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.
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.