BERLIN — From gigantic billboards across the country, a larger-than-life Angela Merkel smiles down benevolently on Germans, just as a kind school mistress or auntie might upon her charges. (One of the German chancellor's nicknames is Mutti, or mommy.) Merkel projects calm and confidence, even as the German election campaign enters its final, frenetic stage before the nationwide vote on Sept. 22. And why shouldn't she look confident? One thing Germans know virtually for certain about the race is that her conservative Christian Democrats will amass the most votes on election day. Unsurprisingly, the tag lines below Merkel's smiling visage -- stability, security, continuity -- reflect the essence of the conservatives' election campaign as well as Merkel's unstinting popularity.
Indeed, "revolutionary" is not an adjective anyone here in Germany would use to describe Merkel, the two-term chancellor widely known for her deliberate, ultracautious, consensus-focused style of governance. Whether the issue at hand is intervention in Syria or renewable energy, Merkel's approach is wait-and-see, holding off until she absolutely must act. Indeed, critics -- even in her own administration -- can be vexed by her slow-ball pace. In terms of her decision-making, Merkel is as careful and conservative as they come.
But during her eight years in the kanzleramt and more than a decade and a half at the helm of Germany's foremost conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Merkel has presided over a dramatic upending of German conservatism -- even a revolution, one could say. Indeed, it took Merkel -- a party newcomer, a woman, an Easterner, and a Protestant -- to modernize an outmoded Christian democracy, making it more liberal and inclusive on domestic topics ranging from military conscription to nuclear power. In doing so, she has not only positioned her party to win a third straight nationwide vote, but she has changed Germany -- probably forever.
Under Merkel, Europe's premier Christian democratic party has abandoned many of the trademark positions that defined German conservatism during the Cold War years and well into the 1990s. Whether Merkel opted for this path out of conviction or realpolitik is beside the point -- what matters is that it has worked magic for the CDU. She rejuvenated a party that had grown stodgy, and she stole the thunder from her main rival, the Social Democratic Party, which never dreamed that German conservatives would ever invade its long-held turf so boldly.
It bears reminding that the CDU was born amid the rubble of postwar Germany, a broad alliance that brought together the splintered remnants of Weimar-era parties, the powerful Catholic Church, millions of resentful expellees, and even former Nazis under its big tent. Its founding father and undisputed leader for two decades was Konrad Adenauer, whose imprint on the CDU -- and indeed the Federal Republic as a whole -- would define it until unification and beyond.
A devoutly Catholic Rhinelander, Adenauer, born in 1876, presided over Germany's stunning Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle), as well as its entrance into NATO and entrenchment in the Western camp. Yet Adenauer balked at forcing ordinary Germans to come to terms with the recent past. The Catholic Church had unprecedented say in the CDU, which, for example, envisioned the proper role of German women as being defined by the three Ks: Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church).
Of course, over the postwar decades the CDU rolled with many punches and tempered the Adenauer era's archconservatism. The liberalizing impact of a new generation of young Germans, the student uprising in the late 1960s, and the powerful mass movements of the 1970s, such as the women's movement, inevitably rubbed off on the party. Yet it remained male-dominated, socially old-school, and rigidly hierarchical.
By the time Helmut Kohl, another Catholic Rhinelander, stepped down in 1998, the CDU was hopelessly out of touch with German society. Just one example: Kohl used to fondly refer to Merkel, then a minister in his cabinet, as das Mädchen (the girl). Germany had changed profoundly since the early 1980s when Kohl came to power, not least with the addition of unification's 17 million Easterners to the country's population.
The party realized that it had to win back young, urban, and female swing voters, as well as make inroads into growing non-Christian constituencies. It required a revolution just to catch up to where modern Germany had traveled. But so entrenched were its denizens in the ethos and alliances of the past that it was impossible for them to pull it off.
Enter the 44-year-old Angela Merkel, who had been a party member for just eight years when she took the CDU's helm in 1998. The Merkel revolution -- fully in keeping with her judicious style -- wasn't by any means a storming of the Bastille, but rather an incremental, low-profile, and extremely effective transformation from within.
Her very person was a sensation: a woman in a heavily male-stocked party that still saw the role of women first and foremost as mothers in a traditional nuclear family. But Merkel, a professional physicist, had no Kinder and in fact wasn't even married to her longtime male partner until she joined the party (and was politely asked whether she'd consider marrying, which indeed she did in 1998).