Democracy Is A Delicate Flower

Kati Marton, award-winning Hungarian-American author and journalist

In light of recent events, we spoke with award-winning Hungarian-American author and journalist Kati Marton about her latest book, The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel

Marton has contributed as a reporter to ABC News, Public Broadcasting Services, National Public Radio, and written for publications such as The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, The Times of London, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and more. She is the author of nine books, including True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy and Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

She is also the chair of the new pro-democracy group Action for Democracy alongside figures such as writer Anne Applebaum, historian Timothy Snyder, political scientist Francis Fukuyuma, and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Wesley Clark.

House co-founder Tim Leberecht met Kati Marton in Lisbon a few weeks ago and had a chance to interview her on Zoom yesterday. Below is an excerpt from their conversation, edited for length and clarity:


Tim Leberecht: Would Vladimir Putin have invaded Ukraine if Merkel were still the German Chancellor?

Kati Marton: I would tend to think not. It’s too big of a coincidence that 12 weeks after she left the chancellery, he launches this aggression. The circumstances on the ground did not change. NATO’s position did not change. I think he is exploiting what he perceived, and I think he is proven to be wrong. For 16 years Angela Merkel kept Vladimir Putin under control through a variety of stratagems. She was really the only one that he respected among world leaders. They literally speak each other’s language.

Tim Leberecht: And why do you think that is? Is it because of the upbringing in a socialist culture, some of the same coming-of-age experiences? Or is it gender? Why did he respect her so much?

Kati Marton: It’s definitely not about gender. Like most demagogues, he has very little respect for women. But they are products of the same Soviet formation, and they came out with different conclusions about that formation. 

For Putin, the end of the Soviet Empire was the 20th century's greatest catastrophe; for Angela Merkel, it was the beginning of her freedom and her reinvention from scientist to politician to becoming the most powerful leader in the West. They have a deep understanding of each other and, on Merkel’s end, a profound feel for his capacity for cruelty and deception, because she lived under a police state for 35 years. 

She had personal experience with the KGB, and Putin is in Merkel’s mind, first and foremost, a KGB agent—trained at deception, trained at whatever works, whether it’s assassination, or poisoning, or subduing an entire nation. That is his training, his training is not as a diplomat or as a statesman, those are not in his toolbox. Because she approached him with this understanding, she had an advantage over every other head of state in the world plus something else—a deep respect, love, I would say, for Russian history and culture. 

That, in a way, eased her passage with Putin because she used her love of Dostoyevsky and Gogol and Tchaikovsky and so on—a very clever use of soft power to soften him up. I could go on and on as to why she was so eminently suited for the task of keeping Putin under control for 16 years, and why she is so desperately missed today. There’s simply no one else like her, and no one else who practices her brand of what I call an ego-free statesmanship. That is to say, he couldn’t get under her skin.

Tim Leberecht: Angela Merkel, despite being one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful leader of the West, is a very private person. You had unprecedented access to her inner circle and to her. What did you learn about her that truly surprised you?

Kati Marton: She’s not entirely who we think she is. And I’m not sure she loves my book because it pierces her reserve more than any other book. It’s not primarily a political book, it’s really a character study, that's what interested me most—who was this woman who achieved all these things without people really being aware of them? So that was my challenge, to penetrate that steely reserve. The thing that I learned was that she’s not this straight-laced, puritanical, humorless, matronly person. 

In fact, she’s very warm. I've seen her tear up on occasion. She’s very funny. Her skits on Putin when he’s upset are killers, and keep her staff amused. She can do imitations of most heads of state. She likes to have a good time. She likes to stay up with a drink or two long past when others have nodded off. She has remarkable stamina for a woman of her age, or any age. She says she has the constitution of a camel whereby she can store up sleep the way a camel stores up water, and go for days. 

This, by the way, paid off when she was negotiating with Putin during the first round of his Ukraine aggression. She was always the last to leave the table, and that physical stamina has been an asset for her. But let’s not forget the fundamental fact that she’s brilliant, that she has a photographic memory. Usually when I get closer to the person I’m writing about, the less impressive they are because we all have feet of clay. But the closer I got to Merkel, the more impressed I was, because she manages to shield both her great ambition and her remarkable qualities. Unlike any other politician I’ve encountered, she frankly doesn’t care what you or I think of her. She’s not working for a Nobel Peace Prize. She’s working to achieve results.

Tim Leberecht: Do you think she’s the last in a line of enlightened modern leaders serving the public good? Or is she the first of a new breed of ego-free, servant-conscious leaders?

Kati Marton: I think it would be a terrible development for the human race if she were the last public servant, the last who was more interested in us than in themselves. That would not be a world I want to bring my children up in. 

But I do believe that among her prime legacies is that she has permanently put to rest any question we might have about a woman’s capacity to lead. Not in spite of the fact that she’s a woman, but because she’s a woman, because she thinks that hubris is a male weakness. I think that is a feminine trait, the notion of “Oh, come on, let’s just get on with it.” Damn your need to be bigger and stronger. 

For her, Putin is a very transparent character, as was Donald Trump. A weak narcissist who will test you. I quote her as saying, “he will test you night and day, and if you shrink before his eyes, then you are done.” But she never did. She never shrank. She met him eyeball to eyeball, and that was really in all of our interest for 16 years.

Tim Leberecht: I don't know if you read David Brooks’ recent piece in the New York Times in which he calls the 21st century a “dark century.” He argued that liberalism is in decline. And he bemoaned the fact that we squandered this opportunity that Francis Fukuyama famously called “the end of history”, the victory of the West after the end of the Cold War. What happened to the optimism we felt at the end of the last century? Why are we now facing the rise of totalitarian leaders?

Kati Marton: I think Fukuyama was sadly off base when he declared the end of history because the Cold War was over and the West seemed to have triumphed. Merkel would never have fallen into that trap because she has a profound sense of man’s capacity for evil, as someone with her history, with her parents having lived through the Nazis, and she herself having lived through the communist era, and being so aware of Germany’s debt to the world in terms of the damage Germany did—starting two world wars, the Holocaust—that was among her prime motivators. 

She never saw the world bending in the arc of the moral universe toward justice, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., often quoted by her friend Barack Obama, she never would have bought into that. Nor is she a Kissingerian realpolitician. And her Lutheran formation is as fundamental to her as her Eastern Bloc experience. I would put those as the twin pillars of who she is. The Lutheran formation means a deep sense of responsibility toward those less fortunate. We saw this come to the fore in 2015, when she opened Germany’s borders to one million Middle Eastern refugees. Take the image of Sisyphus rolling that rock up the mountain, only to have it roll back. She doesn’t think of that as a negative image, that is who she thinks she is. She’s rolling that boulder up the mountain because she must, and she believes in the, let’s say, modest, daily work of salvation, not in grand gestures. 

And above all, she hates the idea of war. She thinks that when armies roll, that is utter defeat. That is the end of diplomacy. She’s not a pacifist, but she does consider war to be a failure. And I can only imagine how devastated she is by current developments. And I genuinely hope, and assume, that her successor Olaf Scholz is on the phone with her often these days.

Tim Leberecht: You are the wife of the late Richard Holbrooke, who is the quintessential diplomat of the American Century, if you will. He was instrumental in brokering the Dayton Accords that ended the Yugoslavian war, and he served as Ambassador to Germany and Ambassador to the United Nations, among many other appointments. You traveled frequently with him, observed his work and were part of it. What did you learn about diplomacy from him and what would have been his advice as to how the world, how the West, should respond to Putin now?

Kati Marton: It was really something to observe Richard as he brought an end to war in the Balkans through all-in diplomacy, through a combination of charm and threats, and with a very strong strategic sense—two moves down the chessboard. That’s very much the way Merkel works too, she works from a desired end point, and works her way backward. But rather than using Richard’s method of charm and threats, she relies on a granular knowledge of data and facts that her interlocutors simply cannot match. 

With Richard it was a more muscular diplomacy. He approached every confrontation, be it with Milosevic or the Taliban, with the idea that there’s a deal to be made. Everybody has a place where we can find common ground, the trick is to find that common ground. That requires great patience and an ability to bluff. I remember a couple times during talks that he would tell all of us to pack our bags and put them in front of the door. We were all in barracks—the Serbs, the Croatians, the Bosnians, the EU represented by Carl Bildt and Wolfgang Ischinger—we were all in similar, rather spartan barracks. And when Richard said, pack up, we’re leaving, that was a signal to whoever was holding up the talks, that we mean business. Richard assumed that they would then sober up and come to the table. It was all-in diplomacy, and what he had was not only somewhere behind him—the strength of the military and NATO ultimately—but also the support of his President, which was an enormous asset. That was powerful, but you also need to have a personality that is part gambler and is fearless in spending whatever you’ve got. 

That was Holbrooke, he really believed that diplomacy was the answer to most of the world’s problems. And at the table he would gather not only diplomats, his team consisted also of humanitarian workers, refugees, specialists, agricultural workers, in other words, it was a holistic approach to diplomacy, not just gentleman in pinstripes, but every aspect of the issue was dealt with, all-in, and you don’t leave until we have a solution, literally locking them up behind the barbed wire of an airbase in the American heartland of Dayton, Ohio. It was a tremendous learning experience for me, and I think that diplomats should also copy that playbook. He and Merkel liked each other very much.

Tim Leberecht: You’ve observed diplomacy from the first row. You’ve written about powerful figures and leaders such as Angela Merkel. You also wrote about presidential couples. So you know a great deal about power. You’re a writer and a journalist. Now you are also taking on an activist role with the Action for Democracy initiative. What led you to do that?

Kati Marton: Action for Democracy is a movement to bring Democrats—with a small “d,” it's nonpartisan—to the forefront of a world situation that is a dangerous moment for all of us. We can’t afford to just assume that all is well even if we live in countries that call themselves democracies. 

Our first battleground is Hungary, which is my native land, a country that I'm immensely proud of. I left Hungary as a small child, a refugee to the United States, and have never stopped being proud of that, and speaking the language, and distressed by the current leadership there under Viktor Orbán, and I’m trying to rally my fellow Hungarian diaspora—citizens of the world, many of us have the right to vote—to engage in what’s going on in our homeland, which has been slipping away from democracy and heading in the absolute wrong direction for a country that has a terrible history of darkness under the communists, and before that, the first proto-fascist government in Europe, under Admiral Horthy, and of course the Jewish population suffered horribly. 

I myself witnessed the jailing of my parents when I was a little kid. My parents were Hungarian journalists working for Western media, they were the last independent journalists. They were arrested and convicted as spies, with absolute phony charges, and then freed right before the Hungarian Revolution, which they were able to cover. Like Merkel, I have a bone-deep sense of what freedom and its absence really means. It’s not an abstraction for me, just as it isn’t for Merkel. With Action for Democracy, we’re not backing a particular candidate in the April 3rd elections, but we are behind the need to rescue democracy from authoritarianism. There’s very little independent press left in Hungary.

Tim Leberecht: I read that you actually hosted Viktor Orbán for dinner together with Richard Holbrooke. And now you’re very much opposing him publicly.

Kati Marton: It’s not personal, I just don’t like what he’s doing to my homeland. And he’s become the darling of some of the worst elements in my adoptive country the United States, people like Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump, they hold him up as a role model. And that too is changing now minute by minute as the situation unfolds in Ukraine. Putin has done what was deemed to be impossible: he has unified the West, he has even brought Switzerland out of its neutrality. Sweden is sending weapons. I don’t see how Orbán can continue to praise authoritarianism as the way of the future, which is what he’s been doing by calling Hungary an illiberal democracy. 

What does that even mean? This is such a tragedy for the whole world, what’s going on in Ukraine, but I hope that one silver lining of this tragedy is that people will realize what Merkel has been saying now for years, in every speech, she’s been saying that empires rise and they fall if their citizens don’t pay sufficient attention, and it’s not enough to just vote every few years, you have to pay attention. It’s not a parlor game where we’re all on social media having our bit of fun, teasing each other and provoking each other. This is deadly serious. To anybody who is listening, pay attention, because it can slip away just as the Inca Empire collapsed, just as the Roman Empire collapsed. 

And as Merkel frequently says, the Chinese were at one time the most advanced civilization, long before Europe was, and then they faded. And now they want a seat at the table, which she thinks is not illegitimate of the Chinese. We have to remind people like Putin and Erdogan that they work for us, not the other way around. What happened? How did a guy who makes a salary of $140,000 a year accumulate $100 billion? There’s something inherently wrong with that. Angela Merkel went from the Chancellery back to her modest, rent-controlled apartment in Berlin without having accumulated any wealth whatsoever. And contrast that to Putin and Trump, and figure out which is the sort of leader that we need to preserve democracy.

Tim Leberecht: You said that the one silver lining of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is that it has strengthened the resolve of the West, has unified the West. Do you think that’s a temporary phenomenon? Or do you think the West will eventually prevail?

Kati Marton: I think it’s up to us now what we do with this newfound unity, this newfound strength not only in our numbers, but in our values. We’re now saying this is who we are. It’s not okay to cross borders with your tanks. That is not the world we want for ourselves or our children. So it really is up to us, but I genuinely hope that this is a wake-up call for all of us. 

That’s why I created Action for Democracy, with a lot of help from like-minded colleagues. Let’s keep this ball rolling. Let’s stay awake. Let’s not assume that just because we think we have a democracy, it’s solid and safe. It turns out that it’s a very delicate flower, and we each have a responsibility to nurture that delicate orchid of democracy.

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