A new beginning
For the millions of young Germans who have known no other chancellor, it is probably hard to imagine that in 2005 Angela Merkel was a breath of fresh political air.
She was not only the first woman, but she was also the first person from former East Germany to run for the country’s highest office. Although she was no political newcomer, having served twice as minister in the 1990s, she represented change for the conservatives, who had been marked by Helmut Kohl’s protracted rule (as CDU chairman since 1973 and as chancellor from 1982 to 1998). Merkel had turned her back on Kohl, long considered her political mentor, because of a financial scandal over illegal political contributions.
The conservative CDU party played the novelty card to promote its candidate. Merkel’s the one, campaign posters promised, who can offer the country “a new beginning”.
And it worked. Her opponent, Gerhard Schröder, the outgoing Social Democrat chancellor, came across as a relic of a bygone political age. He had alienated a part of the German left’s traditional popular electorate with his labour reform, which created a market for unstable part-time jobs.
The CDU won the elections on September 18, 2005, and a month later, Merkel took over as head of a coalition government with the Social Democrats. At 51, she was also the youngest chancellor in German history.
Merkel and Putin: An eastern cold front
Angela Merkel’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir began under the sign of the dog. During her first visit to Moscow as chancellor in 2006, Merkel was surprised to receive a small stuffed dog as a gift; Putin had clearly been informed, according to the New York Times, of her unease around dogs ever since being bitten by one a decade earlier.
A year later, Putin created a diplomatic stir when he played another version of the same trick, bringing his impressive black Labrador Koni into the room during a meeting with Merkel when she visited his residence in Sochi. Photos of the meeting, showing Merkel visibly uncomfortable and Putin clearly delighted, went viral and angered the German delegation.
For Putin, Merkel had an innate disadvantage: She simply wasn’t her predecessor Gerhard Schröder, who was – and still is – a great friend of the Russian leader.
And Merkel, having grown up in East Germany, never forgot that Putin had spent part of his career as a spy stationed in Dresden, where he collaborated with the Stasi, the much-feared East German secret service.
But their exceptionally long political careers – and the fact that Merkel speaks Russian fluently – allowed them to get to know each other better. In the end they even found common ground, for example, in their defence of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, which Merkel backed despite US criticism. The chancellor, however, stood firm on questions of democracy, notably when Germany took in Kremlin opponent Alexei Navalny after his poisoning in 2020.
The wrath of the Greeks
In 2012, when Angela Merkel travelled to Athens to discuss the country’s economic situation with the Greek government, more than 7,000 police officers were deployed to ensure public order – a mobilisation until then reserved only for visits by US presidents, the Greek media noted at the time.
Tensions were high and the Greeks were mad. The country had been on the verge of bankruptcy for two years, threatening to drag the entire eurozone into the crisis, and Merkel was regarded by the Greeks as the EU’s “Mrs. Nein”.
For them, she embodied the refusal of the continent’s northern countries to show solidarity with the southern states, which had been weakened by the financial crisis. During widespread demonstrations against austerity measures it was not uncommon to see signs and banners comparing Merkel to Hitler.
For many, the management of the eurozone crisis was a stain on the German chancellor’s rule – not so much for her own intransigence, but for that of her finance minister, Wolfgang Schaüble, who, in reality, was the one who used an “iron fist” with Athens.
Merkel merely approved her financial chief’s decisions and often took her time making decisions, an attitude that won her a reputation for being “indecisive”. In 2015, a new verb became popular among young Germans: “Merkeln”, or “to Merkel”, meaning “to be indecisive” or “fail to have an opinion”.
Fukushima: Nuclear energy, nein danke
The Fukushima effect: The nuclear disaster in Japan in March 2011 led to one of the most dramatic U-turns in German political history.
Three days after a tsunami devastated the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Merkel announced that the lifespan of aging German nuclear plants would not be extended. In July, she approved Germany’s complete departure from nuclear power by 2022, promising to turn the country into a champion of energy transition.
The decisions left some of the chancellor’s conservative allies perplexed: Hadn’t she sworn, just a year earlier, that nuclear power would help Germany “green” its economy? Merkel had also repeatedly mocked some SPD social democrats for their opposition to nuclear energy, saying it was "safe" and did not emit greenhouse gases.
The fact that such a catastrophe took place in a country as technologically advanced as Japan was a game-changer for Merkel. “In the long term, nuclear energy isn’t a sustainable form of energy production,” the chancellor, a physicist by profession, now argued.
But the Fukushima accident was not the only motivation for Merkel's political U-turn. At the end of March 2011, the Greens won control of Baden-Württemberg in regional elections. For the first time ever in a German state, Merkel, forever the pragmatist, felt the political tide had turned.
Big Brother is watching
When the NSA wiretapping scandal broke in 2013, no one expected that Merkel would play a leading role in the affair.
A year later, Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who broke the scandal, and later WikiLeaks, claimed that the US spying agency had been eavesdropping on its allies’ conversations, particularly Merkel’s, whose mobile phone had allegedly been tapped.
The bombshell revelations sparked widespread fury in Germany. Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, where the secret service regularly spied on citizens’ communications, responded angrily, saying that “spying on friends is inacceptable”. Of all Europe’s leaders, she appeared to be the most upset with the NSA and Washington.
The scandal put Germany’s relations with the US under huge strain. In June 2014, the German public prosecutor even launched an investigation in a bid to shed light on the extent of the electronic surveillance.
Several months later, however, he claimed to have found no tangible proof that the US had spied on the chancellor. Merkel, for her part, resumed cordial relations with then president Barack Obama at the 2015 G7 summit in Bavaria.
Two years later, she told a parliamentary committee that she no longer believed that her phone had been tapped by the NSA. Move along, nothing to see here.
‘Mutti’ to the migrants
It was probably the most striking image of the second half of the Merkel era: A selfie of the chancellor with a Syrian migrant during her visit to a Berlin reception camp in 2015 was shared around the world.
Merkel’s slogan “wir schaffen das”, or “we’ll get there”, which she coined in reference to the country’s ability to absorb the migratory flow that year, also entered political history.
A lot has since been written about Merkel’s migration policy (motivated in part by the desire to avoid a humanitarian crisis in Hungary, where migrants were arriving in large numbers) and about how the chancellor clashed with the European political landscape by opening up Germany’s borders to migrants (nearly 900,000 in 2015), while most other countries had been more cautious.
Much was also written about how her choice had clear positive demographic consequences for an otherwise aging Germany, as well as probable economic benefits.
But much was also said about the strong reaction to this generous policy – especially of the way the populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) exploited and caricatured it to feed fears and flatter the xenophobic inclinations of some voters.
Angela Merkel quickly felt the political tides change and, by the end of 2016, began taking steps to toughen her immigration policy.
It was the biggest economic and health scandal of the Merkel years: “Dieselgate”, which involved emissions-cheating practices by several German car manufacturers, did not spare the chancellor.
When the US Environmental Protection Agency first accused Volkswagen in September 2015 of manipulating diesel emission tests to give the impression that its cars were less polluting, it sent a shock wave through the German automotive sector.
The scandal cost Volkswagen more than €30 billion, and successive investigations showed that other German carmakers had also rigged their diesel engines. Some lawsuits are still ongoing.
But the affair also highlighted the close relationship the German government, embodied by Merkel, has with the country’s powerful auto industry. The chancellor was accused of protecting the interests of the sector – which provides one in seven jobs in Germany – rather than the scandal’s victims.
How much did Merkel know? The question took centre-stage during the 2017 election campaign. During a parliament hearing that year, Merkel said she had learned of the practices from the media. That was enough to reassure voters, who went on to elect her for a fourth term.
The French connection
Merkel rubbed shoulders with French presidents Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron. Of the four, she got along best with Chirac and Macron, the journalist Marion Van Renterghem wrote in her book on the chancellor.
With Chirac, Merkel shared a certain “sense of history”, according to Renterghem, and was grateful for his experience in guiding her through the European political maze.
Macron, for his part, established one of the most Germanophile governments of the Fifth Republic, according to Frank Baasner, director of the Franco-German Institute.
Macron’s government was inevitably much more popular with Berlin than that of former socialist president Hollande. As soon as he came to power in 2012, Hollande began criticising Germany’s economic austerity policies in a very combative manner.
But even Hollande’s relationship with Merkel improved over the years. The two would confront Putin side by side during the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, and the 2015 terror attacks in France allowed Merkel to strongly reaffirm the importance of the two countries’ friendship.
Relations with Sarkozy were more of a rollercoaster. There was often talk of “Merkozy”, hinting at a supposed ideological proximity between the two right-wing leaders. But Merkel, known for her calm, took a dim view of Sarkozy’s hyperactivity. Rumour had it that to better understand her French counterpart, Merkel would watch the films of the French comic actor Louis de Funès.
The American friend
The now famous image of Angela Merkel staring down at Donald Trump during the 2018 G7 summit, like a strict schoolteacher about to scold a bad pupil, made her one of the US president’s top opponents among Washington’s allies. She had already made her opinion clear in 2017, when she called on Europeans to take their destiny into their own hands.
But the chancellor had not always been so cold towards the US. When she first came to power, Merkel quickly developed a good rapport with then president George W. Bush, who was all too happy to be turning the page on Gerhard Schröder: Merkel’s predecessor had angered Washington with his strong opposition to the Iraq war.
Relations between Bush and Merkel were so good that at the 2006 G8 summit, the US president took the liberty of giving the chancellor a quick shoulder rub, putting Merkel – and the German media – very ill at ease.
It took a little longer for the relationship with Barack Obama to warm up. That was due, at first, to their different political and rhetorical styles; the 2013 NSA wiretapping scandal did not help matters. But through working together on international crisis after international crisis – including the global financial crisis and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 – the two leaders grew to appreciate one other. Their relationship has been described as one of the best between a US and German leader.
Joe Biden’s arrival at the White House may herald a return to the golden days of the German-US relationship. But it remains to be seen whether Merkel’s successor will follow the same path.
Tempted by China
Who can resist panda diplomacy? In 2017, when Chinese President Xi Jinping and Angela Merkel raved about the two pandas at Berlin Zoo, the German chancellor was still one of China’s strongest supporters in Europe.
Over the past decade, Merkel went out of her way to mute any criticism of Beijing, to promote the development of economic relations between the two countries – a policy that worked so well that in 2016 China became Germany’s largest trading partner, ahead of the US.
But Merkel was not always Beijing’s ideal European partner. When she first came to power, she was critical of China. In 2006 she invited the the Dalai Lama to Berlin. Beijing reacted angrily, giving Germany the cold shoulder for more than six months, which dealt a blow to German business – and served as a lesson in diplomacy for the new chancellor.
Ten years later, after a Chinese group acquired Kuka, a flagship of German robotics, she began reconsidering her pro-Chinese policies.
Berlin could do little about what Germany saw as the plundering of its national technology. Merkel understood that Beijing was becoming more of a rival than a partner. It was Merkel who coined the term "systemic rival" to describe China in Sino-European relations from 2019 onwards.