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The Anatomy of Merkelism

Kati Marton’s paean to the four-term chancellor overlooks the contested aspects of her legacy.

The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel, by Kati Marton (William Collins, 2021), 344 pages.

You’ve heard it before, that special form of hubris indulged by politicians and their spin doctors when faced with defeat. “Ours was the better case,” they routinely boast in reference to their proposed candidate or policy, “we just didn’t message it well.” From British Remainers to American supporters of Hillary Clinton, political losers the world over have endlessly deployed this reasoning to make sense of their predicament. This is also how bestselling author Kati Marton deals with her subject’s most controversial legacy in The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel (2021). In other words, she claims it was right for Merkel to suspend E.U.-wide asylum rules and welcome over one million migrants in 2015 alone, steamrolling the bloc’s smaller member states and domestic critics in the process. The only caveat? Not that the policy didn’t serve Germany’s best interests, but that Merkel didn’t message forcefully enough that it did.

The book is the first major attempt to sketch out the legacy of Angela Merkel, which is no small feat considering the chancellor’s low-key persona. “There have been no leaks, no tell-all memoirs written by even former staff or confidants during Merkel’s sixteen years as chancellor,” Marton remarks in contrast to the sensationalist brouhaha surrounding Donald Trump. For a four-term premier with 30 points of net positive approval ratings as she readies to leave office, Merkel remains a “figure of mystery,” her introverted temperament a stark contrast to the abrasive personalities of fellow world leaders, from Putin to Macron, whom she outscores on that measure. She eschews the limelight and has successfully shielded much of her private life from public view, including her Lutheran faith, her little-known first marriage and the conflict between those two things. This “instinct to depersonalize her leadership,” one learns reading Marton’s book, is the product of growing up in the heavily surveilled, communist East Germany, where her pastor father was sent to minister. “Youth under the Stasi regime pushed Merkel into a form of internal exile, with science serving as her refuge.”

This demure character of hers makes the chemist-turned-politician’s rise through the power ladder of reunified Germany all the more meteoric. “For nearly a decade,” writes Marton about the 1990s, “her placid manner had lulled her colleagues into underestimating her capacity for guile.” Not for long. Though she owed former CDU chancellor Helmut Kohl her start in ministerial politics, Merkel didn’t hesitate to turn on him when the moment was ripe. Eight years after being promoted to the environment portfolio as the Kohl cabinet’s only East German woman, Merkel penned an op-ed calling for her mentor’s resignation in response to alleged campaign-financial shenanigans shortly after losing the 1998 federal race to the social-democrat Gerard Schroder. By leaving a sinking ship instead of honoring aged loyalties, Merkel had “demonstrated that beneath her solid façade lay a fierce will.” A similar remark would apply to Merkel’s rushing of an E.U.-wide investment agreement with China at year’s end with no advance notice to Joe Biden’s America—a remarkably disloyal gesture for someone claiming America as Germany’s closest ally.

Perhaps Merkel, like her admired Henry Kissinger, is too much of a realist to filter reality through the Manichean lens that is America’s norm. Unlike her friend and accomplice Barack Obama, Merkel “does not believe that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice.” Instead, duplicity, half-truths, and side deals are par for the course in Merkel’s view of the governing profession. This does not mean that her routine paeans to the West’s liberal democratic values are tongue-in-cheek. Only that her actions ought to be measured along a different scale, something the German foreign policy establishment calls “compartmentalizing.” One day she lambasts China’s internment of Uyghur Muslims, the next she seals the largest investment agreement the Communist Party of China (CCP) has ever entered into. One day she pontificates about Russia’s human rights abuses and Europe’s need to transition away from fossil fuels, the next she prods through with Nord Stream 2. By “Merkel is not wedded to ideology or dogma,” is this double-dealing what Marton means?

Merkel’s legacy, for all the book-length attempts by journalists to pierce the chancellor’s veil of privacy, will always be grasped differently by friend and foes, realists and idealists, Germans and foreigners. The issue with Marton’s account, no matter how well written and thoroughly researched, is that her ode to Merkel too often veers into vacuous, moralistic platitudes. Forced to run for a fourth term by the global spread of populism, Merkel is the “reluctant leader of a liberal world order in crisis”, “too busy saving the world.” Drawing on the insights of historian Herfried Münkler’s account of 17th-century Europe, Merkel is gripped by the fear that the generation who lived through World War II is all but extinguished, making another conflagration—one would suppose—likelier by the day. The icing on the cake, though, comes when Marton is so keen to celebrate Merkel’s turning of Germany into “the moral center of the world” that she casually slips into banalizing evil. As the droves of refugees kept pouring toward Europe in the summer of 2015, Marton recounts, Merkel was “surely familiar with the events of another sparkling summer, in 1934,” in reference to the sterile Evian conference meant to save Austrian and German Jews from assured death.

None of this makes Merkel’s odyssey any less remarkable. It just makes it less god-like.

Jorge González-Gallarza (@JorgeGGallarza) is the co-host of the Uncommon Decency podcast on European issues (@UnDecencyPod) and an associate researcher at Fundación Civismo (Madrid).