The Last of Her Kind
The Last of Her Kind
In 1989, as the Berlin Wall was breached and the political order of Europe was upended, two obscure people in their mid-thirties watched it happen from inside an imploding Communist state, the German Democratic Republic. In Dresden, Vladimir Putin, an agent of the KGB, burned secret files in a furnace at the intelligence agency’s headquarters. He most probably observed the chancellor of the other Germany, Helmut Kohl, sweep into Dresden and address an enthusiastic crowd about the unity of the German nation. Putin knew the end was nigh.
Just 120 miles away in East Berlin, Angela Merkel, a disillusioned and rather bored quantum chemist, joined a good-natured crowd of her fellow easterners surging across the Bornholmer Bridge into West Berlin. She looked around for a while and met some of the native westerners. But she did not overdo the celebrations. “I had to get up early the next morning,” she later explained. “And this much foreign company was enough for the time being.” While Putin saw these events as cataclysmic, Merkel already seemed to have the strangely phlegmatic attitude toward grand ideas of history that would characterize her sixteen-year reign as chancellor of the united Germany.
In the dissolution of the GDR, both Putin and Merkel lost a kind of home. Putin’s wife, Lyudmilla, recalled, “We had the horrible feeling that the country that had almost become our home would soon cease to exist.” Except for the first weeks of her life in her birthplace, Hamburg, Merkel had spent all of her thirty-five years in the GDR. Both, too, experienced the overthrow of a presiding pantheon: the gods of Marxism-Leninism.
In Putin’s case, the violent aftereffects of that psychological shock remain all too obvious. It is striking, though, that Merkel told her friend the film director Volker Schlöndorff that he and other westerners would never quite understand those like her who had grown up behind the wall: “We can learn to be like you. But you can never figure us out. Because our master”—she used the German word Lehrmeister, which also connotes a teacher or instructor—“is dead.” The dead master, the disappearing homeland, the need to start again in a new polity (post-Soviet Russia for Putin, the new united Germany for Merkel)—the leaders had a great deal in common. (They could speak to each other freely, because she spoke Russian and he German.)
Both, too, gained from these shared experiences a sense of the fragility of states, the existential vulnerability that lies beneath their claims to permanence. Putin has used this knowledge for dark purposes, deploying all the tools he possesses—from disinformation and subversion to crude military force—to destabilize or destroy those countries he sees as apostates or enemies. Merkel, however, came to embody the opposite impulse. Her astonishing rise from awkward outsider who saw even other Germans as “foreign company” to national and global leadership suggested that a radical disturbance in the established order of things might lead not just to dissolution but to the creation of hitherto unimaginable democratic possibilities.
Even as that hope now recedes rapidly into the past, there is something magical in the way a young woman who had never had a meaningful vote, who had no political experience and no rhetorical skills, could, scarcely more than a year after the fall of the wall, be a full member of the federal cabinet governing the European Union’s most powerful state. Her ascent to long-term power was no less improbable than Putin’s, but it seemed, at least for a while, to give a much more optimistic meaning to the events that allowed one of them to dominate Europe in the East, the other in the West. While he emerged from the collapse of the old Eastern bloc with a Hobbesian vision of disorder as a state of decline held in check only by the strong hand of a ruthless leader, she was by far the most spectacular example of the way the collapse of an old regime might create a much more benign sense of opportunity.
In 2019 Merkel told graduating students in a commencement address at Harvard, “Anything that seems to be set in stone or inalterable can indeed change.” This, for her, was a wonderful thing. For Putin, it most certainly was not. His assault on Ukraine is in the name of an imaginary fixed and unchanging Russianness: in his view, what seems to have changed can, by the exercise of unilateral power, be restored to what it used to be.
These very different ways of understanding the experiences that shaped them both may be why Putin always seemed to be more anxious about Merkel than any other world leader. He plays childish power games with visiting presidents and prime ministers—most recently seating French president Emmanuel Macron and then Merkel’s successor, Olaf Scholz, at the far end of an absurdly long table. But with Merkel, the games were more serious and more personal. In 2007, at a meeting between them in Sochi, he made sure that his big black Labrador was free to approach and sniff at Merkel, who was known to be frightened of dogs. She was indeed visibly scared.
Yet she surely also realized that this stunt was a backhanded compliment. Putin had taken the trouble to think about her as a person, deploying his KGB training to imagine what might make her vulnerable to coercion. The trick did not work, because Merkel had a remarkable gift for not taking things personally, and also a woman’s skepticism about male display. “I understand why he has to do this—to prove he’s a man,” she told a group of reporters. “He’s afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this.”
It does not seem too much of a stretch, then, to see Putin’s ratcheting up of his long war on Ukraine as another backhanded compliment to Merkel. She announced in October 2018 that she would not seek another term in office, setting in train a long farewell that surely loomed large in Putin’s mind. The buildup to his invasion of Ukraine began in November 2021, just as her chancellorship was winding down. The timing was probably not accidental. What better moment to test the nerve of Western Europe, and of the wider NATO alliance, than that at which it was losing its Lehrmeisterin, the quiet authority figure who had come to seem, in a world of demagogues and dictators trying to prove their manhood, an increasingly indispensible marker of reassurance and stability? Putin decided to send a sharp probe into the highly uncertain territory of post-Merkel Europe. In this, at least, his instinct seems right: Western Europe really is a different place without Merkel, and no one is yet quite certain what it looks like. More than those of any other individual, her strengths and weaknesses, her achievements and failures, have made it what it is.
The Chancellor, Kati Marton’s elegant, concise, and accessible biography of Merkel, is a portrait not just of a person but of a kind of centrist and consensual politics that once seemed drab but now has the fascination of an almost extinct species. Merkel made a kind of decency that could be viewed as dull feel almost exotic. Once, it might have seemed in postwar Europe that careful, patient, managerial politicians who wanted nothing more or less than to make things work as well as possible without threatening existing structures were a dime a dozen. Now the fear that hangs over Western and Central Europe is that Merkel was the last of that tribe. She has departed in a cloud not of glory but of anxiety. Putin made sure that Merkel’s era would recede into the past with dizzying rapidity.
In a valedictory interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung published at the end of October, Merkel expressed her own dread that something big might be coming to an end. She did so, typically, without talking about herself. Her thoughts were framed more abstractly, but she did suggest that Europe might be at a dangerous moment precisely because of a generational shift in leadership and what it implies for the workings of collective memory:
We have to take care now not to enter a historical phase in which important lessons from history fade away. We have to remind ourselves that the multilateral world order was created as a lesson from the Second World War. There will be ever fewer people left who have lived through that period. In history there is a recurring pattern where people begin to deal recklessly with [political] structures when the generations that created those structures are no longer alive.
What Merkel remembers is not World War II but its long epilogue in the cold war. Her father, Horst Kasner, a stern and idealistic Lutheran pastor, moved his family to the East just after she was born, settling in the small town of Templin, fifty miles north of Berlin, in 1954. It seems important, though, that Merkel’s memories included a pre–Berlin Wall Germany. She was seven when the GDR sealed its borders—her parents had taken it for granted that they could travel freely to and from the West. One of the political “structures” she would therefore never take for granted was the freedom of movement created by the EU. This was why, for example, she immediately understood (and was repelled by) the implications of the possible reimposition of a hard border on the island of Ireland after Brexit. The British found it hard to grasp why she took this question so seriously, but, she explained, “For 34 years I lived behind the Iron Curtain so I know only too well what it means once borders vanish, once walls fall.”
No doubt this memory also played into Merkel’s boldest and most radical decision: the opening in 2015 of Germany’s borders to a million refugees from the Syrian war. She knew that the policy was highly controversial and that it left Germany more divided than at any time since the wall fell. But she pointedly reminded her compatriots that she herself was one of those who had been excluded from the freedoms and opportunities of Western Europe: “I was part of the group that wanted to be let in.”
Merkel is surely the last-ever de facto leader of the EU to have looked from the outside, and with longing, at liberal democracy. Fair elections, freedom of expression, independent courts, individual rights—for her these were never mundane realities. She also had to discover for herself, in her thirties, the basic facts of recent European history, which in her youth had been shaped by the GDR’s official narratives of heroic antifascist resistance, playing down, most notably, the centrality of the Shoah in Nazism.
These absences were not, moreover, just external influences on her. Merkel’s entire personality is that of a survivor (rather than a dissident) in a totalitarian state: careful, nonconfrontational, watchful. Her gift for political compromise was that of a girl who learned how to function simultaneously as a loyal believer in her father’s Lutheran Church (an awkward presence in an atheist state) and as a member of the official Communist youth movement. Living in a country with perhaps the most thorough system of official surveillance ever created in Europe, she learned to have an inner life, a secret self that she almost never betrayed, even when she had one of the most public jobs in the world.
Marton recalls Merkel’s press conference after her first swearing-in as chancellor. Judy Dempsey of the International Herald Tribune asked her a very American question: “Madam Chancellor, how do you feel?” It was the last question Merkel would ever answer publicly. She mumbled, “Well, yes, well, under the circumstances…” and trailed off. How Merkel feels has always been her own business. Marton quotes her saying, “I have tried to maintain spaces where I can be happy or sad without explanation to the public.” In that commencement address at Harvard in 2019, she touched on the relationship between political repression and the rich interior life that would make her, as a politician, so enigmatic and so resilient:
However, there was one thing which [the Berlin Wall] couldn’t do during all of those years: it couldn’t impose limits on my own inner thoughts. My personality, my imagination, my dreams and desires—prohibitions or coercion couldn’t limit any of that.
It is deliciously contrary that she avoided becoming an informer for the Stasi by posing as a silly blabbermouth. She recalled, “My parents always told me to tell Stasi officers that I was a chatterbox and simply couldn’t keep my mouth shut. I also told the agents I couldn’t keep being an informant secret from my husband.” In fact, Merkel’s great skill as a political operator was her extraordinary ability to keep her mouth shut. Her practice, as she told the Harvard graduates, was not to always “act on our first impulses, even when there is pressure to make a snap decision, but instead take a moment to stop, be still, think, pause.” Her characteristic mode in high-level meetings and in wider debates about policy was strategic taciturnity. She would wait for others—usually voluble men with very high levels of self-esteem—to talk themselves out before swooping in with her own conclusion. As Marton puts it, her “power move” was “letting an alpha male keep talking and waiting patiently as he self-destructs.”
In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce’s alter ego Stephen Dedalus speaks of “the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning.” These were Merkel’s weapons too. She kept quiet while others expatiated. She entered the Western world as an immigrant among “foreign company,” with all the alertness and self-control of the émigré. And she deployed the cold cunning of the supreme political opportunist. This was learned, no doubt, in the GDR, where she developed the habit of steely calculation in order to avoid the dangers of being either an informer or a dissident.
Certainly by the time she entered public life, in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the wall, Merkel had a knack for cool political patricide. Lothar de Maizière, the first and last democratically elected prime minister of the GDR, brought her into high-level politics by making her deputy spokesperson for his government. It was he who recommended Merkel to Kohl, who was then looking for an East German woman to fill the “soft” position of minister for women and youth in the federal government of the newly united state. These were, as de Maizière wryly noted, “two subjects Angela really did not care about at all,” but the position nonetheless made her, at thirty-six, the youngest minister in German history. Yet when de Maizière was falsely accused of having been a Stasi informant, Merkel did nothing to help her mentor. And in 1998, when Kohl was caught up in a scandal concerning illegal donations to his campaigns, it was Merkel who acted as his political assassin. Kohl had patronizingly referred to his protégée as his Mädchen—girl. He learned the hard way that she was a girl with a razor up her sleeve.
The mastery of these weapons made Merkel the most formidable democratic politician in Europe and allowed her to accumulate the authority with which she held the EU together. She also, however, had a weakness that threatened to pull it apart. Merkel always saw herself as a scientist. She remarked once that she chose to study physics “because even East Germany wasn’t capable of suspending basic arithmetic and the rules of nature.” Breaking problems down into their basic arithmetic was her habitual way of doing politics. Insofar as there was anything that might be called Merkelism, it was a revival of Benthamite utilitarianism. The quintessential claim she would make about any policy option she chose was that “the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.”
But this self-image as a hardheaded pragmatist, concerned only with the pursuit of the best available outcomes, obscured the importance of her heritage as the daughter of a Lutheran pastor. At one of the crucial moments of contemporary European history, she behaved essentially as a religious moralist. Part of the problem was that she never seemed to understand this about herself.
It is, in retrospect, deeply ironic that Merkel was at her most narrowly pragmatic in dealing with Putin and at her most punitive in her approach toward fellow citizens of EU democracies. With Russia, even after its annexation of Crimea in 2014, she was all business, to the extent of believing that depending on Putin for Germany’s supplies of natural gas was just a commonsense calculation of mutual economic interests. Yet in the crisis of the eurozone following the great banking crash of 2008, Merkel treated an economic and political problem as if it were a test of moral righteousness. She threw her weight behind a division of the EU into good creditors (Germany and the other Northern European nations) and bad debtors (the so-called PIIGS: Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain). Marton usefully reminds us that in German, the word for debt—Schuld—is the same as that for guilt. Those countries whose banks had borrowed recklessly were guilty; those (like, of course, Germany) whose banks had lent recklessly were innocent. And the sinners must be punished—ordinary citizens of the debtor nations should be made to suffer so they would learn a lesson they would never forget.
This way of defining the crisis suited Germany, but it had nasty consequences for Merkel’s larger ambition to unify Europe. The imposition of drastic austerity measures prolonged and deepened the economic recession. Merkel, meanwhile, did very little to counter the impression that Germany was taking charge and dictating terms. Irish fans at the 2012 European soccer championship carried a flag that said, “Angela Merkel thinks we’re at work.” In Greece, rather less good-natured protesters displayed caricatures of her as Hitler—a grotesque travesty, but one that arose from Germany’s insistence that everything would be OK in the eurozone if only everyone could learn to be more German.
By lending her authority to the idea that the debtors must be made to purge their guilt and mend their ways, Merkel fueled two contradictory passions. On the one side, she created deep resentment in the debtor countries by dressing up the defense of narrow German fiscal interests as a moral cause. The self-righteousness that was served as an accompaniment to the bitter dish of economic austerity made it even more difficult to swallow. The treatment of Greece in particular could be cited by those who were always opposed to the EU as evidence that it was, in the end, nothing more than a front for German hegemony. (This distortion of reality was a significant theme for Brexiteers.)
Yet on the other side, the moralization of the debt crisis could also feed, in Germany itself, a self-pitying narrative in which the frugal, responsible Germans were being taken for a ride by the feckless Southern Europeans. This was the founding mentality of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, which emerged to challenge Merkel in 2013, and it subsequently fused with anti-immigrant sentiment to create a more virulent form of grievance that propelled the far right into the Bundestag for the first time since the fall of the Nazis.
Hence the larger paradox of the Merkel era: the leadership of a centrist Christian Democrat as the undisputed first among equals in the EU coincided with the loss of Christian Democracy’s dominance of the right-of-center space in European politics. The rise of far-right parties like the AfD, the League in Italy, Poland’s Law and Justice, the National Rally in France, Spain’s Vox, and Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz in Hungary has created a profound identity crisis in what used to be the dominant conservative parties, leaving them unsure whether they should fight against what Orbán calls “illiberal democracy” or shore up their own support by embracing it. In a short essay on Merkel’s departure, Orbán claimed that while Kohl had been “a dear, old friend, a Christian brother,” Merkel had created a “rupture” on the European right by supporting the “migratory invasion” of 2015.
The temptation to heal that breach by adopting the rhetoric of the far right is, for the old centrist conservatives, very strong. In France, for example, Valérie Pécresse—the presidential candidate of the Republicans, the mainstream center-right party, whose former leader Nicolas Sarkozy was once Merkel’s closest European ally—has now legitimized the white supremacist trope of the “great replacement” of white Christians by people of color and Muslims. It is increasingly hard to see, among Europe’s established conservative parties, Merkelism surviving without Merkel.
The wider question Merkel has left unanswered is whether it is possible, in the new wartime that Putin has inaugurated, for a leader of the democratic world to combine ambition and vision on the one hand with modesty and decency on the other. She mattered so deeply because she had no interest in what has animated Putin and so many of his fellow nationalist authoritarians: the pursuit of greatness. The promise to make Russia (or America or Britain or China) great again has been at the core of reactionary politics over the past decade.
Merkel always knew that Germany, above all, must not be great. She visibly winced in 2011 when, during the eurozone debt crisis, the leader of her party’s parliamentary bloc, Volker Kauder, boasted, “Now, all of a sudden, Europe is speaking German.” Merkel’s desire was to make Germany not great, but ordinary. Her relentless personal modesty—she continued as chancellor to live in an unpretentious flat in a pre-war building in east Berlin and to push her shopping cart around the local supermarket—was her intimate and miniature version of how she thought her country should be. No contemporary leader had less truck with national exceptionalism. “I don’t think,” she once said, “Germans are particularly bad, or outstandingly wonderful…. I grew up here. I like living here. I have confidence in this country, I am part of its history, with all its pain and all the good things.” That understated sanity became, over the course of her chancellorship, paradoxically remarkable. Being unflashy made Merkel, however reluctantly, a shining beacon.
Must, however, the eschewal of greatness involve the loss of any sense of large-scale and long-term purpose? Merkel once described herself as being “as focused and as concentrated as a tightrope walker, only thinking about the next step.” No one walked the high wire as sure-footedly as she did—and even after sixteen years she had not fallen off but chose to dismount gracefully. But that exclusive focus on thinking about the next step also meant that she had little sense of what might await at the end of the rope.
Nowhere was this more true than in her relations with Putin. In the crisis that followed his annexation of Crimea in 2014, Merkel became the West’s Putin whisperer. She spoke to him, according to Marton, thirty-eight times during that crisis and did more than anyone else to create the Minsk accords, which established the restoration of Ukraine’s sovereignty as a mutually recognized goal. They were a great testament to her skill, tenacity, and selfless care for the lives of those who would be threatened by a wider war. But they barely outlasted her chancellorship.
It has not taken long for Europe to pay Merkel the tribute of becoming painfully aware of both what she achieved and what she left unresolved, of what she meant to the defense of democracy and the fragile condition in which she left it. In The Life of Galileo, her compatriot Bertolt Brecht has the young Andrea sigh, “Unhappy the land that has no heroes!” and Galileo reply, “No. Unhappy the land that needs heroes.” For much of her remarkable career, Merkel was the marvelous exemplar of happily unheroic leadership. Now Western Europe finds itself very unhappily in need not of a swaggering hero, but of someone who can, in a suddenly altered world, fill her silences with urgency and purpose.+
Fintan O’Toole is a columnist for The Irish Times and the Leonard L. Milberg Professor of Irish Letters at Princeton. His new book, We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, was published in the US in March. (April 2022)