Flirting with History: Merkel Positions Herself as Crisis Chancellor

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History is a fickle object of desire, but Chancellor Angela Merkel's ambitions are modest. Still, a lot can go wrong in her pursuit of a legacy. Tuesday marked her first tentative steps toward the history books.

Writing herself into the history books: In a speech to German parliament on Tuesday Angela Merkel painted herself as the right German to turn to in an economic crisis. Zoom
REUTERS

Writing herself into the history books: In a speech to German parliament on Tuesday Angela Merkel painted herself as the right German to turn to in an economic crisis.

In the history of the German republic there are three kinds of chancellors. First comes the great statesmen -- a short list: Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt and Helmut Kohl. Through a combination of skill and luck they have attained historic accomplishments: a link to the West, detante with Eastern Europe and German reunification, respectively.

The second category is that of the unlucky leaders. These chancellors served their country but whether through inability or bad luck -- sometimes both -- history does not remember them kindly. These include Ludwig Erhard, Kurt-Georg Kiesinger and Gerhard Schröder.

And then there's the Helmut Schmidt category. He didn't do anything wrong, but neither was his time in power particularly noteworthy. While in office he was a smooth operator and he led the country through hard times free of major hiccups -- an achievement in itself.

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Photo Gallery: Merkel Through the Years
What is a chancellor's legacy? It is a question with which Chancellor Angela Merkel is clearly concerned.

On Tuesday, Merkel addressed German parliament for the first time since being sworn in for a second term a fortnight ago. And she made it clear: She has decided to play the role of a crisis leader. Her goal is a place in the German history books -- a place alongside Schmidt.

A Pragmatist Without Illusions

Merkel knows that fate will likely not grant her an historical event the likes of German reunification -- "history's stroke of luck," as Kohl called it. Instead, she has the crisis, and somehow she has to muddle through it.

Merkel spent the majority of her speech before the German Bundestag on Tuesday discussing the crisis. She sought to portray herself as a woman of action, as someone whose sharp mind will lead Germany through tough times. She hardly used any other word in her address as often as "decisiveness." She spoke of "freedom in responsibility" and of using it to lead Germany to a new position of strength. It's the kind of language that you might have heard from Helmut Schmidt, her hard-nosed and no-nonsense predecessor in office, between 1974 and 1982.

She spoke in plain and unembellished language, with a merciless economy of words. Schmidt was ultimately able to shine because he tackled the oil crisis of the 1970s and the RAF terrorists in the so-called German Autumn of 1977 in a similarly cool manner. Merkel plans to manage the ongoing economic and financial crisis. It's her mission, the mission of a pragmatist without illusions.

Three Key Risks to Merkel's Coalition Government

Whether Merkel can carve out a place for herself in the history books depends on whether she can keep firm control of her coalition. Three key problems that she will face during her tenure have already made themselves apparent.

The first risk lies in her economic and financial policies. Merkel is risking everything with her third stimulus package. Either the economy will pick up, and the billions in state debt will ultimately turn out to have played a decisive role in Germany's recovery. Or everything fails, and Germany's financial situation turns into a big, black hole. Should that happen, she won't be a hero; she'll be the debt chancellor. There would be no way to avoid implementing painful savings measures or even raising taxes. She could become the most hated person in the country.

If she wants a taste of how that feels she could always ask Gerhard Schröder, who was voted out of office in 2005 after presiding over deeply unpopular welfare cuts that divided his party, the Social Democrats.

Merkel's second risk is the FDP. Her new government -- and above all the FDP, which is now in government after 11 years in the opposition -- will soon become acquainted with the hard work of governing. Every tiny piece of progress on major issues like taxes or health care can only be achieved after protracted negotiations. Each and every stakeholder -- the different lobby groups, the upper legislative chamber, the Bundesrat, the Christian Democratic state governors, the parties -- wants to be, and needs to be, involved. That's something Merkel knows very well -- after all, she has already been chancellor for four years. But for the former opposition know-it-alls of the FDP, it is something new. They will suffer as a result.

In their election campaign, Guido Westerwelle -- who leads the FDP -- and his party colleagues raised enormous expectations that they will never be able to fulfill. This will inevitably lead to disappointment among voters, within the FDP itself and among the party's leadership. When this frustration is eventually discharged, things will get uncomfortable for the coalition government -- including for the chancellor herself. There will be conflict, resentment and envy between the coalition partners. If they fail to get that conflict under control, the coalition could lapse into chaos -- and will likely end up being punished by the voters.

Merkel's third risk is the growing social divide in Germany. More and more people are sensing -- and experiencing first hand -- a growing inequality in the country. This ranges from exorbitant salaries for executives to the miserable state of the country's schools and kindergartens. Merkel said little about these issues in her address to parliament. She did speak about wanting to strengthen the sense of solidarity in the country. She also defended the principle of collective bargaining. But she stopped short of providing a clear message to the less well-off. In doing so she left a huge open flank for the opposition SPD, Greens and Left Party to attack in the subsequent parliamentary debate. It was an astonishing omission for her to make.

Chancellors Never Go out in Glory

So what remains of a chancellor? In the end, Helmut Schmidt had to go because everyone turned away from him. The FDP didn't approve of the way he tackled the economic crisis and preferred to try out other recipes against mass unemployment in an 1982 coalition with Helmut Kohl. His own Social Democrats abandoned him on security policy. His SPD was deeply opposed to the so-called NATO Double-Track Decision that he had been instrumental in initiating -- an offer of mutual reductions in NATO and Warsaw Pact missile arsenals coupled with the threat of increasing NATO missiles in Western Europe. Deserted in his Chancellery, Schmidt was eventually toppled.

It's always been like that -- chancellors never go out in glory. But in hindsight, most Germans have good memories of the Schmidt era. They felt well governed. Germans like that. If Merkel manages to make people feel like that, then she will have achieved a lot. But there's plenty of room for things to go wrong.

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