The Merkel era was a time of unseen menaces. It was riddled with crises that were invisible at first, which is what made them seem so sinister. That was true for the financial crisis and the euro crisis, for the pandemic and for climate change. Something was happening out there, but it was really only understood by the experts and the scientists.
The rest of us were left with a feeling of uncertainty, even fear. Will my life be affected? All of these crises held the potential for personal catastrophe: for the loss of job and assets, for illness and even death.
Angela Merkel had much to recommend her as the perfect chancellor for such an era, the potential to be a godsend of history. In her first life, she worked as a scientist, as a woman of numbers, tables and curves. She is extremely intelligent and imbued with rationality. Unseen menaces aren’t enough to frighten her because she is able to discern their true nature and understand the facts behind them.
So, was Merkel the right chancellor for this period, for the years between 2005 and 2021, a time of crises and catastrophes the likes of which postwar Germany has never experienced? She will step down in just a few weeks, as soon as the German parliament elects her successor this autumn. Merkel will then retire – for the time being, at least – from a political career that has spanned 31 years.
Merkel, Trump and other 2018 G-7 participants in CanadaFoto: Jesco Denzel / Bundesregierung / Getty Images
Her breathtaking career began in 1990, immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when Merkel ended her career as a physicist at the East German Academy of Sciences and switched to politics.
Her rise was something of an irony of history: A woman from the East leading the West through its greatest crisis? Besides the unseen menaces that have characterized her tenure, there has been a second significant development over the last two decades: The liberal democracies in Europe, North America and Australia have been deeply shaken. That upheaval began exactly 20 years ago, with the Islamist terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and continued with Russia’s new aggressiveness, the rapid rise of China as a superpower and the failed attempt to westernize parts of the Muslim world in Iraq and in Afghanistan.
The West hasn’t been in particularly great shape on the inside, either: Brexit, Donald Trump, right-wing populism in many countries, the major questions posed to the Western way of life and economy by the financial crisis and climate change, the doubts as to whether liberal democracies are efficient enough to be able to combat pandemics effectively. All these factors have gnawed at the self-confidence of the major Western alliances, the European Union and NATO.
It was Merkel’s job to find answers – first and foremost for Germany, but also for Europe and the world. It won’t be clear for a few years, or even decades, how well she did that job. History often takes its time before passing judgement. It’s not possible to determine all the consequences of Merkel’s actions – they may have to be re-evaluated at some point in the future through the lens of what her successors have done. But it is possible – and, with the end of her tenure approaching, appropriate – to attempt a preliminary assessment of her legacy.
The following is an initial look at Merkel’s legacy, presented in seven chapters. Her tenure has been largely shaped by seven catastrophes or crises: the financial crisis; the euro crisis; the consistent threat presented by Russian President Vladimir Putin; the huge influx of refugees; Donald Trump, whose name is used here synonymously with the attack on liberal democracy as a whole; climate change; and the coronavirus pandemic.
Merkel had to get through all of that. They dominated and cast a shadow over her tenure. Such was her time, her epoch.
Julia Ossko / Eugen Schulz / DER SPIEGEL
1. The Financial Crisis
"We are telling savers that their deposits are safe.”
Merkel on Oct. 5, 2008
The menace begins. Banks start reporting problems, share prices collapse and the public is flooded with technical terms: Subprime. Interbank trading. Asset backed securities. Derivatives. Junk bonds. Then, more banks begin reporting problems. On Sept. 15, 2008, the Lehman Brothers investment bank in New York collapses, with catastrophic consequences for the financial industry all over the world.
Merkel seemed vexed, at a loss even, in the early stages of the crisis. She didn’t know exactly what was happening or how deep the crash might be. But she caught on quickly, feeding her intellect with information and analysis on the convolutions of the financial world, reading and spending many hours with experts. And then she suddenly emerged, up to speed with the new era.
In the United States, banks had sold real estate loans without sufficient collateral. The financial system had bundled them into products whose vulnerability hadn’t been immediately apparent. The packages were stored in many depots around the world, like mines waiting for a signal to detonate. Lehman was that signal.
A short time later, Germany’s Hypo Real Estate (HRE) also crashed. Late at night on Sept. 28, Merkel held a round of high-stakes negotiations with Josef Ackermann, head of Deutsche Bank at the time, about the share the banks would accept in the default risk for HRE. Merkel demanded 10 billion euros. That’s too much, Ackermann countered. Merkel then said 9 billion, which Ackermann also declined. They reached a deal at 8.5 billion. A risk of 26.5 billion was to be borne by the government.
Many were nevertheless worried, and large cash notes became scarce in some places because people began hoarding money at home. On Oct. 5, Merkel stood in front of the cameras with Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück and assured the country that their deposits were safe. A 480-billion-euro bailout for the banks was quickly rushed through German parliament.
Merkel’s government then cushioned the consequences for the economy by introducing the country’s famous cash-for-clunkers scheme, a subsidy encouraging people to buy new cars, and by creating a government subsidy to pay workers who had been placed on furlough by their employers. Although gross domestic product slumped by 5.7 percent in 2009, unemployment did not spike.
That success established Merkel’s reputation as a capable crisis manager. But another effect was more decisive: The financial shock completely robbed the chancellor of her appetite for reform. She had already considered the Germans to be a fearful people, and now she didn’t want to impose any more burdens on the populace. Merkel, whose path to the Chancellery was paved with neoliberal notions, instead moved to expand the welfare state with a minimum wage, improved pensions for women who had temporarily left the labor market to raise children and parental leave benefits.
These policies were certainly beneficial, for Merkel as well, since it secured her re-election, but an urgently needed major reform of the pension system failed to materialize. For part of the population, moreover, that first crisis marked the beginning of a disappointment that was never to disappear: The chancellor failed to initiate a discussion on the deeper causes of the crisis and how the future could be made better. She didn’t deliver a speech to provide orientation in what was a scary time.
The chancellor managed the financial crisis monetarily and technocratically, but she never addressed it intellectually or emotionally. Many people failed to see why it was the government’s job to bail banks out of their self-made crisis, and it made them distrustful of politics. Merkel further fueled that sentiment by honoring Josef Ackermann with a big dinner at the Chancellery in 2008, as if he had somehow rendered outstanding services to the community. Yet Deutsche Bank had wanted to feast on the business with toxic financial products, and Ackermann had shown disdain for the state.
The financial crisis revealed a second pattern for Merkel’s style of governing: She sought not to identify herself with difficult issues, and she didn’t pursue any long-term plan to curb the worst excesses of capitalism. As soon as gross domestic product start to pick up again, she just ticked off the box as a challenge overcome.
But one of the peculiarities of serving multiple terms as chancellor is that unsolved problems return, sometimes with a vengeance. When the German financial services company Wirecard sank into a swamp of fraud and greed in 2020, part of the blame lay with a government financial regulator that hadn’t scrutinized the company closely enough.
Merkel had to endure the embarrassment of being questioned by a parliamentary investigative committee. Even if her personal involvement in the scandal was insignificant, her interrogation at the hands of the committee was just deserts for having failed to curb the excesses of the financial world.
Julia Ossko / Eugen Schulz / DER SPIEGEL
2. The Euro Crisis
"If the euro fails, Europe fails.”
Merkel on May 19, 2010
It was once said of President Franklin D. Roosevelt that he had "a second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament.” With that mix of traits, he pulled the U.S. out of a severe recession, defeated Hitler and secured a place for himself in John Lewis Gaddis' political masterpiece, "On Grand Strategy.”
With Merkel, it’s the other way around: first-class intelligence but insufficient temperament. That has long been considered one of her strengths, but perhaps it is a misconception. During the euro crisis, a bit more Roosevelt may have been beneficial.
From the beginning, Merkel had a strategic goal for the European Union: to "harden” the old continent, to toughen it up and establish it, alongside the United States and China, as the third force of a new world order. In doing so, she also wanted to secure a place for Germany in global politics.
For Merkel, that meant improving competitiveness, especially in the other member states. She wanted to draw political power from economic force.
Merkel held on to that idea when Greece was initially strangled by a debt crisis in 2009. For a few years, one of the main questions hovering over Merkel’s chancellorship was that of whether the euro zone would break up during her tenure.
As usual, she wanted to solve the problems with her intellect. She tried to reconcile everything: the needs of the distressed states; the Germans, with their bent for thriftiness; and the financial markets, where nefarious actors continued to seek their cut. In Brussels, she spent nights haggling with her counterparts from Southern Europe, who accused her of not demonstrating enough solidarity with the rest of Europe – and then she had to listen to criticism from her own party’s parliamentary group that she was neglecting German interests.
She turned a few screws here and there and somehow kept the machine running, but a "grand strategy” for a strong Europe was lacking. Leading German intellectual Jürgen Habermas accused the chancellor of seeking tranquility above all.
In a sense, it was successful. The euro zone didn’t break up, thanks in part to the generosity of the European Central Bank (ECB).
People often say that crises are also times of opportunity. But that opportunity was missed. Europe is worse off today than it was at the start of Merkel’s terms as chancellor. Britain is no longer a member of the EU, the governments in Hungary and Poland are no longer liberal democracies and national egos are overshadowing the idea of the union just about everywhere. Important projects like a common defense policy have stalled.
Merkel, of course, isn’t solely to blame for this state of affairs. But in the crisis, she had the chance to allow the European idea to shine, through greater solidarity. It would have given her an authority that would have served to hold the Continent together.
One lesson of the Merkel era is that great intelligence doesn’t necessarily aspire to great politics. Intelligence tends to be calculating, not daring. And the calculus of politicians is almost always the consideration of how to win over the national electorate.
If you want to be daring, you tend to need temperament – in this case, a passion for Europe, which Merkel proved unable to develop. Her biographer Ralph Bollmann explains it as such: "Merkel was never a European at heart – that was already rooted in her socialization. (Helmut) Kohl’s European pathos was always foreign to the former East German.”
The upshot is that Merkel did not solve the European crisis: It will remain with us after she is gone.
Julia Ossko / Eugen Schulz / DER SPIEGEL
"Although I believe that the Russian president knew full well that I was not eager to meet his dog, he brought him along.”
Merkel, who doesn’t like dogs, on a visit to Vladimir Putin in 2007
One person was always there, throughout the 16 years, Merkel’s eternal menace, her nemesis: Vladimir Putin, at times prime minister and at others president of Russia. His name evokes the foreign policy challenges – the wars and violations of international law – that were with her throughout her tenure as chancellor. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has also been a thorn in Merkel’s side throughout the last decade and a half, but he has never been as powerful or as dangerous as Putin.
The relationship with the Russian ruler was the most important role Merkel played in international politics: She was the West’s negotiator with Russia. Because she knew the Eastern bloc well from her first life and because she speaks Russian, it was primarily her job to put Putin in his place and insist that Western values be upheld.
Early on, she sought to fulfill that mandate, fighting courageously for freedom and pursuing a values-based foreign policy. She admonished Putin to solve the murder of regime critic Anna Politkovskaya, and she met the following year with the Dalai Lama, a representative of the Tibetans, who are brutally oppressed by China.
It was Merkel’s goal to create a better world, and she inspired a lot of people with that aim. But not for long.
Putin is not easily impressed. The Russian regime appears to have had purported opponents poisoned or shot, including a Georgian national in Berlin’s Tiergarten park. It has waged and continues to wage wars in Georgia, in Syria, and, covertly, in Ukraine. It annexed Crimea. It blanketed the Western world with cyberattacks, including ones mounted against German parliament, including Merkel’s office there.
Merkel called Moscow repeatedly, criticizing, warning and pleading. In Minsk, she negotiated a cease-fire in Ukraine with Putin – talks so intense she could only tell what time of day it was by the food. She didn’t crack – she was ruthless with herself and tenacity toward others. She earned a lot of respect, including Putin’s, but she accomplished little overall for the West’s goal of spreading freedom and democracy.
At the end of the day, she’s essentially a pacifist. She wasn’t willing to use weapons against Russia and she was against the U.S. supplying missiles to Ukraine. It was surely a wise decision. War with Russia should be avoided, even if it puts the West in a bad negotiating position, given that Putin knows not to expect an attack.
Beyond that, though, Merkel also lost sight of her goal of creating a better world. Ultimately, Germany as a major player in business across the globe was more pressing for her, and increasing the nation’s prosperity soon became her most important project. The erstwhile idealist transformed into the leading evangelist of German business. She stubbornly stuck to plans to build the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, even though it drew the ire of the U.S. and undermined her country’s credibility. She only issued sanctions against Putin’s regime in small doses. Following the poison attack on regime critic Alexei Navalny, her commitment to human rights once again came to the fore, but overall, she pursued a course of appeasement.
Merkel's turnaround was even more obvious in the case of China, which was becoming increasingly important for German exports. She never again received the Dalai Lama in the Chancellery, and her criticism of the regime in Beijing has been quiet at best. It is a course that nobody has found to be particularly inspirational.
Indeed, foreign policy is an area where it is easiest to identify another pattern of Merkel’s leadership style: Idealistic beginnings were often soon followed by a U-turn, a departure from her own principles. She was frequently willing to turn her back on her own project and disappoint her respective allegiances. In addition to a dearth of grand strategies, she also lacked the will to stick to lofty goals if the price seemed too high.
That is also true for the West as a whole, as evident in Afghanistan. Exporting democracy was one of the goals of that military mission. But thousands of men and women who trusted the Americans, the Germans and others are now at the mercy of the Taliban after the West’s hasty withdrawal, and they must fear for life and limb. This is mainly a burden for the Americans, but Merkel was also relieved to be able to close the chapter on Afghanistan. It had never been something that she cared deeply about.
Julia Ossko / Eugen Schulz / DER SPIEGEL
4. The Refugee Crisis
"We can do this"
Merkel, speaking to reporters on Aug. 31, 2015
Those words will forever be part of Merkel’s legacy. They were spoken at the zenith of her power, two years after a dominating election performance. Since then, her popular support had remained high and there was nobody in her party who could challenge her. And then the refugees started arriving. It proved to be the tipping point of her time in office.
When she decided on Sept. 4, 2015, to allow refugees stranded in Budapest to continue onward to Germany, it wasn’t just a rational decision, but also an emotional one. It was a moment informed by her temperament, her love of freedom, her disdain for walls, her Christian background, particularly through her father, who was a pastor.
Many Germans rushed to the train stations to welcome the refugees, handing out food and clothing and opening up their guestrooms. Rarely had a German leader aligned so closely with her people. It was a magical moment, an uncommon moment of political beauty. The American newsmagazine Time chose Merkel as its person of the year. She was the beacon of the West, the prophet of the values democracy stands for.
On the other hand, though, the wave of incoming refugees triggered resentment, racism and hatred. The right-wing radical Alternative for Germany (AfD) grew from being a fringe phenomenon to a power to be reckoned with, and became a serious and continuing risk to liberal democracy.
And what did Merkel do? She left those who had been inspired by her initial choice in the lurch and began pursuing a political course for the skeptical, the fearful, the hateful. When her intellect once again took over, when she began looking at her prospects for re-election, Merkel accepted the need for more restrictive policies and pushed them forward – policies primarily demanded by the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, and its leader Horst Seehofer.
In short, she built a wall, or had one built by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan by hammering out a deal with him to prevent people from crossing the Aegean Sea into the EU. Essentially, she was delivering the refugees to a despot – a despot whose side she then took when he bristled against a bitingly satirical poem by television comedian Jan Böhmermann. It was a blow against the freedom of opinion, one of the core values of democracy.
The magical moment quickly gave way to nastiness. Seehofer had publicly abased Merkel, shamed her, bullied her – and she let it happen. She accepted a brand of politics that was below her, allowed the grandstanding of her political adversaries, conceded in the face of hypocrisy. The shine wore off and a shadow fell across her chancellorship.
For all practical purposes, a cap on the number of refugees entering Germany was soon in place, though it wasn’t allowed to be called a cap. Merkel wanted to prevent additional migrants from reaching Germany, but she didn’t want to visibly close the borders. She hoped to perpetuate her moment of glory.
Ultimately, the refugee crisis put several patterns of Merkel’s governing style on full display. Once again, she hadn’t followed a specific strategy. By 2014, it had been clear that the number of refugees making their way to Europe would soon be rising. She could not possibly have overlooked the warning signs, but it is clear she didn’t do enough to prepare. The fact that the refugee flows turned into a refugee crisis was partially the result of that shortcoming.
And once again, she abandoned a liberal project as soon as she thought the price had grown too high. Once again, she failed to underpin a great moment with a landmark speech. When it comes to rhetoric from the Chancellery, Germany has been something of a desert for the last 16 years.
Her decision on Sept. 4 changed her tenure. A society that had been dozing contentedly for several years suddenly woke up and began to discuss, to debate, to argue. For Merkel, it was the beginning of a long slide.
Julia Ossko / Eugen Schulz / DER SPIEGEL
"I love her."
Then-U.S. President Donald Trump at the 2018 NATO summit
When it comes to her personal interactions with political leaders, Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t turn out to be the most grating for Merkel, nor did Seehofer. That award goes to Donald Trump, a third-class intellect with a wild temperament. He was her exact opposite: irrational, free of any scruples and vain to the point of fatuity.
When he was elected U.S. president in 2016, it marked a low point for liberal democracy. A person with nothing but disdain for democratic norms had become the leader of the world’s most powerful democracy – on the strength of populism and nationalism. He was the last hope for those Americans who felt pushed to the fringes – but more than anything, Trump was a constant source of filthy drivel, which he delivered to the world via Twitter.
For some, his election meant that Angela Merkel was now the leader of the liberal West. When confronted with this elevation of her status, though, Merkel would reject it with one of her facial expressions of complete incomprehension. And rightly so. Germany is too small to provide that role with the foundation it needs, and Merkel hadn’t even been able to become the leader of a united Europe.
Furthermore, she had her hands full defending liberal democracy at home from Islamist terror and right-wing extremist attacks.
An additional challenge to the liberal democratic order came in February 2020, when the state parliament in Thuringia elected an FDP politician to the office of governor with votes from the right-wing radical AfD. The vote was rightly seen as an attack on Germany’s values: Anything that is reminiscent of the Nazi period is unconscionable.
Merkel called the vote "unforgivable” and said that the result "must be overturned,” a clear message to the Thuringian state chapter of her CDU, which had not been particularly adamant about distancing itself from the AfD. It was a clear case of meddling in the affairs of a German state and, as such, it was controversial in some quarters. Still, it was Merkel’s greatest service to liberal democracy in Germany, an area where she wasn’t always quite as steadfast.
Her strategy of "asymmetric demobilization” – a term frequently used in Germany to describe her method of depoliticizing the debate – remains her indefensible sin against democracy. In campaign after campaign, Merkel would travel through the country lulling the electorate to sleep, with the clear goal of avoiding anything that might motivate apathetic supporters of other parties to actually go to the polls to vote her out of office. They were campaigns of nice – and thus contributed to historically low voter turnout.
She had little enthusiasm for the idea that political campaigns should be celebrations of democracy, festivals of contention. But she didn’t like open conflict. She failed to see that a democracy needs the fuel of disagreement in the search for the best solutions.
Merkel has a great passion for freedom, but not for the essence of democracy, a form of government she approached more from an intellectual standpoint, as an instrument of politics. Perhaps when growing up behind a wall, you yearn for freedom more than you do for conflict.
Merkel didn’t just have an ambivalent relationship to Erdoğan, but also to Viktor Orbán, who has established an illiberal democracy in Hungary. For far too long, she handled him with kid gloves, in part because his party, Fidesz, was part of the European People’s Party group in the European Parliament, just like the CDU. She needed him as part of her own political camp on the European stage. Here, too, political calculation reigned supreme. The principle of utility was hardly ever set aside by Merkel in favor of conviction.
When it comes to Trump, she surely disagreed with most of his views, but more than that, she was put off by his irrational, unpredictable style. That is why she found more in common with the Chinese president than with the American. Listening to her throughout her tenure, it became clear that her understanding for her authoritarian counterpart in China actually grew over time. Though heavy handed, Chinese rule is anything but irrational, and Merkel is comfortable with rationality.
That, though, is a disadvantage of extended tenures at the top. The approach becomes increasingly managerial. One feels more and more like a member of an international clan that is pushing toward a set of goals. In democracies, though, the process followed in obtaining results is just as important as the results themselves. That was something to which Merkel paid insufficient attention.
For all those reasons, Merkel was never a great democrat.
Julia Ossko / Eugen Schulz / DER SPIEGEL
6. The Climate Crisis
"At stake are the foundations on which the life of future generations will depend. We are well aware of the need to act today.”
Merkel, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, 2015
Following a UN report on the dramatic consequences of rising global temperatures, Merkel led the EU push in March 2007 toward binding emissions reduction targets. Then, at the G-8 summit in Heiligendamm that June, she convinced U.S. President George W. Bush to put climate policy in the hands of the UN before then heading for Greenland in August, where she was photographed in her red jacket in front of the melting ice sheet. Merkel, it seemed, had found her issue. Many in Germany were excited to have a climate chancellor.
In those six months in 2007, Merkel laid the cornerstone for greatness. Just imagine for a moment where she and Germany would be had she energetically pursued a forward-looking climate strategy.
But she didn’t.
By 2009, she no longer wanted to be as closely connected with the issue. The financial crisis was threatening prosperity and Merkel didn’t want to place additional burdens on the citizens of Germany. Furthermore, the parties with which she had formed governing coalitions throughout the years weren’t particularly committed to climate protection either, neither her own conservatives nor the center-left Social Democrats or the business-friendly Free Democrats. The chancellor was more committed to the sentence she had coined herself: "Politics is that which is possible.”
They are words that contain no emotion whatsoever, as cold and lifeless as frozen fish sticks. It is unadulterated pragmatism.
Politics, though, is also the mandate to make possible that to which one is committed. But not for Merkel, whose primary concern was re-election – which is why she also abandoned climate policy along with those who had been enthusiastic about her initial commitment to the cause. She even transformed herself into the chief lobbyist for the German automobile industry, fighting in Brussels to weaken planned CO2 emission limits.
Still, her long tenure in office meant that she was ultimately unable to escape the climate issue. In 2019, it once again took center stage when schoolchildren – "future generations” – lost their faith in politics and joined the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg in protesting for proactive climate policies.
The result has been a bizarre, confusing flood of new climate targets for the EU and Germany. "Trifles” are no longer sufficient, Merkel hissed at a 2019 meeting with senior parliamentary conservatives in Berlin, perhaps unconsciously criticizing her own approach. It should be said that she has certainly done more than many of her counterparts in other countries, but it simply wasn’t enough, which she later realized. And this failure was even ratified by Germany’s high court, which ruled in spring 2021 that her climate policies were insufficiently strict and thus violate the fundamental freedoms of generations to come. A deep fall for a woman once referred to as the "climate chancellor.”
In the final months of her tenure, she then had to watch as the specter of climate change became very real for Germany, where rising temperatures had gone largely unnoticed. Suddenly, though, deadly floods ripped through villages in the west.
Even if Merkel, the former scientist, knew full well what was happening, the invisibility of climate change allowed her to ignore the issue for long stretches. Her successor will not have that luxury.
Julia Ossko / Eugen Schulz / DER SPIEGEL
7. The Pandemic
"It is serious. Please take it seriously."
Merkel in a televised address on March 18, 2020
The worst came at the end, the seventh major crisis of her time in office: The coronavirus pandemic. She appeared to be uniquely prepared for such a crisis, as someone who knew precisely what exponential growth looks like. Also as someone who has her emotions under firm control, as the most experienced top politician in the world.
Like many others, it took Merkel some time to find her footing in this crisis, initially rejecting a mask requirement before going on to capably lead Germany through the first wave. She elevated the protection of human lives above certain freedoms without establishing a "corona dictatorship,” as many on the right-wing and kooky fringes squawked about. This phase was one of the best in her 16-year tenure, in part because Merkel was more communicative than normal and she softened her normally bureaucratic tone, even injecting it with a bit of compassion. She even suggested using a hot iron on masks so you can use them longer.
But corona has proven a difficult challenge to master, and the longer the fight has lasted, the weaker the chancellor has seemed. Astoundingly weak at times. She was hardly even able to convince Germany’s state governors to adopt her more cautious approach to the pandemic.
In a way, it marked the moment when her tenure came full circle: The woman who has proven a master at power politics; the woman who has either defeated or waited out all her rivals; the woman who never let her convictions stand in the way, allowing her to swing from one compromise to the next – that woman lacked the power to effectively govern the country during some of the most difficult moments postwar Germany has seen.
That reality had a lot to do with the greatest misstep of her tenure. In the difficult year of 2018, when her constant bickering with Horst Seehofer grew particularly ugly and when conservatives lost seats in a number of state parliaments, Merkel stepped down as leader of the CDU. She hoped that she would be able to save her chancellorship by doing so.
Resigning completely would have perhaps been the better choice. As it was, though, she became a lame duck, simply waiting out the final years of her term in office. State governors, particularly those from her own party, no longer saw a need to follow her lead. By fall of 2020, the Merkel system had collapsed completely, resulting in a confusion of pandemic measures that nobody found convincing.
Merkel grew agitated, occasionally becoming erratic and surly. She was sharp-tongued during negotiations with state governors and even hinted at resigning. Her self-control slipped. And she even lost her foresight: She missed her opportunity to throw all her efforts behind pushing through an effective vaccination strategy.
On top of that, things that had been neglected during her long tenure suddenly came to the fore. The country proved to be way behind the times when it came to digitalization, with Germany’s schools, in particular, bearing the brunt of that omission during the pandemic.
Still, by international comparison, Germany hasn’t done all that badly in the coronavirus pandemic. One can derive a measure of satisfaction from that achievement, or one could say: A lot could have been done better and many more lives could have been saved.
Again, Merkel cannot be blamed for everything that went wrong. The broader political system, existing structures, attitudes in the country: All of that plays a role. But she was chancellor for 16 years and did a huge amount to gain power, expand that power and hold onto that power. What Germany has experienced in those years has a lot to do with what she did and didn’t do.
A Great Chancellor?
"You usually only miss something once it’s no longer there.”
Merkel to reporters on July 22, 2021
That sentence was Merkel’s response to a question at her last summer press conference as to what she would miss once she was no longer chancellor. But it can be flipped around and be asked of Merkel herself: Will she be missed once she is gone?
Obviously, her tenure wasn’t just filled with bad news. The German economy proved robust and unemployment remained relatively low, despite the difficult disruptions caused by the financial crisis and the coronavirus pandemic.
The largest reform push took place during her first term, in the form of laws which made it easier for women to have both a family and a career and which strengthened their independence – through the parental allowance, the expansion of daycare and an overhaul of the country’s divorce laws. All of that contributed to striking a new balance between men and women in Germany. There may be some men out there who will look back at Merkel’s time in office with mixed feelings when they find themselves competing with women in their careers. But her reforms on this front have been extremely beneficial to women and to society as a whole.
All told, though, the Merkel era is notable primarily for keeping the country on an even keel. Despite the crises and catastrophes, Germany is doing well, and prosperity is still widespread. And one shouldn’t forget that, despite all the challenges the country has faced in the 16 years that Merkel has been chancellor, most Germans have had a relatively good life during that time.
Interestingly, despite being from the center-right CDU, Merkel never pursued a genuinely conservative project during her time in office. Her signature moments – her support for human rights, for refugees, for the environment – were primarily well-received by those from other political persuasions. But she didn’t pursue any of these projects to the end. Even if they started with grand gestures, they mostly just petered out. Her intellect was generally not matched by the temperament to push things through to the end.
When it comes to the vast, international issues, there is not much good news. The state of the European Union, the state of the West, the importance of liberal democracy in the world, the climate: In all of these important areas, the situation looks worse than it did 16 years ago. Merkel was part of a collection of world leaders who were unable to stop such developments.
The true consequences will only become apparent in the coming years: Chinese dominance on the world stage; the increasingly drastic effects of climate change; a Europe that is breaking apart along a fault line between liberalism and illiberalism; new refugee streams stemming from unresolved conflicts around the world. In the face of such challenges, the Merkel era could soon come to be seen as a period of calm that we will soon be pining for.
And Merkel herself? When Merkel became chancellor, one of the main questions was what a woman would do differently. And there was one aspect that differed significantly from her predecessors: She never became puffed up with power, she never grew unbearably vain. When she leaves the Chancellery in 2021, she won’t be all that different from the woman who entered in 2005, aside from the wear-and-tear after more than a decade and a half of drudgery.
Her down-to-earthness, her relatability despite juggling phone calls with world leaders, consistently resulted in extremely high popularity ratings. Sometimes, her uncontrollable facial expressions made her seem a bit twee, but never to the point that she wasn’t taken seriously. When it comes to serious, tireless leadership, Merkel set the bar high.
Nevertheless, she will leave behind an aftertaste of disappointment. When the Berlin Wall came down at the end of 1989, a woman came to the West who was extremely curious and who was extremely alert to global developments. That hasn’t changed.
Curiosity is the most important prerequisite for insight. You have to want to learn, you have to be excited about gaining knowledge and acquiring new viewpoints.
That is true of Merkel, which is why it was usually quite interesting to talk to her. When it came to understanding and knowledge, she usually had a firm grasp of the problems facing her, Germany, Europe and the world. Ultimately, out of this huge opportunity rooted in her character, she did too little.