It was a remarkable letter, a clinical and very public coup-de-grace delivered to an eminent, mortally wounded elder. What made it more remarkable was that the person who signed it was not one of the obviously thrusting young pretenders to Kohl's CDU throne, but a moon-faced and oddly unmemorable protege whom he used to refer to, dismissively, as das Mädchen: the girl.
Some like to see in this episode – which duly launched Angela Merkel on the stratospheric trajectory that would see her elected head of the centre-right CDU the following year and Germany's first woman chancellor barely five years after that – proof positive that she is a sharp, maybe even a ruthless opportunist, eminently capable of bold, decisive and, if necessary, dirty deeds to achieve her ends.
Others construe it more as an uncharacteristic moment of madness from a politician who otherwise has constructed an entire career on caution and consensus; a public figure so superficially unremarkable, so singularly lacking in passion or charisma that in nearly 25 years in politics she has (as her biographer puts it) "not made a single speech that stayed in the memory". A moderator, not a leader; a tactician, not a strategist.
She could, of course, be both. But what's becoming increasingly clear, as the euro teeters on the precipice and economic disaster beckons, is that if she is, a great many people – most of them, it has to be said, outside Germany – would actually quite like to see a bit more of the former, and rather less of the latter. A touch more of the bold and decisive, somewhat less of the calm and methodical. If possible.
Merkel is, after all, about the most important person in the world right now. As leader of the eurozone's undisputed economic powerhouse, she in effect holds the future financial wellbeing of all of us in her hands. And the worry is she's not up to the job. For all her undoubted qualities and undimmed domestic popularity (the pollsters, certainly, see no hint of a rival who could threaten her re-election in 2013, for a third successive term), Merkel – a pale, irredeemably frumpy, maddeningly hard-to-pin-down shadow of an Adenauer, a Brandt, a Kohl – is totally not what's needed, say her critics.
Some are downright damning. "Since the very beginning of this crisis, in 2007-8, Angela Merkel has not ceased providing us with the proof that she is really not the stuff of which great leaders are made," says Jean Quatremer, longstanding Brussels correspondent of the French daily Libération and a veteran observer of European affairs.
"She's navigating by sight, with no real political vision, and no authority. So much sluggishness, so much incapacity to grasp the gravity of the situation, takes the breath away ... Angela Merkel has now become Europe's principal problem."
Others are not quite as scathing, but no less despondent. Merkel's greatest failing, says Charles Grant, of the pro-European thinktank Centre for European Reform, is that she's either unwilling or unable to question prevailing German orthodoxies.
"Truly great political leaders, real statesmen – they can change the weather," Grant says. "They're prepared to think the unthinkable, to say and do things that they know will be deeply unpopular. Merkel just isn't naturally quite brave enough to do a Thatcher, even a Sarkozy, and try to actually change the way people think."
There's certainly little in the chancellor's background to cast her as a fearless challenger of the status quo. Born in July 1954 in Hamburg, she was only a few months old when her father, Horst Kasner, a dauntingly dedicated Lutheran pastor, and his wife moved to the parish of Templin in east Germany, not far from Berlin, where Kasner helped train other priests. The church was also next door to a centre for handicapped children that took up much of his attention.
Occasional visits back to the west gave Angela and her younger brother and sister a glimpse of life the other side of the Iron Curtain. But unlike many of her contemporaries, she never got itchy feet: perhaps uneasy at having a pastor for a father in an unambiguously atheist state, Merkel positively threw herself into the system.
She was a star student, at one point winning a trip to Moscow as a reward for her mastery of Russian. At the same time, she was a keen member of the socialist Free German Youth, or FDJ, organising expeditions and excursions and even, according to some, helping with publicity and propaganda. After school, it was on to Leipzig university to study physics, and eventually the East German Academy of Sciences in Berlin, as a research physicist.
On the home front, a 1977 marriage to Ulrich Merkel, a fellow student, ended after five years, and on moving to Berlin she met and eventually married a quantum chemist at Humboldt university, Joachim Sauer. Sauer stays well out of his wife's spotlight, although he will, gamely, escort the leaders' wives when Germany hosts international summits. For her part, Merkel, who never had children, claims still to do her bit domestically – the odd spot of shopping, sewing and cake-baking.
There's plenty in those early years, plainly, for cod psychologists to chew on. A distant, otherwise-engaged father whom she felt she could never sufficiently satisfy; a religious upbringing that valued hard work (everyone who knows her cites Merkel's prodigious appetite for that) and abhorred showiness; an academic discipline that rewards calm, methodical analysis rather than bravura out-of-the-box leaps of faith.
Equally, many have remarked on the ease with which Merkel navigated the murky waters of pre-reunification East German academe. That she succeeded in pursuing a successful scientific career without ever having to join the Communist party as an adult reveals, it is said, a rare ability to keep a low profile, make oneself unthreatening, negotiate awkward compromises.
At 35, she came late to politics, eventually getting involved through the burgeoning democracy movement shortly before the Wall came down in 1989. Showing impeccable timing and considerable political nous, she joined the CDU weeks before reunification. To Chancellor Kohl, she was a gift: an Ossi (former East German), a conservative, and a woman to boot. Three months later, Merkel found herself minister for woman and youth in his first post-reunification cabinet.
Merkel is a CDU oddity: a Protestant from the east, she heads a party whose core vote is Catholic and whose political roots are solidly in the west. Policy-wise, too, she's something of an enigma. Her hobbyhorses are climate change and Germany's ageing and shrinking population. But her socialist predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, pushed through the painful reforms that have allowed Germany to flourish today, and in her first term as chancellor her moderate, social-market conservatism was straitjacketed in a coalition with Schröder's SPD.
She has taken decisions to end conscription and, in the wake of Fukushima, to scrap nuclear power. But her second term, in a coalition with the liberal and increasingly unpopular Free Democratic party, has been largely dominated by the fallout from the global financial and economic crisis. Her response to this at home has been criticised as messy and hesitant, but it's hard to argue it did Germany's economy any actual harm.
But for most Germans, policies are not the point of Merkel. For them, what they know about her character far outweighs what they don't know about her ideas. Polls have for some time now showed her to be more popular than her party; that cautious, sensible, pragmatic style – her biographer, Gerd Langguth, has said she likes to "sit problems out", and rather than entertain grand ideas of a "historical mission" or "social vision" seeks "to solve today's problems, in a way that ensures she stays in power" – clearly resonates. A large majority plainly like the image of Germany that Merkel projects.
And that, when it comes to the current eurozone crisis, may be the nub of the problem.
Foreign critics may like to see Merkel as devoid of imagination; for Germans, she's level-headed. We portray her as dithering; in Germany, she brings to the summit table a much-needed dose of calm and reflection. A poll two weeks ago for the state broadcaster ARD found her personal approval rating had risen by nine points since October, to 57%. And she's not about to do anything that might upset that.
There's an ideological gulf, too, on the key question of economics. It doesn't help, concedes a German banker in Frankfurt who would rather not be identified, that few Germans, hardly anyone in the German government, and certainly none of Merkel's economic advisers "have ever read Keynes, or even begin to get market economics. To some extent, they're entitled not to, of course: they have the most successful economy in Europe. The trouble is, this thing is a hell of a lot bigger than Germany."
So it remains the Bundesbank's, Merkel's and Germany's deeply held conviction that discipline and austerity are the only ways out of the current crisis, and that any more generous solutions – collective Eurobonds, for example, or allowing the European Central Bank to act as a lender of last resort, both ideas touted in London and several other capitals – will only encourage more profligacy in Europe's irresponsible southern periphery.
"Her advisers are absolutely convinced they're right," says Grant, "and they won't take lessons from Anglo-Saxons. But there's a real danger that Merkel, neither an intellectual nor an economist, will go down as the woman who destroyed the euro because of this lack of boldness, this inability to challenge the intellectual climate in which she operates."
Moreover, many Germans believe the euro has become a kind of unfair and prohibitively expensive tax on their economic prowess. (It has also, of course, contributed greatly to their wellbeing, allowing the mighty German export machine to produce goods far more affordable in those ailing southern economies than they ever would have in Deutschmarks. But there's little political capital to be made from explaining that, and only very recently has Merkel started to make the effort.
Grant confesses he has changed his mind on Merkel: "In the beginning, I was a fan. She was brilliant at the early summits; brought everyone together, acted as peacemaker, got deals done. But since the eurozone crisis ... she's pandered to opinion. The very first Greek bailout, back in 2010, was delayed by months because of an election in North Rhine-Westphalia, which the CDU lost anyway."
(Away from the crisis, he detects a similar pattern: "On nuclear power, she did what she did because she faced tricky elections, especially in Baden-Wurtemburg. She's a follower, not a leader.")
In Brussels, Quatremer agrees: "She's no doubt a good captain when the weather is calm. But as soon as the seas get rough, she's incapable. I would seriously doubt, for example, whether this chancellor would have been capable of persuading her citizens to accept the euro, as Kohl did in his day, in the face of overwhelmingly hostile public opinion."
Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Berlin and former political editor of the Hamburg weekly paper Die Zeit, reckons at least one part of all this Merkel-bashing is simply misplaced. It's true, she says, that the chancellor's most striking characteristic is "her staying power. She's just still there. Like Thatcher, except Maggie was thrilling and terrifying and Merkel is neither. Like water drilling through granite."
Stelzenmüller also agrees that Merkel "leads from behind. She's undeniably a master tactician, always there at the finishing line ... but she favours strategic ambiguity. She'd doubtless say people like Blair and Obama are fools for saying out loud and up front what they're going to do, then failing to do it."
But like all German leaders, Stelzenmüller stresses, Merkel is severely constrained by the country's political structure, its Länder, coalition government, and a powerful constitutional court: "Few leaders are as responsive to public mood as Merkel, because none sail so close to the wind."
Robin Niblett, director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, better known as Chatham House, readily concedes the point. "Being chancellor has some of the aspects of being US president," he notes. "You're simply not as in charge as people think you are. Cameron and Sarkozy, for example, have immeasurably more concentrated power than Merkel does."
But he too sees something deeper, more fundamental in the German leader's makeup: "She's highly methodical and thorough, yes. And she doesn't want to be rushed. But but she's not, like some, methodical and thorough enough to then go on and be bold. In the end, Merkel will always be cautious."
What the German chancellor seeks, Niblett reckons, is "an equilibrium. And when she's found it, she wants to keep it. That's her guiding principle. It strikes me there's almost a sense of insecurity about where Germany sits, psychologically, as a country. And she's just very worried indeed about fracturing it."
That patient, logical, methodical approach has sometimes appeared to pay off: forcing Greece, for example, to pledge more structural reforms, and winning a voluntary agreement from the banks to take a 50% haircut on Greek debt. And Merkel has been able to overcome her innate distaste for Nicolas Sarkozy (the French president is all she detests in a man, and in a leader: brash, flamboyant, impetuous, brimming with big but random ideas), to build a functioning relationship. But she may also have stored up trouble for herself by ruling out potential exit strategies, and by cosseting German voters, refraining for so long from telling them the truth: that Germany has not only profited from the euro, but helped cause its problems – German banks, after all, lent to Greeks, who used the money to buy German products.
Ultimately, Niblett concludes, "the worry has to be that she may be right in theory, but wrong in practice. That this crisis may turn out to be just so big and irrational that maybe a country like France, bolder, more mercurial, may have a better nose for it. The bottom line is, Merkel's style of leadership is simply not suited to the role the world needs Germany to play in the current crisis."
Unfortunately, that style of leadership is very much the one that Germany, in times of need, wants most. "Germans don't want ideological posturing or undue stridency or big, dramatic gestures," says the Frankfurt banker.
"They want a sensible, pragmatic leader who will truly represent Germany and not betray core German values, the things that matter most here: hard work, fiscal responsibility, the social market economy. For the moment, that's what we've got. And we're very happy with it, thank you."....
Until recently I've hoped that the politicians knew vaguely what they were doing. I didn't want to be one of those people who emerges for any controversy to declare that everyone in a position of power is clearly an idiot and/or criminal and utterly corrupt.... But as time's gone on it's become horribly obvious that the world is just stumbling from one part of this crisis to the next....because of utter corruption and barbaric criminality, gone on for much too long without any punishement on Wall Street, in DC and on main street as well in most Zioconned countries and beyond...Just look at ALL these UNSC resolutions since 1947 that have gone for Decades without any enforcement....