A decade and a half later, the reign of German Chancellor Angela Merkel is coming to an end. Having opted not to run in national elections this month, she will become the first prime minister in the country to leave power of her own volition.
If negotiations to form a new government continue after the September 26 vote, it could overtake Helmut Kohl as Germany’s longest-serving modern leader. She is the dean of European politics – a generation of young Germans who don’t remember anyone else at the helm.
Fans hailed her as an everything from free world leader To Contemporary Joan of Arc – The Great Images You Have Always Rejected. Yet it has been repeatedly named among the world Strongest women. President Barack Obama, among her most steadfast advocates, has described her as a pre-eminent global political leader.
But she left a complex legacy. Some praise her modest, consensus-based political style. Others see a lack of bold leadership, particularly in the face of a more aggressive Russia and a rising Chinese power.
In 2015, it opened the door to more than a million refugees, most of them from war-torn Syria. But Merkel’s watch also saw an increase in nationalist sentiment that pushed the far right into parliament.
While dubbed a “climate advisor” for her environmental promises, she left her position with Germany as the world’s largest producer of air-choking brown coal.
Historians will debate its impact for years to come. What is certain: Her departure will leave a void after a political career spanning more than three decades, which began amid the death throes of the Cold War.
It was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that opened the world of politics to Merkel, the daughter of a priest in communist East Germany.
in a Speech at Harvard University In 2019, she described how she would walk across a wall every day on her way home from work at a science institute.
“The Berlin Wall limited my chances,” she said. “You literally stood in my way.”
She was thirty-five when the most enduring symbol of the Cold War collapsed dramatically. “Where there was a dark wall only once, the door suddenly opened,” she said in the letter. “For me, too, it was the moment to step in through that door. At that point, I left my job as a scientist behind and entered politics. It was an exciting and magical time.”
This history has shaped, in many ways, Merkel’s policy as she attempted to position Germany and Europe as a bridge between East and West.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was a turning point for Angela Merkel, who had grown up in East Germany. Right: From left, Malgorzata Jeziorska, now Professor of Quantum Chemistry; Joachim Sauer, husband of Angela Merkel; And the future German leader during the summer school in Patchotik, Poland, in 1989 (Bogumil Jeziorski/AFP/Getty Images)
Once in politics, Merkel’s rise was swift. She joined the traditional male-dominated Christian Democrats and conservatives, and was elected to the German parliament, the Bundestag, in 1990. She was under the patronage of Kohl, then chancellor of Germany, and was appointed Minister for Women and Youth the following year, when she also became the party’s deputy head. In the early days of her career, she was nicknamed “Cool Girl”.
But in a move that stunned those in German politics, she turned on Kohl in a newspaper opinion piece in December 1999, calling for her former mentor to resign. Now the party’s leader, she said his credibility and credibility have been damaged in a donations scandal.
“The party must therefore learn to walk,” she wrote. “[It] She must trust herself to fight the political opponent in the future even without the old war horse, as Helmut Kohl liked to call himself.”
“I brought my killer,” Kohl later said, reflecting on Merkel’s decision to turn on him. “I put the snake on my arm.”
Merkel, then Federal Minister for Women, speaks to Chancellor Helmut Kohl on December 16, 1991, at a party conference in Dresden, Germany. (Michael Jung/picture-alliance/dpa/AP)
It was a very close electoral victory that brought Merkel to power in 2005. Few expected sweeping change, and critics did not expect it to last long.
“Many will say, ‘This alliance is taking many small steps and not one big step,'” she said. In her first speech as counsellor. I’ll answer them: “Yes, that’s exactly how we do it.” ”
It came to power in a period of relative stability, but Europe would soon experience successive crises.
Above: Merkel and the CDU began their campaign on August 28, 2005 in Dortmund, Germany. (Associated Press) Left: Merkel takes office as chancellor for the first time, on November 22, 2005, in Berlin. (Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)
When the eurozone debt crisis began to unfold in late 2009, Merkel helped lead efforts to save the continent’s common currency. “If the euro fails, then Europe will fail,” she said.
Clinging tightly to Europe’s money chains, Merkel became the face of the northern European economy. She became a hated figure in countries like Greece where they were forced into crippling austerity. Greek newspapers compared her to Hitler, and her visits have been marked by protests for years.
In the end, Germany and the eurozone helped counter an existential threat. She recently said that she considers it one of her biggest accomplishments as a consultant.
Right: Horst Seehofer, then-governor of Bavaria, and Merkel on January 13, 2009, in Berlin. (Andreas Rentz/Getty Images) Above: On October 9, 2012, Merkel’s trip to Greece was met with massive protests.
influx of immigrants
Perhaps the most defining moment in Merkel’s political career came in 2015 as the number of refugees arriving in Europe began to rise. Many of them were fleeing the civil war in Syria and making perilous journeys by sea to Europe.
Merkel opened the doors of Germany. In a less-than-usual comment she made after a visit to an asylum center in August of that year, she assured the German audience: “Wir schaffen das” – “we can do it.”
“She’s on the right side of history on this,” Obama said at the time.
But Merkel’s refugee-friendly stance has divided Europe and has come under attack from Germany’s far-right, which has gained ground as her popularity has been damaged.
Left: A Syrian migrant holds a picture of Merkel as he and about 800 other people arrive in Munich from Hungary on September 5, 2015 (Sean Gallup/Getty Images) Above: Thousands of migrants are stranded in a refugee camp in Idomeni, Greece. (Zoyn Murphy/The Washington Post)
By the time the world faced its next historical crisis, Merkel recognized the importance of clear and honest communication. As some world leaders seemed to tremble, she stood out in her science-led approach.
The pandemic has exposed some of the country’s shortcomings, including a lack of flexibility that has hampered the rollout of a vaccine. But a majority of Germans supported Merkel’s leadership during the pandemic.
Merkel adjusts her mask on November 18 in Berlin. (Tobias Schwartz/AFP/Getty Images)
East and West
Merkel’s 16 years in power saw a transformation of the world order. Washington pressured Germany to take a more assertive stance toward Russia and China. But Merkel, as a child in the Cold War, stressed the importance of avoiding another war.
It has tried to separate Chinese human rights abuses and Russian expansionism from issues of trade and economics, sometimes also finding itself far from its European neighbours.
Her relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin was, at times, strained and hostile. But she said it was important to keep the lines of dialogue open. Despite her fear of dogs, Putin once brought a Labrador to a bilateral meeting in what she described as an attempt to scare her.
As an adviser to four US presidencies, she has remained deeply committed to the transatlantic alliance, even as relations have been particularly strained under President Donald Trump. In a telling moment in 2018, Merkel’s official Instagram account posted a photo showing her pressing down on the floor over a table Trump sat on the other side with his arms folded.
Merkel speaks with President Donald Trump during the G7 summit in La Malbay, Quebec, June 9, 2018 (Jesco Denzel/German Federal Government/AP) Right: Russian President Vladimir Putin brings flowers to Merkel on her last trip to Moscow as chancellor.
Merkel, 67, said she is not seeking a new political role. “Do I want to write, talk, take a walk? Do I want to be at home? Do I want to travel the world?” she said this month.
Merkel has long dismissed questions about her legacy, saying historical analysis is not for her and that she would prefer to take the job.
But in 2019, she was asked in town hall in the coastal town of Stralsund what she would like children to read about her in history books from 50 years ago.
She said, “I tried.”
Merkel leaves the last session of the Bundestag before the federal parliamentary elections on September 7 in Berlin. (Shawn Gallup/Getty Images)
Luisa Beck from Berlin contributed to this report.