How Angela Merkel became Europe's most popular leader—without Germany ever really understanding who she isby Philip Oltermann / January 29, 2020 / Leave a comment
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.”
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.…