Angela Merkel is younger than me. There is a sobering thought! And yet, when she became Chancellor of Germany, I was still, so to speak, in mid-career.
She’s been there for so long that it’s hard to remember who was there before her. And God only knows what will happen after her. This will all start to unfold next month.
The Germans go to the polls at the end of September. They will elect a parliament and ultimately a chancellor, probably after weeks of coalition negotiations. There will also be state elections on the same day.
Angela Merkel’s absence, because she decided to arrest her, will leave a huge void in election coverage and make the overall outcome much less certain.
I have never read a biography of Merkel. There are several on the market, none of them with particularly catchy titles. I wanted it because I read a lot about other German Chancellors.
Many of Merkel’s predecessors in the modern era were fascinating and complex characters, such as Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt, Helmut Kohl. They left huge legacies, including rebuilding Germany after the devastation of the end of WWII, and rebuilding their country’s reputation after the unspeakable evils of the Third Reich.
Brandt was the great reforming chancellor. Much like Britain’s post-war Labor government, it invested heavily in health, education and social spending.
He was best known outside Germany as the Chancellor who started the process of better relations between East and West. Schmidt continued this work, and Kohl will always be remembered for his work to reunite Germany.
Apart from these gigantic achievements and larger-than-life personalities, it can seem difficult to understand what Angela Merkel will be remembered. Part of that is because she doesn’t have a larger-than-life personality.
She has trouble expressing her emotions. There is nothing about her that is flamboyant or loud. However, many larger than life figures who came before her have seen their careers clouded by scandal.
Brandt chose to resign when one of his closest associates was discovered to be a German spy. Kohl’s final years were marked by a financial scandal. There has never been the slightest trace of scandal or irregularity throughout Angela Merkel’s long career.
What there has been, and still is, is a kind of quiet but relentless harshness. As a young politician, she was widely regarded as Helmut Kohl’s protege, so much so that she was sometimes referred to as Helmut’s little girl.
But when Kohl was embroiled in allegations (which later turned out to be true) that his political party CDU (and Merkel’s) had received underground donations, it was Merkel who publicly demanded that he unfolds. It has been said that until his death Kohl never forgave him.
She seems not to be afraid of anything, although she has publicly confessed to a phobia of dogs. Vladimir Putin (who else?) Tried to disturb her by bringing a big black Labrador face-to-face with her.
If he expected her to crack or run out of the room, he was disappointed. She kept her cool and was later heard say that he obviously had to do this sort of thing to prove his manhood.
There was of course that pretty long period of time when Angela Merkel was the politician we loved to hate in Ireland. When we cooked our economy dog dinner in the late 2000s, we were all astonished in Ireland that she and Germany had not galloped to our rescue.
We had had access to virtually free European money for almost a decade. We had used it to buy a few elections with massive increases in public spending alongside big tax cuts. But even more than that, we had used the money to fuel a huge real estate bubble.
No one in Ireland (with a few exceptions) seemed to notice how our housing bubble has overturned the law of supply and demand. The more houses we built, the more expensive they became.
We thought our unique version of a pyramid scheme would last forever. But when it collapsed on its own, we were outraged that the Chancellor of Europe’s richest country seemed to think we had caused the mess, so we had to fix it ourselves.
We were so used to believing that the world owed us to live that we couldn’t understand why Angela Merkel’s first priority would be to save German banks from destruction. Who does she think she is, have we all thought about?
Doesn’t she know that we are the lovely Irish with our quaint manners and well behaved football fans? For a while, RTÉ Post game a team of comedians have made their careers imitating Angela addressing the Irish nation, always calling us goblin heads and sometimes stroking a white cat like a Bond villain.
Somehow we have passed through this entrenchment. There was immense pain and political guarantees (we all remember that) and most of the time the wrong people carried the burden of recovery. But we made a recovery and maybe ended up reluctantly accepting that maybe Angela’s instincts were the right ones. We had to do it for ourselves.
Still, we thought Angela Merkel was cold and heartless. Then, in 2015, as a migrant and refugee crisis swept across Europe, Angela Merkel did something very unlike Merkel.
She opened her country’s border to refugees from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and other countries, and tens of thousands of people came. To her own disbelieving people, she said “we can handle this” – a phrase which in German has become synonymous with her.
Here is the truth. If you were an artist trying to paint a portrait of Angela Merkel, you would be hard pressed to figure out which side of her to capture. Beneath a somewhat understated exterior, there is a character of steel.
She is at heart a right-wing politician who has spent her career preventing Germany from turning to the right. She is a conservative thinker, capable of truly radical political initiatives. She’s as tough as a boot and has a heart when you need it.
At the heart of everything she says, does and believes is her commitment to Europe. She will occupy a place of honor in her country’s history because of her national achievements, but she also deserves a distinguished place in European history.
She was not responsible for the eurozone crisis, the refugee crisis, the terrorism crisis, the Brexit crisis. But she was at the forefront of management in these situations. No perfect solutions, but Europe is still standing.
She might be remembered as a manager more than a leader, and I guess she would be pretty happy about that. Once when asked why she almost always appeared in public wearing the same style, she replied that she was a public servant, not a model.
Maybe that’s how she sees herself, that’s how she will be remembered. official from Germany. Europe official.
A great official.