Helmut Kohl, with typical oafishness, used to call Angela Merkel "das Madchen" - the Girl, his girl, his discovery. It was never as simple as that. Although she retained the look of a blackboard monitor deep into middle age, Merkel's girlhood was over long before Kohl became chancellor. Merkel is a product of communism; she embodies its aesthetics and its rigidities. She was 35 when East Germany was dissolved and her instincts, her distrust of men, her nose for conspiracy, had already been formed. Even her career seems to follow a very personal five-year plan.
As she moves closer to becoming the leader of Germany, with elections likely on 18 September, it is time to ask: how communist is Angela Merkel, the great white hope of Tony Blair? What did she get up to in the German Democratic Republic?
On paper, of course, Merkel's policies are new-look Continental conservative: she wants market reforms in the health system, she leans towards workfare, wants to use a hike in VAT to cut labour costs. She is suspicious of Vladimir Putin and fawning towards George W Bush. She could contemplate change in the Common Agricultural Policy. Barring a few issues, notably entry to the EU, she smacks of Blairism. Yet scratch the conservative and you find a woman who appears to yearn for a lost age and defunct state. She is neither fish nor fowl. The most dangerous politicians are always the hybrids - the mermaids and centaurs. Germans will be offered an increasingly well-packaged modern conservative. But listen to the undertones, study her preference for polit-bureaucratic decision-making, and the true Angie emerges. She has been hardened in a different way from her western colleagues.
Merkel's version of the communist years is littered with little lies or inconsistencies. The campaign biographies of Merkel are designed to celebrate the first Ossi (the first easterner) to make a serious bid for the job of chancellor. Every other high-flying politician, from Gerhard Schroder through Edmund Stoiber to Wolfgang Schauble, has been able to chart a rise from postwar deprivation and up the ladder of regional politics; love affairs and backstabbing are brushed out, naturally; the general impression is of worthiness and service, the two main vote-winning qualities for Germans. An Ossi biography has to be written, and read, differently. In Merkel's case the obvious question is quickly posed and quickly answered: no, she did not work for or collaborate with the Stasi. A few family snaps and a sheaf of school pictures show a shy girl dutifully passing through the stages of East German socialisation: as a member of the Free German Youth (FDJ), cooking on a sailing trip, an uncoordinated teenager smiling nervously at the camera during a compulsory volleyball game.
Yet Merkel was never an entirely normal Ossi. Her father, Horst Kasner, was a Lutheran pastor who had moved from the West to the East, eager to help prop up Christianity under communism. He was a daunting figure. At the Waldhof vicarage in Templin, outside Berlin, he helped train other priests.The church adjoined a centre for handicapped children, thrust out of view by the communists. Angela's problem, says her latest biographer, Gerd Langguth, was Kasner's coldness: his warmth was reserved for the trainee priests and the disabled children. From his eldest daughter he expected more and he seemed to be constantly disappointed by her. When at the end of the 1970s he visited her in her own first flat, in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, he cast a quick eye around the place as his daughter waited anxiously for approval. "Couldn't you have done better?" he said at last, turning to go.
Angela Merkel's relationship with her father is not just a story of unrequited or inadequately expressed paternal love. That is common to many high-achieving women. It is about Horst Kasner's emotional involvement with communism. Plainly Kasner - who is still alive and who still vaguely disapproves of his daughter - tried to justify his decision to settle in the East by showing an exaggerated loyalty to the system. When the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, Merkel's mother sat alone in the church and cried. Her father, by contrast, felt liberated: he no longer faced the choice of whether to return to the West. There was not a trace of the dissident about him and the authorities allowed him to receive western books; there was not much money in the household (Angela never learned to dress) but there was an air of privilege about it. What price did Kasner pay the communists? No biographer has yet established the exact degree of his collaboration but few doubt that there was some.
For Langguth, an indulgent biographer, one can explain some of Merkel's conservatism as a quest for certainty, a rejection of the political ambiguity of her father. Hence her vocal commitment to the free market and to Washington, DC. Her ambition, on the other hand, is written off as a desire to please her dad. For sure, Merkel is distinctly unhappy when reporters seek out her (admittedly tight-lipped) father. Kasner knows too much about her weaknesses and about the kind of compromises that the family had to make.
To cover up her embarrassment at being a pastor's daughter in an avowedly atheistic state, Merkel embraced the system. She was top of the class, winning a trip to Moscow because of her excellent Russian. If she wins the election in September, she will be the first west European leader to be able to communicate directly, in Russian, with the Kremlin. She was an enthusiastic member of the FDJ. At a time when her contemporaries preferred to wear jumpers over their uniform of blue shirts, Merkel became an eager organiser. She claims now that she did little more than set up theatre excursions. Yet there are contemporaries who swear she was in the agitation and propaganda department - that she was, as near as dammit, a True Believer.
Do these small historical uncertainties really matter? They add up. There are conflicting stories, for example, about how she landed at the side of Lothar de Maiziere, briefly head of the Ossi variant of the Christian Democratic Union. There is even some fuzziness as to how her scientific career as a research physicist developed.
It is too easy, however, to swallow the wrong-headed West German prejudice that every East German has something to hide. The fact is, Merkel is an opportunist in the manner of most successful politicians. And she is so concerned with covering her tracks, with trying to shield herself from attack, that she may no longer really know what did or did not happen on certain crucial evenings in 1990. She may prefer not to know the full details of her father's contacts with the authorities. She may even have forgotten the complete range of her FDJ responsibilities.
If Merkel moves left after the election - and the signs are that she'll soon drop any pretence of being "Maggie Merkel" - it won't be because she has been programmed by her life under communism. Every conservative German leader from Bismarck through Konrad Adenauer to Helmut Kohl has tried to win blue-collar worker support with big-spending welfare or pension packages. Despite Germany's chronic shortage of cash, Merkel is poised to do the same. The true legacy of her communist youth is that the neglected, rather damaged pastor's daughter became both rootless and ruthless. Communism taught her how to stitch up rivals.
The Schroder team, matured 1968 rebels, learned their political handiwork in the western Young Socialist (Juso) movement; they brought their Juso swagger and bluff into parliament and ultimately into cabinet. Now the swagger has gone and the time has come, it seems, for the carefully planned takeover politics and hard-nosed dialectics of the East German youth movement. Merkel's colleagues and rivals in the Christian Democratic Union are still baffled by her rise. (Where, after all, is her regional power base? Her network of cronies? Her hotline to big business?) That just reflects their ignorance of the FDJ as a political breeding ground. The East is about to claim a belated revenge.