Angela Merkel: the rise and fall of Germany’s great pragmatist

Final farewell: Angela Merkel is preparing to leave the political stage. Photograph: Virginia Mayo/AFP/Getty

Eastern Germany’s lonely Baltic coast is a beautiful if desolate place at any time of year. Since 1990 it has been the constituency of Angela Merkel. Although she was born in Hamburg and raised 90 minutes outside what was once East Berlin, her political base since entering politics has been the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, on the Polish border.

After almost three decades Merkel is preparing her departure from the political stage: handing over the reins of her ruling Christian Democratic Union while remaining as Germany’s chancellor until 2021 at the latest.

Although she is just 64, today’s 18-year-old Germans cannot remember the time before her. And this as a late starter in politics who, with her mousy demeanour and watchful eyes, stumbled into politics in 1989, after the Berlin Wall fell. Months later she found herself sitting at the cabinet as a “quota” promoted by Helmut Kohl, as unity chancellor, to fill his cabinet quota of East Germans – or Ossis, or easterners, to the former West Germany’s Wessis – and women.

“I was a very efficient appointment,” she joked two weeks ago. “I was still relatively young for politics – 35 – came from the east and was a woman, so I ticked three boxes.”

Iconic: Angela Merkel with the Rügen fishermen in 1990. Photograph: Ebner/Ullstein Bild via Getty
Striking: Angela Merkel with the Rügen fishermen in 1990. Photograph: Ebner/Ullstein Bild via Getty

A memorable photograph, as striking as a Vermeer painting, shows a young Merkel, conspicuously inconspicuous in a boyish haircut and denim skirt, sitting with fishermen in their hut on the island of Rügen, in her constituency. Sun streams through the window as they drink schnapps. The men later said she had listened, asked intelligent questions and expressed no opinions – echoing what many would say in decades to come. “She gave the impression that she understood us,” one said.

My favourite Merkel anecdote comes from the CDU politician Paul Krüger, who, like Merkel, was recruited to the Kohl unity cabinet in 1990. In Bonn the two Ossis met each week to offer one other moral support in their battle against shinier, more polished West German politicians. Then, one week, Merkel arriving with a gleam in her eye. “What the Wessis know, we can learn,” she told him. “But what we know, they can’t learn: our training facility has closed for good.”

Germany is more at peace with itself than ever – yet clouds gather: rusting infrastructure, a growing gap between haves and have-nots, and unanswered integration questions

Within a decade the underestimated Ossi had risen from Kohl’s Mädchen to his political executioner: snatching the CDU leadership after a donations scandal, sidelining all rivals and squeezing into power, with the narrowest of majorities, in 2005.

In the 13 years since then, mostly with comfortable grand-coalition majorities, she has steered Germany relatively unscathed through global political and financial crises and now leaves behind a prosperous country of record employment, steady growth and a balanced budget.

This is a Germany more at peace with itself than ever before – yet clouds are gathering on the horizon: rusting infrastructure, a demographic time bomb, a growing gap between haves and have-nots, and unanswered integration questions.

Ever the pragmatist, Merkel reversed policy – twice – on nuclear energy; five decades after the first reactor opened, and four years before the last reactor goes from the grid, Germany still has neither guaranteed its “energy transition” renewables supply and infrastructure nor found a permanent home for its nuclear waste.

Box ticking: Helmut Kohl and Angela Merkel in 1991. Photograph: Thomas Imo/Photothek via Getty
Box ticking: Helmut Kohl and Angela Merkel in 1991. Photograph: Thomas Imo/Photothek via Getty

Her early climate successes – she played a crucial role in what became the Kyoto Protocol and earned early “climate chancellor” plaudits – have been undermined by rising greenhouse-gas emissions, ongoing lignite mining and a poisonous diesel legacy.

Through hard work and an extraordinary capacity for policy detail, Merkel has pursued a consensus style of statecraft that has looked effortless at a time when world politics is becoming increasingly edgy, selfish and boorish.

Indeed, a huge part of her success has been her ability to deal with creepy men of varying degrees – from George W Bush’s unprompted shoulder massage in 2006 to Donald Trump’s bizarre Oval Office snub last year, when he refused to shake her hand for the cameras.

Bizarre snub: Angela Merkel with Donald Trump in the Oval Office in March 2017, when he refused to shake her hand. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty
Bizarre snub: Angela Merkel with Donald Trump in the Oval Office in March 2017, when he refused to shake her hand. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

She has done all this during three decades hiding in full public view, with almost nothing known about the private woman.

And her consensus-driven pragmatism has normalised Germany’s role in Europe to such an extent that, in 2011, a Polish foreign minister remarked that he “feared German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity”.

Many of Merkel’s great political achievements were about averting disaster. In February 2015 it was the chancellor who most likely avoided a full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine with marathon all-night ceasefire talks in Minsk, then flew straight to another crisis summit in Brussels and a stand-off with Greece over its bailout terms.

The jury is still out on her role in the euro crisis. Many around Europe are certain Merkel’s lack of flexibility compounded the misery in Greece. But few of these critics remember her domestic constraints, political and financial, as Europe’s largest bailout contributor.

Using her trademark “small steps” style – far too slow for many in the fast-moving crisis – she nudged Germany away from its rules-based dogmatism towards a more pragmatic role bankrolling bailouts and saving the currency, an approach that was a long way from how the euro was sold to Germans in the 1990s.

Merkel reverse-engineered what Germans wanted – political consensus through soporific rhetoric promising to solve problems without bothering voters – and sold it back to them

While the chancellor used the crisis to copper-fasten the unfinished single currency, pushing backstops and greater banking oversight, others found in the German leader the perfect crisis baddy.

At home, meanwhile, Merkel did little to oppose a counternarrative of Germany as victim of others’ profligacy. Nor did she silence domestic critics by pointing out how Germany, as a safe haven for investors, benefited from rock-bottom borrowing costs and crisis-loan interest rates.

A decade on from that crisis a poisonous prosperity chauvinism, which regards the European Union as a cost rather than a benefit, lingers in Germany’s European debate and has catalysed the rise of a new class of contrarian Wutbürger, or angry citizens.

Last stand: Angela Merkel after her final CDU conference speech as leader, earlier this month. Photograph: Carsten Koall/Getty
Last stand: Angela Merkel after her final CDU conference speech as leader, earlier this month. Photograph: Carsten Koall/Getty

What began as protest against expensive infrastructure projects gathered momentum opposing the “alternativlos” – or without alternative – euro-crisis logic Merkel deployed to rush emergency bailout legislation through the Bundestag. “If the euro fails,” her mantra went, “then Europe fails.”

Berlin MPs followed her loyally, but many credit- and risk-averse Germans rebelled and abandoned her increasingly centrist CDU in favour of the Alternative für Deutschland. Its rise and rise – first on an anti-bailout agenda and then on an anti-immigration ticket – cannot be overlooked, with the mood before and after the AfD obvious even in Merkel’s own political home state.

She takes care of things and she’s calm in herself, that’s why we like her

In September 2013 I shadowed the chancellor for her final rally in the pretty Baltic coastal town of Ribnitz-Damgarten, looking over her shoulder as she autographed postcards for adoring supporters. “She takes care of things and she’s calm in herself, that’s why we like her,” said one local woman, Maria Willendorf, unconsciously explaining Merkel’s winning formula. The wily CDU leader reverse-engineered what Germans wanted – political consensus through soporific rhetoric promising to solve problems without bothering voters – and sold it back to them.

Three days after she signed those autographs, on federal election night, her party fell just short of an absolute majority.

Three years – and one migration crisis – later I followed Merkel back to Mecklenburg. This time, at a rally held indoors to avoid hecklers, she had a haunted, exhausted air.

It was August 2016, almost a year since she had left German borders open to a huge flow of asylum seekers passing up through the Balkans and Hungary. Fearing a humanitarian disaster, and with no time to weigh up the consequences, she tried to sell her far-reaching decision with the sobre slogan “Wir schaffen das”, or “We can manage this.” And, by and large, Germany did manage it, at least initially. Although resources were stretched to their limits, social order did not break down, and no one went hungry.

Wir schaffen das: Angela Merkel poses for a selfie with an asylum seeker in 2015. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty
Wir schaffen das: Angela Merkel poses for a selfie with an asylum seeker in 2015. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty

A year on from the peak of that crisis, attitudes had cooled towards the new arrivals, and the German leader, in her political homeland. Elke Krass, a local woman told me in the eastern town of Neustrelitz: “I don’t remember any discussion about whether we wanted a new wave of mass immigration. People want to know where things are going. If Merkel knows, she’s not telling us.”

Again a voter had touched on the source of discontent: a huge act of social engineering and poor political communication. That discontent had erupted eight months later when scores of women, in Cologne to ring in the new year, were groped and even raped by northern African men, many asylum seekers.

The subsequent months, and a steady stream of violent assaults involving terrorist attacks, overshadowed the millions of recent arrivals neither assaulting nor raping anyone.

Germany’s “refugees welcome” refrain was soon drowned out by the anti-immigration Pegida movement on its Monday Dresden marches, on which its members chanted: “Rapefugees not welcome” and “Merkel must go”.

The new German leader wants real political debate – with robust political rhetoric – about what Germany should want for itself and why, at home and abroad

Germany’s rendezvous with reality – and globalisation – had cracked Merkel’s promise to her fellow citizens: give me your vote and I promise you comprehensive carefree political cover. The chancellor’s pact with her voters finally shattered on December 19th, 2016, when a failed Tunisian asylum seeker drove a truck into a Berlin Christmas market, an attack that left 12 dead and 56 injured. The attack was a huge blow to German confidence – shot through with well-intentioned naivety – about the risks of letting in more than a million people, good and bad.

Preoccupied by her 2015 decision, Merkel became increasingly withdrawn, and Der Spiegel magazine dubbed her “the woman in amber”.

Aides say she ran for a fourth term in 2017 only out of a sense of obligation to defend the postwar multilateral order in an off-kilter world of Brexit and Trump, populism and nationalism. But her campaign was a disaster, with furious anti-Merkel protest drowning her out at public rallies, and ended with the worst CDU result since 1949.

A struggling government in Berlin and further state-election disasters prompted Merkel, in Hamburg earlier this month, to swerve off Germany’s political Autobahn via the last exit guaranteeing a dignified departure.

Now it falls to her successor as CDU leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, to move beyond what she calls the “leaden” consensus of the Merkel years. The new German leader wants real political debate – with robust political rhetoric – about what Germany should want for itself and why, at home and abroad. The rest of the world is watching.