Meet Angela Merkel, but first meet what she is set to displace in Germany.

The 1968 generation was born angry and rejected everything about the country in which it grew up. The postwar period of the economic miracle valued hard work and efficiency, discipline and uncomplaining resilience. Former Nazis and ethnic Germans from the east were reintegrated into West Germany, the slate was wiped clean, and when the cold war forced Germans to take sides, they chose capitalism.

… The students of the 1960s identified all this with the Nazis, and by the 1980s, under their growing influence, the “don’t mention the war” syndrome of Konrad Adenauer’s Germany was reversed, so that the process of “overcoming the past” became a national obsession. The symbol of German rehabilitation was no longer the Mercedes, but the memorial.

If they were right to reject the suffocating silence about the Nazi past, their response did not make Germany more whole, or a healthier place. From having been the hardest-working nation in Europe, it became one of the laziest. In the land of Luther, Kant and Bach, the churches stand empty, the universities are mediocre, and there are few writers, artists or composers of international repute. At the same time the postwar identification with the American victors – Kohl’s idea of fun was and is listening to the United States Air Force Band – has turned into a visceral anti-Americanism that Schroder is happy to exploit and legitimise.

As for the radicals themselves, as they reached middle age they proved far more sybaritic and self-indulgent than their elders. Many drifted through life, fuelled by drugs or drink and living off wealth accumulated by their parents. Now that the birth rate has fallen, they will have to be supported in old age on state pensions funded by a dwindling number of younger taxpayers (one reason why Merkel is thinking of privatising the pension system).

Above all, the 1968ers have aborted the older generation’s attempt to rebuild national pride on the foundations of economic success. The last straw was the abolition of the greatest achievement of the economic miracle: the Deutschmark. The result is a void: present-day Germans do not suffer from excessive self-esteem, but its opposite. Younger Germans – not to mention the survivors of the wartime generation – instinctively know this, and in Angela Merkel they have found an improbable heroine.

Merkel is the antithesis of the 1968 generation of Schroder and Joschka Fischer, the Green leader and foreign minister, and not just because she was only 13 in the spring of 1968. For one thing, she is an east German. For her and her friends, 1968 had nothing to do with Paris and everything to do with Prague, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the crushing of the last hope that communism might be reformed.

In German terms she is a nonconformist. Unlike her mainly Catholic predecessors in the Christian Democrats, she is the child of a Lutheran pastor. She studied natural rather than social sciences and gravitated to the right rather than the left, America rather than France. Only in her private life is she typical of her contemporaries: divorced and childless, she is a feminist in the unostentatiously German manner.

Her rivals, mostly men, resent her and can be expected to knife her at the first sign of trouble; her response has been to make her closest advisers female. Even her admirers would not call her glamorous; nor is she maternal. Yet her very dowdiness has worked to her advantage: she has been underestimated by rivals and opponents, and as she approaches the threshold of power her deliberate indifference to the vanity of celebrity makes her seem all the more formidable. It is Schroder, not Merkel, who sues newspapers for claiming that he dyes his hair.

Politics Germany's Last Chance