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Angela Merkel: A Retrospective

Despite a vigorous 15-year resume as chancellor, it is now clear that COVID-19 will define how Angela Merkel will be judged once she leaves office.
Hans-Georg Betz, Angela Merkel steps down, Angela Merkel legacy, Angela Merkel CDU, Angela Merkel gender equality, Angela Merkel climate policy, Angela Merkel COVID-19 pandemic, Angela Merkel Germany, Angela Merkel refugee crisis, Angela Merkel gay rights

Angela Merkel, Berlin, Germany, 6/12/2017 © 360b / Shutterstock

January 21, 2021 13:30 EDT

Americans like to rate their presidents. In fact, presidential rankings have become something of a cottage industry in political science, ever since the eminent Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. started the tradition in the late 1940s.

In Germany, we don’t do that, at least not in a formal way. We do have, however, a sense of who was a good chancellor and who wasn’t, and there probably is something of a common understanding as to why. Chancellors stand out if they accomplished extraordinary feats. Konrad Adenauer will always be remembered for accomplishing Franco-German reconciliation and anchoring the Federal Republic firmly in the West; Willy Brandt for initiating a radical turn in West German foreign policy toward the East, culminating in the reconciliation with Poland; and Helmut Kohl for seizing the historic opportunity in 1989 and bringing about the peaceful reunification of the two Germanies.

The Downward Spiral of Angela Merkel’s CDU


What about Angela Merkel, the first woman to hold Germany’s most powerful political office? Her tenure will end in a few months’ time, at the end, one hopes, of a horrific pandemic. On September 26, Germany will elect a new parliament, and Merkel will retire. By then she will have been in office for more than 15 years, second only to Helmut Kohl, who managed to hold on to the office a few months longer. When Merkel took over in November 2005, she was largely dismissed as “Kohl’s girl” who was likely to have a hard time asserting herself in a political party, the Christian Democrats (CDU) largely dominated by men.

The Anti-Trump

In fact, shortly after the election, then-chancellor Gerhard Schröder insisted on national television that there was no way that his Social Democratic Party would ever accept an offer from Angela Merkel to form a coalition with the CDU under her leadership. As it so happened, the Social Democrats did, and Schröder was finished. In the years that followed, it became increasingly clear that Merkel was quite capable of asserting herself in the treacherous waters of Berlin’s political scene. In fact, in 2020, Forbes magazine ranked Merkel as the most powerful woman in the world — for the 10th consecutive year.  

Throughout her 15 years in office, the chancellor has, on average, received high satisfaction scores. As recently as December, more than 80% of respondents in a representative survey said that Merkel was doing a good job. Appreciation for Merkel, however, has hardly been limited to Germany. In an international Pew poll from September 2020 covering 13 nations, Merkel was by far seen as the most trusted major world leader. More than three-quarters of respondents rated her positively; by contrast, more than 80% saw then-US President Donald Trump in a negative light.

Poll data also suggest that during Merkel’s tenure, Germany’s stature in the world has substantially increased. In a Pew study of 10 European nations from early 2019, almost 50% of respondents agreed that Germany played a more significant role in the world than a decade ago; fewer than half said the same thing about France and the UK. Germans are, for obvious historical reasons, understandably concerned about the country’s international image and reputation. Not for nothing, Canada’s The Globe and Mail referred to her in 2018 as the “anti-Trump,” only to add that “We need her kind more than ever.” This in itself will secure Merkel an eminent place in post-reunification German history.

Ironically enough, the article was written at a time when Merkel’s star appeared to be rapidly waning, the result of serious electoral setbacks on the national and regional level. In the election to the German Bundestag in September 2017, the Christian Democrats lost more than 8 percentage points compared to the previous election, which meant a loss of 65 seats in parliament. At the same time, the radical right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered parliament, garnering more than 12% of the vote. In subsequent regional elections in Bavaria and Hesse, the Christian Democrats lost more than 10% of the vote, setting off alarm bells in Munich and Berlin.

By the end of 2018, Merkel appeared to be up against the ropes, her days numbered. Particularly the upsurge in support for the radical populist right caused alarm, particularly in Bavaria. In response, the powerful Christian Social Union (CSU), Bavaria’s independent arm of the Christian Democrats, seriously contemplated once again to reach beyond Bavaria and create a genuinely national-conservative party, competing with both the AfD and the CDU. The CSU had always maintained that there must never be a democratically legitimated party to the right of the CSU. With the AfD, there clearly was, and Merkel’s Christian Democrats appeared not in a position to stem the tide.

Corona Winner

Yet Merkel managed to survive the various challenges to her leadership, despite continued electoral setbacks, which largely benefited the AfD. But skepticism abounded. In late 2018, a majority of Germans thought that Merkel would not serve out her mandate, due to expire at the 2021 parliamentary election. At about the same time, however, 70% of respondents in a representative survey said they wished she would finish her mandate. Once the pandemic hit Germany in the spring of 2020, Merkel’s stock started to soar once again. International media celebrated Germany as a most likely pandemic winner that had proven particularly resilient to the virus.

What a joke. Only this time, nobody’s laughing. At the time of writing, Germany is a coronavirus disaster zone. The country has proved, once again, to be completely unprepared in the face of the second wave of infections that threatens to overwhelm the health care system. Starting in early December, Germany posted record new infections, and this before the arrival of the UK mutation. By now, the situation in some parts of Germany is nothing short of catastrophic. At the same time, the situation on the vaccination front leaves much to be desired.

In mid-January, Germany recorded more than 22,000 new infections on a single day and more than 1,100 new COVID-19-related deaths. This is at least partly the result of the German government’s indecisive, hesitant and confusing response to the pandemic, made worse by Germany’s federal system, which provides for a plethora of veto points. This means that not only has it been difficult and quite tedious to arrive at a coordinated policy but also that every Land introduced its own measures, some more stringent than others. The result has been a certain degree of public exasperation. In a recent survey, more than half of respondents said they were annoyed at the measures that were “often contradictory.”

To be sure, Merkel cannot be held personally responsible for the dramatic deterioration of the situation once the second wave hit Germany with full force. A lot of time was lost in December in attempts to get the various political officials from Germany’s 16 Länder to agree on a common strategy. And even in the face of a potential disaster in early January, Merkel had to do a lot of convincing to get support for more restrictive measures.

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Cultural Revolution

Under the circumstances, Angela Merkel’s other accomplishments as well as her failures are bound to fall by the wayside. They shouldn’t. On one hand, Merkel has dragged the Christian Democrats into the 21st century. The CDU used to be the party of “Kinder, Kirche, Küche” (children, church, kitchen). Politics were a men’s world for, as my neighbor, a woman, used to tell me, politics is a “dirty business” — and dirty businesses should be left to men.

Merkel dared to appoint a woman to the most male of all ministerial portfolios, defense. The German armed forces did not like her, despite the fact — as even Germany’s conservative flagship publication, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, has conceded — that she managed to substantially increase their budget as well as and their image. Today, that former defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, heads the European Commission, another novum. She was replaced by another woman, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who in 2018 succeeded Merkel as the head of the CDU.

Probably nothing exemplifies the cultural revolution Merkel set in motion than the question of sexual and gender identity. Those of us who grew up in the postwar period probably recall that once in a while, our parents would hint that somebody was a “175er.” This was in reference to Paragraph 175 of the German criminal code according to which homosexuality was a punishable offense. The paragraph goes back all the way to 1871, establishing that any sexual activity between two males (there was no formal mention of lesbians) was subject to criminal persecution and punishment.

During the Nazi period, gays suffered from severe persecution, many of them ended up in concentration camps. After the war, the Federal Republic not only retained the paragraph; it also used the Nazis’ “pink lists” — in the camps, homosexuals were marked by a pink triangle on their prisoners’ shirts — to initiate some 100,000 proceedings against homosexuals. It was not until 1994 that the “gay paragraph” was finally abolished, not least because of East German insistence during the negotiations on reunification.

More than 20 years and many gay parades later, in 2017, the German Bundestag voted on legalizing same-sex marriage. On the occasion, Merkel allowed representatives to vote their conscience rather than following party discipline. Quite a few Christian Democrats came out in the support of the law, which was passed by a substantial majority, much to the chagrin of Germany’s conservatives. Some of them defected to the AfD given its vocal opposition to the law, which, as one of its leaders suggested, threatens to undermine Germany’s traditional values and harm society. Polls showed, however, that a substantial majority supported the law. In June 2017, 60% of men and more than 70% of women came out in favor of same-sex marriage across Germany.

We Can Handle This

Angela Merkel’s resolute position during the so-called refugee crisis of 2015-16 also comes out as a positive. In order to understand the enormity of the event, it might be useful to recall one of the great Lebenlügen (delusions) of the Federal Republic, the notion that Germany was “not a country of immigration.” Given the fact that by the 1980s, Germany was home to millions of guest workers and their families, many of whom had permanently settled in Germany, the notion ignored the reality on the ground. Yet it was not until 2001 that an expert commission of the German Bundestag came to the conclusion that the notion was “no longer tenable.” By 2015, a significant majority of Germans agreed with that statement, and in 2019, more than 70% of respondents agreed that in the future, Germany should accept as many refugees as in the past.

This is quite remarkable, given the storm Merkel provoked when in 2015 she cleared the way for welcoming a million refugees, many of them from war-torn Syria. Her main argument was that Germany is a strong country: “Wir schaffen das,” Merkel announced — “We can handle this.” The German public was not entirely convinced. Perhaps they remembered Merkel’s predecessor, Helmut Kohl, who in 1990 had promised that unification would lead to “blossoming landscapes” in the eastern part of the country. The reality, of course, was the opposite. The West German taxpayers would have to pay the bills for decades to come while in the east, resentment continued to grow only to erupt in substantial support for the AfD.

Under the circumstances, German skepticism in 2015 was quite understandable. In early 2016, around 80% of the population expressed concern that the government had lost control over the refugee situation; among AfD supporters, it was virtually 100%. As expected, the radical right made the refugee crisis the central focus of their mobilization — a winning strategy, as the party’s success in subsequent elections demonstrated. But in the end, Merkel prevailed; early concerns that the refugee influx would lead to major social problems were largely proved wrong, and, in late 2018, a comfortable majority of Germany’s public agreed that the chancellor had done a good job with respect to her refugee policy.

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With Merkel, the CDU moved to the left — or so her critics have insisted and complained. Others have argued that the left-wing turn of the CDU is largely a myth. The reality is somewhere in between. Empirical studies suggest that in the aftermath of reunification, all major German parties gradually moved to the center. With reunification, Germany added millions of citizens from a socialist regime whose value system and views on major social issues, such as abortion and homosexuality, were considerably to the left of the dominant value system that prevailed in the western part of the country. As a result, the conservative ideational elements in the CDU got progressively weakened, provoking vocal protest from the party’s right wing. A study from 2017  (but based on interviews held before the refugee crisis of 2015) found that CDU members largely agreed. They saw their own party “distinctly to the left” of their own position and that way before Merkel’s now-famous “Wir schaffen das.”

Grey Spots

Yet against all party-internal resistance and opposition, despite calls for her to hand in her resignation, Merkel once again prevailed — a remarkable feat in these turbulent times. Future historians are likely to consider Angela Merkel’s 15-year tenure in an overall positive light. To be sure, there are grey spots, such as Germany’s handling of the fallout of the financial crisis of 2007-08 and, more recently, Berlin’s intransigence with regard to Italian pleas for “Corona bonds” during the first wave of the pandemic.

Another grey spot regards the question of gender equality. Officially, the European Union has been committed to gender mainstreaming since the mid-1990s. More often than not, the results are wide off the mark, particularly in Germany. To be sure, even here critics would concede that Merkel has “contributed fundamentally to the recognition of women as leaders and decision-makers in Germany.”

In other essential areas of gender politics, her record is rather dismal. Her government did little to nothing to narrow the pay gap between men and women or to do away with Germany’s “anachronistic tax system” that privileges married couples “as long as one of the two (usually the husband) has a high income and the other one (usually the wife) earns little or nothing.” And actual reforms, for instance regarding child care and parental leave, were less intended to promote gender equality than to enhance the position of the family, in line with traditional Christian Democratic doctrine.

The record was equally dismal with regard to public life. As a semi-official account from late 2018 put online by the Federal Center for Political Education noted, in the course of Merkel’s tenure, the number of women in her cabinets progressively declined, from 40% in her first cabinet to 30% in her fourth. At the same time, the CDU failed to attract new women members. In 2018, women made up around 25% of party ranks.

Things were not any better with respect to the composition of Germany’s Bundestag. At the end of the red-Green coalition in 2005, the share of women MPs had been more than 40%. After the election of 2017, it had fallen to a bit more than 30%. In the Christian Democratic parliamentary group, women made up barely 20%. And although Merkel appointed a woman as defense minister, the most important ministries — interior, foreign affairs and finance — remained firmly in the hands of men.

This was to a large extent also true for Germany’s civil service. In 2020, 35% of top positions in the public sector were held by women. And, as the ministry for justice and consumer protection recently noted, “the higher up in the hierarchy, the lower the share of women.” But at least here, change is underway. By 2025, all senior positions are supposed to have closed the gender gap.


If Germany is a laggard with regard to gender equality, it has prided itself to be a leader when it comes to the environment. The reality, however, is somewhat different. In fact, when it comes to arguably the greatest global challenge, the fight against global warming and climate change, Angela Merkel has been a major disappointment.

As a reminder: Merkel entered office as a strong advocate of decisive action against climate change. In fact, in the years that followed, German media nicknamed her the “Klimakanzlerin” — climate chancellor. Yet over time, she gradually abandoned her convictions, caving in first to the demands of German’s powerful automobile sector and then to the coal industry. Germany continues to rely heavily on coal for the production of energy. To a significant extent, it is the environmentally most disastrous type of coal, lignite.

Lignite power plants are among Europe’s worst polluters. Most of them operate in Germany and Poland. And while a number of EU countries, such as France, Italy and the Netherlands, have decided to stop coal-fired power production by or before 2030, Germany won’t phase out its coal plants until 2038. Mining lignite is an important sector in the southeastern part of former East Germany, in Lusatia, around the city of Cottbus. Electoral considerations, particularly given the AfD’s strength in that part of the country, of course have nothing to do with the Merkel government’s reluctance when it comes to coal. Honi soit qui mal y pense.

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Overall, Merkel’s climate policy has been suboptimal, to put it mildly. As a former environmental minister recently put it, for the government, political opportunism and convenience counted more than tackling an essential problem. That was before the pandemic hit. COVID-19 appears to have caused somewhat of a reconversion. By now, Merkel has once again started to promote herself as the Klimakanzlerin. And for good reasons. COVID-19 has largely been associated with environmental destruction, the dramatic loss of biodiversity and global warming. Polls show that Germans are quite sensitive when it comes to these issues. A recent survey found around 85% of the German population not only concerned about these issues, but also willing to make lifestyle changes to “protect the climate.” Under the circumstances, Merkel’s return to her environmentalist roots is hardly surprising. It makes a lot of sense, politically speaking.

Despite a vigorous 15-year resume as chancellor, it is now clear that COVID-19 will define how Merkel will be judged once she leaves office and by how well Germany will master this challenge over the months to come. This might be unfair. After all, Merkel is what Americans call a “lame duck.” But, as Donald Trump so eloquently put it, it is what it is. The German government’s recent frantic attempts to regain control of a situation that has largely spun out of control are an admission of unpreparedness paired with incompetence and mismanagement paired with wishful thinking. In March 2020, Merkel stated on national television that COVID-19 represented the “greatest challenge since the Second World War.” She was right.

As long as Merkel holds Germany’s most powerful political position, she is in charge and ultimately bears responsibility. At the moment, a large majority of Germans have full confidence that once again, she will be at the top of her game and handle the challenge. It is to be hoped that their confidence is justified.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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