When the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989, then-35-year-old Angela Merkel didn’t rush to the border as many of her fellow East Germans did. Instead, she kept her weekly Thursday date at a local sauna, coolly confident that she had time on her hands. She did: 16 years at the very top of European politics, in fact. That calm patience is a leitmotif that has defined the journey of a woman who has arguably become the most important politician of the 21st century. A quantum chemist whose father was a Lutheran pastor in the communist East, Merkel has led Germany, Europe and — many would argue — the world through rare tumult since she became her country’s first female chancellor in 2005.
Now, as she prepares to step away from politics when her current term expires with Germany’s federal elections on Sept. 26, this Daily Dose tracks her legacy and introduces you to leaders vying to gain Merkel-level clout. Recall what world leaders have said about her and let one of modern history’s most straight-faced politicians leave you with a laugh-out-loud moment.
Charu Sudan Kasturi, Senior Editor
the chemist’s magic potion
1. Getting Germany Fit
At the time Merkel took office in 2005, Germany was derisively known as the “sick man of Europe.” Its economy had barely crawled forward since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and by 2005, it faced an unemployment rate of more than 11%. It took a special woman to cure the sick man. Today, that jobless rate is just above 6%. Germany’s gross domestic product has grown by a third under Merkel and living standards have improved, unlike in France and Italy. Critics point out that she hasn’t pushed through the economic reforms Germany’s economy will likely need in the long term. But throughout a period of serial economic crises, her trick has been simpler than any grand policy shift: a steady, reassuring hand guiding the country through challenges as they unfold. “Her whole style of politics is reactive and driven by a desire to find solutions to emerging problems,” Kai Arzheimer, a professor of politics at the University of Mainz, tells OZY. “‘We are driving on sight’ was one of her catchphrases.”
2. In the Zone
As Italy joined Greece in a deepening financial crisis that threatened to spread like contagion in 2011, questions mounted over whether Merkel might need to amputate the eurozone currency union, severing countries that had become akin to infected limbs. But the German leader was clear throughout. “If the euro fails, Europe fails. We can't let that happen,” Merkel said. She meant it. Initially hesitant to open up Germany’s purse strings, she eventually led an ambitious financial aid and recovery program for struggling European nations. And though Brexit has since inspired populist parties across Europe to similarly seek to break from the European Union, Merkel’s leadership has kept the bloc largely intact. Meanwhile, it’s the U.K. that increasingly faces the threat of separatist referendums in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
3. Democracy’s North Star
It was one of the defining images of 20th-century international politics. At the G-7 summit in Quebec in June 2018, Trump sat in a chair, arms folded as the leaders of a group of longstanding U.S. allies he was at loggerheads with stood before him. But only one among them was leaning forward toward Trump purposefully, her hands on the table, the look of a stern teacher speaking to a recalcitrant kid on her face. The moment captured Merkel’s rise as the new leader of the West, with America receding from that role under Trump. From keeping the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate change pact alive to her firm opposition to protectionist policies, nativism and racism, the politically centrist Merkel has helped keep the world on an even keel in the midst of multiple storms.
4. Migrant Messiah?
Yet Merkel’s most challenging political moment came in the summer of 2015. A flood of refugees escaping Syria and other areas of conflict left their lives and possessions behind to risk death on the open seas in the hope of reaching Europe. The continent they hoped would welcome them was bitterly divided. Nations like Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia pushed them out and a humanitarian crisis was about to explode when Merkel stepped in, opening Germany’s borders and allowing in more than a million refugees. Her decision was divisive within Germany then and is opposed by many in her country even today. But Merkel stood firm. “We can do this,” she famously said. And Germany did, without adversely impacting jobs or the economy.
5. Beating Back the Far Right
In fact, one of the richest state’s in Germany, Baden-Württemberg, has used the surge in migrants to fuel an economy that was otherwise stuttering due to an aging workforce. That win-win model has helped the state emerge as a bellwether for the future of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which dramatically gained vote share in the initial years after the refugee influx by pandering to often xenophobic fears. Merkel herself has continued to defend her 2015 approach, insisting that she’d do it all over again if necessary. And her leadership has, in some ways, been instrumental in keeping the AfD in check, says Arzheimer. By September 2019, when it was still recording gains elsewhere, the AfD was slipping in Baden-Württemberg, and the pandemic has cemented that slide nationally over the past year — despite slipups by Merkel’s administration in its handling of the crisis.
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Greece isn’t the only country where Merkel’s legacy is considered far from spotless. Faced with growing criticism of her pro-migrant policy and the political threats coming from both the AfD and within her own ruling coalition, the German chancellor has handed Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a gun to point at Europe. Through a deal struck in late 2016, the EU, effectively led by Merkel, paid Turkey billions of dollars to hold refugees who might otherwise be headed for Europe. Apart from the fact that many refugees in Turkey end up working in conditions that amount to modern-day slavery, the deal limits Europe’s ability to challenge Erdoğan’s own poor human rights record: All he needs do is threaten to open up Turkey’s borders.
3. Putting Up With Putin
There has been no shortage of provocations from Russia — whether the hacking of Merkel’s email account in 2015 or the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, who sought treatment in Berlin. And who can forget Merkel’s famous eye roll at Russian President Vladimir Putin during the 2017 G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany? Still, Merkel has maintained equilibrium between her Western allies on one hand and a working relationship with Putin on the other. She has withstood U.S. pressure to give up on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline transporting Russian gas to Germany. And last month, she defied the majority view within the EU to argue that Europe should seek a “direct meeting” with Putin. Is her search for a middle ground with Russia a mistake Europe will come to regret?
4. Too Cautious
But Arzheimer, the University of Mainz professor, argues that Merkel’s biggest failings lie not in what she did wrong — instead, they center on what she didn’t do at all. “Thanks to her gradual approach to politics, she took very few rash decisions and has constantly corrected her course,” he says. “The broader pattern is not one of missteps but rather one of missed opportunities.” When she was at the peak of popularity, he says, Merkel could have moved more aggressively against climate change and towards transforming the EU. She could have acted more forcefully on better integrating migrants and elevating women, he adds.
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The candidate picked by Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party to contest the position of chancellor in September’s federal elections is the front-runner to replace her as Germany’s next leader. But he’s learned the hard way these past few days that getting over the line will be no laughing matter: He was caught on camera sniggering during a sober ceremony at a town devastated by recent floods, and faced a backlash. The 60-year-old is often described as a Merkel loyalist and has backed her approach with Beijing and Moscow, warning against a new cold war with China and seeking more dialogue with Putin. But will he command Europe’s respect the way Merkel has?
As an economics student in 1978, von der Leyen fled West Germany, fearing she was being targeted by communist kidnappers. More than four decades later, the former German defense minister is now boss of the European Union. Once touted as a potential Merkel successor, she’ll now get to lead the EU without any European national leader of Merkel’s stature to overshadow her. It won’t be easy. In April, she was ruthlessly snubbed when Turkey’s Erdoğan and European Council President Charles Michel took the two chairs meant for leaders during diplomatic talks, leaving her to sit on a sofa. But she didn’t take it quietly.
Pop culture thrives on excitement, and there’s nothing remotely thrilling about the German chancellor, who has built her career and reputation on carefully thought-out policies, patience and a wait-and-watch approach. Yet such is her unique stature in the world that in 2009, toy manufacturer Mattel unveiled a Barbie doll modeled after Merkel.
2. Sketch Star
Her stoic personality is ready fodder for comedy and sketches. And there, she’s been a star, played for years by Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live. My favorite portrayal of Merkel is by British comedian Tracey Ullman. Check out this sketch — you never knew just how much “Merkel” can make you laugh.
3. Frau Fashion
From the academic, almost professorial look that she donned in her early days as chancellor to the more colorful choices she has worn in recent years, Merkel’s deliberately understated fashion sense is actually carefully cultivated — and executed by a handful of German designers. But behind that poker face, she had a sense of humor too. When a German newspaper said she looked indistinguishable from Hillary Clinton, Merkel got the article framed and presented it to Clinton — a gift from one powerful woman to another.