Angela Merkel’s involvement in German politics began right after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 when the outcome of the infamous Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union became clear. Before 1989, Merkel received a PhD in Physics in the year 1986, and for three years after receiving her PhD, she was a researcher in her field. While living and studying in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Merkel was a low-key bon vivant who enjoyed simple pleasures such as spas and saunas despite living in the less affluent half of Germany.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Merkel got involved with the democratically elected government in East Germany. Perhaps the key factor behind Merkel’s involvement in German politics was her desire to be part of Germany’s reunification process after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Merkel’s breakthrough in German politics came in 1991 when she became a cabinet minister for perhaps the most monumental figure of German politics in the post-World War II period, Helmut Kohl. Merkel was known as Kohl’s “little girl” due to the strong rapport that had been built between the two of them. Because of her relationship with Kohl, Merkel was able to ascend to the top leadership position of her center-right political party, known as the “Christian Democratic Union” (CDU) in the year 2000. Many observers and analysts had begun to speculate that Kohl intended to groom Merkel as his heir-apparent and successor, thus her remarkable ascendence through the ranks of her political party.
By 2005, Merkel was able to defeat the center-left incumbent Gerhard Schroder in Germany’s ‘Bundestag’ elections. As a result, Merkel became the first female chancellor in Germany’s history. In terms of foreign policy, Merkel dedicated herself to making Germany both the leading country in the European Union (EU) as well as the bulwark for European solidarity. It has been said that Merkel was able to achieve through diplomacy and political tactfulness what Hitler failed to achieve through military hegemony, which was to bring Europe under the influence and grip of German political and economic clout.
Merkel also managed to keep her country relatively unscathed during the 2008 to 2009 global financial crisis. Germany was one of the few countries in the world to remain unscathed from this global financial crisis, and this fortunate outcome was largely due to Merkel’s leadership and wisdom. Merkel became known for her modesty and humility. She has long lived in a modest and small flat in Berlin, and she has long been disciplined in her adherence to a diet that is made up of potato soup for the most part. As a result of her modesty and wisdom, Merkel became known as “The Mother of the Nation,” or “Mutti” in German.
Thus, Merkel was able to keep Germany on an even keel on both a domestic, regional, and international level through policies that were largely balanced and modest through the course of her chancellorship. Perhaps the most tumultuous moment during Merkel’s chancellorship came in 2015, when a migrant influx of magnanimous proportions from Africa and the Middle East affected all of Europe. Merkel’s reaction to the crisis – which was to allow more than one million refugees from the Middle East to have a safe haven in Germany – sowed the seeds of the fragmentation within Germany’s political landscape which was largely absent before this crisis.
After Merkel’s reaction to the migrant crisis of 2015, her party’s performance in subsequent elections on multiple levels (national, regional, municipal) were less than optimal. As opposed to the usual center-right and center-left coalition that dominated German politics, 2015 inaugurated the rise of multiple small-sized and mid-sized political parties such as the “Greens” and the “AfD” which began chipping away at the foothold of the traditional center-right and center-left coalition that had long been led by Merkel. In 2018, Merkel announced that she would be retiring from German politics in the year 2021.
After respectable handling of the coronavirus in 2020, Merkel proceeded with naming her successor, Armin Laschet. But the election campaign in 2021 proved that Merkel’s appointed successor was gaffe-prone and was not as serious as many had believed him to be. Laschet was seen laughing at the site of a natural disaster a few months ago, and as a result, the poll numbers for Merkel and Laschet’s center-right party dropped by about 9 percentage points. As a result, the center-left candidate in the 2021 Bundestag elections, Olaf Scholz, managed to beat out Laschet at the polls. Unlike Merkel, who was able to carry the baton after her predecessor in the leadership apparatus of the party, Laschet failed to seize the baton from Merkel. As a result, Merkel’s political career has ended with both failure at a party level, as well as a national political landscape that is incredibly fragmented. Building a coalition in German politics is now much more difficult than it was during Merkel’s heyday.
Given the political landscape in Germany post-Merkel, there are perhaps openings for a move away from some of Merkel’s traditional policies. For one, economic and social policies may move farther left in a post-Merkel era. Also, the dynamics between the German-Russian relationship – which have long been put on the backburner by Merkel because of a ‘Europe First’ approach to foreign policy – may change given the growing popularity of a ‘Nordstream’ gas pipeline which may serve as a bridgehead for improved German-Russian ties. Although continuation and stability are the main priorities for Germans as Merkel departs from German political life, observers and analysts should also be on the lookout for openings that may augur a certain degree of change and evolution in both German and European politics. Ironically, Merkel’s thirty-year career in German politics coincides with thirty years of American global hegemony, and both phenomena are coming to an end at about the same time.