As Germany’s leader for the past 16 years, Angela Merkel has taken her country far – but no further. The future demands a more radical politics
The candidates for the German chancellorship flocked to the sites of the flood this summer, yet none had what it took to reassure a distraught populace. The Green was on holiday. The Social Democrat spoke drily about money for rebuilding. The Christian Democrat was caught on camera giggling.
The incumbent, meanwhile, found herself thousands of miles away in Washington. Such was the importance of the visit – the first leader to be welcomed to the White House of Joe Biden – Angela Merkel decided she could not cut it short. As soon as possible, however, she flew home directly to the affected areas.
Her first destination was a place called Schuld, a tidy, ordinary collection of houses in the valley of the River Ahr on the western fringes of the country. The village hosts a tractor gathering, a Christmas market and an Easter Carnival. In 2014, it won the gold medal in a regional competition called “Our village has a future,” an award the locals were particularly proud of. Seven years later, it was deprived of that future.
As Merkel and the prime minister of the region sat on a small podium, the mayor of Schuld, a man by the name of Helmut Lussi, addressed them. He thanked the dignitaries for visiting and expressed relief that nobody had died. However, the scars, he said, would take years to heal. He then began to sob for several awkward seconds before apologising for his outburst of emotion.
Merkel looked at him with her characteristic wan smile. She told him that she couldn’t express in words what he and his people were going through. She didn’t say much more, yet that seemed to be enough.
For a woman who regards charisma as a character failing, Germany’s chancellor for the last 16 years seems to know how to tap into people’s feelings. Indeed, she abhors what she calls performance politics.
And yet, time and again, she has provided the reassurance that Germans crave, steering them through a series of crises. She has done it through graft and what she calls her “duty”. She showed it in helping deal with the resentments among some in the East over reunification; she did during the refugee crisis; she did it as the country went into lockdown at the start of the pandemic. She does it any time anything goes wrong.
She will be missed, more than her countryfolk yet realise. But it is time for her to go. Germany needs to learn to cope in this increasingly dangerous world without her. The problem is that when her people look beyond her, they see only reasons to fear.
The rise of Angela Merkel and the role she has played is one of the more unlikely political stories of contemporary politics. She could not have appeared more ill-suited to the job – a woman, a Protestant, a physicist by training, and a divorcee. On the night the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, 35-year-old comrade Merkel didn’t join her friends in their champagne-fuelled celebrations on the unfamiliar streets of the West. It was a Thursday and she did what she always did on Thursdays – she went to the public sauna with a friend near her flat. “I figured that if the wall had opened, it was hardly going to close again, so I decided to wait.”
After her sauna, seeing so many people on the streets, she decided to join everyone crossing over. She met some random Wessis who invited her in. “We cracked open some cans of beer – we were just so happy.” Then she went back again. She had work to do the next morning. In those heady first days, all East Germans were given “welcome money” by the West German government – 100 Deutschmarks. Instead of spending it on luxury food or drink, or a keepsake, Merkel focused on the practical. “You needed money to go to the toilet, or to get a cup of tea – it was November and it was cold.”
She had long planned to go nach drüben (over to the West) but only once she had reached 60, when pensioners were allowed to leave East Germany, when they had outlived their economic utility. She had worked out her schedule. She would go to West Berlin’s Kempinski Hotel and eat oysters with her mum. Then she would head to a police station, exchange her GDR passport for a Western one and travel to America to go coast to coast on a road trip. “I wanted to see the Rocky Mountains, drive around in a car and listen to Bruce Springsteen.”
An entire generation of Germans has known only Mutti, mummy, as chancellor. In all that time, she has rarely spoken about herself. She doesn’t like talking about her gender or background. This reticence has become her brand. One former aide told me that Merkel rarely showed strong emotions close up – not, he insists, because of any coldness but because of her upbringing. “She has been socialised by her life in the GDR system. She was fully aware that people betray their friends. She is rarely disappointed because she expects little from people.” Others who have worked with her say that her interest in culture kept her grounded.
I first met her in 1990, the year of the Wende (the turning point, as the unification process became known), when she was an unassuming adviser to the man who would become East Germany’s first and only democratically elected leader, Lothar de Maizière. She and I sat and drank coffee in the Palast der Republik, the parliament building in East Berlin that was a popular meeting point. I was struck by her poise, restraint and calm when all around was chaos. If only I had known…
The established Western parties were looking for Eastern politicians not sullied by the past and who could fit into the order. Helmut Kohl immediately took her under his wing. He made her a cabinet minister, giving her the junior post of minister of women and youth. He called her Das Mädchen, the girl. She didn’t appreciate it but kept her counsel.
She later recalled that she had expected West Germans to be more dynamic. She adjusted accordingly, playing safe with her decisions. One of her biographers, Mariam Lau of Die Zeit, says that Merkel quickly saw voters as risk-averse and anxious. These impressions stayed with her throughout.
She absorbed events and conversations, gradually moving up the Cabinet table. When the moment arrived, she struck at Kohl, easing herself into her party’s top job almost without notice. The old-timers thought she was a lightweight and would soon be gone.
The Merkel era began in November 2005. The Social Democrat chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, had introduced economic reforms that by German standards were shockingly radical. Her campaign was lacklustre and, although she won, it was a narrow victory. She was forced to give the SPD eight of the 16 cabinet seats, but this first coalition was a model of stability and is looked on by many as one of Germany’s most successful post-war governments. She did deals, at home and abroad. Within a year or two, she had emerged as the senior statesman in Europe.
Merkel is the opposite of ostentatious. She kept her small cottage near her home town of Templin, to the north-east of the capital; she was seen at her customary hairdresser in Berlin; and from time to time went grocery shopping. She devours art. She would telephone her favourite museum directors directly to ask them if they wouldn’t mind staying open a little longer so that she can see a particular exhibition without any fuss.
In an interview with the tabloid Bild, in November 2004, shortly before becoming chancellor, she was asked what emotions Germany aroused in her. She replied, “I am thinking of airtight windows. No other country can build such airtight and beautiful windows.” This was about more than buildings. It is a metaphor for constructing a country, a society, where reliability is the most prized asset.
The longer she remained in office, the more convinced she was of the merits of caution, of doing everything in small steps, cross-checking against all eventualities: “For me, it is always important that I go through all the possible options for a decision.” She is an inveterate texter to friends and advisers, even when sitting in the parliamentary chamber, consulting them in real time. This has given her the nickname of the Handy-Kanzler, the mobile-phone chancellor.
On the international stage, she respects interlocutors who do their preparation and don’t spring surprises. With Donald Trump, she did at least try. Before her visit to see him in 2017, she prepped assiduously. She studied a 1990 Playboy interview that had become a set text for policymakers. She read his 1987 book The Art of the Deal. She even watched episodes of his TV show, The Apprentice. He didn’t return the compliment. He loathed her, more than any foreign leader. “They picked the person who is ruining Germany,” he said of Time magazine’s choice of her as Person of the Year.
More surprisingly, she didn’t get on with Barack Obama, at least not at first. She was suspicious of his rhetoric. “You can’t solve the tasks [of government] with charisma,” she once said. By the end of his tenure, the two had become close friends. Indeed, it is said that she only agreed to fight a fourth election at his insistence. Democracy, he entreated her, needed a strong defender.
She has, according to one biographer, total impulse control. She rarely shows emotion at the time, but lets her displeasure be known afterwards. After meeting Vladimir Putin for the first time, she remarked to her aides that she had passed “the KGB test” for holding his gaze. The most bizarre encounter took place at his Black Sea palace in 2007. Seemingly aware of the fact that his guest had a fear of large dogs stemming from being bitten as a child, Putin had his black Labrador run into the room. The dog, Konnie, stayed beside him while he and Merkel sat across from each other. Photos show Merkel looking anxious as the hefty dog sniffs her then settles near her feet. She does not flinch. Putin flashes a mischievous grin. “The dog doesn’t bother you, does she? She’s a friendly dog and I’m sure she will behave herself.” To which Merkel responded with a dig of her own, in perfect Russian: “It doesn’t eat journalists, after all.”
“Wir schaffen das,” declared Angela Merkel after visiting a refugee camp inside her own country. She would say it again and again in the subsequent weeks. We can handle it. She could – and she couldn’t. In September 2015, Germany welcomed the world’s destitute. The numbers were far in excess of anything anyone else was doing. She did it to help the Greeks and Italians, who were suffering as the first ports of call. She did it out of compassion, and to show the world a new Germany. Hundreds of local people gathered at Munich’s central station over the next few days to applaud incoming refugees. Locals opened their doors for “welcome dinners”. Sports halls and community centres were turned into emergency relief centres. Health clinics absorbed the sick. Schools took in children.
This was Germany at its best. So, what went wrong? Did it actually go wrong? For Merkel, it certainly did. The far-right AfD surged. Her standing suffered; by 2018 she had been forced to bring forward the date of her retirement. Many questioned her motives, and if not her motives then her competence. I don’t see it that way. I see it as one of the most extraordinary moments in Germany’s post-war rehabilitation. Who else was as brave as she?
Coronavirus provided the ultimate test of leadership. The populists around the world – Trump, Boris Johnson, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro – were providing object lessons in incompetence. Merkel told citizens what she, her ministers and scientists knew and what they didn’t. She never blagged. She never boasted.
In a television address a few weeks into the Covid-19 crisis, Merkel did something German leaders have rarely done. She invoked the war, but not on this occasion to emphasise guilt: “There has been no greater challenge to our country since reunification – no, not since the Second World War – that relies so heavily on us all working together in solidarity.” She then spoke grimly of the restrictions on the streets, of the army being called in, of the state monitoring people’s whereabouts. “Let me assure you: for someone like me, for whom freedom of movement was a hard-won right, such restrictions can only be justified as an absolute necessity. They should never be taken lightly, and should only be imposed temporarily in a democracy, but they are vital now to save lives.” Most of the decisions she was forced to take went against everything modern Germany stood for. The closing of borders showed how easily the great dream of free travel across the continent might end.
Langsam aber sicher. Slow but steady: this term, more than any other, encapsulates the Merkel era. But the politics of incrementalism only get you so far. The Langenscheidt dictionary’s word of the year for 2015 was merkeln, meaning to sit on the fence.
The list of issues that she did not face up to is long. After facing down Putin early on, imposing sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine, Merkel returned to Berlin-establishment type by seeking a rapprochement. The biggest error was Nord Stream, the pipeline that will pump gas directly to Western Europe, circumventing Ukraine and making the EU even more dependent on the Kremlin for its energy supplies. On China, in spite of signs of a toughening of its position a few years ago, Germany has reverted to a mercantilist view. Remarkably, Merkel has visited China at least once a year during her tenure, almost always with a business delegation in tow.
In May 2017, at a party rally in the suburbs of Munich, Merkel said something remarkable: “The times when we could rely on others are over. That is something I’ve learned in recent times. We have to take our destiny much more into our own hands in the future if we want to be strong.”
As the US withdraws from Europe, as the Afghan debacle demonstrates the demise of American power and influence around the world, who will become that beacon of liberal democracy that was so hard won in the early 1990s but which is now in retreat? At one point it looked as though Germany would take up the challenge. Now, not so much…
On the domestic front, many challenges are yet to be tackled. Germans hate being told that their broadband speeds are slower than those of Albania. The supposed economic giant has been running in analogue mode. The slow vaccine roll-out demonstrated a system mired in inflexibility and bureaucracy and a fear of data sharing that borders on the irrational. Infrastructure is creaking. You know when a train system is in real trouble when passengers don’t bother to complain. A decade of austerity – embraced by both coalition partners – was only reversed due to Covid and the need for emergency bailouts. Risk-aversion dominates business. Startups struggle in a culture which is frightened of failure.
In her early years, Merkel was feted at home and abroad as the “climate chancellor”. With its strength in precision engineering, it was perhaps unsurprising that Germany became a leader in renewable energy. But then, as ever with Merkel, the slow and the steady took hold. Better not antagonise the East German blue-collar worker in the coal fields or the gas-guzzling car drivers of the wealthy states of Bavaria and Baden Württemberg. Germany’s record now is decidedly mixed.
And yet politics is stable, the economy is robust. Germans look beyond their borders and all they see is chaos.
This is the Germany that Merkel bequeaths to her successors. Can they, will they, embrace the radical change the country needs without imperilling the stability to which the country cleaves?
German election campaigns deliver few fireworks. But they are intriguing and often unpredictable. The favourite at the start often struggles to prevail. Merkel’s CDU could have taken a radical option but alighted instead on Armin Laschet. The prime minister of the most populous region, North Rhine Westphalia, he manages to have Boris Johnson’s buffoonery without the charisma. Perhaps it is the lot of any party dominated by a single figure to implode. Think the Conservatives after Thatcher. Think Labour (still) after Blair.
When Annalena Baerbock was chosen as the Greens’ candidate, her party dared to hope that it could reach the summit. This was always unlikely. Getting to around 20 per cent was already a remarkable achievement, but anything further would have required it to dilute its policies yet further. Which leaves the Social Democrats (SPD), considered only a few months dead in the water, like so many parties of the centre-left across Europe. As the polls stand, its candidate, Olaf Scholz is the most likely of the three to take over. He is already advertising himself as Merkel’s steady-as-she-goes successor – even though he belongs to the opposing party.
Odds are now on a Red, Green, Yellow, a traffic light coalition of SPD, Greens and the centrist Free Democrats. It could yet be Black, Green, Yellow (CDU, Greens, FDP). These combinations, and others, have been tried out in regional governments, serving as prototypes, giving all parties the opportunity to work with each other before embarking on a national level. This mosaic is a source of extraordinary strength and stability.
The terms of the coalition agreement will be hammered out in the weeks following the 26 September election. Before the end of the year, Merkel will be gone. If she survives until 17 December, she will have outlasted Kohl and become the longest-serving chancellor of modern times.
With museums, theatres and her garden beckoning, she is likely to enjoy the quiet life. But will she really stay out of politics for long? Will an international institutional beckon?
Germany knows it must move on from her, but it is scared to do so. Few leaders depart the scene with such consistently high approval ratings. None of her successors comes close. Yet when she emerged, a generation ago, she too was dismissed as insubstantial, only to defy her detractors. Might the same happen again? One can only hope, because the world desperately needs a confident, responsible chancellor but also one who is prepared to take risks. Stability is essential for Germans. They are going to have to realise that it is also insufficient.
Photographs by Eric Feferberg, Jochen Zick, Axel Schmidt, Hannibal Hanschke / Getty Images
Life after Angela: what has Merkel meant to Germany, Europe and us?
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