A Dim View of the World

Will Merkel Be Followed by Darkness?

As the end of her tenure approaches, Angela Merkel has a view of the world that couldn't be much grimmer. She sees the pillars of the world order collapsing and yet, strangely, she doesn't seem to be doing much about it.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Tuesday, 5/28/2019   11:52 AM

For a few seconds, her face brightened with pleasure, she rejoices in the moment. And why not? It's an evening in January, and Angela Merkel is sitting in a festively illuminated glass building at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, with CNN superstar Christiane Amanpour in front of her.

"What can I say about a woman named Angela Merkel?" Amanpour asks the audience.

That she's the first female chancellor?
The first chancellor from former East Germany?

Merkel is much more than that, Amanpour continues, a scientist who still believes in the value of facts in this post-factual world; a woman who fights against nationalism and climate change. She describes how the chancellor has set a high standard for how to deal with the desperate people of the world.

It's all laid on a bit thick, a mixture of Oscar ceremony and political seminar, but Merkel has a smile on her face. It's only now and then, when the camera zooms in on her, that she puts on a more neutral, chancellor-like face. Despite all that she has achieved, she still has a reputation to defend as the West's most modest politician.

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Later, when she holds the Fulbright Prize for International Understanding in her hands, the audience in the hall will rise to applause, Merkel will go to the podium and say what she now says so often: that the world is in a bad state, that the lessons of World War II are fading and that the international order as we know it is on increasingly unsteady footing.

Merkel doesn't mention Donald Trump by name, but it is clear to everyone who she's referring to when she says: "We can see that thinking in terms of national spheres of influence is on the rise and that principles of international law or human rights are also being challenged as a result."

Superhuman Hopes

The German chancellor against the forces of darkness -- that is the message of the evening. And because there is such widespread agreement in the auditorium about the gravity of the global situation, and about the good fortune that at least the chancellor is trying to stop the Apocolypse, Merkel decides to deviate from her otherwise unrelenting schedule and promises to stay for another quarter of an hour at the subsequent reception.

A crowd quickly forms around the woman upon whom superhuman hopes are resting. Amanpour also wants a selfie with Merkel, which she then shares with her almost 3 million followers on Twitter. The CNN anchor later gives an interview to the German news channel n-tv. When the reporter notes that some voters in Germany are critical of the chancellor, Amanpour rebukes him: "Don't disparage Angela Merkel, she's one of the few who's still standing. You're lucky to have her."

Merkel has now spent 13.5 years governing the country. And if she completes her current term, she will have served as long as Helmut Kohl, who ultimately came to be known as the "eternal chancellor." In Kohl's case, it was clear that he would have German reunification and the euro as his legacy -- that was already abundently clear when, surrounded by his last group of loyal supporters, he admitted his election defeat in the West German capital of Bonn in 1998.

But things are murkier for Merkel because the legacy of her era is much harder to grasp than that of her predecessors. Does she even have one? Merkel has always asserted that she doesn't spend much time worrying about such trifles. But she has found her own way of working on her place in history. She rejects it as "grotesque" and "absurd" when a newspaper claims she's the leader of the free world. And yet the major issue in this late stage of her political career is, in fact, the defense of the liberal world order. Issues don't get much bigger than that. It is something of a paradox, and one from which she profits the most.

Like every long-serving chancellor, Merkel tries to escape the petty melancholia of domestic politics. In that sense, she's no different from Konrad Adenauer and Kohl. What does distinguish her from her predecessors, though, is a deep pessimism, the fear that the world is sliding into the abyss. During her term in office, Turkey transformed from a hopeful democracy into an autocratic regime. The Saudi crown prince turned out to be a cruel despot rather than the young reformer many initially hoped he might be. Putin sought to make his delusions of grandeur reality. And then there's Trump, whose most recent project is to attempt regime change in Iran, an experiment that already failed terribly one time before. In Merkel's view, the fuse has already been lit.

Photo Gallery

Photo Gallery: What Comes After Merkel?

Apocalyptic Comparisons

At the twilight of her political career, Merkel has undergone a transformation -- one that isn't initially obvious. On the outside, she speaks as calmly and soberly as she always has, but if you listen carefully, you start to perceive a dark view of the world. Away from the public eye, though, she has for quite some time been making no secret of just how deep her concern is. The historical comparisons she makes could not be any more apocalyptic.

The longer Merkel is in office, the greater the horizons of her thinking expand. On April 17, 2018, members of the parliamentary group of Merkel's conservatives met in the Reichstag, the seat of German parliament. It was an opportunity to speak fundamentally about the EU and its future. Merkel offered a very odd twist at the meeting by taking a mental excursion into the early modern era. According to notes taken by attendees, she spoke about the bloody confessional wars that followed the Reformation and only came to an end with the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. At the time, Merkel said, people had the false belief that the period of strife and violence was behind them.

"But then the generation that had experienced all the misery before religious peace died," Merkel said. "They were gone. A new generation came that said: We don't want to make so many compromises. This is all too difficult for us." What followed was the catastrophe of the Thirty Years' War, which broke out in 1618. It ignited an inferno that would annihilate around one-third of the population on the territory of today's Germany and leave cities like Magdeburg in ruins.

"More than 70 years have also passed since the end of World War II," Merkel continued. She pointed out that great efforts were undertaken at the time to prevent a repeat of the carnage. The United Nations and the Security Council were established, and the international community agreed on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Merkel's message was clear: Just as people at the beginning of the 17th century lulled themselves into a deceptive sense of security, people today are once again deluding themselves about the stability of the world order. The layer of varnish covering civilization is a thin one.

On April 26, 2018, Merkel departed for Washington for her second visit to Donald Trump in the Oval Office. The trip was overshadowed by the threat of punitive tariffs against German cars. Merkel, though, was primarily concerned that Trump was about to withdraw from agreements that had been laboriously negotiated over the course of years and decades: the nuclear deal with Iran and the Paris climate agreement. A few months after her meeting with the president, Merkel once again spoke of the fragile Augsburg religious peace, saying: "Whether we have learned from history will become apparent in the coming decades."

Two weeks later, Merkel spoke publicly for the first time about her gloomy historical analogy at the Katholikentag, a gathering for Catholics in Germany, in Münster. The Peace of Augsburg had been negotiated by men who had grown weary of violence. But it only took the span of one lifetime for new actors to come power, Merkel said, men "who thought: I can make one more small demand here, and my approach could be a bit tougher there. In one fell swoop, the whole order was in the waste basket and the Thirty Years' War broke out."

Historical Parallels

On July 13, 2018, Merkel received German political scientist Herfried Münkler in the Chancellery. It wasn't easy to set up the appointment. Merkel's calendar has very few openings, and Münkler, who is normally at Berlin's Humboldt University, was a visiting professor in Mainz at the time, further complicating things. But Merkel kept trying to find a date, which flattered the professor, and the two ultimately had the chance to have a sit-down at the chancellor's office that summer afternoon and take a look back at the time of the first major European catastrophe.

The previous year, Münkler had published a more than 900-page book on the Thirty Years' War and he described to Merkel the climate of hysteria and provocation that made it increasingly difficult for Catholics and Protestants to peacefully coexist. How, in 1607, Jesuits had incited the decent Catholics of Donauwörth to carry their flags proudly through the city, whereupon an angry Protestant mob attacked the procession and threw relics into the muck on the streets.

With some good will, he said, the defenestration of two imperial regents on May 23, 1618, in Prague could have been dismissed as the reckless act of Protestant hotheads, especially given that the men weren't even seriously injured. But nobody was particularly interested in reason and a conflagration was sparked that would spread across the continent.

After all, there was more to it than religion. The parties were driven to conflict by a mixture of religious furor, hegemonic ambition and the desire to dispute land ownership with neighboring countries. Münkler spent two hours talking to the chancellor, often drawing parallels to the present: Initially, the defenestrations in Prague sparked the displeasure of the Protestants, who felt increasingly harassed, just as the Arab Spring unleashed anger against the rulers in Tunis and Damascus. As the Thirty Years' War progressed, it wasn't long before territorial claims became a focus, similar to the way borders in the Middle East -- drawn up in 1916 by French diplomat François Georges-Picot and British politician Mark Sykes -- have become the subject of dispute today.

In the 17th century, the Habsburgs in Vienna and Madrid, the Bourbons in Paris and Swedish King Gustav Adolf were all vying for supremacy in Europe. Today, Syria is the battlefield of a proxy war between the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Turkey.

The Power of Fear

Fear is a powerful political weapon. It can trigger wars and spark revolutions. It can drive politicians out of office or help to keep them hold on to power. It would, of course, be unfair to accuse Merkel of stirring up doom-and-gloom as a way of clinging to power. But she has been in politics long enough to register that the widespread anxiety and pessimism plays to her advantage. Germans don't like change, and they have had a good ride during the 13 years of Merkel's tenure. The kind of weariness experienced at the end of the Kohl era is nowhere to be found. Two-thirds of voters would like to see the chancellor remain in office until the end of her term in autumn 2021.

When Merkel spoke at the Munich Security Conference in February, the whole room stood up and applauded her. The speech the chancellor gave was passionate by her standards. She drew the arc from Alexander von Humboldt, who had tried "to understand and see the world as a whole," as Merkel put it, to the Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen, who provided the definition for the present Earth age, the Anthropocene, in which man irretrievably leaves his traces on the planet -- through the testing of nuclear bombs, microplastics and the emission of climate-damaging gases.

Nostalgia Foretold

The speech is, in its entirety, reflective of late-stage Merkel, a mix of concerned admonition and scientific soberness. But the effect was likely made more pronounced by the fact that Merkel was followed at the lectern by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, a man who addressed the Europeans in his speech as if they were lackeys and cheerfully reported that, for years, the U.S. has primarily been burning oil and gas that it has extracted itself. The contrast to Merkel could not have been greater. There was a whiff of defiance in the applause for the chancellor, but also a bit of nostalgia foretold, a fear of what will happen once Merkel departs the political stage.

There's probably no other person in the world who has such deep insight into global politics as Merkel. She has seen three American and four French presidents come and go, she has addressed three general sessions of the UN, attended 13 G-7 or G-8 summits and gone to more than 70 European Union summits. The only politician in her weight class who has been in office roughly as long is Russian President Vladimir Putin. But nobody trusts him.

There are many reasons for Merkel to look around the globe with concern. There's Putin, who compensates for his economic failures with brutal power politics. There's the Communist Party of China, which has proven that capitalism and dictatorship can work perfectly hand-in-hand. And right in the middle of it all, there's an EU that has been weakened by the Brexit chaos and internal quarreling.

But the most important reason of all is Donald Trump. There's much to suggest that his election was her primary motivation for seeking a fourth term in office. She mulled the decision long and painstakingly during the summer and fall of 2016 -- it was almost painful to watch how lucidly the chancellor weighed the pros and cons of her candidacy, says a source who spoke with Merkel at the time. The source says Merkel could see that her tenure in the Chancellery had run its course and that she had deeply polarized the country as a result of the refugee crisis.

The Trump Factor

All of that, from Merkel's point of view, were reasons to not run for a fourth term. She also didn't think at the time that it was particularly likely that Trump would become president. With Hillary Clinton, the White House, in her view, would have been in good hands. All that, several sources who know her well say, had her leaning against running again, with one of them saying: "Inside, she was ready to let go." A long-time party colleague says: "If Hillary had won, Merkel wouldn't have run again." Officially, the government merely responds to queries about her decision making process by saying the chancellor has already explained her candidacy in detail: "There's nothing to add."

On Nov. 8, 2016, Trump won the election. Eight days later, outgoing President Barack Obama visited the chancellor in Berlin and the two spoke for three hours at a dinner at the Hotel Adlon. As Obama speech writer Ben Rhodes noted in his memoirs, the president never spent that much time talking to any other leader during his entire time in office.

People close to Obama say he strongly encouraged Merkel to run again. They say the chancellor told the president she likely would have left office if Clinton had won. In the room next door, advisers to Merkel and Obama sat together, including the chancellor's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, and Merkel's foreign policy adviser, Christoph Heusgen. Obama brought his security adviser Susan Rice and Rhodes along on the trip. Rhodes made a toast to Merkel during dinner: To "the leader of the free world," he wrote in his memoir. Seibert doesn't recall the episode.

There's a good chance that Obama gave the chancellor the decisive push to run again. Four days after the dinner at the Adlon, she announced that she would be seeking a fourth term. We are at the dawn of difficult and uncertain times, Merkel said at the press conference at her party's headquarters in Berlin. Times in which "people would have little understanding if I would not again bring to bear all the gifts and talents which were given to me to do my duty for Germany."

When a journalist from the Reuters news agency asked the chancellor directly whether Trump's election had been the decisive factor in her renewed candidacy, Merkel didn't deny it and instead answered evasively. "I take a long time, and the decisions are made late. But then, I stand behind them."

Like every problem, Merkel also tackled the Trump conundrum with diligence and by reading. She read an interview that Trump gave to Playboy in 1990, in which he complained the U.S. was flooded with German luxury cars and recommended punitive tariffs as an antidote. During the campaign, she had already watched episodes of "The Apprentice," the reality television series Trump starred in for 11 years. The premise of the show was for young candidates to prove their business savvy, with contestants who failed to convince him being dismissed at the end of each show with Trump's signature "You're fired!" What also stood out in the show to Merkel was Trump's penchant for disregarding the opinions of others.

Merkel has never been an advocate of the theory that the new president could be appeased through gestures of humility and flattery. She found it strange when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited him at Trump Tower in mid-November 2016 before he had even been sworn in as president. "I'm not going to sit on a golden chair," she told confidants a few days later. Merkel also felt a twinge of schadenfreude that Emmanuel Macron's decision to invite Trump and his wife to a Michelin-starred restaurant in the Eiffel Tower did little to help his relationship with the president. The French president would also later become the target of Trump's gloating tweets. And Merkel herself has experienced how mercurial the American president can be when dealing with other leaders. Trump, she notes, will issue broadsides from the stage. "Then, in a face-to-face conversation, he says: Ivanka loves you."

'Highly Agglomerated Knowledge'

Merkel is well aware of Trump's lack of interest in details. During her trip to Washington last spring, she coined a lovely euphemism, saying that the American president had "highly agglomerated knowledge." Trump's attention span is so short that Merkel has her advisers prepares bite-sized, memorable examples before talking to him, so that she can explain complicated issues -- like the tariffs dispute between the EU and the U.S.

Many in the German government believed life in the Oval Office would temper Trump. But Merkel never bought that. He was elected, she has pointed out, precisely because he distanced himself from the Washington establishment. "For Trump, nothing that happened before him counts," she says. In that sense, she continues, he's almost an ahistorical president.

Merkel also knows that if he is re-elected, the door will be open for Trump to smash the pillars of world order. The president has made clear more than once that he considers NATO to be little more than an expense for the U.S. He has also described the EU as an "enemy," and views it as a threat to American prosperity. Many in Germany interpreted such statements as being the over-the-top remarks of a former TV entertainer, but Merkel didn't. She believed he would implement his agenda, point-by-point.

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