Germany is preparing to bid farewell to Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is stepping down after elections scheduled for Sunday. She has led Europe’s biggest economy for the past 16 years and has played a major role in Europe and on the global stage.
Merkel was Germany’s first female chancellor and its first leader to have been raised in the former East Germany.
Her political career began as the Iron Curtain was falling in Europe. After German reunification in 1990, she was appointed minister for women and youth by her mentor, former Chancellor Helmut Köhl.
German media dubbed her ‘Köhl’s girl’ — but she quickly emerged from his shadow and became leader of the Christian Democrats (CDU) in 2000. She narrowly won the 2005 election and led a coalition government of the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats.
She faced her first major crisis just three years later with the 2008 global financial crash. Amid a run on German banks, Merkel sought to steady nerves. Standing beside her finance minister in October 2008, she told Germans that the state would protect them: “We say to savers that their deposits are safe, and the German government stands behind that.”
The banking crisis turned into a euro debt crisis. Merkel was reluctant to underwrite the Eurozone. She became a figure of hate in Greece, which implemented deep spending cuts to stay in the single currency. Europe teetered on the brink, but the euro survived.
"Europe fails when the euro fails,” Merkel said in 2012. “Europe wins when the euro wins. The euro wins if we create a stability union that actually deserves the name because it is supported by a strong foundation of solidity, growth and solidarity.”
“Merkel is known as a ‘crisis chancellor’,” Nico Friedl, parliamentary correspondent for Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, who has charted Merkel’s career across two decades, said.
“She has had to overcome several global crises during her time in office, not only for Germany, but also within the European Union, and with transatlantic partners as well as China and Russia,” he said.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 brought conflict to Europe’s borders. Merkel kept up dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin, taking part in the “Normandy format” talks between Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France to try to end the conflict.
“Angela Merkel’s style is to talk and talk and talk and talk, and even with China, even with Russia,” said Ursula Weidenfeld, author of the Merkel biography "Die Kanzlerin" (The Chancellor). “She is the one who tries to stay talking, to stay negotiating. She's the last woman standing even in the European negotiations, and she doesn't call it a day before the night comes. So that is the thing which she did with Vladimir Putin too,” Weidenfeld told VOA.
Merkel’s biggest challenge came with the 2015 migrant crisis. She refused to close Germany’s borders as refugees and migrants poured into Europe. More than 1 million migrants arrived in Germany, many escaping the war in Syria. It prompted a fierce backlash from many in her own party and drove support for the far right.
Merkel was unapologetic. “If we have to start excusing ourselves for showing a friendly face in times of crisis, then this is not my country,” she said.
Six years on, Merkel has said she has no regrets about her actions in 2015.
“She believed that these people should be treated properly, that they shouldn’t be stuck behind borders,” Friedl said.
“But that did more to divide Europe rather than to unify it. The question of how the bloc should handle migration is still not solved today,” she added.
“It was successful in making Germany open to immigration and coming to anything like an immigration law, which had been impossible for years before. But on the other hand, it was one of her big mistakes because she wasn’t successful in negotiating this on the European level. So, it has been something like unfinished work.” she said.
In 2016 came Brexit and the threat of the breakup of the European Union. Months later, Donald Trump was elected U.S. president. Transatlantic relations were visibly strained.
“Once she recognized there will be no way to find a relationship to that president which could be constructive, she just turned around and made friends with his daughter,” Weidenfeld said.
Merkel shared the stage with Trump’s oldest daughter, Ivanka, and International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde, at the Women 20 Summit in Berlin in 2017. Asked directly whether she was a feminist, Merkel was ambivalent.
“The history of feminism is one where there are things that apply to me and then there are things that don’t. And I don’t want to decorate myself with a title I don’t actually have,” she said.
By this year, her view had changed.
“Today I have thought my answer through more and so I can say ‘yes: we should all be feminists’,” Merkel told an audience in Düsseldorf September 10.
Merkel was often the only woman among powerful men but she did not seek to capitalize on that position, Friedl said.
“In fact, it was the opposite. She also took a lot of criticism that she didn’t use her role and position to further the emancipation of women and equal rights,” Friedl said.
Merkel has changed Germany during her 16 years in power, biographer Weidenfeld said.
“Angela Merkel from the start tried to find a new role for Germany in the 21st century. [She] always tried to be the moderator, to be the facilitator, and even to be the one who pays the bill at the end,” Weidenfeld said.
However, Weidenfeld said the “crisis chancellor” failed to look to the future.
“She always solved the problems and the issues which were on the table. But in terms of investing in resilience and investing in political lines which are longer than two or three or four years, like climate change, she didn’t do enough,” Weidenfeld said.
Merkel was born in Hamburg in West Germany, but moved to what was then East Germany when she was three months old after her father became pastor at a church near Templin, a quiet town in the countryside 90 kilometers north of Berlin. Merkel’s family still lives in the town and she has a house there, which she frequently visits.
Templin Mayor Detlef Tabbert knows the family well and has met the chancellor on several occasions.
“I am sure that the chancellor herself has many of the characteristics that make the people of Templin and of northeastern Germany unique: her quiet composure, her down-to-earth nature and what you also see in her is this Prussian tenacity — that when you start something, you stick with it to the end,” Tabbert told VOA.
“People in Templin — the majority of them — are very proud that a woman from Templin became the chancellor as well as the most powerful woman in the world,” he said.
The end of Merkel’s leadership is imminent. So, what comes next?
“Nobody knows, and she says she doesn’t know it either,” Weidenfeld said.
“You could expect her to appear again in the public, probably in an American university. She loves America,” he said.
In an August poll by YouGov, Angela Merkel’s approval ratings were higher than those of any other current world leader in five major European countries and the United States.
Meanwhile a survey by Pew Research published Wednesday showed that Merkel has all-time high ratings in most of the 16 advanced economies it surveyed in North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. Overall, some 77% of almost 18,000 respondents said they had confidence in Merkel to do the right thing in world affairs. Greece was the only country where a majority of respondents lacked confidence in the German leader.
There is palpable concern among some in Germany over who will fill Merkel’s role on the global stage. Jürgen Hardt, a long-time MP in Merkel’s Christian Democrats, said Germans should be confident in the future.
“It’s always difficult for people to imagine how a new candidate, a future chancellor might act compared to the 16-year successful term of Angela Merkel. In 2005 I had a long talk to businesspeople and they asked me who might be the next chancellor candidate of the Christian Democrats. And my answer was Angela Merkel. And they were all laughing at me because they cannot imagine that this lady might become chancellor. This is what I always tell those people that now have question marks on looking for example to Armin Laschet [the current Christian Democrats’ candidate], or others on the campaign trail,” Hardt told VOA.
For Germany, for Europe, and for the West, Merkel’s departure marks the end of a political era.