merkel is poised to do interesting things yet again.
Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Germany.
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