Angela merkel

Germany's Top Crisis Manager

APP Bismarck quer (2) cover checl surce
The iron chancellor?
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    How well Europe deals with one of the biggest mass movements of refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers in generations will rest in large part on the performance of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.

  • Facts


    • Angela Merkel has been chancellor of Germany since 2005 and leader of the center-right Christian Democratic Union party since 2000, the first woman to hold either office.
    • She was born in Hamburg in West Germany but her family moved to East Germany and she grew up in a rural area about 50 miles north of the city then named East Berlin.
    • The current flood of would-be immigrants to Germany and other parts of Europe is triggering degrees of friction throughout the continent.
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What’s most striking is what’s missing within Germany’s federal chancellery in Berlin: noise, activity, a sense of urgency. The building’s upper floors are blocked from the sounds of the streets below, where traffic buzzes and demonstrators chant. Only the occasional sound of a food trolley rolling across quiet hallways offers a hint of activity, suggesting another crisis meeting has happened. The feeling is surreal, as if the offices were the quiet eye of a storm.

In the middle of this zone is Chancellor Angela Merkel, who seems to govern without fear of what the storm will entail. Once again, she is guiding Germany through a period of intense stress and enormous challenges.

In the many crises of past years, Ms. Merkel was always a reliably great presence for Germans, like the flight crew in an airplane emergency.

A long-time colleague of Ms. Merkel said she may be the most rational politician he has ever met, and he’s familiar with many political figures both inside and outside of Germany. He has never perceived fear from the chancellor, which he sees as her greatest strength, but in recent days, might also turn out to be a weakness.

In the many crises of past years, Ms. Merkel was always a reliably great presence for Germans, like the flight crew in an airplane emergency. So long as she was not worried, so long as she fastened her seat belt and rummaged around for a life vest, everyone else could remain calm. Now, as waves of refugees and immigrants from war-torn lands pour over the borders, she says, “If we must now begin to apologize for showing a friendly face in emergency situations, then this is not my country.”

That sentence illustrates Ms. Merkel speaking deeply from the heart. This crisis is different and greater than the September 11, 2001 terrorists’ attacks or the challenges faced 25 years ago during the reunification of Germany. It’s more complicated than both those events, creating an echo chamber of communication. If Ms. Merkel says “asylum knows no upper limits,” it is an answer to the Christian Socialist Union (CSU) questions about the human right to asylum, whether from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan.

As the crisis billows through Berlin’s halls of power, word from Afghanistan is that hundreds of thousands have applied for passports to leave the country. When Ms. Merkel takes a selfie with a refugee, it’s viewed as a gesture of humanity. On social media, there are awareness campaigns and protests that not everyone can come.

This is Ms. Merkel’s first crisis where everything she says immediately creates a reaction. After 10 years in office, Ms. Merkel has changed. Unlike most politicians, she no longer fears losing power and is no longer preoccupied by the question of how she got there but rather how does she ever get out of there?

Daily inquiries at the chancellery about whether opening Germany’s opening borders was the right thing to do yields the same answer: “Dead right.” Is it just steady nerves or does a good plan exist?

Anyone who wants to answer this question must view the immigration crisis through the past crises in Ms. Merkel’s life and also must understand she is the German crisis chancellor par excellence, even more so than West Germany leader Helmut Schmidt who dealt with the Hamburg flood, oil crisis, Mogadishu and the kidnapping and murder of German industrialist Hanns-Martin Schleyer.

Ms. Merkel is born of crisis in two ways. She arrived as a refugee child, born in Hamburg, West Germany, before moving to East Germany (the German Democratic Republic or GDR). An unusual escape, to an extent in the wrong direction, based on the convictions of her father, a pastor named Horst Kasner who believed that the GDR as better place to live because it was the anti-fascist state. Because of that, Ms. Merkel draws on her steadfast loyalty to Israel, her thoroughness, when the question arises as to what is politically too far to the right.


Merkel and Kohl in 1991 Source DPA
Ms. Merkel and Mr. Kohl in 1991, the early days. Source: DPA


The GDR’s collapse — its economic, communicative and moral breakdown — brought Ms. Merkel into politics and became her first great teacher. It’s why she has such a desire to function; being pragmatic is not a political side issue for her. What particularly disturbed her about the GDR was that no one could test the limits of one’s own capability. The limit always came from outside forces. In 2010, she said she still had a “good feeling” when she challenged the boundaries of her limits. Now, she’s not only testing her personal limits but also those of us.

Ms. Merkel’s political ascent began with a crisis. A donation scandal in 1999 threw the Christian Democratic Union party into an identity conflict. CDU leader and then-chancellor Helmut Kohl of a reunified Germany had made Ms. Merkel a minister, and he became her second political teacher. However, unlike many who were a part of Mr. Kohl’s system, Ms. Merkel was an outsider who recognized she not only had to leave the party as molded by Mr. Kohl behind her, but also separate herself from him.

In her famous letter in the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper, she asked the CDU to emancipate itself from Mr. Kohl. Did Ms. Merkel know this moment would lead to her ascent? In any case, that’s what happened. Ms. Merkel made her decision without consultation with a committee and without Wolfgang Schäuble, who was the party leader at the time. She had the experience for the first time, and it worked.

Going forward was bumpy, and Ms. Merkel made blunders. She often was in conflict with the republic and her own party. When Ms. Merkel said in 2002 that she wanted to be the candidate for chancellor, such opposition rose from minister presidents of her party that within a week the CDU leader asked her rival, Edmund Stoiber, to run. Preservation of power through renunciation of power. It was a political near-death experience. And she learned she could survive in this way.

Mr. Stoiber lost, Ms. Merkel got her chance and immediately the bill for orienting herself toward her convictions came due. In the early election of 2005, the CDU totals came to only 35.2 percent with her turbo-reform platform. In the so-called heavyweight round on television, Ms. Merkel sat across from an electrified Gerhard Schröder, the incumbent chancellor and Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) member, and looked as if she’d been run over by a truck. “Do you really believe that my party would take an invitation to talk from Ms. Merkel, in which she says she would like to be the chancellor?” Mr. Schröder said in a grumble.

Next Tuesday, exactly 10 years after Mr. Schröder’s attack, Ms. Merkel will present his biography, “In the presence of the chancellor off duty,” as it the announcement says. She is closing one circle – and, unknowingly, another. Mr. Schröder once tied his chancellorship to Agenda 2010; Merkel is sticking to her yes for the refugees.

In autumn 2005, when she moved into the chancellery by the skin of her teeth, she could have guessed: She can do crises well, but lack of crises, not so well. The pragmatic attempt to rebuild Germany and to want to govern through had nearly led her to an election loss against Mr. Schröder, despite a strong starting position. Nevertheless, she planned to do something pragmatic again by tackling large-scale health reform, but she ended up lost in the competing networks of interests. The method that she adopted in the struggle with doctors and health insurance companies at first glance resembles the crisis chancellor of today: systematic penetration and a study of details through a political microscope. What was missing were strong energies of change: the opposition, which would sooner or later lose its nerve because the tempo was too high. In short, what it lacked was a crisis. And so her reform became tangled up. Angela Merkel, the young chancellor, had not yet arrived.

In the first days of October 2008, the leader of the large coalition discreetly received a disturbing message. The world was in the middle of a financial crisis, initiated by the collapse of an American bank. Suddenly, the Germans began to go to ATMs more frequently than usual. What the individual saver could not yet know and also should also not know was the feared bank run — that can cause a whole financial system to collapse within a few days — already had begun.

Ms. Merkel and her finance minister, Peer Steinbrück, saw themselves with a psychologically high-risk issue: How can we calm the Germans with a dramatic gesture without creating new unrest ourselves through the drama? And how could we make the savers believe their deposits were secure, which are only secure if they believe in it? The correct sentence to the right time came out of that: We will say to the savers that their deposits are safe. The German government will be responsible for that. Also.

That was high-stakes play, conducted in a cold-blooded way, and was, above all, successful.

When Ms. Merkel was once asked why she didn’t belong to the opposition in the GDR, she said an important reason was that the GDR opponents were civil rights campaigners who were also against atomic energy because of the reactor accident in Chernobyl. Her only thought was the Soviet Union simply needed to build better nuclear plants. She also held out this biographic-scientific sympathy for nuclear power in the unified Germany. In her second term in office, she planned the exit from nuclear power, despite consistent political support and unresolved questions about final repositories for radioactive materials.

On March 11, 2011, an earthquake and a tsunami occurred that a short time later led to the meltdown of the Fukushima reactors in Japan. On March 12, Ms. Merkel declared nuclear power was still “responsible and justifiable.” Two days later, the government announced a moratorium for the operation of German nuclear power plants. The exit from the exit from the exit from nuclear energy had begun. And an energy revolution began, which would change the country and become one of the largest infrastructure projects in the history of the republic.

Fukushima was the first creative crisis for the chancellor. She also experienced the creative power sparked by a crisis. First, make a systematic, cautious, step-by-step assessment. Second, add a combination of chaos, fear and euphoria of change. Ms. Merkel functions best when employing this formula, and the mix will occupy us as well.

For Germans, the chancellor has had an important experience already. She aims to do the right thing. If a mistake is made, she corrects it. She also can build trust that way. Ms. Merkel uses this trust and stresses it as never before. But it’s also different in the refugee crisis. If there were mistakes in how Ms. Merkel reacted to the crisis, it will not let be so easily corrected this time. One can turn nuclear power plants on and off. But not Syrians.

Often, she is accused of a mute pragmatism and a governing manner depoliticizing people, even endangering democracy. Actually, before the story became a permanent fixture in the chancellery, there were continuous phases of administrative stagnation. Mostly, Ms. Merkel’s respective partners in the government coalition appeared as driving forces and therein expendable. Sometimes it was the cheerful FDP (Free Democratic Party), sometimes the SPD on its eternal search for lost socialists. One could say Ms. Merkel doesn’t look especially good as a non-crisis chancellor. But when was the last non-crisis, actually? Does anyone still remember the slump last summer, the well-groomed boredom of a satisfied republic? For a while, Germany and Europe found themselves one crisis after another. Ms. Merkel doesn’t need to have visions anymore. The visions – and nightmares — come to her.


Tsipras. Reuters
The Greek crisis continues to test Merkel. Source: Reuters


Tibetan monks sometimes hit their students with a stick on the shoulder, not to punish them, but so that they concentrate. There’s a similar effect on Ms. Merkel. When she is beat, it sharpens her senses, though it hardly changes her politics. While practically the whole world hit her with the Greece crisis this summer, she nevertheless held largely to her course. She experienced how it works internationally, whether she now was right or wrong. The principle she first used during her Fukushima turnaround is that you should come out of a crisis stronger than when you enter it, and she’s applying that principle to the euro crisis. She should make the European Union (E.U.) stronger. Crisis energy is creative power. One must realize with a view to the present: Ms. Merkel was in the Greece crisis with a very long lever because without Germany, nothing would have happened.

And still, something else happened. Ms. Merkel finally emancipated herself from one of the biggest authority figures of her life – Mr. Kohl. As the party leader, he no longer presented an authority for her ever since the donation scandal. Or, at the latest since the euro and Ukraine crisis as a great European. Publicly, he stood against her and warned her not destroy Europe. If she had consulted Mr. Kohl in her head today, she would have gotten no answers about the crises in which she’s involved.

The same thing goes for the United States, as it was also difficult for her to contradict their government policies during the Iraq War in 2002. Since then, the Americans have been involved in military actions in which she has refused to participate. Above all is the crisis in Ukraine, in which the chancellor was the lead negotiator for the West and to this day will determine exactly how the conflict will be resolved. The crises have also brought in their wake a feeling that she lets herself be advised, but no longer lets herself be instructed. The heavens above the chancellery are empty.

So that was Merkel’s starting point this summer before the number of refugees dramatically increased. She embraced her political style in the crisis. All of the crises that the continent is experiencing are being tackled by a new or at least reorganized European Union, economically, security policy-related, fiscally, humanly, a metamorphosis Ms. Merkel is shaping, at least as much French economist and politician Jacques Delors or even Mr. Kohl once did. She likely won’t get up in the morning with such thoughts, but she is aware of it. In doing so, Ms. Merkel feels free of old men, far-away powers, the necessity of holding on to power. It’s an enviable condition, but might pose risks too.

The Greens and the Left Party argue that the German government underestimated the issue of the refugees and slept through it. The truth is the government underestimated the issue but didn’t sleep through it. The refugees increased steadily but then exponentially. Ms. Merkel’s decision 10 days ago was not the cause of the escalation, but rather a reaction to it. Even if she has possibly overdone it since then with signals that Germany is open for refugees.

Since the beginning of May, a new chapter in the story has unfolded for Germany and the chancellor.

May 7: German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière says Germany expects 450,000 refugees this year.

August 19: Mr. de Maizière revises the estimate to 800,000. Between May and August, there was a dramatic crisis in Syria, northern Iraq and Afghanistan; hundreds of refugees coming by boat and headed to Europe perished in the Mediterranean; Greece became completely self-involved; and an electoral campaign absorbed Turkey. Both countries on a large scale waved refugees through.

Almost a week later: At a meeting in Germany of the interior ministries, the federal states and the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), someone asked the question: “What do we do with the people who come, should we send them back to Hungary?” The consensus is, no, Germany cannot do that.

August 25, 4:30 a.m.: The BAMF confirms via Twitter: “#Dublin procedures to the greatest extent possible will de facto not be further enforced against Syrian nationals at the current time.” The message was re-tweeted worldwide thousands of times. Neither Ms. Merkel nor her chief of staff in the chancellery, Peter Altmeier, initially knew about the tweet.

August 25, at about noon, in western Germany’s Duisburg-Marxloh: The refugees would be perceived as an “invasion,” citizens at an event on the “good life,” told Ms. Merkel.

August 26, 2015: In the town of Heidenau in the eastern state of Saxony, Merkel is called a “traitor of the people” and a “whore” by those in an uninhibited mob.

August 31, Berlin: Ms. Merkel holds her summer press conference. Austria and Hungary have deployed trains to move the influx of refugees on to Germany. “We live in orderly, very orderly conditions,” she said. “Most of us do not know the feeling of complete exhaustion, mixed with fear.” She said the state would approach the riots with utmost severity. She added: “No personal experience justifies such behavior.” Journalists ask questions. The government, in turn, asks itself: What do we do with the trains? The chancellery decides to put the concerns of the Interior Ministry on the back burner and not to send the trains back, because how exactly would the refusal of the refugees from Hungary take place?

September 1: Syrians, Albanians and Iraqis chant “Deutschland, Deutschland” and “Merkel, Merkel” at a Hungarian train station in Budapest. She sees the refugees on television and their chants move her.

September 3: Hungary stops the trains. The refugees make their way by foot. They walk along highways, train tracks and fields toward Germany and Ms. Merkel.

September 4: Germany’s federal government predicts that the highpoint of the flow of refugees will be reached over the weekend and no one can stop the refugees. Ms. Merkel worries about photos and images of overrun refugees, police officers taking action against desperate people, maybe photos of Hungarian soldiers. Images “Europe would not want associated with it,” said a cabinet member.

September 5: Merkel telephones Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann. The situation is no longer under control, Mr. Orbán said. Ms. Merkel and Mr. Faymann decide to permit the outbound travel of refugees. Germany’s vice chancellor was involved in the decision, but the phone discussion had more “the character of a briefing.” The chancellor gets going. Late in the evening, Ms. Merkel allows deputy government spokesman Georg Streiter to explain that Germany will not turn away the refugees. “We have now corrected an acute emergency,” he said. No major speech or the like to the nation marked the decision, which might turn out to be the most important of her time in office. It was pragmatism with historic consequences.

In July, Merkel told a young Palestinian female refugee named Reem: “We cannot take all refugees.” What possessed Merkel since then? The answer: reality, plus a large dose of world history. The crises in the Mideast are partially the result of European colonial politics, and the upheaval is also an echo of the September 11 terrorist attacks. And maybe a dose of Ms. Merkel’s feelings. Refugees arrive in Munich almost hourly during this week. “We will manage,” said Merkel.


Refugees at the Hungarian border dpa
Refugees at the Hungarian border. Source: DPA


September 13: Mr. de Maizère announces that Germany will reintroduce border controls. It is his decision, and he has coordinated with the SPD party chairman Sigmar Gabriel and the foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Confusion reigns for a few hours. Does this mean that the borders will be closed? Is the government backpedaling? It was clear from the start, the chancellery says, that the exceptional situation would be limited and orderly procedures would return.

Openness, but orderly. No change in course, but a slowdown. But nevertheless, something symbolic has happened that’s meant to show European partners that Germany can also do things differently; everyone knows the problem is not solved with border controls.

September 15: The chancellor is in defiant defense mode. When asked if she contributed to the escalation, she said: “There are situations in which one cannot reflect for 12 hours.” One must simply make a decision, she said. Naturally, those around her tried to the best of their abilities to suggest that she is neither angry over the hostility she received nor moved by the love sent to her by the refugees. She said she is “impressed” by the willingness of her countrymen to help, which ignited the drive to Germany just as much as the chancellor’s selfies.

At least this much is true: Being chancellor is a special circumstance. It means that one can never, like the Caliph Harun al-Rashid of long ago, gain experience undetected. One inextricably changes the situation oneself, and in doing so also the experience that one gains. Put bluntly: A chancellor can no longer gain “real” experience. He or she can just know more or less. Mr. Kohl knew it less, Ms. Merkel more. But she just cannot change it.

That is why Merkel is so thrifty with her words. She knows that when she says something, it is different than if someone else had said it. Nevertheless, she continues to be surprised by the impact of her words. Also by the impact of what she does not say, but merely lets be delivered, such as by Mr. Streiter, who no one knows.

Merkel is different in this crisis. Maybe because everything is now coming together for her: It relates to her anti-fascist upbringing when she issues warnings against right-wing radicals who set homes for asylum-seekers on fire; it moves her, when people in Hungary climb over fences, because of her life story; as a Christian, she doesn’t want anything else; and she senses within her the cumulative power of the previous crises.

Unlike in the other crises, Merkel does not have the upper-hand this time. While Europe cannot do without Germany in the debt crisis, Germany now cannot do without the Europeans. If you ask a member of the federal government how you can increase pressure in the E.U., one answers: Not at all. Another speculates: “If we hoisted the white flag.” A third says: “If we apply financial pressure.” But that is already the wrecking bar, a tool that is either not favorable for the Germans, or too favorable, depending on how you look at it.

The crisis is also different because the chancellor is putting all of her faith in the people this time. Without the volunteers, the state would collapse. But she must also rely on the emphasis continuing. Ms. Merkel always had the feeling that the Germans are a little spoiled and whiny; now she has tied her biggest project to that not being the case. Can one be sure of that? At any rate, here and in Europe two bitterly opposed mindsets are working against each other. We open our arms because people are coming (Ms. Merkel) vs. People are coming because we are opening our arms (Horst Seehofer, minister-president of the state of Bavaria). Being a Christian means helping everyone in need (Germany) vs. Being a Christian means keeping Muslims out (Hungary).

But this crisis is also different because it is bigger. It is not about money or solar panels, it is not just about protecting those who seek protection, but about those who will stay, and as such will change the identity of this country. Ms. Merkel, the woman who grew up in a homogenous society and was long skeptical of “multiculturalism,” believes diversity helps the Germans who want to prevail in global competition. More succinctly put: Better too colorful than too old.

But the chancellor will also not intervene in this battle with big speeches. Then with what? If one asks her office what she is currently occupied with, the answer always is: “beds.” Are there enough places for the refugees to sleep? The Green Party politician Antje Vollmer once criticized the men of the ’68 generation: “You with your big speeches and your ‘beds unmade forever!’” With Merkel that is reversed, no grand speeches but the chancellery ministers are asked at the end of each day if the beds are made for the foreigners. For Ms. Merkel, year 10 of her chancellorship is this: Pragmatism gives birth to strategy, strategy lives in pragmatism.

Angela Merkel is leading the Germans to risk with this crisis, and in one decision, a wall falls again. But this time she is not in the sauna, as she was when the Berlin Wall fell. She is sitting in the washing machine’s spin cycle. Is that better? We’ll see.


A chronology:

1999: Kohl

Angela Merkel advises Helmut Kohl to withdraw from politics because of the party financing scandal. Wolfgang Schäuble, who was Mr. Kohl’s successor as party chairman, also must go. Ms. Merkel becomes head of the CDU.

2002: Stoiber

Ms. Merkel wants to be candidate for chancellor, the CDU big wigs go through the roof. Merkel cedes the candidacy to Edmund Stoiber. He loses against the incumbent Gerhard Schröder. Merkel has her opportunity at the next election.

2005: A victory setback

The CDU wins the parliamentary elections, and brings in the worst results since Mr. Kohl was voted out. But the SPD fares even worse.

2008: Financial earthquake

What began as a crisis in the real estate market in the United States quickly turns into a worldwide financial crisis, which reaches its highpoint with the collapse of major American bank Lehman Brothers. Ms. Merkel takes a big risk and guarantees savers’ deposits.

2011: Fukushima

On March 11, a tsunami triggers a disaster at the Japanese nuclear power plant Fukushima. The chancellor declares that the German nuclear power plants are secure, but still decides for a nuclear phase-out. Before the catastrophe she had been promoting longer life-spans for nuclear power plants.

2013: The phantoms of bankruptcy

A euro, banking and sovereign debt crisis develops out of the financial crisis. One E.U. crisis summit follows another, to prevent debt-ridden euro-zone nations from falling into bankruptcy.  Greece proves to be the toughest case.

2014: Ukraine

After protests on Maidan Square in Kiev, the Ukrainian parliament declares President Viktor Yanukovych deposed. Russia declares the revolt unlawful and uses the situation to annex the Crimea. Since then a war has been ongoing in the eastern part of Ukraine between the government in Kiev and the separatists. Ms. Merkel becomes the lead negotiator for the cease-fire agreement in Minsk.

2015: Mass exodus

War in the Mideast, persecutions in Africa, economic hardship in the Balkans: Millions of people flee their homelands. More than 800,000 refugees are expected in Germany alone. Ms. Merkel opens the borders to them and in doing so arouses anger among European partners. The E.U. nations fight over the right course to take with the crisis.


This article first appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the authors:

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