A Dim View of the World Will Merkel Be Followed by Darkness?

As the end of her tenure approaches, Angela Merkel has a view of the world that couldn't be much grimmer. She sees the pillars of the world order collapsing and yet, strangely, she doesn't seem to be doing much about it.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel

German Chancellor Angela Merkel


For a few seconds, her face brightened with pleasure, she rejoices in the moment. And why not? It's an evening in January, and Angela Merkel is sitting in a festively illuminated glass building at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, with CNN superstar Christiane Amanpour in front of her.

"What can I say about a woman named Angela Merkel?" Amanpour asks the audience.

That she's the first female chancellor?
The first chancellor from former East Germany?

Merkel is much more than that, Amanpour continues, a scientist who still believes in the value of facts in this post-factual world; a woman who fights against nationalism and climate change. She describes how the chancellor has set a high standard for how to deal with the desperate people of the world.

It's all laid on a bit thick, a mixture of Oscar ceremony and political seminar, but Merkel has a smile on her face. It's only now and then, when the camera zooms in on her, that she puts on a more neutral, chancellor-like face. Despite all that she has achieved, she still has a reputation to defend as the West's most modest politician.

Later, when she holds the Fulbright Prize for International Understanding in her hands, the audience in the hall will rise to applause, Merkel will go to the podium and say what she now says so often: that the world is in a bad state, that the lessons of World War II are fading and that the international order as we know it is on increasingly unsteady footing.

Merkel doesn't mention Donald Trump by name, but it is clear to everyone who she's referring to when she says: "We can see that thinking in terms of national spheres of influence is on the rise and that principles of international law or human rights are also being challenged as a result."

Superhuman Hopes

The German chancellor against the forces of darkness -- that is the message of the evening. And because there is such widespread agreement in the auditorium about the gravity of the global situation, and about the good fortune that at least the chancellor is trying to stop the Apocolypse, Merkel decides to deviate from her otherwise unrelenting schedule and promises to stay for another quarter of an hour at the subsequent reception.

A crowd quickly forms around the woman upon whom superhuman hopes are resting. Amanpour also wants a selfie with Merkel, which she then shares with her almost 3 million followers on Twitter. The CNN anchor later gives an interview to the German news channel n-tv. When the reporter notes that some voters in Germany are critical of the chancellor, Amanpour rebukes him: "Don't disparage Angela Merkel, she's one of the few who's still standing. You're lucky to have her."

Merkel has now spent 13.5 years  governing the country. And if she completes her current term, she will have served as long as Helmut Kohl, who ultimately came to be known as the "eternal chancellor." In Kohl's case, it was clear that he would have German reunification and the euro as his legacy -- that was already abundently clear when, surrounded by his last group of loyal supporters, he admitted his election defeat in the West German capital of Bonn in 1998.

But things are murkier for Merkel because the legacy of her era is much harder to grasp than that of her predecessors. Does she even have one? Merkel has always asserted that she doesn't spend much time worrying about such trifles. But she has found her own way of working on her place in history. She rejects it as "grotesque" and "absurd" when a newspaper claims she's the leader of the free world. And yet the major issue in this late stage of her political career is, in fact, the defense of the liberal world order. Issues don't get much bigger than that. It is something of a paradox, and one from which she profits the most.

Like every long-serving chancellor, Merkel tries to escape the petty melancholia of domestic politics. In that sense, she's no different from Konrad Adenauer and Kohl. What does distinguish her from her predecessors, though, is a deep pessimism, the fear that the world is sliding into the abyss. During her term in office, Turkey transformed from a hopeful democracy into an autocratic regime. The Saudi crown prince turned out to be a cruel despot rather than the young reformer many initially hoped he might be. Putin sought to make his delusions of grandeur reality. And then there's Trump, whose most recent project is to attempt regime change in Iran, an experiment that already failed terribly one time before. In Merkel's view, the fuse has already been lit.


Photo Gallery: What Comes After Merkel?

Foto: Philippe Wojazer/ REUTERS

Apocalyptic Comparisons

At the twilight of her political career, Merkel has undergone a transformation -- one that isn't initially obvious. On the outside, she speaks as calmly and soberly as she always has, but if you listen carefully, you start to perceive a dark view of the world. Away from the public eye, though, she has for quite some time been making no secret of just how deep her concern is. The historical comparisons she makes could not be any more apocalyptic.

The longer Merkel is in office, the greater the horizons of her thinking expand. On April 17, 2018, members of the parliamentary group of Merkel's conservatives met in the Reichstag, the seat of German parliament. It was an opportunity to speak fundamentally about the EU and its future. Merkel offered a very odd twist at the meeting by taking a mental excursion into the early modern era. According to notes taken by attendees, she spoke about the bloody confessional wars that followed the Reformation and only came to an end with the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. At the time, Merkel said, people had the false belief that the period of strife and violence was behind them.

"But then the generation that had experienced all the misery before religious peace died," Merkel said. "They were gone. A new generation came that said: We don't want to make so many compromises. This is all too difficult for us." What followed was the catastrophe of the Thirty Years' War, which broke out in 1618. It ignited an inferno that would annihilate around one-third of the population on the territory of today's Germany and leave cities like Magdeburg in ruins.

"More than 70 years have also passed since the end of World War II," Merkel continued. She pointed out that great efforts were undertaken at the time to prevent a repeat of the carnage. The United Nations and the Security Council were established, and the international community agreed on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Merkel's message was clear: Just as people at the beginning of the 17th century lulled themselves into a deceptive sense of security, people today are once again deluding themselves about the stability of the world order. The layer of varnish covering civilization is a thin one.

On April 26, 2018, Merkel departed for Washington for her second visit to Donald Trump  in the Oval Office. The trip was overshadowed by the threat of punitive tariffs against German cars. Merkel, though, was primarily concerned that Trump was about to withdraw from agreements that had been laboriously negotiated over the course of years and decades: the nuclear deal with Iran and the Paris climate agreement. A few months after her meeting with the president, Merkel once again spoke of the fragile Augsburg religious peace, saying: "Whether we have learned from history will become apparent in the coming decades."

Two weeks later, Merkel spoke publicly for the first time about her gloomy historical analogy at the Katholikentag, a gathering for Catholics in Germany, in Münster. The Peace of Augsburg had been negotiated by men who had grown weary of violence. But it only took the span of one lifetime for new actors to come power, Merkel said, men "who thought: I can make one more small demand here, and my approach could be a bit tougher there. In one fell swoop, the whole order was in the waste basket and the Thirty Years' War broke out."

Historical Parallels

On July 13, 2018, Merkel received German political scientist Herfried Münkler in the Chancellery. It wasn't easy to set up the appointment. Merkel's calendar has very few openings, and Münkler, who is normally at Berlin's Humboldt University, was a visiting professor in Mainz at the time, further complicating things. But Merkel kept trying to find a date, which flattered the professor, and the two ultimately had the chance to have a sit-down at the chancellor's office that summer afternoon and take a look back at the time of the first major European catastrophe.

The previous year, Münkler had published a more than 900-page book on the Thirty Years' War and he described to Merkel the climate of hysteria and provocation that made it increasingly difficult for Catholics and Protestants to peacefully coexist. How, in 1607, Jesuits had incited the decent Catholics of Donauwörth to carry their flags proudly through the city, whereupon an angry Protestant mob attacked the procession and threw relics into the muck on the streets.

With some good will, he said, the defenestration of two imperial regents on May 23, 1618, in Prague could have been dismissed as the reckless act of Protestant hotheads, especially given that the men weren't even seriously injured. But nobody was particularly interested in reason and a conflagration was sparked that would spread across the continent.

After all, there was more to it than religion. The parties were driven to conflict by a mixture of religious furor, hegemonic ambition and the desire to dispute land ownership with neighboring countries. Münkler spent two hours talking to the chancellor, often drawing parallels to the present: Initially, the defenestrations in Prague sparked the displeasure of the Protestants, who felt increasingly harassed, just as the Arab Spring unleashed anger against the rulers in Tunis and Damascus. As the Thirty Years' War progressed, it wasn't long before territorial claims became a focus, similar to the way borders in the Middle East -- drawn up in 1916 by French diplomat François Georges-Picot and British politician Mark Sykes -- have become the subject of dispute today.

In the 17th century, the Habsburgs in Vienna and Madrid, the Bourbons in Paris and Swedish King Gustav Adolf were all vying for supremacy in Europe. Today, Syria is the battlefield of a proxy war between the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Turkey.

The Power of Fear

Fear is a powerful political weapon. It can trigger wars and spark revolutions. It can drive politicians out of office or help to keep them hold on to power. It would, of course, be unfair to accuse Merkel of stirring up doom-and-gloom as a way of clinging to power. But she has been in politics long enough to register that the widespread anxiety and pessimism plays to her advantage. Germans don't like change, and they have had a good ride during the 13 years of Merkel's tenure. The kind of weariness experienced at the end of the Kohl era is nowhere to be found. Two-thirds of voters would like to see the chancellor remain in office until the end of her term in autumn 2021.

When Merkel spoke at the Munich Security Conference in February, the whole room stood up and applauded her. The speech the chancellor gave was passionate by her standards. She drew the arc from Alexander von Humboldt, who had tried "to understand and see the world as a whole," as Merkel put it, to the Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen, who provided the definition for the present Earth age, the Anthropocene, in which man irretrievably leaves his traces on the planet -- through the testing of nuclear bombs, microplastics and the emission of climate-damaging gases.

Nostalgia Foretold

The speech is, in its entirety, reflective of late-stage Merkel, a mix of concerned admonition and scientific soberness. But the effect was likely made more pronounced by the fact that Merkel was followed at the lectern by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, a man who addressed the Europeans in his speech as if they were lackeys and cheerfully reported that, for years, the U.S. has primarily been burning oil and gas that it has extracted itself. The contrast to Merkel could not have been greater. There was a whiff of defiance in the applause for the chancellor, but also a bit of nostalgia foretold, a fear of what will happen once Merkel departs the political stage.

There's probably no other person in the world who has such deep insight into global politics as Merkel. She has seen three American and four French presidents come and go, she has addressed three general sessions of the UN, attended 13 G-7 or G-8 summits and gone to more than 70 European Union summits. The only politician in her weight class who has been in office roughly as long is Russian President Vladimir Putin. But nobody trusts him.

There are many reasons for Merkel to look around the globe with concern. There's Putin, who compensates for his economic failures with brutal power politics. There's the Communist Party of China, which has proven that capitalism and dictatorship can work perfectly hand-in-hand. And right in the middle of it all, there's an EU that has been weakened by the Brexit chaos and internal quarreling.

But the most important reason of all is Donald Trump. There's much to suggest that his election was her primary motivation for seeking a fourth term in office. She mulled the decision long and painstakingly during the summer and fall of 2016 -- it was almost painful to watch how lucidly the chancellor weighed the pros and cons of her candidacy, says a source who spoke with Merkel at the time. The source says Merkel could see that her tenure in the Chancellery had run its course and that she had deeply polarized the country as a result of the refugee crisis.

The Trump Factor

All of that, from Merkel's point of view, were reasons to not run for a fourth term. She also didn't think at the time that it was particularly likely that Trump would become president. With Hillary Clinton, the White House, in her view, would have been in good hands. All that, several sources who know her well say, had her leaning against running again, with one of them saying: "Inside, she was ready to let go." A long-time party colleague says: "If Hillary had won, Merkel wouldn't have run again." Officially, the government merely responds to queries about her decision making process by saying the chancellor has already explained her candidacy in detail: "There's nothing to add."

On Nov. 8, 2016, Trump won the election. Eight days later, outgoing President Barack Obama visited the chancellor in Berlin and the two spoke for three hours at a dinner at the Hotel Adlon. As Obama speech writer Ben Rhodes noted in his memoirs, the president never spent that much time talking to any other leader during his entire time in office.

People close to Obama say he strongly encouraged Merkel to run again. They say the chancellor told the president she likely would have left office if Clinton had won. In the room next door, advisers to Merkel and Obama sat together, including the chancellor's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, and Merkel's foreign policy adviser, Christoph Heusgen. Obama brought his security adviser Susan Rice and Rhodes along on the trip. Rhodes made a toast to Merkel during dinner: To "the leader of the free world," he wrote in his memoir. Seibert doesn't recall the episode.

There's a good chance that Obama gave the chancellor the decisive push to run again. Four days after the dinner at the Adlon, she announced that she would be seeking a fourth term. We are at the dawn of difficult and uncertain times, Merkel said at the press conference at her party's headquarters in Berlin. Times in which "people would have little understanding if I would not again bring to bear all the gifts and talents which were given to me to do my duty for Germany."

When a journalist from the Reuters news agency asked the chancellor directly whether Trump's election had been the decisive factor in her renewed candidacy, Merkel didn't deny it and instead answered evasively. "I take a long time, and the decisions are made late. But then, I stand behind them."

Like every problem, Merkel also tackled the Trump conundrum with diligence and by reading. She read an interview that Trump gave to Playboy in 1990, in which he complained the U.S. was flooded with German luxury cars and recommended punitive tariffs as an antidote. During the campaign, she had already watched episodes of "The Apprentice," the reality television series Trump starred in for 11 years. The premise of the show was for young candidates to prove their business savvy, with contestants who failed to convince him being dismissed at the end of each show with Trump's signature "You're fired!" What also stood out in the show to Merkel was Trump's penchant for disregarding the opinions of others.

Merkel has never been an advocate of the theory that the new president could be appeased through gestures of humility and flattery. She found it strange when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited him at Trump Tower in mid-November 2016 before he had even been sworn in as president. "I'm not going to sit on a golden chair," she told confidants a few days later. Merkel also felt a twinge of schadenfreude that Emmanuel Macron's decision to invite Trump and his wife to a Michelin-starred restaurant in the Eiffel Tower did little to help his relationship with the president. The French president would also later become the target of Trump's gloating tweets. And Merkel herself has experienced how mercurial the American president can be when dealing with other leaders. Trump, she notes, will issue broadsides from the stage. "Then, in a face-to-face conversation, he says: Ivanka loves you."

'Highly Agglomerated Knowledge'

Merkel is well aware of Trump's lack of interest in details. During her trip to Washington last spring, she coined a lovely euphemism, saying that the American president had "highly agglomerated knowledge." Trump's attention span is so short that Merkel has her advisers prepares bite-sized, memorable examples before talking to him, so that she can explain complicated issues -- like the tariffs dispute between the EU and the U.S.

Many in the German government believed life in the Oval Office would temper Trump. But Merkel never bought that. He was elected, she has pointed out, precisely because he distanced himself from the Washington establishment. "For Trump, nothing that happened before him counts," she says. In that sense, she continues, he's almost an ahistorical president.

Merkel also knows that if he is re-elected, the door will be open for Trump to smash the pillars of world order. The president has made clear more than once that he considers NATO to be little more than an expense for the U.S. He has also described the EU as an "enemy," and views it as a threat to American prosperity. Many in Germany interpreted such statements as being the over-the-top remarks of a former TV entertainer, but Merkel didn't. She believed he would implement his agenda, point-by-point.

An Ally and an Adversary

In contrast to her relationship -- or lack thereof -- with Trump, Merkel at least had a couple years during which she derived some amount of pleasure from Vladimir Putin. The Russian president is alien to the German chancellor in every sense of the word -- a former KGB officer who, even at his advanced age, rides through the tundra with his shirt off. But she also views Putin's cool intelligence and chutzpah as a kind of challenge.

In June 2013, Merkel traveled to St. Petersburg to open with Putin an exhibition of artworks that had been looted from Germany by Soviet soldiers during World War II. Originally, the chancellor was supposed to give the opening remarks, but because Merkel intended to argue that the artworks should be returned, Putin had her speech removed from the agenda shortly before Merkel left Germany. The chancellor, in turn, refused to accompany the president to the Hermitage; simply standing silently in the background was not for her.

At first, Putin remained intractable and throughout the entire day, it looked as though the visit could end in a scandal. Ultimately, though, Putin gave in. On her way back to Berlin, Merkel happily reviewed the events of the day. Putin was a man who would exploit any and every perceived weakness, she said. "He tests you the entire day. If you don't fend him off, you become smaller and smaller," she said, holding out her finger and thumb and moving them closer together to illustrate. She was visibly relieved that Putin was unable to diminish her that day.

In recent history, German chancellors have found ways to build trust with their Russian counterparts. Helmut Kohl and Boris Yeltsin went to the sauna together, for instance. So did Gerhard Schröder and Vladimir Putin. Such an outing is out of the question for Merkel, but what she does have that connects her to Putin is language. When they speak to each other on the phone, their first few sentences are usually in German. Merkel can speak passable Russian, but Putin's German is far superior. In their many phone conversations and encounters, however, no private word has ever been spoken, according to one high-ranking diplomat. "Putin hasn't even mentioned that his children attended the German school in Moscow."

Her Crowning Achievement

Merkel never gave in to the illusion that Putin wanted to turn his country into a democracy. But she was hopeful that Putin's admiration for the prosperity and innovative power of the West would ensure that he would permit at least a moderate opening. Putin believed himself capable of orchestrating an economic revival, says a German government source, much like Lenin thought in the 1920s with his New Economic Policy. That didn't happen, and to make matters worse, the global price of oil began to fall at the beginning of 2014. It was during this time that Putin ordered the annexation of Crimea. The war in Ukraine marked a turning point, the high-ranking diplomat said, adding that Putin lied to Merkel about the presence of Russian soldiers in Crimea. This, of course, had an adverse effect on their relationship. But for years, Merkel didn't have a strategy for dealing with Russia either and she preferred to defer to the EU when it came to forging a policy vis-à-vis Ukraine -- a decision that would come back to haunt her.

The chancellor was able, though, to ensure that the crisis in Ukraine didn't escalate. The Minsk talks that took place on Feb. 11-12, 2015, lasted 17 hours and Merkel would later say that she was able to roughly guess the time of day based on whether there was a roast or jam on the table.

With the agreement, Merkel prevented the hawks in the U.S. from getting their way and delivering heavy weapons to Ukraine -- no small achievement, and perhaps even the greatest accomplishment of her tenure. How would things have ended if American missiles had blown Russian tanks to smithereens?

But the Minsk Protocol never ushered in true peace. Merkel once said that she is now familiar with virtually every tree along the so-called Contact Line in Ukraine's Donbass region, where Ukrainian soldiers and pro-Russian rebels have been facing off since 2014 and where both sides continue to suffer casualties. There is hardly a foreign policy issue to which Merkel has dedicated herself more. But mere diligence isn't going to force Putin to reason. He has no interest in peace, because a stable Ukraine could align itself with the West. During her last trip to visit Putin in May 2017, she said the Russian president was once again returing to "his area of expertise" -- meaning a show of strength through his army and hybrid warfare.

A Role Model, Almost

During her time in office, Merkel has watched the idea of democracy weaken in places like Europe, Russia and also China, a country where many people though economic success would be followed by a desire for freedom.

It is one of Merkel's greatest contradictions that she has always viewed the dictatorship in Beijing with a certain leniency. She is, to be sure, an advocate for dissidents and hardly a visit to China goes by without a meeting with human rights activists at the German Embassy. Ultimately, though, Merkel's respect prevails for a government party that managed, within four decades, to transform China from a developing nation to the world's second-strongest industrial power. A Chinese politician once told Merkel that the greatest contribution to the protection of human rights was the fight against poverty. Merkel found the argument to be quite persuasive.

Merkel has focused on China like no other German chancellor before her, and she has traveled to Beijing 11 times since taking office in 2005. For her, China isn't foremost a country in which capitalism, surveillance technology and single-party rule have created an entirely new form of oppression -- but an admonishment for Germany to stay vigilant.

Merkel has frequently pointed out that for centuries, China was a high culture, a leader in science and technology. But she doesn't say so to illustrate China's failings, but to highlight just how fleeting order and prosperity can be.

On her last trip to China in May 2018, Merkel visited the city of Shenzhen, which has grown within just a few decades from a small town on the South China Sea into a high-tech metropolis with 12.5 million inhabitants. It may have still been the case 10 years ago that China was stealing important intellectual property from the West, Merkel said, but today, the country is flooding the West with patents. "And in 10 years, we'll need people who can read patents in Chinese, because they don't feel like writing them in English," she said.

For Merkel, China is a study in contrast. A place where she can see the flip side of democracy, with its tedious debates, endless decision-making processes and inability to come up with long-term plans. Shenzhen is something like China's Silicon Valley. There, Merkel visited a startup that wants to use artificial intelligence to optimize health care -- a place that could just as easily have been in Palo Alto, California, with its casual interior decor.

Since Merkel took office, China's economy has grown by 202 percent. Many Germans still delude themselves into thinking that China is merely a country where toasters and other appliances are assembled. Not Merkel. She knows the country has systematically bought up shares in European technology companies and that it wants to be a leader in the development of artificial intelligence -- and is investing 11 billion euros a year to meet that goal. Germany only manages an annual investment of 500 million euros. Indeed, the German automobile industry can't even manage to develop its own battery cells, Merkel has complained.

Merkel's mood was gloomy as she flew home to Germany from the Shenzhen trip. She spoke of the disaster that is Berlin's new airport, a failure that seemed even more grotesque to her against the backdrop of the pace of change in China. There's never any urgency back home, Merkel commented -- for anything to get done, there always has to be the pressure of a looming crisis. "Something's got to happen," she said.

Great Accomplishments

What makes a great chancellor? The first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, the gnarled old Konrad Adenauer, anchored Germany in the West against significant resistance. His charismatic successor, Willy Brandt, reconciled Germans with democracy and forced them to reflect upon their own guilt with his historic genuflection in Warsaw. Helmut Kohl, long mocked as a bumbling rube, had the skill and foresight to unite the nation at the right moment.

What about Merkel? There is a strange discrepancy between the reverence that Merkel is now increasingly receiving, and the disappointment that she isn't using her experience and the freedom that comes with a politician's final years in office to their full potential. "Merkel has the power to initiate something big," says Julianne Smith, the deputy security advisor to former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. "But what we're experiencing is a paralyzed Germany, and that's bad for Europe and bad for the U.S."

Merkel has augmented Germany's reputation in the world: No sensible person can deny that. A survey in summer 2018 found that Germany was the most popular country in the world. And the fact that nobody is afraid any longer of German jackboots marching across their borders also has to do with the chancellor's penetratingly modest demeanor. During the past 10 years under Merkel's stewardship, some 140,000 Italians, 95,000 Greeks, 24,000 Brits and 6,200 Israelis have moved to Germany and stayed. The claim that Germany is a xenophobic country is a rather difficult one to substantiate, statistically.

Merkel has spent 13 scandal-free years at the helm of Germany's government. The idea that she could somehow be corrupted is about as plausible as the thought of Trump taking his marital vow of fidelity seriously. Merkel knows how important she is; and that explains why she does all she can to avoid even a whiff of courtly whim. During a trip to Washington, Merkel once said that she follows a single script for all state visits to the Chancellery: "Military honors, an hour consultation, press conference, the end."

Everyone's Mutti

She is Germany's first-ever female chancellor, and she has successfully dispelled any lingering doubts about whether a woman could have the necessary chops for the job when it comes to an awareness of power, tenacity and meticulousness. Since Germany's last federal elections, Merkel has had to answer lawmakers' questions three times a year. Initially, her people were concerned that the opposition could use their new privilege to make Merkel look like a fool on live television. Their concerns turned out to be completely unfounded.

When Merkel appears before parliament, like she did most recently in early April, she parries each attack as routinely as a chess computer would. She's familiar with startups' concerns over upload filters. She left the head of the Free Democrats shaking his head in confusion by saying that she was "pursuing a CO2 pricing approach even in non-ETS areas." And when one Social Democratic lawmaker had her microphone turned off after she was unable to finish her question in the allotted 60 seconds, Merkel threw her a life ring: "To help you out, I suspect I've understood your question." After an hour in Merkel's class, the lawmakers are exhausted by so much policy minutiae. It would hardly have been surprising if she had handed out homework.

It is one of Merkel's greatest strengths to be able to break down any seemingly insoluble problem into manageable, unthreatening technical questions. Then-German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble wanted to kick Greece out of the euro, but Merkel was strict and made the Greeks do their homework until the markets calmed down. In the 2008 financial crisis, a few soothing words from the chancellor were enough to prevent Germans from plundering their savings accounts. Since Merkel took power, Germany's economic output has risen by 23 percent and unemployment has fallen to its lowest level since reunification.

But Merkel can be accused of a certain lack of principle in some respects. The 2005 federal elections, which her party won only by a slight majority, rid her once and for all of any ambition to prescribe Germany a sweeping reform program. And her commitment to nuclear energy didn't even last 72 hours after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Washed away by the fear of losing voters.

There is one point, however, on which Merkel has never wavered. For her, it has always been self-evident that a German chancellor must take full responsibility for the past crimes Germans committed. Even before she became head of government, she kicked Bundestag deputy Martin Hohmann out of her party's parliamentary faction because he gave a speech with anti-Semitic undertones. And she snubbed her party colleague Günther Oettinger as he prepared to posthumously declare the Nazi judge Hans Filbinger a resistance fighter.

The Sleeping Giant

No one need fear Germany any longer, this giant at the heart of Europe. If its neighbors in recent years have taken offense at the government in Berlin, it is not because of any hegemonistic desires, but Merkel's unique approach to the refugee crisis, which countries in Eastern Europe in particular do not support. The chancellor has been accused of moral imperialism -- an imperialism that has nothing to do, of course, with spiked helmets or panzer divisions, but one that merits considerable respect. "We should learn from the Germans how to treat refugees," said the Israeli historian Tom Segev at the height of the refugee crisis in autumn 2015.

The question now is what Merkel will do with the respect she enjoys. How will she use her political capital in the last phase of her chancellorship? For decades, Germany's foreign policy has been burdened by the country's dark past. No one wanted to see a resurgence of the old great power in the middle of the Continent. The opposition of Francois Mitterrand and Margaret Thatcher to German reunification reflected an old fear of Teutonic dominance.

But in the 1990s, Hitler increasingly became an excuse for Germany to become nestled in a niche of global politics. In 2011, Poland's then-foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, said: "I fear Germany's power less than her inactivity." Now, eight years later, a lack of understanding for Merkel's inaction has turned into anger. "It's a shame that Merkel isn't seizing on opportunities to lead," says Smith, the former Biden adviser.

"I'm like a toad in hibernation," Merkel said on the sidelines of one of her party's congresses in the city of Essen a few weeks after the election of Donald Trump. She wakes up whenever things get important, she said -- noting that she did so during the CDU party donations scandal by publishing an unforgettable op-ed in the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, distancing herself from then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl and propelling herself to party leadership. Now, a similar watershed moment has been reached, she said.

Pressed to Act

So why isn't Merkel doing anything? She doesn't need to worry about re-election, which should give her considerable freedom. She has a French president on her side who is pushing for a reform of Europe. And she knows -- at least in theory -- the answers to the most pressing questions of our time.

In May 2017, Merkel said in a beer tent in Munich that the days when Europeans could rely on the U.S. were over. "We Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands," she added. Hardly any other speech by the chancellor has had the same level of resonance, which is largely due to the fact that it contains a deeper truth.

The U.S. lost interest in Europe and turned to other regions of the world before Trump. It was former President Barack Obama who shifted U.S. attention to East Asian countries. NATO was a product of the Cold War; it was designed to prevent a weakened Europe from being absorbed into Moscow's sphere of influence. The alliance's first general secretary, Lord Hastings Ismay, summed up NATO's purpose as follows: "To keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down." Today, nobody views Germany as a threat anymore, while the Americans have lost their desire to pay for the security of a continent that is perfectly capable of paying for itself. In that regard, Trump's remarks about NATO being obsolete are not entirely wrong.

If Merkel were to take her own speech that she gave in Munich seriously, she would have to explain to voters that Germany -- together with the Europeans -- must feel a sense of responsibility for its periphery, North Africa and the Middle East. She would have to get Germans used to the idea that the German military needs more money and that in the future, German soldiers will be deployed more often on more dangerous missions. After the refugee crisis, who could honestly argue that civil wars in places like Syria or Libya doesn't have a direct impact on Germany?

Merkel knows all this. She speaks theoretically about Germany needing to do more. But when it comes to suggesting a concrete strategy, she hardly says a word.

A Drowsy Ending

A first step toward more responsibility would be a reform of Germany's mandatory requirement of parliamentary approval for armed operations, which currently makes it very difficult to quickly react to crises. Merkel, though, is fully aware of how controversial this would be, so she prefers to steer clear of it.

The same goes for the military budget. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen wanted to ensure that it would at least increase to 1.5 percent of Germany's economic output by 2024. But Finance Minister Olaf Scholz only plans for it to hit 1.25 percent of GDP by 2023. "These figures cannot be explained to people in the U.S. who are actually well disposed toward Germany," says Julianne Smith.

In theory, Merkel also believes that Europe needs to further integrate, and not only militarily, but also to be able to compete with China. French President Emmanuel Macron announced in a speech at Sorbonne University on Sept. 26, 2017, that "the rebuilding of a sovereign, united and democratic Europe" was necessary.

Macron had waited to give his speech until after the German election was over because he wanted Merkel at his side. But to this day, Macron is still waiting  for the German chancellor. Her answers are, at best, small-scale. At the Elysee Palace, impatience has long been replaced by a lack of understanding as to why Merkel refuses to lead the debate over the future of Europe.

"The chancellorship is ending in a slumber. Merkel is turning out the light and saying: good night," says the Berlin-based historian Henning Köhler, who has spent his entire career studying the legacy of German chancellors. He has written two definitive biographies, one about Kohl and another about Adenauer. He considers both men to have been great chancellors. But Merkel? Not so much. The thing people will remember about her, in Köhler's opinion, is that a far-right populist party won seats in the German Bundestag on her watch.

Prize After Prize

Merkel's power has become brittle. If the Social Democrats lose their nerve now that they struggled to attract much support in the European elections, all could soon be lost. Merkel knows this. She's not bent on staying in office. There are many people who would like to convince her to stay in politics. Couldn't a woman with her experience move to Brussels? Other heads of government have pressured her repeatedly. But Merkel doesn't want to.

Sometimes it seems like Merkel would be content to simply sit back and enjoy the fruits of her years of labor. Ever since the refugee crisis, the prizes Merkel has received for her service to humanity have piled up.

In May 2018, then-Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos presented her with the "Lamp of Peace," an annual award presented by the Franciscans. Merkel showed what solidarity meant in politics with her "correct, though not always popular decisions," Santos, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said.

Half a year later, Queen Rania of Jordan gave the laudatory speech at the award ceremony of the "Golden Victoria Award" of the Association of German Magazine Publishers. "Since taking office, Chancellor Merkel has earned the world's admiration and respect for her steadfast commitment to delivering stability, prosperity, liberty and peace," Rania said.

Merkel is also a recipient of the International Charlemagne Prize of Aachen, which recognizes work done in service of European unification. And she has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama. She has been named an honorary doctor 15 times.

The only thing that's missing is the Nobel Peace Prize.

The last German to receive that distinction was Willy Brandt. And the solemn ceremony in Oslo in December 1971 helped canonize the Social Democrat in the eyes of many Germans. before him, only three Germans had been singled out: Gustav Stresemann, a chancellor during the Weimar Republic; the historian Ludwig Quidde; and Carl von Ossietzky, a journalist and activist who shone light on Germany's clandestine rearmament in the run-up to the Third Reich.

In the Chancellery, it is said that Merkel doesn't waste any time thinking about the Nobel Peace Prize. At the same time, she has long been considered a favorite candidate. The prize would represent the pinnacle of her tenure -- an honor that would contradict all the naysayers who claim that her refugee policy was merely a misstep by an overly sentimental do-gooder.

A Celebrity Abroad

"We'll miss her," says Herfried Münkler. When asked what Merkel's legacy would be, the political scientist at Berlin's Humboldt University cited the end of compulsory military conscription and Germany's phaseout of nuclear energy. But would the memory of those two policies really survive the passage of time? "For Merkel, politics was the avoidance of what was wrong," Münkler said. That was what made the chancellor's policies seem so hesitant. What's more, Merkel was never a great orator.

Rhetorically gifted politicians always put themselves under pressure, because their emotional appeals oblige them to act. Angela Merkel never had this problem.

On May 30 this year, the chancellor will give the commencement speech at Harvard University in the U.S. The school has produced a trailer to promote her upcoming address, with scenes from recent German history underlaid with dramatic music. Toward the end, the words "The most powerful woman in the world" appear on the screen as an image of Merkel's signature hand gesture comes into view.

The film has very little to do with the actual Merkel. At the Chancellery in Berlin, her staff is amused at what they perceive as a typically American treatment: an XXL-sized dose of emotion.

But maybe a bit of emotion, a grand idea is just what Merkel needs to see her across the finish line. It would be something new. But at the moment, it doesn't look like Merkel is likely to change.