Yesterday, September 26, 2021, Germany’s national elections witnessed the final episode of Angela Merkel’s run as its Chancellor for the past 16 years. There will be reams of press stories listing and parsing hers and the nation’s accomplishments during that time for the 67-year-old PhD (1986, in quantum chemistry).
Over and above the anticipated plaudits for those achievements, Merkel has displayed a unique, unexpected human and humble character as a world leader and as an individual. Compared with the brashness of Boris Johnson, the arrogance of Vladimir Putin, and the bizarre performance of Donald Trump, Merkel is pure populist.
In a recent interview, she vowed, following her term, to be a voice for climate reform, a central passion for the physicist who has led Germany through a number of crises – the euro debt problem, deadly flooding, coronavirus pandemic, and heated immigration problems. Merkel’s world view was shaped in part during her upbringing in Communist East Germany, which may have contributed to her sober, pragmatic leadership of Europe’s leading economy. At her final annual summer news conference, she remarked:
Every week has challenges. Look at the events we face — rising coronavirus cases, terrible floods. You can’t say there aren’t issues to be sorted out. There are demands made of me while I am in office and I will continue in that way until my last day. There is little time and space to think about the time after.
In the waning days of her administration, Merkel paid visits to the United States and Britain as a kind of farewell tour honoring the two nations for their support of Germany. She has been an ardent and forceful advocate for global efforts regarding climate change and has made attempts to prepare her successor government for continuing those initiatives. A Lutheran woman in a male-dominated, traditionally Catholic political party, Merkel viewed her tenure as simply another event of time, observing that “You usually only notice what you miss once you no longer have it.” At the press conference, she admitted that she had not even given thought to where she would be on election night.
Germany chose her to lead the nation of 80 million as Chancellor beginning in 2005 and she has done so with skill, dedication, and sincerity. In those years, no scandals blotted her administration, nor did she appoint cronies or family to state offices. Prior to her elevation to the chancellorship, Merkel had been elected to the parliament in December 1990, serving in a variety of party and state posts.
At a press conference, a journalist once asked Merkel: “We notice that you wear the same suit, don’t you have another?” She replied, “I’m a civil servant, not a model.”
For those 16 years, observers note, she never changed her wardrobe. At a press conference, a journalist once asked Merkel: “We notice that you wear the same suit, don’t you have another?” She replied, “I’m a civil servant, not a model.” At another press conference, she was asked: “Do you have housekeepers cleaning your house, preparing food, etc.?” Her answer was, “No, I have no servants, nor need. My husband and I do this work every day at home.”
On another occasion, a journalist inquired: “Who does your laundry, you or your husband?” Her response was: “I’m fixing the clothes and my husband is the one who runs the washing machine. It’s usually at night. The most important thing is to account for all the inconveniences for your neighbors. Luckily the wall separating our apartment from neighbors is thick…. I expected you to ask me about the successes and failures in our government work.” Merkel’s self-assessments and humility are in stark contrast to the bloviating behavior of other world leaders.
Upon her election as Chancellor, Merkel not only broke the glass ceiling as the first woman to hold the office, but the youngest and first East German to do so. She lives in an unpretentious apartment common to most others in Berlin, one she held even before she was elected to Germany’s highest office. While Barack Obama’s presidency has often been characterized as “no drama Obama,” Merkel’s stewardship establishes a “Merkel Mark” for the nation’s successors. President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a state dinner in 2011.
Auf Wiedersehen, Angela.