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The crisis chancellor: How Merkel changed Germany – and the world

As Angela Merkel steps down after 16 years leading Europe’s largest economy, she leaves Germany, Europe, and the world shaped by her decisions.

By Lenora Chu, Special correspondent | September 20, 2021

The road between the German autobahn and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s tiny hometown is flanked with a canopy of trees. They crowd the narrow winding asphalt, genuflecting to the wind, as you cast off the speed and modernity that is Berlin and approach the historic, cobblestoned town of Templin.

Only 17,000 people reside here, yet Templin is the seventh largest town in Germany by area, because its borders include the surrounding Uckermark forest. This is the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), the communist state where Ms. Merkel was raised.

Decades after the fall of East Germany, high unemployment still grips a region that is anchored by farming on top of whatever tourism dollars come its way. Ironically, the place that gifted Germany its first female chancellor is also a stronghold for the country’s far-right political party. Still, Ms. Merkel is drawn to the forest, and her pastor father and English-teacher mother lived here up until their deaths. Ms. Merkel will likely return often after she closes out 16 years of service as chancellor. She has a longtime country home here, and it’s styled as modestly as she is.

“Merkel doesn’t have a Camp David,” says Detlef Tabbert, Templin’s mayor and a contemporary of Ms. Merkel’s who attended the same high school. “She’s often here. She often drives herself. She does her own grocery shopping.”

As he reflected upon her career, Mr. Tabbert remarked that her 36 years in East Germany “allowed her to make great decisions” during the many crises she faced as chancellor. “Daily life for Merkel here when she was young had many challenges,” he says.

Indeed, some Merkel watchers say the key to her legacy – most often identified as her stellar crisis management skills and a humble-but-resolute leadership style – can be found in her upbringing as a child of the GDR. Her chancellorship was characterized by trial after tribulation that earned her the nickname “The Crisis Chancellor.” There was the global recession and eurozone crisis, followed by her singular determination to phase out nuclear energy in Germany after the Fukushima disaster in Japan. A controversial decision to ultimately allow a million migrants into Germany from Syria and Afghanistan is sometimes credited with enabling the rise of the far-right, then the pandemic gave Ms. Merkel a chance to showcase her steady scientific hand.

Critics say she wasn’t tough enough on Eastern Europe’s dictators, nor did she corral Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man who speaks her native language just as fluently as she speaks his. Yet overall, she leaves Germany better than she found it, stronger economically, more socially diverse, and the undisputed heart of the European Union. Ms. Merkel’s most impactful decisions were made over the objections of her own party, yet she still managed to stay in power, which speaks to her stamina and political skill.

Unlike her predecessors, either dogged by the whiff of impropriety or voted out of office, Ms. Merkel was scandal-free and served for “a very long time in government,” says Marianne Kneuer, professor of comparative politics at the University of Hildesheim. “That made her a long-term player in international politics, a constant actor who always had more experience than the others.”

“You either admire the stability over her 16 years or criticize her lack of vision,” says Martin Gross, assistant professor of political science at Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich. “Globally she’s helped preserve the liberal world order in a time of chaos. But what’s the vision for Germany for 2050? She doesn’t have one. Her style – this incremental policy style – has to do in part with her raising in the GDR. She has a backup to the backup to the backup option, and she’s allergic to huge visions about society because she lived in one that failed.”

As a child, Angela Kasner was quiet and studious, according to her grade school teachers.

She was born in Hamburg in 1954 to a Lutheran pastor father, who made the unusual decision to move his young family from the West to the East at a time when East Germans clamored to go the other way. The Kasners relocated to Templin when Angela was an infant. She was raised in comfortable surroundings as the daughter of a man with power in the community. She never called attention to herself. Angela wore her hair in a nondescript football-helmet style, and she was always “lost in her own world” of studies, as one teacher put it.

Even though from a notable family, she would mix freely with the children of clothing factory workers. “The head hospital doctor had 60% more income than the bus driver, not 10 times as much,” recalls Mayor Tabbert. “The differences between all of us were very marginal, and we were all together for a long time. This shaped our empathy and our social conscience.”

One difference soon became impossible to ignore: Angela’s work ethic and intellect.

“A colleague alerted me to a seventh grade student who was really good,” says Erika Benn, who taught Russian in Templin and still lives there today. That student was a preteen Angela, who began going to Ms. Benn’s home several hours a week for extra Russian lessons.

Before long, Angela was winning district, regional, and finally national GDR language Olympiads, which were a way to identify young talent in the East bloc. Angela’s wins brought fame to Ms. Benn, who says her student was nearly perfect, except that she had to teach her “how to look in people’s eyes. She was shy; she held back.”

“From the beginning, she was the best,” says Ms. Benn. “The other students weren’t even jealous because they knew they could never be as good. She was very disciplined at a very young age, and she wanted to win.”

“There were a few boys with those math skills but never a girl,” says middle school math teacher Hans-Ulrich Beeskow. (Angela began winning math Olympiads, too.) “The level of math was very difficult, and students needed extra time. Angela Kasner never needed that extra time.”

Later, as the teachers watched their star pupil climb the ladder of German democracy, they made a parlor game out of discerning hints of her upbringing. Mr. Beeskow likes to say her political acuity stems from her mathematical background.

“She never made decisions on her own – she always relied on experts,” says Mr. Beeskow. “She relied on [virologist] Christian Drosten during corona, for example. She hears the arguments of others, and this has something to do with math. Because logical thinking is the No. 1 priority.”

Ms. Benn, meanwhile, scoured Ms. Merkel’s speeches and policy moves for connections to the East. She found little. “I was angry at her for awhile, but I do think she passed the single-mother-retirement package [of legislation] for mothers in the East. The mothers in the West didn’t need it – they had enough money.”

Just down the road in Templin, inside the formidable structure that housed Ms. Merkel’s high school, the schoolchildren have no anger or resentment toward the chancellor and her allegiances, apparent or not, to her past. They’ve only known a unified Germany, and they think it’s “super cool” that Ms. Merkel went there, says Kerstin Alexandrin, a math teacher at Templin’s Active Nature School.

“The children say, ‘It’s possible to become chancellor if you go to school here.’”

Ms. Merkel’s rise through the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) – the political party that has been her home for 30 years – was swift.

When Germany reunified in 1990, she’d been working as a research scientist after earning her Ph.D. in quantum chemistry. The night the Berlin Wall fell, she famously went to her weekly sauna appointment with a friend and headed off to work the next day. Regardless, she quickly became swept up in the developing democratic movement. She was soon elected to the Bundestag to represent the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl almost immediately appointed her minister for women and youth, and Ms. Merkel also served as environment minister before ascending to CDU leadership in the late 1990s. Finally, in 2005, in what would be the closest election of her political career, she rose to the chancellorship after months of coalition negotiations.

From the start, Ms. Merkel revealed herself as someone who meticulously “surveyed the landscape for signals and made risk assessments,” says Stefan Reinecke, longtime parliament correspondent for the Taz newspaper. “She didn’t invent it, but she perfected the German superpragmatism that meant there was never serious political discourse. Only the middle.”

Her negotiation tactics and ability to compromise would serve her well, as one crisis after another emerged. She would outlast anyone in the negotiating room, says Andrea Römmele, a political consultant and professor at the Hertie School, a graduate school in Berlin. “The picture that remains in my head is that she’s the last one standing, when all the other heads of state were ready to go back to their hotel rooms. She had stamina.”

During the global financial recession of 2008-09, followed by the eurozone crisis, Ms. Merkel signaled that domestic interests were top priority in a “hard-nosed, very nationalistic way of pushing German interests in the EU,” says Mr. Reinecke. She supported a multibillion-dollar bailout of a German financial institution, but later opposed extending similar debt forgiveness to Greece and other Southern European countries that were headed toward insolvency.

She stoked stereotypes of lazy Greeks in comments about abundant vacation days and a retirement age that was lower than Germany’s, remarks almost certainly directed toward her domestic audience. Regardless, she ultimately helped negotiate a bailout for Greece. “If the euro fails, then Europe fails. Europe wins when the euro wins,” Ms. Merkel said ahead of a second vote on a proposed financial package.

“She held the place together,” says Dominik Geppert, professor of history at the University of Potsdam in Germany. “She wanted to make sure that the EU didn’t fall apart in the most difficult phases: the debt-crisis with Greece, Brexit, and [the coronavirus]. With diplomatic skill and the ability to strike a balance, she succeeded in doing so.”

Steady and resolute as she was, she could easily about-face, as she did with her 2011 decision to phase out nuclear energy. Just the previous year, she supported extending the working lives of Germany’s 17 nuclear power plants, but the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan flipped her outlook. “The dramatic events in Japan are a watershed moment for the world, a watershed for me personally,” Ms. Merkel said. Prior to Fukushima, “I accepted the residual risk of nuclear energy.”

The 2011 Bundestag vote to eliminate nuclear power in Germany within about a decade had staggering consequences. It dramatically boosted the renewable energy industry but also made Germany more reliant on coal and on imported sources of energy, such as natural gas.

Still, the decision to wean Germany off the atom was “epoch-making,” says Michael Borchard, head of the Archive for Christian-Democratic Policy at the Konrad-Adenauer Foundation. “The nuclear phaseout didn’t just mean the end of this technology, but it was also a huge turnaround for Germany. This switch to renewable energy was way before its time, faster than in any other industrialized nation, even if it’s still an unfinished project.”

In 2015 came the decision that’s sure to be the most indelible part of her legacy. Ms. Merkel opened Germany’s doors to an influx of more than a million refugees, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan. “Germany is a strong country. ... We have accomplished so much – we can do it!” she said, trumpeting a phrase that would be famously repeated.

This was an abrupt departure from the CDU’s longtime position on migration. “Germany is not an immigration country,” proclaimed Helmut Kohl in the 1990s when he was head of the party. Even though the country had allowed in “guest workers” for years, Mr. Kohl’s remarks reflected the CDU’s prevailing social conservatism on immigration issues. With her single stroke in 2015, Ms. Merkel shifted her party to the left on migration.

“This has been a repeating pattern with her, to make ‘Merkel decisions’ that did not actually correspond to the CDU’s value system,” says Ursula Münch, a political scientist and current director of the independent think tank Academy for Political Education in Bavaria. “That was accepted because she managed to win elections for the party. The woman had almost an impeccable sense for where voters are to be found across a broad spectrum.”

Her upbringing in a pastor’s home likely influenced the migration decision, experts say. Five years on, statistics show about half the new arrivals have found housing and work, with their children enrolled in German public schools. The decision might have helped enable the rise of Germany’s far-right, but supporters note populism was a global phenomenon.

Throughout crisis after crisis – whether it was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the rise of Donald Trump and his mercurial policies, or climate change disasters such as 2021’s floods – Ms. Merkel held her hand steady. Many have criticized her for lacking strategic vision, but she was typically good when a situation called for calm control.

A childhood in the GDR surely required practicing control, and it also nurtured a tendency to keep a tight lid on grand visions. Ms. Merkel has shown both characteristics throughout her chancellorship.

“It wasn’t as if the secret service was everywhere, but you can’t deny it was a surveillance state,” says Mayor Tabbert of his and Ms. Merkel’s childhood in Templin. Planning for a party required alternative options in case the first choice was forbidden or unavailable. A child of the GDR also grew up thinking about boundaries.

During her last year of high school, Merkel and her classmates presented an anti-state poem that mentioned a “wall,” according to Mr. Beeskow, the math teacher. The students were nearly kicked out of school. “She grew up learning where the line was,” he says. “She could push but she knew where to stop.”

Perhaps as chancellor, she didn’t push enough boundaries, say critics. Take European integration. Anything she did there was reactive, says Dr. Geppert, the historian. “The stronger European integration [that resulted] was a byproduct of the debt and euro crisis. Not so much by choice, but by events.”

Even her actions on refugees might have been prompted by an unwillingness to see German police officers usher women and children back across the Austrian border, remarks Mr. Reinecke, the parliamentary journalist. “Did she want that? No. Perhaps her origins in a pastor household did come into play. But her essence, her political essence, was not to have [an essence] at all.”

Ms. Merkel did leave plenty unfinished when it comes to domestic priorities. Germany failed to modernize a digital infrastructure that’s among the oldest and slowest in Western Europe, and the quality of education hasn’t markedly improved. (An Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development survey recently found Germany ranks 29th out of 34 industrialized economies for internet speeds.) She has left a “massive investment backlog in digitization, education, and a public transportation infrastructure that makes you long for more,” says Mr. Reinecke. “And that’s in one of the richest countries in the world.”

Ms. Merkel also failed to smooth the way for a successor. She abandoned several potential picks despite their loyalty to her, or because of missteps they made. “The reporting hasn’t been critical enough on this part,” says Dr. Geppert.

History may judge Ms. Merkel more harshly than the mostly complimentary assessments she gets today. Her success might have simply been “good timing,” says Dr. Geppert. “It’s a bit like Tony Blair [of Britain].” She benefited from an economic boom, spurred in part by Agenda 2010 – reforms instituted by a Social Democratic-Green coalition. “She didn’t actually secure and advance that [agenda], but rather raked in the dividends,” he says. “If you look back, what has actually been achieved?”

One thing is certain: the global coronavirus crisis allows Ms. Merkel to leave on a high note. Early on in the pandemic, she overcame her typical reticence, detailing the challenges ahead and summoning Germans to do their duty to society. It was a stark contrast to the approach taken by President Trump, and her popularity soared. She reached “70 to 80% approval, which was incredibly high compared with the migration crisis,” says Dr. Kneuer,the comparative politics expert. “People during corona felt very comfortable with her. They said, ‘We do not want another leader other than her.’”

It was a remarkable capstone to a long political career, especially as “she’s been losing voters for years,” says political consultant Gertrud Höhler. “This wasn’t really noticed, because you share the spectrum with six or seven other parties and the one with 24% can govern.”

Ultimately, says Dr. Kneuer, “if she’ll be identified as one of the great world leaders, it will be because others judge her accomplishments that way and certainly not because she wanted to, because she is free of peacocking vanity.”

While Ms. Merkel might be leaving some Germans wanting more – “the nostalgia for her will start within two years after her leaving office,” predicts Mr. Reinecke – the departing chancellor herself is envisioning quiet solitude. When recently asked about her plans, she said she won’t miss having to make decisions all the time. She also thinks about “someone else doing it now. And I think I’d like that very much.”

Back in forested Templin on a sunny afternoon, a stop at the tourist bureau reveals four women wholly unimpressed that their town gave the world Angela Merkel.

“It’s East Germany. No one cares if someone’s a celebrity or famous person,” says Karin Buse, who’s worked at the tourist bureau for 16 years, a stretch as long as Ms. Merkel’s been chancellor. “No one asks whether [she] is from here.”

“They come for the hot spring baths and relaxation.”

© The Christian Science Monitor. All rights reserved.

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