German military bids Merkel farewell after 16 ‘eventful’ years

With a hit by the "godmother of punk" Nina Hagen, Germany's military saluted a visibly moved Angela Merkel during a ceremonial farewell Thursday, just a week before she is due to bow out of politics after 16 years in office.

Angela Merkel at the Großer Zapfenstreich
Angela Merkel gives a speech the Großer Zapfenstreich. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AFP POOL | Odd Andersen

Soldiers in full regalia and carrying flaming torches took part in the carefully choreographed evening event, accompanied by a marching band performing traditional military music and Merkel’s own playlist.

The ceremonial send-off came just days before Germany’s parliament is due to officially elect Social Democrat Olaf Scholz as Merkel’s replacement, putting the centre-left politician in charge after 16 years of conservative-led rule.

At the ceremony, Merkel said her four terms were “eventful and often very challenging years.

“They have challenged me politically and humanly and at the same time, they were also fulfilling.”

Alluding to the challenge of countering fake news as Germany fights the relentless coronavirus pandemic, she underlined the “great significance of trust in politics, science and societal discourse — and also how fragile all that is”.

Stressing that democracies live on “solidarity and trust — also from trust in facts”, she said that where scientific facts were being denied and where conspiracy theories abound, they must be energetically countered.

‘Highlight of my youth’

Known for her regular attendance at Bayreuth opera festival, dedicated to the composer Richard Wagner, Merkel had surprised military band leaders and political commentators alike with her unusual playlist for the military pomp.

While Helmut Kohl opted for Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and Gerhard Schroeder plumped for Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” when it was their turn to bow out, Merkel chose East German pop song “Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen” (You forgot the colour film) by Nina Hagen.

Asked at a press conference Thursday about the pick, Merkel said it harked back to her younger days in communist East Germany.

“The song was a highlight of my youth… The song also came from East Germany and, coincidentally, it is still played in a region that used to be my constituency. So everything fits today,” the 67-year-old said.

READ ALSO: ‘One of us’: Merkel’s German hometown a refuge from wild world

Soldiers at the Zepfenstreich
Soldiers salute outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel with torches at the Großer Zapfenstreich ceremony. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AFP POOL | Odd Andersen

Merkel was born in the port city of Hamburg, but her father, a Lutheran clergyman and a schoolteacher, moved the family to a small-town parish in the communist East at a time when tens of thousands were headed the other way.

Hagen, who began her career in the East, emigrated to West Germany and became a leading figure in the punk scene of the 1980s.

In the song, Hagen complains that because her boyfriend forgot to bring colour film for the camera on their holiday, “no one would believe how beautiful it was here”.

An orchestral arrangement of the song, first released in 1974, was specially written by a music corps clarinetist for the ceremony.

‘Unexpectedly sentimental’

While few were surprised by Merkel’s pick of the hymn “Grosser Gott, wir loben dich” (Holy God, we praise thy name), commentators also raised their eyebrows over the third song, touching sixties ballad “Für mich soll’s rote Rosen regen” (It should rain red roses for me) by Hildegard Knef.

The tear-jerker is “unexpectedly sentimental for a woman with the sensible, pragmatic style of government,” noted Spiegel.

Its lyrics may hint at Merkel’s future, said Spiegel, citing the stanza: “Let it rain red roses for me, let me encounter new wonders, let me unfold anew from the old.”

Großer Zapfenstreich

Angela Merkel watches the Großer Zapfenstreich held in honour of her 16 years as Chancellor on December 2nd, 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AFP POOL | Odd Andersen

The veteran leader, who once said her dream back behind the Iron Curtain had been “to see the Rocky Mountains, drive around in a car and listen to Bruce Springsteen,” has been tight-lipped about what she’ll do next.Her choices reflected Merkel’s ability to “send messages better with gestures than with words”, the German Süddeutsche daily wrote.

But she has said she pictures herself reading and maybe taking “a little nap”.

The military ceremony, known as a “grosser Zapfenstreich”, has its origins in the 16th century and is the highest tribute paid by the German army.


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What we learned from Angela Merkel’s first foray out of retirement

The former German Chancellor defended her legacy in her first major interview since leaving office. But it left many questions open - and hasn't impressed her critics, writes Aaron Burnett.

What we learned from Angela Merkel's first foray out of retirement

Six months to the day since she left office, a sold out Berliner Ensemble audience gathered to see Angela Merkel’s first post-retirement media interview. Coming out with her trademark humour and a blue suit jacket, the former Chancellor answered questions from journalist Alexander Osang for an hour and a half on Tuesday evening. 

But it was also an interview that left open more questions than it answered.

Sitting at ease and cracking jokes, Merkel calmly answered Osang’s softball questions, demonstrating that even after six months largely relaxing on the German shores of the Baltic Sea, she still knows how to eat many reporters for breakfast.

Whenever the camera panned to the crowd, it showed a beaming, transfixed audience. “Altkanzlerin” or “ex-Chancellor” or not – Merkel still knows how to hold a room. And when she’s in the room, she still knows how to run the show.

Merkel isn’t doing regrets over Russia and Ukraine

Merkel’s performance during the interview was all the more notable given how her controversial record on Ukraine and Russia dominated the discussion almost entirely.

Somewhat nervously, Osang’s first substantive question – after spending several minutes talking about Merkel’s quiet retirement – was about her decision to block NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia in 2008. Ukraine at the time, was a divided country plagued by oligarchy and corruption, she said, and not prepared to be in NATO. She reasoned that because membership doesn’t happen overnight, Russia’s Vladimir Putin may well have invaded to prevent Ukraine from joining – at a time when it wasn’t ready to defend itself.

Merkel went on to say that she doesn’t regret how she handled Putin, and defended her record of keeping diplomatic dialogue open with him to try and prevent war.

“I don’t blame myself,” she told the crowd. “I would feel very bad if I had said there wasn’t any point in talking to him.”

READ ALSO: Merkel says she has ‘nothing to apologise for’ over Russia legacy

Merkel didn’t really believe in ‘change through trade’

Merkel insisted she was never under any illusions about who Putin was, and didn’t really believe in Wandel durch Handel (change through trade), or the idea that boosting economic links between Germany and Russia would change how Putin would behave. It was an uncharacteristically frank statement from a politician with a reputation for her public poker face, saying little while in office.

Yet many analysts, both inside and outside Germany, say those are claims that simply don’t stack up against evidence.

“Not believing in ‘change through trade,’ which supposedly guided German policy during much of her time, is a remarkable admission that Germany was basically just profiting from its relationship with Russia, at the expense of Ukraine and central European states like Estonia – without actually trying to use German leverage to make Russia more democratic and less threatening,” said Benjamin Tallis, a Fellow at the Hertie School’s Centre for International Security in Berlin.

“That’s just a policy of naked greed.”

Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves commented on Merkel’s interview in similar terms.

Merkel’s answers on the state of the German army, or Bundeswehr, weren’t entirely convincing either.

“On a personal level, I thought she was good – funny, engaged, eloquent,” said Dr. Ulrike Franke, a German defence expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Yet Franke says Merkel oversold her role when pushing for higher defence spending against resistance from the Social Democrats, her coalition partner. “She is right that the SPD was putting the brakes on this, and the CDU was pushing more. But her personally? Not so much.”

All the things Merkel didn’t say – from new progressive politics to energy

Merkel’s interview was perhaps just as notable for what she didn’t say – and what Osang didn’t ask her.

If Merkel really didn’t believe in change through trade, how did Germany become so  dependent on Russian energy? Osang didn’t ask. Nor did he ask about one of Merkel’s other major decisions – her surprise reversal on continuing nuclear power in Germany after the Fukushima disaster in 2011. That decision made Germany even more dependent on Russian gas, oil, and coal. 

“At the time, too little was done to diversify energy sources in Europe and Germany in order to become independent of Russia more quickly,” German Council on Foreign Relations Director Daniela Schwarzer told Tagesschau. Bild newspaper criticised her for being a Chancellor without a plan, particularly on energy. 

Nor did we hear about whether Germany should have been more ambitious in its climate targets, or whether the country’s dependence on Russian energy hampers a transition to clean energy.

Merkel’s crisis leadership during Covid-19, the euro crisis – even the 2015 refugee crisis – was scarcely mentioned at all, let alone subjected to serious questioning.

We did find out that she broadly supports the current government but doesn’t wish to comment on everything from the sidelines, akin to a grandmother trying not to tell her granddaughter how to bring up her children. From a woman who has been referred to as Germany’s “Mutti” or “Mummy,” it was an apt analogy.

But beyond its Ukraine policy, which specific bits of the new government’s agenda does the ex-Chancellor agree or disagree with? Merkel didn’t say and Osang didn’t ask.

And it would be interesting to know because a lot of change is happening. For instance, the country’s strict abortion laws are being eased. Cannabis is set to be legalised. Dual citizenship is to be allowed, even if the current government hasn’t yet said precisely when.

All of these decisions point to a very different Germany than the one under Merkel – but they weren’t discussed.

We did, however, hear quite a bit about how Merkel is spending her retirement. She is enjoying hiking in nature and reading the books she hasn’t had time to get to – including Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Beyond that, we mostly heard about Merkel’s foreign policy, which may end up largely defining her legacy. For better or worse, that risks leaving so many of her other decisions broadly unexamined.

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