For a politician known to many of her people simply as Mutti (Mom), Angela Merkel must be more than a little stung by her fall from grace.
The German Chancellor has presided over a series of electoral setbacks in recent years, narrowly clinging to power after last year’s federal vote, and more recently taking a drubbing by proxy in a closely watched regional election.
Now Ms. Merkel says she will step down as her party’s leader by year’s end and confirmed that this will be her last term at the chancellery. She and her ruling coalition have also seen their approval numbers fall amid anxiety about migration and the rise of the xenophobic Alternative for Germany.
Germany’s longest-serving democratic leader will exit the political stage with much less filial esteem than she has grown accustomed to, and with a reputation as the stubborn Chancellor whose policies helped fracture Europe and foster the re-emergence of a German far right.
It’s an unjust fate for a stateswoman who has presided over an economic golden age for her country, served with immense dignity and acted as a steadying force at a turbulent time in global affairs – an anti-Donald Trump. We need her kind more than ever.
The Chancellor’s upbringing in East Germany has been used to explain many of her least appealing traits: a tendency to prevaricate and disguise her true thoughts; her austere personality; an allergy to strong stances.
But it’s clear that living in the land of the Stasi and the Berlin Wall bred in Ms. Merkel a bone-deep appreciation of liberalism and the liberal international order from which people like her were literally shut out.
In defending her courageous, empathetic decision to leave the German border open to asylum seekers during the 2015 refugee crisis, she is reported to have told Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, “I’ve lived behind a wall once in my life and have no desire to do so again.”
That perspective has served her well. She has spoken up for NATO as it faces threats from Russia and the United States. With the global trade regime under assault from Mr. Trump, she defends the values of the World Trade Organization and rules-based free exchange. She has won awards for her commitment to the imperilled idea of European unity.
This clear-eyed belief in multilateral co-operation between free countries has a tinge of nationalist self-interest. Shy about asserting itself on the world stage, Germany is strongest when acting through the acronymed institutions of the postwar world order. Still, no one should take for granted the near-miraculous fact that institutions erected on the ashes of Nazism, in part to constrain Teutonic might, should find their greatest champion 70 years later in Berlin.
In any case, the qualities Ms. Merkel cultivated in the repressive East also rate among her greatest strengths. What looks like prevarication is often wise caution; what seems glum is better seen as modesty; her lack of fervour mere pragmatism. Caution, modesty, pragmatism: Remember those?
Her gifts as a leader and hard-won sense of perspective have produced enviable results.
At a time when Germany’s Social Democrats are prone to squishiness on Russia, Ms. Merkel has remained a tough critic of Vladimir Putin – a former KGB agent in Dresden, remember – rallying the European Union to a strong position in defence of Ukraine when Russia annexed Crimea.
She has made Germany much more green: More than 30 per cent of its power comes from renewables, as it phases out nuclear and coal. On social issues, she dragged her Christian Democrats into the 21st century by allowing a free vote on the legalization of gay marriage, which passed. The Chancellor’s fiscal prudence is legendary: In 2015, Germany balanced its budget for the first time since 1969 and has stayed out of the red ever since.
Yes, there have been missteps. Her hard line on Greece nearly drove the country out of the EU during its debt crisis. She might have built a stronger consensus around her refugee policy before implementing it.
But taken as a whole, her record is deeply impressive. In a New Yorker profile published in the now halcyon-seeming year of 2014, the author quotes an anonymous German official assessing the Chancellor’s approach to governing. “People say there’s no project, there’s no idea,” the official said. “It’s just a zigzag of smart moves for nine years.”
Today, amid the rubble of that geopolitical era, it is almost impossible to fathom that this was meant as a slight.