The paradox of Merkelism

How Angela Merkel became Europe's most popular leader—without Germany ever really understanding who she is

January 29, 2020
Angela Merkel: the Arthur Dent of Europe? Illustration: Tim McDonagh
Angela Merkel: the Arthur Dent of Europe? Illustration: Tim McDonagh

When Angela Merkel travelled to the town of Sopron on the Austrian-Hungarian border in August last year, the woman they call the leader of the free world had a global order to defend. Three decades earlier, the Iron Curtain had disintegrated at this very spot: citizens from across central Europe had attended a “Pan-European picnic” that ended with hundreds of East Germans rushing through the border gates into the west. Now it was the setting of a showdown in which the chancellor of Germany and the prime minister of Hungary would battle over the true legacy of 1989.

During the dramatic final months of the Cold War, Viktor Orbán was a lively student activist who made his name by calling for Soviet troops to withdraw from Hungary. He has since become a self-proclaimed “illiberal democrat,” and a blueprint for ascendant populist strongmen around the world.

Merkel, by contrast, was a mere spectator in East Germany’s peaceful revolution, but has since come to be regarded as the world’s ultimate champion of liberal values: multilateralism, the rule of law, and open borders—the totemic issue over which she had clashed with Orbán at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015.

Orbán’s speech was crass, even more so because he laced it with a creepy attempt at charm. How could he not doff his cap to as “hard-working and successful a dame” as the chancellor, he said with all the false modesty he could muster, when the “laws of chivalry” commanded him to? He made little effort to hide his belief that the influence and values of his western European counterpart were in decline: “Central Europe’s importance will keep on increasing,” the Hungarian leader remarked, rhetorically annexing his counterpart’s homelands by adding that “half of Germany lies in central Europe too.”

Hungary, Orbán said, was Germany’s “castle captain,” guarding its borders against invaders from the east. He casually added a joke so tasteless, given the historic occasion and border-bursting setting, that it made you gasp: “I admit, they could send us more ammunition.”

[su_pullquote]"There is an odd sense she is retreating to a pre-’89 version of herself"[/su_pullquote]

Yet there was not so much as a twitch of protest from Merkel when her counterpart told her to send more bullets for shooting migrants. Instead, when it was her turn to speak, she unspooled platitudes about “protecting Europe’s external borders.” She praised the close trade links between Germany and Hungary.

According to Transparency International, Hungary is the second most corrupt country in the European Union, and Orbán has been accused of funnelling EU cash to businesses run by friends and family. But Merkel, the supposed defender of the liberal order, said: “It is evident that Hungary is using these [EU structural] funds for the good of its people.”

As Merkel begins her likely final full year at the helm of Europe’s biggest economy, there is an odd sense she is retreating to a more passive, pre-’89 version of herself.

It is easily overlooked on the international stage, where the jittery dramas of Trump, Brexit and everything else can make her lack of movement look like principled steadfastness. But in Germany, Merkel has been increasingly absent from the daily grind of domestic politics. She has made only fleeting appearances on the campaign trail ahead of state elections, and simply ignores the in-fighting that has broken out in her Christian Democratic Union, as its post-war dominance melts away. She anointed a successor to head the party, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, but has not since lifted a finger to help her build a profile.

The most curious feature of the Merkel era is that, after 20 years at the forefront of German politics, she remains weirdly unknown—or at least a sort of blank screen people can project anything on to. Of course her outer appearance, the pastel-coloured suit-jackets and bob haircuts, have become utterly familiar. But her intellectual inner life, the mind of a Lutheran quantum chemist raised on socialist principles, is still as unfamiliar to most Germans as a Martian’s.

According to her own account, she was at a sauna on the night the Berlin Wall fell, and spontaneously crossed over into the west with a towel wedged under her arm. In the twilight years of her career, the enduring image of Merkel is not so much as a German Margaret Thatcher or Hillary Clinton, but a Cold War version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s bathrobe-wearing anti-hero Arthur Dent: an everywoman who remains bewildered by—rather than in charge of—the strange alien universe she has landed in.

The opposite of authoritarian

When the political obituaries are written, will they deem Merkel’s Dent-like tendencies to have made her a good or a bad chancellor? What is certain is that she has rendered the old templates for how a German chancellor should act in office useless. Almost all her predecessors felt that the leader of even a committedly democratic post-war Germany needed to display alpha dominance and authority.

Konrad Adenauer, the federal republic’s first leader from 1949, had docked his country to the western sphere of influence, but toyed with a German version of Gaullism in the late 50s. Adenauer believed he knew his Germans: they weren’t very smart, and they needed to be “educated” to learn moderation, as he put it in an interview in 1962, the year before he finally quit.

Willy Brandt, the first Social Democrat chancellor, introduced a new template in 1969: anti-authoritarian authority. His idea of leadership was not so much headstrong as discursive: the idea was to coax Germans into change through public debate rather than forcefully mould them.

All German chancellors since then have tried to reconcile these two models, often jumbling them up in unexpected ways. Helmut Schmidt had an oratory talent that could match Brandt’s but came to be more revered for his strongman crisis management. Helmut Kohl wanted to be Adenauer’s heir but ended up debating the country into accepting reunification and the introduction of the euro. Merkel’s predecessor Gerhard Schröder led a cabinet of 1968ers ideologically drenched in Brandt’s idea of discursive leadership but went down in history as the Basta-Kanzler, the macho decision-maker.

[su_pullquote align="right"]"She is the opposite of an authoritarian leader"[/su_pullquote]

And Merkel? She is the opposite of an authoritarian leader; she isn’t “alpha” at all. As a chancellor she is the antithesis of Adenauer—evidently content to be upstaged at a press conference by a cocky eastern European strongman without feeling any need to publicly retaliate. But neither is Merkel a female Brandt: for a woman whose first job in politics was as a spokesperson (for Democratic Awakening, a small East Germany party that soon after merged with the CDU), she is a terrible communicator.

Her speeches have few of the strong lines that the press like to quote, and the grammar often disintegrates mid-sentence. Speechwriting gurus insist on the importance of rhetorical pairs and the “rule of three,” but Merkel will routinely say things like “in Europe we all still feel the consequences of unfreedoms, crises, conflicts and wars,” a clunky line from her first key speech after the 2016 Brexit vote. Her official translator boiled that down to “wars and conflicts,” as Merkel should have done herself.

Neither does she try to reach the public through writing. Her press people don’t seek out the media to plant or spin stories; at the tri-weekly government press conferences they act like more Arthur Dents, slightly bewildered by these people with their serious glasses and urgent questions pressing them for answers. Merkel’s communicative style is less reminiscent of any German predecessor than Britain’s Clem Attlee, who could be famously unresponsive in his run-ins with the media. (Reporter: “Have you got something you’d like to say to the voters?” PM: “No.”)

The paradox of Merkelism

This does not mean that Merkel (any less than Attlee) lacked a vision for what a political leader should do. It doesn’t even mean that vision isn’t popular. She wouldn’t have survived in her role for 15 years if she lacked support, or was clueless about what she wanted to do. But what is it?

If there is such a thing as Merkelism, it combines two principles one might usually associate with different ends of the political spectrum. One is liberal and laissez-faire: a leader in the Merkel mould does not force herself on citizens but stays out of their everyday lives, their TV channels, and if possible their social media feeds (Merkel has no Twitter account). The other element, paradoxically, is hands-on and “statist”: to study the ambitions and concerns of the nation from the centre, with the utmost attention to detail.

Merkel spent the most tumultuous years in the history of socialist East Germany in the basement of Berlin’s Central Institute in Adlershof, carrying out a series of repetitive experiments separating carbon and hydrogen atoms at high temperature. It’s tempting to see her approach to being the chancellor of a united Germany as in keeping with her scientific training.

Unlike Adenauer she never presumed to have an intuitive sense for what “the Germans” needed; unlike Brandt, she never threw herself into a debate with the masses to find out. Instead, she treated her people, especially the larger western part who had grown up differently from her, as a strange material whose internal laws and reaction times needed to be studied at a distance, with an almost scientific detachment.

It fitted into this picture that news weekly Der Spiegel revealed in 2014 that Merkel’s government was far more heavily influenced by opinion polls than previously known. Following a freedom of information request by a young Green MP, Malte Spitz, it emerged that on average, the chancellor was commissioning three surveys per week to test how the German people felt about all sorts of things. Pollsters are sceptical about the newsworthiness of this revelation: Schröder too had a close relationship with them, and the budget of the federal press agency, which carries out these polls, had not suddenly increased.

What is fascinating, however, is the extent to which Merkel’s spokespeople often worked with the exact terminology used in these surveys, and just how closely in keeping her policy decisions have been with their findings. In fact, they show the two big decisions that look likely to define the Merkel era—her announcement in May 2011 that Germany would close all its nuclear power stations by December 2022, and the decision in 2015 to allow in nearly a million refugees and migrants as part of what she christened a “culture of welcoming”—were entirely in keeping with the public mood at the time.

With her decision on the Energiewende, the “turn” against nuclear energy, Merkel U-turned on her government’s decision to keep nuclear power stations open for longer—but she did so knowing that, after Japan’s Fukushima accident, 58 per cent of voters were in favour of a phase-out, and furthermore that renewable energies were overwhelmingly popular.

And when thousands of Syrians marched towards Germany from Orbán’s Hungary in September 2015, her leadership was hailed by liberals around the world as not only visionary but decidedly courageous. Yet a glance at a government poll a few months before prefigured exactly which way she would lean: only 17 per cent of Germans wanted the government to do less to help these people, 79 per cent thought it should stick to its course or do more.

I could never get the hang of surveys

For much of Merkel’s reign, her idea of leadership was perfectly matched for a country that felt it deserved a holiday from the grand historical dramas that had played out so ruinously on its soil in both the first and the second half of the 20th century. Government by polling and focus groups has a bad reputation, but German history is full of bad leaders who were led by a gut feeling about what “the Germans” really wanted. And in Merkel’s case there is a sense this has been an accumulative process, driven by a belief in the existence of stable moral laws, rather than a fluid sea of emotions and opinions.

At its best Merkel’s mix of hesitancy in personal opinion and pro-active research into everyone else’s meant she allowed the country to change and evolve, even if at times these changes went against her more conservative instincts. The ultimate example of this came in June 2017, when the Bundestag voted to legalise same-sex marriage. Germany was one of the last countries in Europe to do so, mainly because Merkel’s CDU had spent years blocking opportunities to expand LGBT rights.

When the change inevitably came, Merkel was—to use a chemist’s term—the catalyst. That summer, she said at a panel discussion that she was aggrieved that the debate on the subject had been mainly carried out along party lines; she now hoped it would be “headed towards a conscience vote.” The ballot in parliament ended with 393 to 226 votes in favour of legalisation, including 75 votes in favour from previously silenced liberal delegates in the CDU. Merkel voted with her conscience too: against the motion. It was the finest moment of her own interpretation of leadership as an exercise in ego suppression, and yet another reminder of the extent to which her inner moral and intellectual universe has been kept under lock through her tenure.

Germany in the world

One of the ironies of the Merkel era is that while few politicians in the world talk more about global challenges and the need for nations to rally together to meet them, her own style of leadership isn’t well suited to this task. As global crises have come knocking on Germany’s doors with increasing urgency, the less appealing aspects of Merkel’s Arthur Dent-ism have become harder to ignore.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is ultimately the story of a man who discovers that democracy in the most scientifically advanced corners of the universe is as depressing and inefficient a business as it was in his own corner of now pulverised Little England. There are far-flung planets whose populations regularly vote to be governed by lizards, even though they hate the lizards. The much-coveted post of President of the Galaxy is a pointless one, filled by egomaniacs and sociopaths like the positively Trump-esque Zaphod Beeblebrox.

“It is a well-known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it,” Adams writes in his sequel, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. There have always been signs that Merkel is as defeatist about the possibility of global leadership as Adams. The notion that a politician could use a speech to project their norms of what is right and wrong out into the world has always struck her as naively utopian, or, as she told Der Spiegel in 2016, “the idea that a person can touch other people so much with words that they change their minds is not one I have ever shared—but it’s a beautiful idea nonetheless.”

After Barack Obama gave his famous Cairo speech in 2009, calling for a “new beginning” for relations between the US and the Middle East and intoning that “America is not and never will be at war with Islam,” Merkel waved off the American president’s rhetorical grandeur in front of a group of journalists, adding, according to one reporter present, “Oh, he’s only talking.”

But one wonders what kind of mark Merkel the Martian could have left on her era if she had done more talking. During the Greek debt crisis, the chancellor faced a choice between telling her electorate why Germany might need to make sacrifices to salvage the European solidarity it claims to cherish, or reaching out to Europe’s south to explain how a painful spell of austerity would eventually be rewarded. In the end, she did neither, and just muddled through.

By plumping for the avoidance of argument, Merkel succeeded in making a debate that would have antagonised Germans disappear from their TV sets. But she couldn’t and didn’t make that debate disappear in Greece, or elsewhere in southern Europe. She still talks of the need to reform the European Union to make it more crisis-proof, but she’s done nothing to encourage her country to confront the hard choices about the pooling of political sovereignty and economic risk that would be required to make a reality of such reform; consequently, the necessary discussion has not even begun.

Brexit is the other European crisis that has shown up the limitations of Merkel’s leadership. In the run-up to the 2016 referendum, Merkel stayed clear of the increasingly frantic melee on the British Isles; us Merkel-watchers in Berlin laughed when the Westminster lobby reported rumours the German chancellor and the French president could be helicoptered in on the eve of the vote to issue a European “pledge” like the one Cameron, Miliband and Clegg delivered before the referendum on Scottish independence.

Perhaps we shouldn’t have laughed. What might have happened if Merkel had sought to speak to British voters in the way Helmut Schmidt did when he addressed the Labour Party conference in 1974 in the run-up to Britain’s first referendum on EU membership? Like Merkel, Schmidt had been advised against intervening in the British debate—some Labour MPs had promised to walk out of his speech if he tried to “meddle.” But Schmidt did it anyway, receiving a standing ovation for a speech that balanced urgency with humour: “But all I want really to say is this and only this, even at the risk of a walk-out: your comrades on the continent want you to stay.”

Waiting for the next spaceship

Nothing has been more constant throughout the Merkel era than the chorus of commentators (including me) and rivals predicting her imminent downfall. And yet, whatever her failings, Merkel sails on—and is now on her third American and fourth French presidents, her fifth British and seventh Italian prime ministers. If her track record is anything to go by, she is more likely to surprise us by staying for another term than shock the country by stepping down prematurely.

Germany’s social order, meanwhile, did not collapse as a result of her open-border stance during the refugee crisis, as right-wing commentators predicted. During the long fallout from that 2015 decision, which so rattled her leadership, Merkel stuck to her initial reading of where the public were. It’s true that her government went on to take measures to bring down the number of people applying for asylum in Germany. But Merkel did not apologise for having made a mistake, as many in her party wanted her to, and she did not try to court the growing right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), in the way Austria’s conservative party did with the far-right Freedom Party.

And yet the test of truly great leadership must be where Germany will be five years after Merkel is gone. She has moved the CDU into the centre of the stream, but whether she has managed to anchor it there is unclear. When Merkel’s successor designate Kramp-Karrenbauer beat her more right-wing rivals to the party leadership in December 2018, many thought the “mini-Merkel,” albeit from the south-western, Saarland region would slot right in where Merkel had left. But Kramp-Karrenbauer has since irritated her liberal supporters by trying to appease the reactionaries, and failed to win over the reactionaries because they think she is too liberal. Her approval ratings across the country have plummeted, partly because it hasn’t taken long for the German public to identify her as a fairly conventional Rhineland Catholic, with the sympathies and antipathies that inspires in the German mind.

Kramp-Karrenbauer has stuck to Merkel’s “cordon sanitaire” against any coalition with the AfD, but if she goes, a more right-wing successor may not just be less resolute, but could feel tempted to seek a symbolic rupture with the Merkel era.

In the age of Orbán, Trump, Putin, Bolsonaro, Erdogan and Johnson, Merkel stands apart as the last representative of a different kind of political leadership, free of the tiresome theatrics of power. But to see how that new model of leadership could have been used to channel history’s flow, rather than just analyse its currents, we will have to wait for the next Merkel-like Martian to land in our universe. And the chances are, her spaceship will be circling for some time.