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15 September 2021updated 16 Sep 2021 6:44am

The Fateful Chancellor: What the end of the Merkel era means for the world

Angela Merkel steered Europe through crisis after crisis, but leaves a mountain of unfinished business. How will she be remembered?

By Jeremy Cliffe

There are moments when history stands still, and moments when its wheels start turning. The night of 9 November 1989 was one of the latter. At 8pm Günter Schabowski, a spokesman for the struggling, protest-beset East German regime, fumbled an answer in a press conference and implied that the borders to the West would open “with immediate effect”. East Berliners rushed to the checkpoints. One, a 35-year-old quantum physicist and a creature of habit, initially resisted and kept her regular Thursday evening sauna appointment. But afterwards Angela Merkel skipped her post-sauna beer and joined the crowds pouring across the now-open crossing on the Bornholmer Strasse. “I met a few people, and at some point, we were all sitting in the apartment of a happy West German family,” she later recalled of that “fateful day”. The young Merkel took it all in, then hurried home. The next day would be an early start.

One month later Merkel joined the new party Democratic Awakening, which merged with the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in August 1990. In December that year she ran for and won the Bundestag seat for a north-eastern coastal constituency (which she would represent for the next 31 years). Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who patronisingly referred to her as “mein Mädchen” (“my girl”), made her minister for women and youth and then minister for the environment. When election defeat in 1998 and a party funding scandal consumed Kohl and his crown prince, Wolfgang Schäuble, Merkel manoeuvred to become first the CDU’s general secretary in 1998, its leader in 2000 and German chancellor in 2005.

Over the subsequent 16 years, and her four terms of office, Merkel has guided Germany to greater power and prosperity. She has steered it and Europe through crisis after crisis. In the process she has become, to many around the world, the embodiment of grown-up, pragmatic leadership. Now her long political story, the one that began on that fateful night in November 1989, is ending. Merkel is not seeking a fifth term at the German federal election on 26 September and will step down as chancellor once a new government has been formed. She will leave office not only as one of the most recognisable global politicians but also the most respected: international polling by YouGov last month gave her the most positive ratings of any world leader. She is the pre-eminent European leader of the post-1989 era.

Yet Merkel is also fiendishly hard to define. She is a Protestant woman scientist from the former East Germany in a political family (the CDU and its Bavarian ally the Christian Social Union or CSU) dominated by male Catholic lawyers from West Germany. She has been hailed as a progressive icon and defender of liberal democracy, yet is also a paragon of small-c conservatism and has been frustratingly reluctant to stand up to autocracy. She is a global power broker in an age of swaggering strongmen, yet is unflashy in her personality and habits; she lives in a modest flat and can be seen doing her own grocery shopping in a central Berlin supermarket. She has called multiculturalism “a grand delusion” yet is perhaps best known for admitting one million mostly Middle Eastern migrants at the peak of the migration crisis in 2015. She is profoundly interested in history yet travels light, ideologically and strategically, in her own style of leadership. 

How to explain this sphinx-like leader as her era draws to a close? And how will history view her legacy? 

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To understand Merkel’s place in history one must start with her view of it. Her interest in the subject is more than casual. The chancellor devours history books, counts historians among her confidants and for her 60th birthday party in 2014 even had one give an hour-long lecture. Her speeches are peppered with references to historical examples and lessons. “History offers orientation,” she said in one address in 2019: “With a consciousness of history we can recognise and make sense of current developments in Germany, Europe and the world.” A common thread runs through Merkel’s vision of it: that chaotic historical forces are always present, just below the surface of events, and that all forms of human and societal order are fragile and transient – like the East German regime whose own end she saw at close quarters. 

Stefan Kornelius, one of her biographers, writes of a press conference in 2012 in which the Bulgarian prime minister was “overwhelmed by what his host had been telling him, in vivid terms, about the nature of the [euro zone] crisis, and told the world: ‘Frau Merkel quite rightly pointed out that the Maya and many other civilisations have disappeared from the face of the earth.’” In a speech to CDU MPs in 2018, she compared the darkening global horizon to the period preceding the Thirty Years’ War (which ravaged what is today Germany) and warned of the complacency that long years of peace can bring.

[See also: The Merkel paradox: how the chancellor’s strengths weakened Germany]

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Merkel is also fascinated by the 19th century and how a seemingly sophisticated world collapsed into the carnage of the First World War. The 60th birthday lecture was delivered by Jürgen Osterhammel, author of The Transformation of the World (2009), a history of that first age of globalisation and the uncontrollable, disruptive effects it unleashed. In 2018 she urged her ministers to read The Sleepwalkers (2012), Christopher Clark’s account of what Merkel herself called “the violent juggernaut of 1914”. “I am afraid that open societies in the post-Cold War world are more in danger than we realise,” she once said.

All of which might appear fatalistic. There is a streak of determinism both in her accounts of the “juggernauts” of history, and in her own background. The essayist Georg Diez observes to me that Merkel grew up in three systems that deal in unyielding forces: religion (as the devout daughter of a Lutheran pastor), science (as a quantum physicist) and historical materialism (as one who spent her first 35 years under an East German political system that promoted a Marxist telling of history). “They all involve rules beyond the scope of human agency,”  he ruminates. 

Captain’s table: Angela Merkel visits fishermen while campaigning for the CDU, 1990. Image by Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo

Yet in negotiating those rules, Merkel has always identified a role for human agency. “I find it very liberating that as a Christian… one knows that we are called on to shape the world in responsibility for others,” she has explained: “This is the framework for my life.” She sees human choices and efforts as central to science too: “The beauty of science is this: no sooner has one found the key to the universe than new questions begin to emerge all over again.” And it is in her rejection of East Germany’s political system that she grounds her faith in liberal democracy. As a young woman she read the Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper and likes to use his line: “The future is wide open. It is dependent on us – all of us.” Another anti-deterministic phrase that Merkel quotes is from a poem by Hermann Hesse: “A magic dwells in each  beginning.” 

So Merkel is an anti-determinist with a deterministic world-view. The key to her style and instincts as leader lies in how this apparent tension is resolved. For Merkelism means humility towards the forces of history: aware of their presence and might, humbled by the same, but flexible and vigilant for opportunities to harness those forces, and sober about the patience needed to shape them. 

In her comments about the Thirty Years’ War she has also stressed the efforts taken to forge the 1648 Peace of Westphalia that ended it: “It took years to find peace”. And it is why she venerates the examples of the postwar founders of the European project: Konrad Adenauer, Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman; why she talks about applying the lessons of history; why she ran for her fourth and final term in 2017 rather than stepping down (persuaded to do so by the election of Donald Trump and the perceived need for someone to hold the system together). There is in this humble-not-fatalistic posture, the historian Timothy Garton Ash tells me, something of Bismarck’s dictum: “The statesman’s task is to hear God’s footsteps marching through history, and to try and catch on to his coat-tails as he marches past.”

A typical work day for Merkel has been consistent over the course of her 16-year chancellorship. It starts in her private flat, an anonymous apartment in an ochre 19th-century block in central Berlin overlooking the Pergamon museum of classical antiquities, from where a car whisks her to her office. The chancellery sits on the site where Soviet soldiers prepared the final assault on the Reichstag at the end of the Battle of Berlin in 1945. A cavernous, glass-and-steel, post-historical sort of place built in the 1990s, it could pass for a Californian art gallery or the Alpine headquarters of some global hedge fund. As in much of the reunified German capital, brass Stolpersteine (“stumbling stones”) bearing the names of Holocaust victims outside the addresses where they once lived glint from the pavements of Berlin’s restored governing district. 

Work starts with the Kanzlermappe, a digital file of clippings from the day’s press, and the Morgenlage, an 8:30 meeting with her ultra-loyal inner team, a routine that applies even when travelling (to date Merkel has made 533 foreign trips to 89 countries as chancellor). Her days in Berlin revolve around her office on the chancellery’s seventh floor. There she works at a small writing table, reportedly finding the huge desk in the corner too grand, under the watchful eyes of portraits of Konrad Adenauer and Catherine the Great. When the Bundestag is sitting she shuttles between her office and the Reichstag building, passing Russian graffiti scrawled by Soviet soldiers after they fought their way through the building.

Watching Merkel in her seat in the semicircular Bundestag chamber, under Norman Foster’s glass dome, you will soon notice that she is busy with her mobile phone much of the time. If the surroundings – the constant reminders of past chaos and trauma, of the fragility and transience of human order – speak to her realist philosophy of history, then the image of the chancellor performing the Blackberry prayer, tapping away with her head bowed, while other politicians orate from the podium some ten metres away stands as a useful symbol of the well-honed political method that she has enacted as chancellor.

That method has three main elements. The first is strategic inoffensiveness. Though wryly funny in private (her impressions of other world leaders are the stuff of Berlin political legend), Merkel’s public demeanour is usually bland to a fault. Where others lead from the podium, with soaring rhetoric and sharp dividing lines, her hedged and vague use of language can verge on the anaesthetic. Critics have called this “asymmetrical demobilisation”, the practice of diffusing conflicts and denying opponents substantial grievances with which to mobilise their voters. Merkel herself has acknowledged the advantages of avoiding drama (“in calmness lies power” is one of her mantras) and has achieved a sort of apolitical status. “She’s a bit like the Queen of England,” says Khuê Pham, an essayist for Die Zeit newspaper: “Her political style is ‘you know me, you can trust that I am going to do the right thing’, not a discussion about what she wants to do.”

[See also: How Olaf Scholz and the SPD could lead Germany’s next government]

The second element of her method is to eschew visions or grand strategy in favour of tactical movements, or as she calls it, “driving by sight”. That means few sweeping proclamations and lots of text exchanges – the nervous system of her power networks, with political intelligence pinging in and her instructions and questions pinging out. Recipients of messages signed “AM” are typically her advisers or a shifting constellation of contingent allies and partners. Other than inner-circle members such as Merkel’s office manager Beate Baumann or her press adviser Eva Christiansen, Merkel’s day-by-day approach has seen her cultivate few permanent allies, with influential ministers, MPs, advisers, and even fellow world leaders drifting in and out of favour. 

The third element is patience. The outgoing chancellor prefers to let events unfold; accumulating information, monitoring the mood in her party, maintaining room for manoeuvre and committing to a course only when forced to do so. Mocked as merkeln (“to Merkel”), this practice is in Merkel’s own analysis a source of her power and longevity: “I’m a person who gives time to time.” It has been a hallmark of her crisis management. In the eurozone crisis she repeatedly resisted until the last moment before agreeing new bailout packages for Greece; in 2015 she decreed that the borders should remain open to migrants only as crowds of them were trudging along Hungarian motorways towards Germany.

Ideologically, strategically and managerially, Merkel travels light. That is an expression of her cautious personality, but also of a leadership style defined by humility before the events of history. 

This method has been a good match for the historical moment through which Merkel has led her country. The 16 years from 1989 to 2005 were marked by benign international circumstances (the end of the Cold War, growing prosperity, advancing democracy), but turmoil and transformation within Germany during and after reunification in 1990. The euphoria of the Berlin Wall coming down had given way to painful economic adjustment, rising unemployment and outbreaks of often racist violence. Presiding over these roiling social and economic forces was Kohl’s stodgy and increasingly clapped-out CDU government. It was a transitional period: the conservative old Bonn Republic not yet quite dead, the new Berlin Republic not yet quite born. 

In 1998 things began to change. The new Social Democrat (SPD) chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his foreign minister Joschka Fischer of the Greens had been part of the radical “1968 generation” that launched a debate about the character of West Germany. Now their reforming administration began to fashion the Berlin Republic. It presided over the move of the capital from Bonn and the launch of the euro, reformed the federal republic’s patriarchal family policies, invested in renewable energy to clean up Germany’s heavy industrial economy, made the federal republic’s first ever foreign combat deployment (in Kosovo in 1999), and, finally, introduced the painful “Hartz IV”  labour market reforms that made the German economy competitive again. 

There is an important distinction in German politics between gestalten (to mould or shape) and verwalten (to administer or steward). After 16 years where the priority was to forge something new, the task for Merkel when she came to office in 2005 was to consolidate all that change. She was the leader for that moment: a soothing verwalter rather than a strident gestalter. To the extent that she has reformed the country over the subsequent 16 years, it has largely been to complete the Schröder-Fischer project. 

Schröder and Fischer had started to shift German society in a more modern, open direction: extending maternity and paternity leave, introducing civil partnerships, reforming the citizenship law to naturalise millions of migrants without German roots. Merkel’s governments further extended parental rights and childcare, legalised gay marriage and, by embracing a large influx of migrants in 2015, opened the door to a possible future for Germany as a Migrationsland (migration country), a notion that would have been unthinkable in the 1990s.

Schröder and Fischer had started to phase out nuclear power; Merkel fast-tracked that process in 2011. The Kosovo intervention in 1999 enabled a more normalised role for German power in the world, with Merkel presiding over troop deployments in Afghanistan and the Sahel, German military leadership of Nato’s “enhanced forward presence” in Lithuania, and a creeping German acceptance of more geopolitical responsibility.

[See also: The SPD’s surge reveals the essence of the German election: the search for Merkel 2.0]

The SPD-Green coalition had pushed through the reforms that made Germany competitive again; Merkel deserves at least some credit for not derailing its achievements and for tackling some of its social side effects by, for example, introducing a minimum wage in 2015. Admittedly, many of these advances were primarily the work of SPD ministers in her governments (it has been junior coalition partner for 12 of her 16 years), but they nonetheless belong to her legacy as chancellor.

If the Merkel years have seen domestic turmoil turn into domestic calm, the opposite has taken place internationally. The broadly benign global picture of 2005 has given way to a succession of crises: the financial crash in 2007-08, the eurozone crisis in the early 2010s, the Ukraine crisis in 2014, the migration crisis in 2015, the international wave of illiberal populism in the second half of the 2010s and the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Merkel’s response has been to deploy her distinctive method: an inoffensive demeanour making as few enemies as possible and a preference for day-to-day tactics over strategy, save for a deployment of strategic patience. This record of stewarding Germany and Europe through these crises also belongs to the positive side of Merkel’s legacy ledger. 

“She kept the show on the road” notes Garton Ash: “In all those crises she always found a way forward.” In the emergency euro summits it was Merkel who brokered the last-minute agreements between the frugal northerners and the debt-ridden southerners; in the Ukraine crisis it was her involvement that drove tough EU sanctions; it was she who forged the common EU position that held throughout the Brexit talks (motivated by a very Merkelian fear that the alternative could be the EU’s fragmentation); in Covid-19 it was her caution that helped roll out a test-and-trace system that kept Germany’s death rate relatively low by European standards and that forged a previously inconceivable EU agreement on a debt-backed €750bn economic stimulus package. Even her harsher critics tend to concede that her depth of experience in handling such crises, her ability to know who to call or text at the critical moment, will be missed once she is gone.

The positive case for Merkel rests on the assumption that the need to gestalten gave way to a need to verwalten at around the time that she took office in 2005. There are certainly areas where that applied – from the legacy of the Schröder-Fischer coalition to the rush of crises – and where her historical demeanour and political method were just what was needed. But these deserve to be seen in the context of fortunate timing: Merkel came to power with the painful economic reforms already implemented and just as falling commodity prices and soaring Chinese demand were starting to bring Germany’s export-oriented economy roaring back. And Merkel’s style was also often too cautious, too soothing, and, one might say, too humble before history.

Huge power resides in the office of Germany’s federal chancellor. Adenauer, the first to hold it, established this fact by shaping the country forged from the Western zones of occupation in 1949 in his own image: as Christian, anchored in the West, and culturally and politically centred on his native Rhineland. He did so to a degree that grappled with and moulded history and events, rather than deferring to them. It is in the gift of the chancellor to shape debates and set a course, but Merkel did so far too sparingly. “She evolved as a very pragmatic crisis manager,” says Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook, director of the German Council on Foreign Relations: “but not as somebody with a strategic vision for the country.”

“Her biggest single historical failure was the eurozone crisis in 2010,” says Garton Ash. “She had the chance to convince Germans of the case to make the eurozone fit for the 21st century, but she did not use it. It was one of those moments where the chancellor has an extraordinary power to lead and she missed that chance and let the narrative of the idle, corrupt south preying on the virtuous north become established in German public opinion and politics. It took ten years and a pandemic to overcome that.” When bailouts became imperative to pull the eurozone back from the brink she presented them not so much as desirable but merely alternativlos (“without alternative”), a term with which she has become associated. 

Merkel’s wider foreign policies betrayed similar traits. She took power as a foreign policy hawk, her commitment to liberal Atlanticism burnished by her experience of East Germany. In 2007 she even welcomed the Dalai Lama in Berlin: “It’s me who decides whom I receive where as chancellor,” she told Chinese diplomats.

Taking the temperature: Angela Merkel speaks to “Fridays for Future” climate protesters in the city of Goslar in Lower Saxony, June 2019

Yet over time she succumbed to what she perceived as the forces of history, growing gradually more accommodating to China’s leadership as her sense of the West’s strengths diminished. When in December 2020 she rammed through an EU-China investment deal it was partly out of the conviction that another Trump-like president could take power in 2024 and that Europe had to hedge its bets. Merkel’s theory of geopolitics, writes the political scientist Thorsten Benner, “mostly amounts to trying to maximise breathing space and room for manoeuvre by pursuing a middle path between the United States and China”. A similar grim realism marked her support for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which serves the Kremlin’s geopoltical interests, and her dealings with Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister who has stifled independent universities and media organisations while enjoying all the benefits of a benign relationship with Berlin. Thus a resigned German leadership has tolerated the destruction  of the liberal institutions of a notional  democracy in its own neighbourhood.

This tendency to avoid challenging voters, her own party or powerful business interests is evident in Merkel’s domestic policies too. “She has largely insulated the German public from the challenges that exist currently and the challenges that lie ahead,” says Clüver Ashbrook. She closed nuclear power stations from 2011 but declined to take on the coal lobby, as a result of which German carbon emissions per capita are now 8.4 tonnes, compared with 5.5 tonnes in Britain and 5.0 in France. Germany’s infrastructure – from school buildings to railway bridges – is surprisingly poor for a country of its wealth, the product of the “debt brake” limiting public investment (itself a sop to the dogmatic, debt-hysterical “ordoliberalism” that remains influential in German politics). The digital revolution has under Merkel’s watch been treated like the distant prospect of an alien invasion rather than a pressing reality – an attitude visible today in the patchy internet coverage holding back the German economy in an age of AI and big data.

[See also: German election TV debate win adds to Olaf Scholz’s momentum in the race to succeed Angela Merkel]

Even the chancellor’s noble decision to let in the refugees in 2015 also illustrates her flaws. Merkel had failed to prepare German voters for the influx of newcomers and, under the blithe mantra “there will be no repeat of 2015”, has avoided serious debate about the future of German society and identity. In her last election campaign in 2017, following which the anti-migrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered the Bundestag as the third largest party, she was taken aback by the booing and heckling she experienced in AfD strongholds in depressed parts of the east, yet did not challenge the hecklers. The pattern is consistent: of a chancellor reluctant to take on a fraught subject, loath to challenge a relevant interest group, all-too timid before the forces of history. 

Part of that negative legacy is the present weakness in the CDU. The outgoing chancellor’s habit of eschewing allies in favour of contingent partnerships leaves the party hollowed out, devoid of vision and endowed with remarkably few strong federal politicians. That Armin Laschet, the CDU/CSU candidate in the upcoming election, has tanked in the polls is a reminder of how impressive Merkel’s four consecutive election wins were. But Laschet’s struggle is also a product of her style of leadership. The party, said Georg Diez, has a “time gap” of about ten years to close, following a decade of missed opportunities to rethink Christian democracy for the 2020s.

Olaf Scholz of the SPD appears Merkel’s most likely successor. She steps down as the popular leader of a comfortable country that, broadly, prefers not to dwell on the precariousness of its own success. “Merkel’s skill was, at least on the level of perception, to keep the perils and chaos of the world at arm’s length from Germany,” says the political scientist Alexander Clarkson. In such an  environment Scholz, her own vice-chancellor and finance minister, a moderate Social Democrat with little ideological baggage, offers the sort of continuity that plays well with voters. He seems most likely to seek an SPD-led coalition government with the Greens and the conservative-liberal Free Democrats, with the CDU/CSU returning to opposition for the first time since 2005.

Challenges abound. The pandemic has exposed the country’s digital backwardness. China is increasingly making high-tech engineering products that it has long bought from Germany. The climate crisis makes Germany’s coal-happy establishment look at odds with the times. The eurozone, and with it the EU, remains an unfinished house, waiting to be transformed into an economic union (with a  democracy to match). 

Merkel has been a strange chancellor, an inscrutable “other” in her own party, in  German politics and among other world leaders. That very otherness is inseparable from her vision of history and her distinctive  political method. It is responsible for the mixed record of her chancellorship: of stability coming at the cost of stasis; prosperity at the cost of complacency; maturity at the cost of passivity; continuity at the cost of unfinished business; and welcome decency at the cost of anything approaching the greatness of an Adenauer. Yet precisely this otherness, precisely the complexity of a record neither overwhelmingly positive nor overwhelmingly negative, demands a certain Merkelian humility before history itself. “It’s too soon to tell,” says Garton Ash of her longue durée meaning. “If later governments make up for the things left undone then she will go down as a good chancellor, if not she will be  held responsible.”

Merkel governed as a chancellor aware of history and one whose leadership was defined by historical circumstances. She leaves office popular and as a rare world leader who has given up power at a time entirely of her choosing. That is a notable achievement.

By the end of this year or early next year, Merkel will step down and become part of history herself. And then what? Asked that question when receiving an honorary doctorate at Johns Hopkins University in July, she said: “I’ll probably out of habit start thinking about what I need to do. And then it will suddenly occur to me that someone else is in charge now. And that will probably feel good.” And still, with her time drawing to a close, she maintained a hint of her eternal openness, bowed one last time to the forces of history and the unknowable expanses of the future. “Maybe I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will close because I’m tired, and I’ll take a little nap,” she said. “And then let’s see where that takes me.”

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This article appears in the 15 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Fateful Chancellor