An era ends: How will Germany and the world remember the Merkel years?

Angela Merkel is leaving office after 16 years with high approval ratings and at a time of her own choosing. How might Germans look back on her time in office? Aaron Burnett explores her legacy and how she's influencing the next chancellor.

An era ends: How will Germany and the world remember the Merkel years?
Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Chancellor's Office on January 6th 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/POOL afp | John Macdougall

An 18 year-old German casting their first ballot in this election would have been two years old when Angela Merkel was sworn in as the country’s first female Chancellor. George W. Bush was still US President, Tony Blair was still the British Prime Minister, and the global financial crisis hadn’t happened yet. 

After 16 years of what seems like near-constant crisis, Merkel, who is also the first chancellor to have been raised in eastern Germany, is stepping down with public approval ratings of around 65 percent. She’s not even running and yet her departure is still heavily influencing the country’s current election campaign. Her Christian Democrat (CDU) party chose their current candidate, Armin Laschet, partly because he represented some continuity with her brand of pragmatic, centrist politics.


Green candidate Annalena Baerbock is known to have a similar eye for the nitty-gritty of policy detail. Social Democrat candidate Olaf Scholz, currently leading in opinion polls, even released a cheeky Merkel-inspired ad. It said “Er kann Kanzlerin,” or “he can be Chancellor,” while using the feminine version of the world “Chancellor” instead of the male: “Kanzler.” It was probably the biggest sign yet that all three candidates – even those not from Merkel’s CDU – are trying to convince German voters they are her natural successor.

“Everyone is trying to portray themselves as Merkel,” says political scientist and foreign policy specialist Marcel Dirsus. “Everyone is trying to out-Merkel each other.”

Merkel already made history the day she was elected, but she could soon be set to do it again. Coalition talks will start after Germans vote on September 26th. If a new government hasn’t formed by December 17th, she’ll overtake Helmut Kohl as the longest-serving Chancellor in modern German history. Having dominated German and European politics for 16 years, she’ll leave a permanent mark on the country’s political psyche.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: When exactly will Merkel leave office?

What will that mark look like? German politics observers we spoke with say that, in short, Merkel will be remembered as a calm and rational crisis manager, a shrewd political tactician, and a natural consensus builder – who lacked a bold vision for where she wanted to take the country and continent. 

A rock of stability in a turbulent time

To be fair, most of Merkel’s chancellorship was heavily driven by unpredictable events. From the financial crisis, euro crisis, refugee crisis, the resurgent populism of Brexit, Donald Trump, and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), and finally, the coronavirus pandemic as well as catastrophic flooding this summer – the Merkel Era has hardly been a golden age. 

Merkel’s scientist-politician approach to policy at times made her particularly well-suited to a crisis-ridden era. “She doesn’t lead ideologically, but rather in a fact-oriented way,” says Oliver Wittke, a Bundestag Member (MdB) from Merkel’s CDU. For him, this approach was especially evident during Covid-19. “She took scientific counsel and implemented it into concrete political measures that found wide acceptance within the population.”

As an unprecedented global health and economic crisis, the current Covid-19 pandemic would test Merkel’s experience in a way no previous event had. Merkel watchers say it revealed a very different chancellor than Germans and Europeans saw during the euro crisis – when Stern magazine labelled her “Die Eiskönigin,” or “the Ice Queen” for her tough eurozone bailout conditions and unemotional style.

“There were a lot of things about it that were unprecedented,” says Berlin-based AFP correspondent Deborah Cole of Merkel’s televised speech in March 2020 – the only one ever given by a German Chancellor outside of the annual New Year’s message. “She spoke in a very personal and emotional way about what this means. She very early on acknowledged that she was asking for sacrifice on the part of the German people, but for the best cause possible.”

Angela Merkel giving the TV address to Germany on March 18th 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Fabian Strauch

For Christian Odendahl, the Berlin-based Chief Economist at the Centre for European Reform, Covid-19 also showed how Merkel’s crisis management evolved over time, learning from past mistakes. “She misunderstood the euro crisis as a debt crisis when it was so much more than that,” he says. “The difference in how she reacted to the euro crisis and how she reacted to the pandemic is, I think, quite telling.”

READ ALSO: Merkel, the eternal chancellor, gets ready to leave the world stage

From the Chancellor who was often accused of lecturing Europe about the evils of public debt and overspending during the euro crisis, Covid-19 saw Merkel open government coffers in unprecedented ways. Her government passed domestic stimulus packages worth over a trillion euros, and put up the largest single share of money for the EU’s 750 billion euro recovery fund.

“It was a very bold, forward-looking, Europe-focused crisis response – undertaken very quickly,” says Odendahl.

As someone expected to also provide leadership on a European level, Merkel’s Covid-19 response also gave Germans and Europeans another glimpse of her savvy crisis-negotiation skills. “People underestimate how difficult it is to get anything done in Brussels,” says Dirsus. “Merkel is someone who is very good at forging compromise, and she’s shown that at a European level.”

Beyond crises: Merkel’s missing policy legacy?

Perhaps tellingly after 16 years though, it is not yet clear what Merkel’s lasting policy legacy will be beyond her responses to disastrous events. Does Merkel have a signature policy the way Kohl had the euro or Gerhard Schröder had labour market reforms? 

“She has not, at each election, set out a course and said ‘this is where I’d like to see Germany in four years,’” says Cole. “It’s been more about problem-solving than ‘where can we go as a society?’”

Analysts say that beyond her capable crisis response, the Merkel years are marked by many missed opportunities on everything from infrastructure investment to foreign policy – areas that often require longer-term vision and planning.
Angela Merkel and Donald Trump surrounded by other participants at the G7 talks in Canada in 2018. Merkel never minced her words. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jesco Denzel

“At a time when we have many large policy questions, when we look at Europe, when we look at globalisation, when we look at the climate. When we look at how to prevent crisis rather than simply manage it, we haven’t seen the same achievements during her time in office,” says Dr. Ursula Münch, Director of the Academy for Political Education in Tutzing.

“The fact that our public train operator is in a dismal state, that is a legacy of Angela Merkel, full stop,” says Odendahl. “The pandemic also put into focus the dismal state of German digitalisation in public administration. A lot of effort had to be put in to compensate for that.”

On foreign policy, Dirsus says Merkel hasn’t done enough to explain to ordinary Germans how harsh the world around them is becoming, with a rising China and an aggressive Russia.

“It’s not the early 90’s anymore,” he says, calling Merkel’s pragmatic China policy her largest foreign policy failure. “Not only did she fail to stand up to Beijing, but she made Germany more dependent on China. That’s especially tragic because China has become more aggressive towards its neighbours and to Germany’s allies.”

The Merkel Era may well go down in history as a pivotal time when Germany’s strength, both economically and politically, increasingly propelled it – and its Chancellor – closer to a central place on the world stage during a turbulent time.

She will also be fondly remembered by many for her no-nonsense communication and way of dealing with world leaders, her sense of humour and honest approach. You’d be hard pushed to find another leader who’d apologise and acknowledge a mistake so quickly, like Merkel did during this year’s short lived Easter lockdown debacle plan. For that she earned respect. 

Merkel’s New Year address through the years from 2005 (bottom right) to 2020 (top left). Photo collage: picture alliance/dpa


But due to the longer-term nature of some of Merkel’s blind spots, some policy failures might not become clear for several years.

“We may eventually look back on it as a time when we could have done more or had more options. We may say we had more options on climate, that we had more options on anti-pluralist tendencies in the EU. We may ask why we didn’t use those options,” says Münch.

Member comments

  1. “A rock of stability in a turbulent time” – that says it all! Maybe if other countries had a leader of this quality for this period, it would not have been such a turbulent time: instead, we suffered a litany of testosterone-fuelled ego-maniacs – the so-called Populists.
    Hers will be big boots to fill and for sure not with the little dancing tootsies of “Laughing-boy Laschet”! I just hope, if it is the solid Scholz, he can control the left-wing loonies in his own party while advancing climate friendly and digitalisation policies.

  2. Energy policy ? Migrant policy ? Defence policy ? All disastrous – chiefly due to lacklustre lazy politics. Hopeless understanding of European politics and largely responsible for Brexit. Worst German Chancellor since you know who.

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Will Germany’s motorists and cyclists ever learn to live with other?

It's more important than ever that Germany's two distinct tribes - drivers and cyclists - learn to accept each other rather than being stuck in constant road rage, explains Brian Melican.

Will Germany's motorists and cyclists ever learn to live with other?

Another week, another discussion about whether Germany has become too bike-friendly or, on the contrary, is still a country where the car is king – a cruel monarch who, day in, day out exacts a deathly toll on cyclists, pedestrians, and indeed anyone who likes to breathe air. To those of us with a high proportion of Germans in our Twitter feeds, this debate is nothing new; now, thanks to the fact that the populist think-pieces of Bild are now available in English (Who knew?), the long-running ideological slanging match between drivers and riders is now there for all to follow. Oh, joy!

For many who move to Germany, the country appears, at first sight, to be firmly in the grip of cyclists. Especially in the university towns of the flat north such as Münster, Göttingen, or Braunschweig, the sheer number of visible bikes is remarkable, and even in Hamburg and Berlin, there are cycles lanes seemingly everywhere along which a constant stream of ruddy-cheeked individuals plying their pedals, making liberal use of their bells. Coming fresh from London or Paris, the contrast is striking – and you run a not insignificant risk of being mowed down when standing on the wrong bit of the pavement.

Yet to those who move here from Amsterdam or Copenhagen, Germany looks like a place where cyclists are treated as an unwelcome nuisance by traffic planners and as fair game by unscrupulous motorists with a pronounced taste for speed. The very fact that most cycle lanes are on pavements, for instance, strikes them as strange. Surely the best place for bicycles is well away from pedestrians? What is more, the large amounts of the carriageway space taken up by cars – either in motion or stationary – seem jarring coming from countries which have long prioritised cycling over driving in built-up environments.

As ever, the truth of the matter lies somewhere in between. And, as so often, we Germans have a marked tendency get into endless, cyclical arguments about points of principle and prove unable to learn to live with our contradictions.

READ ALSO: Road rage in Berlin as cyclists clog streets in pandemic

Cyclists at a demonstration in Düsseldorf in May.

Cyclists at a demonstration in Düsseldorf in May. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | David Young

Speeders’ paradise and cycling favourite

For Germany is, in traffic terms, contradictory. It is at once Europe’s automobile mecca, with the continent’s largest car industry and famously speed-limit-free Autobahns. It’s also one of Europe’s foremost cycling nations in which families routinely bike miles for weekend recreation and the country that gave the world Standlichtfunktion (rear bike lights which remain on when stationary). It’s home to various premium and mass-market manufacturers, behind only China, Taiwan, and the Netherlands in terms of bicycle production and export.

This becomes clear when comparing the bikes Germans ride to those of our European neighbours. Generalisations being odious, the average UK bicycle is a mountain bike poorly suited, in typical British fashion, to the use its owner is making of it: that’s why London businessmen ride into work with their suits in grubby rucksacks with tell-tale streaks of mud up the back and why they are continually scraping around for batteries to put in clip-on lights which inevitably fall off and smash halfway. French households, if at all, have sleek, spotless racing bikes reserved for sporting use in the evenings and at weekends. Otherwise, city-dwellers use widely-available rental bikes – unless it is raining, too warm, too cold, or too windy, or in any other way preferable to not do so. On the other end of the scale, the Dutch and the Danes have workhorse bikes which can fit everything from small children and large dogs through to IKEA flat-pack furniture.

READ ALSO: German state ministers push for Autobahn speed limit

The average German bike, meanwhile, is an all-in-one mountain-cum-city-bike (“Trekkingrad”) with the attention to practical detail for which the country is famous: fitted dynamo-driven lights as standard, a frame over the back wheel onto which weather-proof saddle bags can be clipped, and mudguards over both wheels; it will have at least 21 gears, the highest of which will enable someone in good physical health to do at least 15mph on flats and, increasingly, an electric motor to help it go even faster. Germans build bikes like they build cars: to get you and your stuff comfortably and speedily from A to B. This, by the way, explains the increasing popularity of the pedelec cargo-bikes at the root of the current controversy: they do more or less all the things a car does.

High standards – whatever the transport mode

And this is the nub of the issue: Germans – whether in cars or on bikes – have high standards when it comes to transportation and are congenitally impatient (see also queuing behaviour and ALDI cashiers). When in our cars, we expect to be able to bomb down pot-hole free roads at a minimum of 30mph (and preferably more) and then immediately find a parking space wherever we end up; any impediment to our right of way is taken as a personal insult; pedestrians must cross at designated points or risk death.

READ ALSO: Is it ever acceptable to cross the road at red light in Germany?

People drive on the Autobahn in Laichingen in Baden-Württemberg.

People drive on the Autobahn in Laichingen in Baden-Württemberg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Puchner

And when on our bicycles, we Germans exhibit exactly the same traits: we expect absolutely obstacle-free cycle paths and bike lanes, ample stands and racks wherever we dismount, and are genuinely angry when anyone – on four, on two wheels, or on foot – gets in our way. To give you an idea of just how exacting we Germans are of each other here: I was once, in the driving Hamburg rain, tailgated all the way down the bike lane along Glacischaussee by a woman who, when we stopped at the lights, told me that my mudguard was “antisocial” (asozial) because it, in her opinion, didn’t go far down enough over my back wheel, meaning that she was getting spray in her face. It simply didn’t occur to her to just ride further back or overtake me.

Unfortunately, of course, there is nowhere near enough space in German cities for both those in cars and those on bicycles to be able to drive and ride exactly the way they would like to at all times – without, that is, getting rid of pedestrians entirely (potentially one thing the two groups might agree on). And so we are stuck with groups of road and pavement users shouting abuse at each other (“Verkehrsrowdy!” – road-hog; “Schleicher!” – slowcoach) rather than learning to show consideration, adapt to sub-optimal conditions, and react to unforeseen circumstances. In my own view, the sooner we ban cars entirely from city centres and reclaim the streets for those of us using healthy, emissions-free transport, the better; in the meantime, however, life is too short to be shouting at each other – and could be even shorter for some of us if we all keep trying to do top speed in the same spaces.