Angela Merkel: Germany's Strange Mutti

Many young Germans cannot remember another Chancellor than Angela Merkel. In 2016, my then-seven year old daughter once said firmly: “The Bundeskanzler is always a woman.” Merkel is for her generation of Germans what Helmut Kohl was for ours in that she seemed to reign forever. But what does she stand for? Nobody knows. She once said in an pre-election TV debate to the audience at home: “You know me.” But is it true that Germany knew her? Although she ruled with great coolness and an encyclopedic knowledge of almost everything, what many Germans missed was a sense of direction to her politics.

Indeed, she altered her course rapidly. It was Merkel who abruptly abandoned nuclear power shortly after she prolonged the time before Germany’s nuclear power plants would need to be decommissioned. It was Merkel who introduced gay marriage merely by a casual remark during an event organized by the women’s magazine Brigitte, which led to legislation without changing the constitution.

And then there is her migration policy. But, we should ask whether it was really her policy at all. Some say, the Chancellor did not open the borders—which is true in a way. The borders are open by law within the European Schengen Agreement Borders. However, Frau Merkel made the decision to let Syrian war refugees onto German soil, a humanitarian act for which she was celebrated around the world. And for good reasons.

But then came her famous claim “Wir schaffen das!” a sort of “Yes we can!”, but focused on migrants. Even that was—by itself—nothing to be criticized. If a German Chancellor said: “No we can’t!” to all asylum-seekers, then that would have been a sign of weakness. But she repeated it in combination with the now also famous (or notorious) sentence “There is no limit.” At least for the right of asylum that is also true in a purely legal, theoretical way: It is a fundamental individual right established in the German Constitution. But of course no country in the world can grant this right to everybody on earth. There are natural limits, and legal ones: If as an asylum seeker you come from another EU member state Germany can in principle send you back.

What is more, both those statements in that situation served as an invitation for anybody in the world to migrate to Germany. And that is why Merkel opened the German Borders in a way. At least she did not close them when she at least should have tried to. She, by the way, did not seek a European solution either. And that is one big issue she will be remembered for.

But however this is judged by history, abroad, or in Germany — it seems to be clear that the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Merkel’s party, lost many voters to the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the recent elections. And because of massive losses in Hesse and in Bavaria (though there it was the CDU’s sister party, the Christian Social Union that lost), Angela Merkel decided to step down as party chairperson, announced that this election term would be her last as Chancellor, and that she would not seek another office.

What’s left? While many Germans got used to her, not only her party members but also Germans who regard themselves as conservative have been missing something: a compass for their politics.

Angela Merkel has no sense for pathos. It is not her style to deliver a blood-and-tears speech, which is good in a way. She can be funny in direct conversations, whether with a few or with a thousand people. And she is always well-prepared and more responsive than most other recent politicians. But she seems to navigate the country (and Europe) in a kind of point to point navigation, except for the points. She is muddling through the fog of complicated world politics. She does seem to have an image of a modern Germany in her mind, one with wind and solar energy, one with marriages for everyone, and one with a multicultural population. But although she has introduced town hall meetings around the country to talk to citizens about a Germany worth living in, she hardly articulated a plan or a vision of this influential and wealthy country and a feeling for its past.

Born in Hamburg and raised in the Communist GDR, in a way she stayed East German. She is a Chancellor with no children and has kept her life beyond politics very private. Although Merkel is an exceptionally knowledgeable, stable, and trustworthy politician, and bears the authority necessary to lead the European Union, she has no visible plan for the future. But on the other hand, between Putin on one side and Trump on the other, stability itself is worth a lot.

So what’s next for Germany and the EU? In addition to her other qualities, Merkel was a very tough practitioner of power politics. While there are legions of able, sometimes arrogant male politicians that have opposed her, none were up to the task. Some challenged her, and their tombs mark Merkel’s way.

Two plausible competitors for her role have emerged. The first is Friedrich Merz, an international lawyer and transatlantic lobbyist who was many years ago leader of the CDU/CSU coalition in the Bundestag. Merz is regarded as conservative and anti-Merkel. He was born 1955 and is chairman of the board of Blackrock Germany. The other is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the 56 year old former prime minister of the Saarland. Following Merkel’s wishes, she later became General-Secretary of the CDU. Although the mother of three comes from a very different background from Merkel, the two are quite similar in their politics. Kramp-Karrenbauer is also prosaic and rational. So it will be a Mini-Merkel against a prince on a white horse.

All of us who have been so unobtrusively governed by Angela Merkel and led into a transformed Germany, we really cannot imagine what it will be like to have a chancellor other than “Mutti,” but we will have to try.