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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OPINION: German government is pushing ambitious agenda despite turbulent first year

Germany's government has had a rocky first year having to deal with the consequences of Russia's war in Ukraine. Despite having to make sacrifices, the coalition has proved stable so far - and is even managing to push ahead with ambitious plans, writes Brian Melican.

OPINION: German government is pushing ambitious agenda despite turbulent first year

A few days back, I saw a recent photo of myself and, like millions before me in their late 30s, spent several seconds staring at that grizzled countenance, deep lines running from eyes to ears, asking myself repeatedly: “Is that really me?”, “Do I look that old?”, and “What the hell has happened to start making me age this visibly?” In this way, I’m probably quite similar to our tripartite coalition government, which started off almost exactly a year ago in eminently Instagram-able form and which now, tellingly, is avoiding photo opportunities like a Hollywood star gone to seed.

Yes, after sixth months of almost continuous wrangling – about weapons deliveries to the Ukraine, Covid restrictions, tackling our energy crisis – the bright eyes of autumn 2021 have lost their lustre, the bushy tails are looking straggly, and behind (not so) closed doors, people are talking: “The Ampelkoalition (traffic light coalition) sure is looking old these days…” Yet, just like me, the German coalition government looks a hell of a site worse than it actually is. It just needs to recover from the shock of seeing itself in the mirror when Olaf Scholz, for the first time, made public use of his Chancellor’s prerogative earlier this week to keep nuclear power stations running.

Russia’s war de-rails projects

So what is responsible for the rapid multiplication of grey hairs in the beards and on the temples of this government? The answer to that question is quite simple: Russia. Twelve months back, when Robert Habeck, Annalena Baerbock, Lars Klingbeil, and Christian Lindner were having their late-night love-in before going on to hammer out the most far-reaching coalition agreement of the last two decades, only the hardest-boiled military intelligence operatives envisioned the possibility of a full-blown land war involving a nuclear superpower just a few hundred miles to our east. The rest of us – politicians, the media, and (not least) voters – were expecting the nascent post-Covid economic recovery to be the main story of 2022; it might have been autumn, but there was a sense of spring – and of ambition – in the air.

Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck of the Greens with the SPD's Olaf Scholz and the FDP's Christian Lindner in November 2021 during coalition agreement negotiations.

Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck of the Greens with the SPD’s Olaf Scholz and the FDP’s Christian Lindner in November 2021 during coalition agreement negotiations. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

And so the SPD was looking forward to atoning for its Hartz IV sins and finally helping the poor while the Greens visibly relished the prospect of picking up where they left off in 2005 and actually getting the green energy transition done. The FDP, meanwhile, had managed to achieve its three main objectives: societal liberalisation (re-examining Covid restrictions, encouraging immigration, legalising cannabis), fiscal stability (Lindner’s hands on the purse strings), and political independence after decades being considered the right-hand man of an increasingly mal-coordinated CDU.

The war, of course, has left seemingly achievable ambitions looking like luxuries from which each of the three parties has been forced to deviate substantially – often while disavowing core parts of their political orthodoxies. It’s no surprise that the SPD is looking tired after, in late February, it was forced into a gruelling, high-speed course of psychotherapy about its relationship to Russia and simultaneously sent to boot-camp to get rid of its pathologically uncritical pacifism. Being the self-proclaimed ‘party of peace’ that puts its political weight behind an unplanned €100-billion defence-spending splurge is certainly going to put a few frown lines on a previously smooth forehead. 

Then there’s the FDP, whose founding credo is sound fiscal policy and will not (repeat: not) raise either taxes or borrowing. Yet rather than simply keeping unnecessary expenses low and using additional yields to finance SPD social spending and Green investment (which was the sensible-enough plan), the FDP finance minister Christian Lindner has already had to find €100 billion for the army (see above) and then another €200 billion for gas and emergency relief – just as tax receipts stall in the second recession of 2020s. Thus far, he’s kept the books nominally balanced by banishing these gazillions to the annexes of the annual report: yet you can only play the ‘special one-off expenditure’ card, well, once, twice tops before people start asking questions. Third time round (and there will be at least one more time), you start looking like a homeowner who conveniently omits their ever-growing mountain of credit card debt on mortgage application forms… Money worries are certainly likely to leave their mark on your countenance.

Fact check: Is Germany heading into a recession next year?

And then there are the Greens, who – after two frustrating decades of watching the energy transition they initiated back in the early 2000s grind to a halt – finally got their hands on the levers of power, only for the mistakes of the Merkel-era to come back and bite them – yes, them! – in the arse. It is truly heart-rending to watch the only party in Germany which repeatedly warned against an over-dependency on Russian gas, time and again stressing the importance of diversifying and decarbonising our energy sources, now be forced to kow-tow to Qatar in the hope of emergency gas deliveries while authorising the increased use of coal-fired power stations. Then there’s the galling, Alanis-Morissette-definition irony of having to consent to extending nuclear… No wonder the Greens look careworn!

The Greens' Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck with Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) at a cabinet meeting on October 12th 2022.

The Greens’ Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck with Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) at a cabinet meeting on October 12th 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

Despite everything: a functioning German government

So when you remember all of this, it’s not surprising that the Ampelkoalition appears somewhat beleaguered – and it’s actually astonishing that the parties are still in government together. German administrations have foundered over less: as recently as 2019, the SPD was audibly toying with the idea of curtailing its third coalition with Merkel’s CDU/CSU over issues which, viewed from today, look positively petty. Meanwhile, a brief look around us reveals just how fragile political stability is: Sweden can only form a government under the open toleration of unappetising right-wing populists, Italy is being Italy, and as for the UK… well. Meanwhile, we are blessed with a government which, for all its faults, is backed by a broad range of the electorate, has a stable majority, and reaches compromises (however messy) – or, when it can’t, at least accepts the authority of its chancellor.

All of this, of course, requires huge amounts of effort and self-discipline from those involved: how long each of the three parties can hold its tongue at the right moment – and hold its nerve in the face of downturns in the polls or regional-election routs – is anyone’s guess. There’ll be plenty more tests, too: the enduring tragedy of this coalition’s term in office will be that swathes of the ambitious agreement on which it was founded last autumn have already become inoperable; plans which seemed feasible in 2021 have, in 2022, been replaced by firefighting as the world burns. 

Much like youthful dreams, all coalition agreements get dented on first contact with reality: this one, however, was shattered by a full-frontal collision with history in late February. As such, the Ampelkoalition is four years too late to achieve its peacetime agenda, and that’s bitterly disappointing. Yet it’s making a surprisingly good fist of its wartime term – and actually making headway on some planned policies (like benefits reform , citizenship and immigration changes, and, mercifully in these worrying times, cannabis legalisation). Let’s just hope that, after peering into the mirror and noticing the lines, its participants resist the temptation to have a mid-life crisis.

READ ALSO: What to know about Germany’ s unemployment benefits shake up