TIME’s Person of the Year | Angela Merkel
Nancy Gibbs Photograph by Stefan Boness—PANOS
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Her political style was not to have one; no flair, no flourishes, no charisma, just a survivor’s sharp sense of power and a scientist’s devotion to data. Even after Merkel became Germany’s Chancellor in 2005, and then commanded the world’s fourth largest economy, she remained resolutely dull—the better to be underestimated time and again. German pundits called her Merkelvellian when she outsmarted, isolated or just outlasted anyone who might mount a challenge to her. Ever cautious, she proudly practiced what Willy Brandt once called Die Politik der kleinen Schritte (the politics of baby steps), or as we call it in the U.S., leading from behind.

Then came 2015. Not once or twice but three times this year there has been reason to wonder whether Europe could continue to exist, not culturally or geographically but as a historic experiment in ambitious statecraft. Merkel had already emerged as the indispensable player in managing Europe’s serial debt crises; she also led the West’s response to Vladimir Putin’s creeping theft of Ukraine. But now the prospect of Greek bankruptcy threatened the very existence of the euro zone. The migrant and refugee crisis challenged the principle of open borders. And finally, the carnage in Paris revived the reflex to slam doors, build walls and trust no one.

Each time Merkel stepped in. Germany would bail Greece out, on her strict terms. It would welcome refugees as casualties of radical Islamist savagery, not carriers of it. And it would deploy troops abroad in the fight against ISIS. Germany has spent the past 70 years testing antidotes to its toxically nationalist, militarist, genocidal past. Merkel brandished a different set of values—humanity, generosity, tolerance—to demonstrate how Germany’s great strength could be used to save, rather than destroy. It is rare to see a leader in the process of shedding an old and haunting national identity. “If we now have to start apologizing for showing a friendly face in response to emergency situations,” she said, “then that’s not my country.”

And so this time, the woman who trained as a quantum chemist did not run the tests and do the lab work; she made her stand. The blowback has come fast and from all sides. Donald Trump called Merkel “insane” and called the refugees “one of the great Trojan horses.” German protesters called her a traitor, a whore; her allies warned of a popular revolt, and her opponents warned of economic collapse and cultural suicide. The conservative Die Weltpublished a leaked intelligence report warning about the challenge of assimilating a million migrants: “We are importing Islamic extremism, Arab anti-Semitism, national and ethnic conflicts of other people as well as a different understanding of society and law.” Her approval ratings dropped more than 20 points, even as she broadcast her faith in her people: “Wir schaffen das,” she has said over and over. “We can do this.”

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