On the 9th November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and created a united Germany. It was a day of immense hope, joy and relief. The air was palpable and the spirit of democracy was rife in the crowd. It was the beginning of a new era of prosperity for the country. A young Angela Merkel stood watching over the masses, the incident inspired her to join the people of her country and pave the way for democracy. One month later she joined a new political party called the Democratic Awakening. Thus began the career of one the most influential Head of States’ in the world.
In April 1990, the Democratic Awakening merged with the East German Christian Democratic Union, which in turn merged with its western counterpart after reunification. In the German Federal Election of 1990, she was selected to serve as Minister for Women and Youth in the cabinet. In 1994, she was promoted to the position of Minister for the Environment and Nuclear Safety, which gave her greater political visibility and a platform on which to build her personal political career. In 1998 when Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s government was defeated in the election, it led the way for Merkel to be named the Secretary-General of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
After a party funding scandal, she replaced Wolfgang Schäuble as the leader of the CDU, becoming the first female leader of the party on 10th April 2000. She held this position till 2018. In October 2005, Angela Merkel became the first female Chancellor of Germany. She has had an eventful run as she put out fires throughout her terms and somehow managed to keep an approval rating of 50% or higher, a mean feat for someone in her position. But as all good things must come to an end, after 15 years of being chancellor, earlier this year she announced that she would not be returning for another term and would be retiring in September of 2021.
She has made positive changes for Germany at home and abroad. She knew when to use a hard-handed approach and when to pull back, a quality that came naturally to her. During her time she terminated the policy of compulsory military enlistment, set the country on a path to reduce consumption of nuclear and fossil-fueled power and pushed for renewable energy. She legalized same-sex marriage and was vocal for her support for the LGBTQIA+ community. She also set a minimum standard wage along with a requirement for employers to provide benefits. Through this, she encouraged fathers to take care of their children by making it uncomfortable for those who chose not to.
Bavarian governor Markus Soeder was the voice of many when he summed up Merkels’ long career. “You protected our country well. All the major crossroads you had to navigate … we never mapped out in any election program — they came overnight and you had to govern well.”
Merkel campaigned as “a chancellor of change, who wanted to make Germany more modern, seeking deeper economic reforms and a more socially liberal approach than her centre-right party had previously taken and this was what brought her over the finish line. She solved crisis after crisis but this left less time to focus on other issues. Even as she leaves office, many issues she wanted to solve remain unsolved. One of her main agendas for her country was to move towards digitization, as even during the pandemic many hospitals were still using fax machines.
One of her main accomplishments is her efforts to reduce the unemployment rates at home. When she took office in 2005, unemployment figures exceeded 5 million out-of-work citizens. Today these figures are less than 2.6 million, or roughly half of what they were.
But the golden goose in her tenure was Merkel’s foreign policy. Unlike her predecessors, she hand-crafted Germany's foreign policy herself. She stepped up during the financial crisis in 2008, making necessary budget cuts that made her unpopular but ultimately shielded Germany and made sure that the people were not severely affected. She spearheaded the movement to save the euro and agreed to provide bailouts for several members of the European Union (EU), but also insisted on harsh spending cuts.
When the Syrian humanitarian and refugee crisis boiled over in 2015, she opened Germany up and welcomed refugees, giving them a safe haven when many countries closed their borders. She faced backlash for this sentiment but she stuck to her guns and insisted that ‘we will manage’.
She took the multilateral approach to her governance and encouraged leaders to consider diplomacy instead of war. She was a staunch believer in compromises and this was clearly seen when the United States moved away from its European allies during the term of former President Donald Trump and the exit of the United Kingdom from the EU. Ralph Bollmann, a journalist with the popular German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, said, “I think Ms Merkel’s most important legacy is simply that, in such a time of worldwide crises, she provided for stability.”
Johannes Varwick, a German political scientist sums up Merkel’s approach to foreign policy this way: She has understood “that Germany has global interests and, on the one hand, Germany is too small to achieve things by itself. On the other hand, because of its size and role in Europe, it is condemned to leadership.”
Merkel herself encapsulated her foreign policy while giving a speech at Harvard University while receiving her 16th honorary doctorate in 2019, “Nothing can be taken for granted. Our individual freedoms cannot be taken for granted; democracy cannot be taken for granted, neither peace nor prosperity.”
Angela Merkel has definitely carved a place for herself in history with her accomplishments. She has a rich political and social legacy that can be rivalled only by a few in the world. She commanded the respect of her peers in times of extreme crisis with her calm approach to governance and has time and again proven herself as a Head of State. The next Chancellor of Germany has some big shoes to fill.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel steps down with legacy dominated by tackling crises. (2021, September 2nd). The New Indian Express. https://www.newindianexpress.com/world/2021/sep/02/german-chancellorangela-merkel-steps-down-with-legacy-dominated-by-tackling-crises-2353252.html
Kluth, A. (2021, July 9th). The Post-Heroic Legacy of Angela Merkel. Bloomberg Opinion. https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2021-opinion-chancellor-angela-merkel-post-heroic-legacy/
As Angela Merkel Steps Down, Her Legacy Remains in Question…Future Historians Will Decide. (2021, September 13th). White House Wire. https://whitehousewire.com/2021/09/13/as-angela-merkel-steps-down-her-legacy-remains-in-questionfuture-historians-will-decide/
Welle, D. (2021, September 8th). German election: What is Angela Merkel’s foreign policy legacy? The Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/article/world/german-election-angela-merkel-foreign-policy-legacy-7492940/