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ANGELA MERKEL

ANALYSIS: Are Germans questioning Merkel’s legacy?

In her first major speech since leaving office, Angela Merkel called Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “barbaric.” But the former Chancellor has been criticised for enabling Vladimir Putin while in office. Will German public opinion on Merkel turn?

Olaf Scholz and Angela Merkel
Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) hands flowers to former chancellor Angela Merkel as she leaves office. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

The same week she left office this past December, Angela Merkel was Germany’s most popular politician. Leaving with flowers and a 68 percent approval rating, she was one of the few politicians – in any country ever – to successfully engineer a graceful exit from politics on her own terms.

Six months on, Christian Democrat Merkel has mostly kept quiet. On June 1st though, she finally gave her first public speech since leaving the Chancellery. Speaking at a farewell event for the President of the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB), Merkel came out in support of the SPD-led coalition government’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as the international efforts the US, NATO, G7, and UN are taking to stop Russia’s “barbaric” war.

“My solidarity goes to Ukraine, which has been attacked and invaded by Russia, and to supporting their right to self-defence,” she said. “We should never take peace and freedom for granted.”

Ukraine criticises Merkel’s record

Merkel left office telling Germans to expect a period of silence from her. She maintained she wouldn’t be taking many speaking engagements for a while and would instead focus on writing a memoir of her key political decisions. True to the understated and humble style both Germans and foreigners know her for, she maintained she would mostly write it herself, without a ghostwriter, with help only from her longtime assistant Beate Baumann.

Angela Merkel (CDU) attends a vote to elect the new German President in Feburary in Berlin

Angela Merkel (CDU) attends a vote to elect the new German President in Feburary in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau

Before her speech, she made just one short public intervention, defending her decision to keep Ukraine and Georgia out of NATO during a summit in April 2008. That decision is just one of many German choices Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky says emboldened Russian President Vladimir Putin to invade his country. Zelensky has levelled sharp criticism at Merkel personally, for everything from her NATO decision to her support for Nord Stream 2, the now cancelled pipeline that would have delivered Russian gas directly to Germany.

“I invite Ms. Merkel and Mr. Sarkozy to visit Bucha and see what the policy of concessions to Russia has led to in the last 14 years,” he said in April, referring to the systematic massacres Russian soldiers conducted in a town near Kyiv.

READ ALSO: Clouds over Merkel’s legacy as Russian invasion lays flaws bare

German Public cools on Merkel’s policies

While there’s no indication in polls conducted so far that Germans blame Merkel for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, recent surveys show that many now support reversing some of her most key decisions.

During Merkel’s tenure, Germany became dependent on Russia for over half its natural gas imports. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline she supported, if it did become operational, would likely have only added to that dependence. Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, ordinary Germans were generally in agreement, with 60 percent supporting Nord Stream 2’s completion. But more than 75 percent now say they want independence from Russian energy, either immediately or step-by-step over the next few months.

Beyond Russia, the German public now seems to want a more distant relationship with another authoritarian country Merkel tried to build closer economic ties with – 83 percent of Germans want the country to gradually become less economically dependent on China.

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

Merkel hasn’t yet set a release date for her book, but as Russia wages war in Ukraine, a sizeable number of Germans now look prepared to break with some of her most consequential decisions. 

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CRIME

Ukrainian Holocaust survivors find safe haven in Germany

Borys Shyfrin fled as a young child, along with other members of his Jewish family, from the Nazis.

Ukrainian Holocaust survivors find safe haven in Germany

More than eight decades on, the Ukrainian Holocaust survivor has been forced from his home once more – but this time he’s found a safe haven in Germany.

Shyfrin is among a number of Ukrainian Jews who lived through the Nazi terror and have now fled to the country from which Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich launched its drive try to wipe Jews out.

He never wanted to leave Mariupol, where he had lived for decades. But Russia’s brutal assault on the Ukrainian port city made it impossible to stay.

“There was no gas, no electricity, no water whatsoever,” the 81-year-old told AFP from a care home in Frankfurt, recalling the relentless bombardment by Moscow’s forces.

“We were waiting for the authorities to come… We waited for a day, two days a week.”

Bodies of people killed by bombs and gunfire littered the streets, recalled Shyfrin, a widower who had lost contact with his only son.

“There were so many of them… no one picked them up. People got used to it – no one paid attention.”

People scraped by finding what food they could, with water supplied by a fire engine that made regular visits to his neighbourhood.

Shyfrin’s apartment was damaged during the fighting in Mariupol – defended so fiercely that it became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance – and he spent much time sheltering in the cellar of his building.

Became homeless

The elderly man eventually left Mariupol with the aid of a rabbi, who helped the local Jewish population get out of the city.

He was evacuated to Crimea, and from there, travelled on a lengthy overland journey through Russia and Belarus, eventually arriving in Warsaw, Poland.

After some weeks in Poland, a place in a care home was found in Frankfurt.

In July, he was transported to Germany in an ambulance, with the help of the Claims Conference, a Jewish organisation that has been aiding the evacuation of Ukrainian Holocaust survivors.

Shyfrin, who walks with the aid of a stick, is still processing the whirlwind of events that carried him unexpectedly to Germany.

The outbreak of war was a “very big surprise”, he said.

“I used to love (Russian President Vladimir) Putin very much,” said Shyfrin, who is a native Russian speaker, did military service in the Soviet Union, and went on to work as a radio engineer with the military.

“Now I do not know whether Putin is right to be at war with Ukraine or not – but somehow, because of this war, I have become homeless.”

Shyfrin was born in 1941, in Gomel, Belarus.

When he was just three months old, his family fled to Tajikistan to escape German Nazi forces who were occupying the region.

Many of Belarus’s Jews died during the Holocaust, in which the Nazis killed a total of six million European Jews.

In neighbouring Ukraine, the once-large Jewish community was also almost completely wiped out.

After the war, his family returned to Belarus and Shyfrin completed his studies, did military service, and settled in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, in the mid-1970s.

“Traumatised”

The pensioner seemed philosophical about the twist of fate that has forced him to leave his home.

“Well, it’s not up to me,” he said, when asked about having to flee war for the second time in his life.

His most immediate concerns are more practical – such as how to access his money back home.

“I can’t even receive my honestly earned military pension,” he said.

He recently moved to a new care home run by the Jewish community, where there are more Russian speakers.

As well as helping Shyfrin on the final leg of his journey, the Claims Conference provided him with financial assistance.

It has evacuated over 90 Ukrainian Holocaust survivors to Germany since the outbreak of the conflict, a break from the organisation’s usual work of ensuring that survivors get compensation and ongoing support.

The body had long been helping to run care programmes for Holocaust victims in Ukraine.

But, as the conflict intensified, it became clear such care programmes could no longer be sustained, particularly in the east, said Ruediger Mahlo, the Conference’s representative in Germany.

“Because many of the survivors needed a lot of care and could not survive without this help, it was clear we had to try to do everything to evacuate (them),” he told AFP.

Getting them out involved huge logistical challenges, from finding ambulances in Ukraine to locating suitable care homes.

For many of the frail Holocaust survivors, it can be a struggle to grasp the fact that they have found refuge in Germany, said Mahlo.

They are fleeing to a country that “had in the past persecuted them, and done everything to kill them,” he said.

“Certainly, they are traumatised,” he said.

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