With the installation of the new German government, Angela Merkel’s 16-year chancellorship came to an end. NU.nl together with the biographer of Merkel, Ralph Bollmann, and German expert Marja Verburg looks back on sixteen years of Merkel.
“There is a well-known story about Merkel. About how she stood on a diving board as a girl during swimming lessons at school. She hesitated until the very last, before she dared to jump.”
For the German journalist Ralph Bollmann, author of the biography Angela Merkel: Die Kanzlerin und ihre Zeit, this story symbolizes the way she later dealt with major crises. In these situations, she often waited long before taking the plunge. “But when she made a decision, she always made it with conviction. She always waited as long as possible to first understand the nature of the crisis.”
When you ask Bollmann if you could characterize Merkel as ‘Krisiskanzlerin’, he answers resolutely. “Yes, absolutely. For a long time she was accused of not having a vision, but at her first crisis in 2008 she immediately distinguished herself.”
Merkel’s ability to curb the 2008 Euro crisis is largely due to her origins. She was strongly formed by the first half of her life, which she spent in the communist GDR. She experienced a major system change in her country during the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent reunification with West Germany. This had major socio-economic consequences for East Germans.
The financial crisis in 2008 also had a huge impact on the lives of many, for example by losing their jobs. “But Merkel was able to adapt to such a system change, which many leaders from other Western countries had more difficulty with,” says Bollmann.
Although Merkel’s experience of such a recession was useful to her, her approach elsewhere in Europe was less praised. Her government pursued a frugal economic policy in the European Union.
“Throughout her career, Merkel came ever closer to the idea of European integration. It was always about the whole of Europe, including the eastern member states.”
Ralph Bollmann, biographer
“Her idea at the time was: if the euro fails, then Europe fails,” says Marja Verburg of the German Institute. One of these consequences was that a very strict austerity policy was imposed on a number of southern European Euro Area countries.
In those countries Merkel’s frugal policies met with a lot of cynicism and criticism. In Greece, Spain and Cyprus, protesters took to the streets with images of Merkel wearing a Hitler moustache or swastikas.
“One of the consequences of the euro crisis is that there was a European polarisation, between North and South. I think that is also one of the reasons that Merkel started to tap from a different source during the coronavirus crisis. At that time, Germany – together with France – was the champion of a generous support policy towards hard-hit countries”, Verburg said.
Bollmann: “throughout her career, Merkel came ever closer to the idea of European integration. It was always about the whole of Europe, including the eastern member states.”
Merkel managed to maintain dialogue with Eastern European countries
This tendency for dialogue with Eastern Europe also set it apart from other Western European leaders during the Crimean crisis of 2014. In the Crimea between Ukraine and Russia, tensions were high in early spring 2014 due to the Russian annexation of the peninsula.
The imminent escalation of the conflict was fueled by the United States plan to arm the Ukrainian army. But Merkel was vehemently opposed to this. She said at a conference in 2015 she could not imagine that a stronger Ukrainian army would impress Russian president Vladimir Putin.
“Merkel was really the linchpin in the Ukraine crisis, because she had good contacts with both Russia and the West,” says Verburg. This became clear when, at the height of the crisis in 2015, she travelled around the world in ten days to ease tensions. In the end, Merkel succeeded in forcing a cease-fire in the so-called Minsk agreement.
‘Willkommenskultur’ gave way to populism
Like many countries in Europe, Merkel faced populist movements in her country in the run-up to the height of the refugee crisis in 2015. The populist sound took shape in the political party Alternative für Deutschland-a reference to Merkel’s tendency to call unpopular measures “alternativlos”.
No statement has haunted Merkel as long as the sentence she uttered on 31 August, at the height of this European refugee crisis: “Wir schaffen das” (free translation: we can do this job, Ed.).
“Wir schaffen das was an appeal at a time when there was an increasing number of right-wing extremist violence in Germany.”
Marja Verburg, German Connoisseur
“That was an appeal at a time when there was an increasing number of right-wing extremist violence in Germany,” Verburg says. “You saw at the time that not only they, but also German media, for example, wanted to offer a counterweight. They didn’t want to be the nazi Germany that uses violence against refugees.”
In the first months after ‘Wir schaffen das’, a so-called ‘Willkommenskultur’ reigned in Germany: residents embraced a solidarity-based refugee policy. But later incidents, including a series of robberies and assaults by asylum seekers during New Year’s night in Cologne, changed that sentiment.
Waves of right-wing extremism have occurred more frequently in Germany’s post-war history, but in 2019 the new wave of right-wing extreme violence culminated with the assassination of Christian Democratic politician Walter Lübcke.
Later, Merkel was involved in the so-called Turkey deal. This allowed refugees to be stopped at the borders of Europe. “A lot of strict refugee legislation has also been implemented under Merkel,” says Verburg.
When Merkel announced that she would not run again as chancellor in 2018, she had no idea of perhaps the biggest crisis she had to get Germany through. It came at a time when it was not a bad time for her politically speaking.
After her re-election in 2017, Merkel had a hard time, partly due to problems within her party, the CDU. The COVID-19 outbreak gave her the chance to maintain her reputation as Krisiskanzlerin one more time.
And she had another advantage: her background as a physicist enabled her to explain to the Germans what it was all about. Verburg: “In this crisis, she was really a’ Mutti-Merkel ‘ who could address people. She understood what it was about.”
Although there are many more aspects to her sixteen-year term than crises, these are the common thread in her career as chancellor.
It is striking that almost all these crises have not been resolved and will be high on the agenda of the next cabinet. Recent developments in Afghanistan will bring new discussions about refugees and the latest coronavirus figures in Germany are far from reassuring. In addition, the climate crisis is also pressing.
“An ironic aspect of Merkel’s chancellorship is that she could not make major changes on many themes, because Germans are conservative and skeptical when it comes to major changes,” says Bollmann. “At the same time, she was always re-elected, precisely because Germans are unwilling to face major changes. She was seen as the person who could guarantee stability.”