hen Angela Merkel became German chancellor in 2005, George W. Bush and the neocons were running Washington, Tony Blair was serving a third term in the U.K., and Silvio Berlusconi was romping around Rome. Merkel outlasted them all. She survived three consecutive crises (financial, euro, refugees) and just kept going.
And going. And going. In the ranking of the world’s longest-ruling leaders, Merkel is now up there somewhere with the gentlemen in charge of Belarus, Djibouti and Turkmenistan. Running for chancellor again this Sunday, she’s almost certain to win a fourth term — an eternity by the standards of Western democracies. And yet, it’s far from clear what has made Merkel such a successful politician.
If the German chancellor somehow defies explanation, it’s not for lack of trying. A burgeoning industry of writers, analysts and experts has dedicated itself to the task of deciphering her. Merkel has — in addition to the crowds of journalists following her daily moves — more than two dozen biographers. She has featured in movies, novels and stage plays.
One particularly thorough observer, a correspondent for Reuters, even compiled a dictionary. “Das Merkel Lexikon” comes in at 400 pages and covers everything from the chancellor’s Affären, or extramarital affairs (of which none are known), to Zonenwachtel (a derogatory nickname that no one uses anymore).
Merkel merits that kind of attention partly because she’s been in power for so long. But people are also intrigued by the fact that, on the face of it, well, she isn’t all that intriguing.
The German left still loves the idea that Merkel, deep down, is a ruthless neoliberal.
Decidedly lacking in charisma, she doesn’t fit the mold of the typical powerbroker. When appearing in public, she often comes across as either awkward, bland or evasive (or all of the above). Her words and actions leave plenty of room for interpretation. As a result, vastly different views of Merkel — left-wing, right-wing, feminist, anti-feminist, and so on — can co-exist without really contradicting each other.
Merkel is, in that sense, the ultimate postmodern politician. There are almost as many readings of her as there are people trying to read her. Who is Merkel then? What’s the secret of her success? After all these years, the question of how an unassuming physicist from East Germany became one of the world’s most powerful leaders still puzzles people.
* * *
o get a sense of the chancellor’s character, it usually helps to go way back. Merkel watchers have devoted special attention to her years in the socialist German Democratic Republic. (She was 35 when the Berlin Wall came down.) They’ve combed through East German archives and looked for her missing dissertation in Marxist-Leninist studies, a class that was obligatory at East German universities.
Looking for clues, some people even analyzed her doctoral thesis, an unwieldy tome called “Investigation of the mechanism of decay reactions with single bond breaking and calculation of their velocity constants on the basis of quantum chemical and statistical methods.” The general consensus is that Merkel was neither a die-hard East German loyalist nor an anti-communist rebel. She simply focused on pursuing her career as a scientist and did what she deemed necessary to get by.
Even so, some journalists have tried hard to tie her more firmly to the socialist regime. In 2013, Ralf-Georg Reuth and Günther Lachmann published a book titled “The First Life of Angela M.” that’s entirely devoted to Merkel’s years behind the Iron Curtain.
Angela Merkel holding a children’s press conference in Berlin | Steffi Loos/Getty Images
Reuth and Lachmann dug up some stuff about Merkel’s alleged job as a secretary of propaganda and agitation for the Freie Deutsche Jugend, the ruling party’s youth movement. (Merkel says she was merely the secretary of culture.) They also went to some length to prove that Merkel, at some point in 1989, would have preferred East Germany to remain an independent and democratic-socialist state — a common sentiment among the GDR intelligentsia back then.
Reuth and Lachmann’s findings are less than spectacular. But they blend in with the conservative view of Merkel’s subsequent career in the Federal Republic. It goes something like this: Although Merkel joined the CDU, she remained, at heart, a bit of a leftie and never truly adhered to the party line. (A journalist once wrote that Merkel joined the CDU as casually as one picks an ice cream flavor.)
Her betrayal of the conservative cause, according to this view, culminated in an editorial, published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 1999, in which she turned against her mentor Helmut Kohl. Then, after burying her other conservative rivals, she moved the CDU to the left and turned it into a quasi-social democratic entity.
Merkel’s left-wing critics have a very different take. To them, Merkel is an economic liberal, a staunch supporter of U.S.-style capitalism. Their favorite case study is the 2005 election when she ran a free-markets campaign against incumbent Gerhard Schröder — and, as a result, nearly lost. Merkel subsequently revamped her economics, apparently realizing that she didn’t have popular support for reforms. But the German left still loves the idea that Merkel, deep down, is a ruthless neoliberal.
The election of U.S. President Donald Trump played into Merkel’s hands, too, because Germans, faced with geopolitical uncertainty, want to stick with what they know.
Both camps come armed with plenty of examples. Conservatives point to the minimum wage introduced by the Merkel government in 2014. Leftists prefer to talk about rising social inequality and the alleged cruelties of fiscal austerity that Merkel inflicted on Greece, Italy and Spain. But they can’t both be right, can they? With such an inconclusive political record, most Merkel watchers believe she’s a pragmatist who doesn’t have a strong agenda of her own. When faced with strong opposition, Merkel is happy enough to ignore her own inclinations, whatever they are, and go with the flow.
* * *
o far, so good. But the idea of Merkel as a political pragmatist opens another rift. Is her pragmatism good or bad? A virtue or a vice? Again, that depends on who’s talking. Merkel’s acolytes argue that she’s been shaped by her training as a physicist. The German chancellor, according to that view, is super-rational, totally professional, perfectly suited to the post-ideological age. What Merkel lacks in Weltanschauung, she makes up for in efficiency and attention to detail. A technocrat in the best sense, she works on a trial-and-error basis and lets herself be guided by scientific laws.
The idea that Merkel likes to “think things through with a goal in mind” (the scientific term is “backward chaining”) was first popularized by journalist Evelyn Roll, who has written several excellent books on Merkel. It’s been a mainstay of Merkel literature ever since.
There’s another school of thought that builds on the same observation — that Merkel lacks strong ideological convictions — but comes to a very different conclusion. Enter Merkel, the cold-hearted, unprincipled opportunist, unwilling to commit herself, delaying decisions on purpose, forever changing her mind — all because she doesn’t know how else to retain her grip on power.
Martin Schulz will be Merkel’s chief rival in the election | Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images
Merkel watchers have even invented a verb to describe such tactics. “To merkel” means to not do anything, not decide anything, not say anything. There’s a noun, too: Merkiavellism. And when critics talk about her tendency to deflate opponents by embracing their most popular ideas, they say: She’s engaging in “asymmetrical demobilization.”
It’s telling that people had to come up with neologisms to explain Merkel’s style of governing. Whatever she was doing when she was merkelling around was highly unorthodox. But it worked.
At some point after the 2013 election, ruling in a grand coalition with the harmless Social Democrats, Merkel seemed in total Merkiavellian control. Then, the refugees came — and she made a momentous decision that seemed to be guided neither by political opportunism nor by the laws of physics. She was taking a principled stand. At least that’s what many observers thought she was doing. But was she? Merkel watchers, needless to say, have some pretty different views on that one as well.
* * *
n the first weekend of September 2015, Angela Merkel opened the country to thousands of refugees stranded in Hungary. In the weeks and months that followed, as the German borders remained open and refugees kept coming, Merkel struck a note of optimism, saying that the nation was strong enough to handle the influx. “I’m saying it again and again,” she said, speaking at a press conference in mid-September. “We can manage. And we will manage.”
Merkel’s apparent embrace of the so-called Willkommenskultur, or welcoming culture, took most Germans by surprise. Analysts went into overdrive. Some claimed that Merkel, a pastor’s daughter, was motivated by the Christian concept of charity. Others said that a public meeting with a tearful Palestinian refugee girl in July 2015 had shamed her into wanting to exhibit more empathy.
Still others said that Merkel, ever the cool rationalist, wanted to address Germany’s demographic problem. Conspiracy theories blossomed. Left-wingers suspected that big business had pressured Merkel to import cheap labor. The far right suspected that Merkel, the CIA and Zionist lobbyists were working hand-in-hand to weaken a rejuvenated German nation.
Merkel’s refugee policy inner motives remain obscure. Was she driven by empathy, economics or EU politics?
Merkel herself said lots of things. She suggested that the Germans, due to their Nazi past, had a special obligation toward people in need. She said that the Schengen agreement and thus the European Union would collapse if member countries no longer honored their commitment to free movement. She said that the experience of living behind the Iron Curtain had taught her something about the futility of closed borders. She said so many different things that, in the end, it seemed like even she — probably — didn’t know what was foremost on her mind.
The most authoritative account of what happened was written by a reporter for Die Welt. Robin Alexander’s book “The Driven Ones,” published this spring, spent weeks at the top of German bestseller lists. In Alexander’s telling, Merkel was totally overwhelmed by the crisis. She lost control — and then didn’t have the guts to regain the initiative.
Alexander focuses, in particular, on the second weekend of September when high-ranking government officials, including Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, presented her with a plan to shut down the borders and stem the influx. Merkel allegedly rejected the proposal because she was afraid of television images showing refugees clashing with police in riot gear.
Merkel struck a complex deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the migration crisis | Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images
Alexander’s report sounds plausible enough, and it reads like a thriller. It shows that the reputedly clear-headed chancellor lost the plot for weeks and months and made some pretty uncharacteristic mistakes.
But what it doesn’t do is fully explain the active role that Merkel played in encouraging refugees to come to Germany. “The world sees Germany as a place of hope and opportunity, and that, truly, wasn’t always the case,” she said, days before that first weekend of September, in a famous speech at the Sommerpressekonferenz.
Despite Alexander’s efforts, Merkel’s inner motives remain obscure. Was she driven by empathy, economics or EU politics? She hasn’t been clear on that, so we don’t know — and, in all likelihood, we’ll never find out.
* * *
s much as the chancellor’s actions during the crisis may have sometimes seemed un-Merkelesque, her handling of the aftermath did not. Faced with a conservative backlash, she tightened asylum laws and struck a complicated deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that kept refugees from crossing from Turkey into the EU.
Characteristically, she also managed to subtly change her message without ever saying so. Her mantra-like insistence that the events of 2015 were just an exception and would never happen again was clearly designed to reassure conservative voters.
Whatever happens over the next couple of years, there won’t be just one history of Angela Merkel.
At the same time, she explicitly ruled out an upper limit on refugee numbers, thereby retaining her popularity with the German left which, until this day, associates her with a liberal refugee policy. Signaling different things to different groups of voters must have been a tricky balancing act. But, for the time being, it’s working. In other words, it was classic Merkel.
So was the fact that her gradual comeback in polls was assisted by developments that she had little to do with. The German economy kept growing at a robust pace. The election of U.S. President Donald Trump played into her hands, too, because Germans, faced with geopolitical uncertainty, want to stick with what they know.
And, crucially, the number of refugees arriving in Germany dwindled. On that, she was helped by Eastern European governments that dared to do what she didn’t. They closed down the western Balkan Route. And so, Merkel emerged from the most challenging crisis of her career pretty much unscathed.
* * *
win on Sunday will trigger the inevitable comparisons to figures such as Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl, conservative statesmen who led Germany for 14 and 16 years respectively. As Merkel prepares for her victory speech, analysts will go on air, too, talking about what to expect from her in the coming years.
Some might suggest that she will use her fourth term to take another principled stand — on, say, the future of Europe or the fight against climate change. (Earlier predictions that Merkel, a former minister of the environment, would turn into Germany’s climate chancellor never came to fruition.) “If she is reelected again, is there something that Merkel wants to make happen?” Stefan Kornelius, another Merkel biographer, asked hopefully in Foreign Policy magazine.
Chances are, though, that Merkel will remain as risk-averse and noncommittal as ever; that she will, well, continue being Merkel. She has a keen sense of public opinion — and she must wonder whether voters have begun tiring of her.
The far-right Alternative for Germany have been rising in the polls, and may prove another tough challenge for Merkel to face down | John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images
The brief yet intense fling that the Germans had with Martin Schulz in early 2017 suggested that they were, in principle, ready for change. They thought Schulz was a political outsider who would come in and shake things up. Then they realized that he was neither Bernie Sanders nor Emmanuel Macron — just a sad-eyed Social Democrat whose party had governed with Merkel for two of her three terms.
And then there are the right-wing populists who have been on a roll. If the latest polls are to be believed, the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party will enter the German parliament as the country’s third-biggest party. Catering to the sensibilities of the liberal mainstream while also keeping the rowdy right at bay may prove another tough challenge — and it seems likely that she will stick to what she knows best and keep merkelling.
History’s judgment of Merkel will, of course, to some extent depend on how her fourth term plays out. (It’s hard to imagine a fifth right now.) Some historians may look back and say that she knew how to hold German society together at a time when other nations became increasingly polarized. Others may find that she failed the German people because she didn’t have the backbone to stand up for whatever she believed in. Still others will find plenty more to laud or lambast.
But, as always with Merkel, the judgment will also depend first and foremost on who is doing the judging. Whatever happens over the next couple of years, there won’t be just one history of Angela Merkel.
Konstantin Richter is a contributing writer at POLITICO. He is the author of the German-language novel, “The Chancellor: A Fiction,” about Merkel and the refugee crisis.