What should we make of all of this, then? I must say that I feel ambiguous about Angela Merkel. As a German-British citizen, I feel about her like I feel about the Queen. To wit, I am neither a fan of constitutional monarchy nor the Royal Family. The monarchy, in my view, has entrenched, rather than challenged, profound inequalities in British life. That being said, I think that the Queen has rendered an impressive and dignified service to our country. To see her Majesty, shortly after the death of her husband, the Duke Edinburgh, resume her royal duties without a flinch should warm the heart of even the most strident republican. Never explain, never complain. How true.
By analogy, as a political philosopher, I am not a fan of conservatism, either. And yet, I think that Frau Dr Merkel’s time as chancellor was not without political and social merit. Most importantly, in the summer of 2015, when many European leaders were dragging their heels, Mrs Merkel acted to prevent a humanitarian disaster on the borders of Europe – she acted late but decisively. She knew that this would endanger her political career and lead to a drop in her approval ratings. Her enemies within the CDU/CSU and the nationalist populist Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) would have their field day. She went ahead regardless. For that alone she should be commended.
Merkel also enhanced Germany’s reputation abroad, especially, from 2016 onward, as a counterweight to the populist right around the world. To be sure, politically she could have done more to stem its rise. The unhalted regression towards ‘illiberal’ democracy in some European Union member states is a stain on her (and the EU’s) political record. That said, she served as a symbol of anti-populism and she did warn her compatriots, sometimes with uncharacteristic passion, against the dangerous allure of the AfD. More generally, Germany is well respected globally through her leadership, and that means something for a country that has been traumatised by its fascist past and the legacy of the Holocaust.
Last but not least, while she did explain her policies, most notably on the Euro, refugees, or the coronavirus pandemic, she did not complain, just like Her Majesty. And she would have had plenty of reason to. Oprah, get us a box of tissues!
Frau Dr Merkel was the victim of sexism and sexist double standards right from the beginning of her career. After the close election result of 2005, Gerhard Schroeder’s treatment of her on television cost him his career. There have been, since her entry into politics after the reunification, plenty of men on the German centre-right with the knives out for her. In the CDU, she remained the perennial outsider – tolerated but never truly loved. After 2015, the CSU tried to actively undermine her. She was belittled as Kohl’s Maedchen in the 1990s, while, throughout the 2010s, the AfD ran a highly personalised hate campaign against her that wilfully eroded standards of propriety or ‘civility’ in democratic life. Everyone, even her supporters, thought she was a bit boring – and she’d probably agree. After all, she only ever ate peanuts and never danced.
On the international stage there were plenty of troublesome men to deal with: George W Bush tried to massage her shoulders, with limited success. (If you thought Ed Miliband’s encounter with a bacon sandwich was cringeworthy, you should google Mr Bush’s attempt at German-American massage therapy.) Putin scared her with his dog. Trump did not want to shake her hand. On her recent farewell visit to the UK, Boris Johnson, the old wordsmith, said ‘the wurst is over’ and then legged it out of their joint press conference. (At least Theresa May provided some light entertainment when she got stuck in her car in front of the Kanzleramt in Berlin.) The Polish tabloid press routinely portrayed her in Nazi uniform, usually riding atop some poor pro-EU politician. The Greek press promptly followed suit.
At least on the outside, none of it seemed to faze Frau Dr Merkel. She just ploughed on. I will miss her. Reluctantly.