Auf Wiedersehen to Angela Merkel, says DOMINIC SANDBROOK

Auf Wiedersehen to Angela Merkel, says DOMINIC SANDBROOK

Auf Wiedersehen to Angela Merkel – the colossus of Europe… who bounced Britain to Brexit. As her indomitable 15-year reign ends tomorrow, what’s next for Germany, asks DOMINIC SANDBROOK

Well-sealed windows. No other country can make such well-sealed and nice windows.’ That was Angela Merkel’s answer when, more than a decade ago, a journalist asked her what she most associated with her native land.

It’s hardly the kind of rhetoric that would have British voters leaping from their seats.

But this weekend, as Germany’s Chancellor prepares to retire after almost 16 years at the helm, only a fool would underestimate her extraordinary appeal.

In many ways, the woman who went from working in an East German laboratory to commanding Europe’s largest economy seems an implausible political phenomenon.

Angela Merkel is a leaden speaker who holds her twitching hands in a stiff, much-mocked diamond, and hates watching herself on television.

Her biographers have called her indecisive and ‘tedious even by the standards of German politics’. The former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi even told newspaper editors she was an ‘unf***able lard-arse’.

Yet as the Germans prepare to vote in Sunday’s federal election, Merkel remains comfortably the most popular politician in the land. 

As Germany’s Chancellor prepares to retire after almost 16 years at the helm, only a fool would underestimate her extraordinary appeal

Her biographers have called her indecisive and ‘tedious even by the standards of German politics’

Yet as the Germans prepare to vote in Sunday’s federal election, Merkel remains comfortably the most popular politician in the land

Had she stood for an unprecedented fifth term as Chancellor, she would have won at a canter.

For almost 16 years she has been the fixed point of world politics. She has seen off George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and has held the highest office for four years longer than Margaret Thatcher.

In many ways, she seems mundane, almost a caricature of Germanness. On the campaign trail she once told voters: ‘You know me’, as if sheer familiarity was all that mattered.

Yet, even now, nobody knows what makes Angela Merkel tick, or what she stands for. We know that she likes Bruce Springsteen and is frightened of dogs. But apart from that she remains a closed book.

‘In quiet there is power,’ she once told a rival. And in her silence, perhaps, is a hint of the person behind the mask.

The single most important fact about Angela Merkel is that she grew up in the claustrophobic, paranoid world of Communist East Germany.

This was the world of the Berlin Wall, the Stasi, spies and informers, a society in which talking aloud could destroy your family. In quiet, in other words, there was survival.

Angela Kasner, as she was then called, was born in Hamburg in 1954, but moved east a few weeks later when her father, a Lutheran pastor, took up a post on the other side of the border.

She grew up in a seminary north of Berlin, surrounded by trainee pastors and disabled residents who were being taught to farm. Because of her father’s job, her family were allowed books and visitors, which were denied to other East Germans.

But as a pastor’s daughter in a communist dictatorship, young Angela was constantly watched. ‘You’ve got to be better than all the others,’ her mother told her, ‘or they’ll never let you go to university.’

In fact, she was a model student with a remarkable work ethic. She studied physics at Karl Marx University in Leipzig, before getting a doctorate in quantum chemistry.

In 1977 she married a fellow scientist, Ulrich Merkel. The marriage didn’t work out, but she kept his name anyway.

She threw herself into her work, spending the next decade as a chemist at the Academy of Sciences in East Berlin.

Year after year, she typed up her calculations, patiently preparing her research paper; Vibrational Properties Of Surface Hydroxyls: Nonempirical Model Calculations Including Anharmonicities.

In July 1989, Merkel turned 35. At the time, the idea that this supremely uncharismatic woman would become the mistress of Germany would have seemed utterly laughable.

Germany wasn’t even one country, and Merkel had no discernible political talents. She wasn’t even a dissident, but worked voluntarily for the Free German Youth — the official youth movement of the Communist regime.

As she later explained, she had no choice. To challenge the system would have meant professional suicide. So like most East Germans, she made the best of it.

And then, all of a sudden, the Berlin Wall came down, and everything changed.

On the face of it, Merkel’s place in history seems unassailable. She weathered a string of crises, from the financial crash and the eurozone meltdown to Brexit and Covid, and steered Germany to become the dominant economic and political power in the EU

For some Americans, as the U.S. magazine Foreign Policy remarks, ‘Merkel provided a model of rational, steadfast leadership’, in contrast to the bombast of Donald Trump.

Merkel’s reaction that night in November 1989 speaks volumes. While thousands of East Germans poured onto the streets, she only briefly ventured across the Wall. Then she turned in early because she had work in the morning.

What followed was one of the most unpredictable rises in modern political history. Amid the chaos of East Germany’s final days, Merkel got a job as spokeswoman for its last prime minister, Lothar de Maizière.

Even de Maizière thought that she looked like a ‘typical East German scientist’, with ‘a baggy skirt and Jesus sandals and a cropped haircut’. But she was good at her job, and in 1991 the Chancellor of the newly reunited Germany, Helmut Kohl, appointed her as his Minister for Women.

To Kohl, she was little more than a political mascot. But she soon showed her mettle.

When Kohl was embroiled in a campaign finance scandal in 1999, it was Merkel who wielded the knife, calling for his head and winning the chairmanship of his Christian Democratic Union.

Yet still her rivals underestimated her. When she became Chancellor in 2005 — the first woman, the first scientist and the first East German, 15 years after unification — most assumed she was merely a short-term anomaly.

In this respect, Merkel was similar to Margaret Thatcher — another female scientist who proved far more cunning, effective and popular than her male rivals ever imagined.

Yet their personas could hardly have been more different. Merkel strove for consensus and always played up her ordinariness. As Chancellor she lived in a rent-controlled apartment in central Berlin, under her husband’s name.

When she entertained, she cooked simple favourites like potato soup. And although friends claimed she could do hilarious impersonations of foreign leaders, she rarely showed more than a flicker of personality in public.

But in Germany, traumatised by its past, Merkel’s boringness was a potent asset.

For almost 16 years, Merkel governed as the incarnation of humdrum pragmatism. She seemed the political equivalent of a Volkswagen Golf

For some foreign observers she has become a liberal darling. In Britain, many Remainers worship her as the embodiment of consensual centrism

Even today, most Germans remain deeply suspicious of political showmanship or grand ideological visions. ‘Anyone who has visions,’ remarked one of her predecessors, the sardonic Helmut Schmidt, ‘should go to the doctor.’

So, for almost 16 years, Merkel governed as the incarnation of humdrum pragmatism. She seemed the political equivalent of a Volkswagen Golf.

Some of her admirers claimed she governed as a scientist, making rational decisions in the national interest. Others saw her as a national nanny, adopting the nickname ‘Mutti’ (‘Mummy’), which was originally meant as an insult.

Merkel hated it, and it’s less common in Germany than outsiders imagine. But it nevertheless reflected her image: the kindly mother-figure who always knew best.

But did she?

On the face of it, Merkel’s place in history seems unassailable. She weathered a string of crises, from the financial crash and the eurozone meltdown to Brexit and Covid, and steered Germany to become the dominant economic and political power in the EU.

For some foreign observers she has become a liberal darling. In Britain, many Remainers worship her as the embodiment of consensual centrism.

And for some Americans, as the U.S. magazine Foreign Policy remarks, ‘Merkel provided a model of rational, steadfast leadership’, in contrast to the bombast of Donald Trump. 

But is this really true? A closer look at her record suggests what the academic analysts Matthias Matthijs and Daniel Kelemen call a ‘darker side’ to the story.

There’s no doubt Germany has prospered under Merkel’s leadership. Unemployment, for example, has fallen below 3 million. Exports have boomed, while Germany’s productivity puts Britain to shame. 

Yet in some ways Germany remains oddly backward. Its environmental record is truly awful, with three-quarters of German energy coming from fossil fuels.

Bizarrely, Merkel was painfully slow to embrace the digital revolution. Germany has the 34th fastest internet connection of the 38 industrialised nations.

And far from governing with the rationality of a scientist, Merkel often made decisions secretively and impulsively, with ramifications that may last for generations.

Bizarrely, Merkel was painfully slow to embrace the digital revolution. Germany has the 34th fastest internet connection of the 38 industrialised nations

Merkel often made decisions secretively and impulsively, with ramifications that may last for generations 

An obvious example is her handling of the migrant crisis in August 2015, when she unilaterally threw open her borders and allowed a million people to walk into Germany. When questioned, she said simply: ‘Wir schaffen das’ (‘We can do it’).

But who knows if Germany could do it? The consequences of admitting so many immigrants, almost overnight, will play out for years to come. And in the short term, her decision — taken with no consultation and no parliamentary vote — gave an enormous boost to the far-Right Alternative for Germany, which was the third largest party in the last federal election with a hitherto unimaginable 94 seats.

Then there was her handling of the eurozone debt crisis, a textbook example of national self-interest.

‘Real leadership,’ write Professors Matthijs and Kelemen, ‘would have required acknowledging and addressing the structural roots of the eurozone woes.’ Instead, Merkel insisted on a brutal austerity package that plunged the so-called PIGS — Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain — into years of punishing budget cuts and soaring youth unemployment.

In effect, she reduced them to the status of German clients, unable to compete by devaluing their currencies and denied any chance of equality with the industrial powerhouse to the north.

As for her attitude to Brexit, a more imaginative politician would surely have handled it very differently. Even Merkel herself must wonder if she made a mistake in 2016, when she refused to give David Cameron a deal on limiting free movement of EU citizens.

Had she made concessions, there’s a good chance Britain would have voted Remain. But she refused — and then proved one of the chief hardliners in the post-referendum negotiations.

Yet even this, I think, pales by comparison with two more serious issues, little understood here in Britain.

First, there’s her unsettling tolerance of repressive autocrats, from Russia’s Vladimir Putin to Hungary’s Viktor Orban.

Because of her background in East Germany, Merkel has always fancied herself to have a special insight into Russian politics. 

How, then, will history remember her? As a supreme pragmatist who steered the ship of state with aplomb? Or as an evasive trimmer who ducked one challenge after another, and always played to the gallery of German public opinion?

Because of her background in East Germany, Merkel has always fancied herself to have a special insight into Russian politics

For much of her chancellorship, she spoke on the phone to Putin every week. She even forgave him for letting his huge black Labrador wander around her at a meeting in 2007 — despite the fact that he knew she was terrified of dogs.

Under Merkel, Germany has become one of Russia’s most important trading partners. Ignoring criticism from her allies, she pressed ahead with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will pump natural gas directly from Russia to Germany, bypassing the Baltic States, Ukraine and Poland.

To many Western observers, Nord Stream 2 is a strategic disaster. It leaves Eastern Europe in the cold, makes Germany reliant on Russian gas and raises the distant possibility of a future Russo- German alliance.

All that mattered to Merkel, though, was that it was good for Germany — the same principle that explained her indulgence of Hungary’s Viktor Orban.

For even as Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister rolled back human rights, she shielded him from EU censure.

The reason is obvious. Audi, Mercedes and BMW all have factories in Hungary, relying on cheap local labour. And for Merkel, what was good for German carmakers was good for Germany.

No wonder, then, that a poll this month by the European Council on Foreign Relations found that only 35 per cent of Europeans would trust Germany to stand up for democracy and human rights, and just 20 per cent to handle relations with Russia.

The broader issue, though, is simply put. After almost 16 years, what does Germany stand for?

On issue after issue, from the future of the EU to the causes of the migration crisis, Merkel avoided making a decision.

It was brilliant short-term politics, since she never offended anybody. To her successor, though, she leaves an almighty headache.

Far in the future, after her critics have been forgotten, people will still remember Angela Merkel. And for a pastor’s daughter from the backwoods of East Germany, that’s not bad at all

How, then, will history remember her? As a supreme pragmatist who steered the ship of state with aplomb? Or as an evasive trimmer who ducked one challenge after another, and always played to the gallery of German public opinion?

Both verdicts have a grain of truth. But let’s be honest.

When you judge Angela Merkel alongside her British and French contemporaries — Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson; Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron — we all know who comes out best.

There is, after all, something to be said for well-sealed windows — and for a country with the basic competence to make them.

And whatever you think of her legacy, there’s no getting away from that extraordinary story — the underestimated research chemist who rose from obscurity to lead her reunified country.

Far in the future, after her critics have been forgotten, people will still remember Angela Merkel. And for a pastor’s daughter from the backwoods of East Germany, that’s not bad at all.

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