Angela Merkel, the outgoing chancellor of Germany, is stepping down after 16 years in office, having achieved wide recognition as one of the world’s most successful and respected political leaders. During her tenure in office, Merkel dealt with five UK prime ministers, four French presidents, seven Italian prime ministers and four U.S. presidents.
Merkel governed from the center-right as the head of the Christian Democratic Union, and served the longest tenure of any democratic leader in Europe. In a country where dictators once claimed absolute power, and during years when other long-tenured leaders gravitated toward authoritarian rule, Merkel spent her time in office as a steady and incorruptible force of moderation, for Germany and the world.
Merkel’s Germany is a stable democracy that has the largest economy in Europe, a far cry from communist East Germany in which she grew up, separated from the West by the infamous Berlin Wall.
Merkel was elected Germany’s first woman chancellor in 2005. Since that time, she has served as the steady defender of the centrist democratic order, a significant feat for the leader of a country still haunted by its Nazi past. She led Germany and helped lead the entire Eurozone through the global financial crisis, the Eurozone debt crisis, the immigration crisis and the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. All the while, Merkel was respected as the voice of reason, a practical deal maker and a pragmatic diplomat. Merkel was successful in building coalitions with the center-left Social Democrats to stave off election victories of Germany’s far right, and repeatedly showed herself to be a pragmatist rather than an ideologue.
Merkel was also known for her support for Israel and the respect for Germany’s Jewish community. She defended Israel’s right to defend itself, and made clear her view that remembering the crimes of the Holocaust “is part of our national identity.”
Merkel’s term in office was not without controversy. For example, against the advice of her cabinet, federal police and border guards, she insisted on allowing hundreds of thousands of refugees from the brutal Syrian civil war to enter Germany. Her critics say it was a decision that prompted a fierce right-wing backlash and contributed to the rise of the far right in Germany. She also was accused of bullying tactics when she pushed punishing austerity measures on Greece during the Eurozone crisis, even though the move succeeded in keeping both Greece and the euro afloat.
But Merkel’s most telling shortcoming was her failure to groom a viable successor. In last month’s national election, Armin Laschet, Merkel’s successor as head of the CDU, led the conservatives to their biggest loss in the postwar era. That loss has enabled Olaf Scholz, the head of the center-left Social Democrats, to take the lead in efforts to form a governing coalition.
Germany will miss the leadership of Angela Merkel, as will her many friends and admirers. We join in the tribute to this impressive leader.