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A Year with Angela Merkel: “You’re Done with Power Politics”

  • December 01, 2022

From that perspective, does she regret not having run again?

“No,” she says. “It was time for someone new. Domestically it was overdue. And on foreign policy, I was also no longer making any progress on a lot of things we were trying to do. Not just on Ukraine. Transnistria and Moldova, Georgia and Abkhazia, Syria and Libya. It was time for a new approach.”

She waits four or five seconds, and then says: “But you can’t now act as if everything would have been just fine with the correct attitude.”

Is she talking about current German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock of the Green Party? About value-driven foreign policy?

A scant smile emerges, with her lips compressing as it fades as if she’s going to start whistling.

“Deliberate Self-Restraint”

“I don’t want to interfere in current politics,” she says. “It is difficult to talk about the past, because you are immediately in the present. Deliberate self-restraint is the order of the day.”

It is tempting to believe that she admired the queen for precisely that quality. A woman who didn’t even speak up when her daughter-in-law was chased to death by the paparazzi or after her allegedly favorite son became involved in a sex scandal with an underage girl. A woman who kept silent about problems until they simply faded away.

During her tenure, Merkel often behaved a bit like a monarch. She would wave from the stands during important football matches, she spoke to her people at New Year’s and, during the pandemic, she gave them courage, not unlike Elizabeth.

She often took care of the rest herself.

“There are certain decisions people expect politicians to make without burdening their constituents,” she says. “Otherwise, people get the impression: Oh, if you have to explain so much, it’s probably difficult to push it through. That is important for the acceptance of decisions. It won’t become greater just because you have explained them. Look at the NATO summit in Bucharest that is the focus of so much debate because at the time, I didn’t yet want us to welcome Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. At the time, it was only interesting to experts, if at all.”

Merkel suddenly recalls that in addition to watching “The Crown” and “Babylon Berlin” with all her free time, she also took in “Munich: The Edge of War,” the Netflix film about Neville Chamberlain’s role in the run-up to World War II. Jeremy Irons played Chamberlain. She liked it because it shows Churchill’s predecessor in a different light – not just as a frightened pawn for Hitler, but as a strategist who gave his country the buffer it needed to prepare for the German attack. In her telling, the Munich of 1938 sounds a bit like Bucharest of 2008. She believes that back then, and then later during the Minsk talks, she was able to buy the time Ukraine needed to better fend off the Russian attack. She says it is now a strong, well-fortified country. Back then, she is certain, it would have been overrun by Putin’s troops.

“Pretty Dark,” She Says

It’s the standard defense, this time embedded in world history. Without blood and pain, free of rubble and fear. Broadcast by a streaming service.

“Matthes plays Hitler,” says Merkel.

Beate Baumann nods.

The chancellor meets privately every now and then with the Berlin actor Ulrich Matthes to talk about drama, both onstage and in the world. As a young woman, she saw Hilmar Thate as Richard III in the Deutsches Theater, and later Lars Eidinger in the same role in a different Berlin theater. She saw Ekkehard Schall play Arturo Ui. “Pretty dark,” she says, and it’s not totally clear if she is talking about Putin or Bertolt Brecht. At one G-7 summit, she accused Boris Johnson, who was trying to undermine the Northern Ireland Protocol, of being on a path to becoming a dark Shakespearean character. Johnson turned around in annoyance, but returned five minutes later and said: If so, then I’m Hamlet.

In the calm of her post-Chancellery life, it all seems to be mixing together with her political experiences. Classical conflicts, the relationship between Putin and Zelenskyy, between Scholz and Macron, between Xi and Hu, between her and Kohl. The lonely Gerhard Schröder. Her failed search for a successor to her throne. The jesters within her own party. At Wolfgang Schäuble’s 80th birthday, everyone again talked about what a wonderful chancellor he would have made.

She describes the June 2019 Berlin visit of Ukraine’s newly elected President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as if it was an historical drama. The German chancellor was visibly shaking before the two of them strode past the honor formation. The young Ukrainian visitor could not muster the courage to tell her, the mother figure of Europe, what he really thought of her, and his advisers held a different view anyway.

She has always been excellent at imitating her adversaries: Seehofer, Sarkozy, Schröder, Putin, Bush and Kaczynski. She seems to be searching for a universal story where she finds her role – a role she doesn’t currently have in the global crisis.

The Culture Section

She keeps close tabs on the news, of course, but the most interesting pieces are in the culture section, she says. She can recite parts of an interview in the Munich daily Süddeutsche Zeitung with a former CIA analyst, who complains that diplomacy has become a bad word. The analyst says in the interview that the current state of affairs reminds him of the international situation just before World War I, when European heads of state erroneously believed that they would be able to quickly bring a limited war to an end. Before ultimately sliding into a catastrophe that killed an entire generation.

She says she has flipped through a recently published biography of her, written by Ralph Bollmann. He ends with the finding: “Angela Merkel came in as a chancellor of change, but she became a chancellor of stasis. Slowly and painfully, she learned how unprepared the residents of the Western world were for the new.”

She shows little patience for such assessments. She checks the numbers and the recollections – she was there after all.

“Writing about 2013 and 2014 as though I had nothing to do other than negotiate Minsk before then asking how I could lose sight of Ukraine, that’s too simplistic for me,” she says. “There were also general elections that year, coalition negotiations, there was still Greece, I broke my pelvis. At the moment, for example, everybody is talking about the Russian war, but nobody is saying anything about the EU-Turkey deal. At some point, somebody is going to ask: How could you have forgotten that? I think its important for us to ask ourselves how world history works. According to what rules. Otherwise, we’ll keep making the same mistakes.”

Perhaps she just doesn’t like being the subject of portraits – not by painters, not by photographers and not by biographers. It must be intolerable for her to be evaluated by every new op-ed writer who pops up.

“A Politician Doesn’t Have to Set an Example”

A few years ago, I asked her how she can deal with sometimes being completely written off in public. She says she just waits until it passes, that views of her ebb and flow. She essentially described her reputation as a law of nature.

“A politician doesn’t have to set an example,” she says. “That’s not their job.”

On the table of her office lies a thick volume of documents pertaining to German foreign policy in 1991, in which she has just read about the concerns that Helmut Kohl had about the disintegrating Soviet Union. Merkel says that Moscow’s foreign minister at the time, Eduard Shevardnadze, predicted to his German counterpart, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, that if the USSR collapsed, the Crimea question would once again become an issue. Thirty years ago. She repeatedly mentions “The Light that Failed,” an analysis jointly written by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes about the West’s amnesia and the East’s loss of identity following 1989. She reads Shakespeare and Schiller to better understand what is currently going on – including with her.

Her role in the great passage of time. Her legacy. What remains.

As she was watching the funeral service for the queen on television, she saw her one-time British counterpart Tony Blair among the mourners. A great political talent, she says, a political contemporary who completely ruined his reputation – in the Iraq War as Bush’s “poodle.”

Did she see how George W. Bush recently confused the war in Ukraine with the Iraq War during a recent public appearance, and then tried to pass it off by joking about his age?

A Portrait from George W. Bush

She shakes her head.

“I think it’s a form of self-critique,” she says. “On the Iraq War, though, I have to be rather critical of myself as well. I was one of those who chastised Gerhard Schröder at the time for risking the division of the West” for his vocal refusal to join the war effort.

She starts looking for something on her iPad. Perhaps the pathetic “proof” offered by then U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell of Iraq’s alleged WMD program? Or the article that she wrote for the Washington Post at the time defending the war? Instead, she shows a picture that George W. Bush painted of her. The former president took up painting several years ago.

“He painted Berlusconi, Putin, everyone,” says Merkel smiling. Perhaps it’s a form of therapy Bush uses to quiet his demons. At his ranch in Texas, Bush told her that his father thought his other son, Jeb, would have made the better president.

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