Angela Merkel: Despite All the Skill and Achievement, Failing to Grasp the Big Putin Picture

Extracts from an article at the New York Review of Books by an exceptional Irish journalist:

The Last of Her Kind

Fintan O’Toole

Angela Merkel emerged from the ruins of the Eastern bloc as a spectacular example of the way the collapse of an old regime might create a much more benign sense of opportunity.

…there is something magical in the way a young woman who had never had a meaningful vote, who had no political experience and no rhetorical skills, could, scarcely more than a year after the fall of the wall, be a full member of the federal cabinet governing the European Union’s most powerful state…

The Chancellor, Kati Marton’s elegant, concise, and accessible biography of Merkel, is a portrait not just of a person but of a kind of centrist and consensual politics that once seemed drab but now has the fascination of an almost extinct species. Merkel made a kind of decency that could be viewed as dull feel almost exotic. Once, it might have seemed in postwar Europe that careful, patient, managerial politicians who wanted nothing more or less than to make things work as well as possible without threatening existing structures were a dime a dozen. Now the fear that hangs over Western and Central Europe is that Merkel was the last of that tribe. She has departed in a cloud not of glory but of anxiety. Putin made sure that Merkel’s era would recede into the past with dizzying rapidity.

…Her father, Horst Kasner, a stern and idealistic Lutheran pastor, moved his family [from Hamburg] to the East just after she was born, settling in the small town of Templin, fifty miles north of Berlin, in 1954…

…Merkel’s entire personality is that of a survivor (rather than a dissident) in a totalitarian state: careful, nonconfrontational, watchful. Her gift for political compromise was that of a girl who learned how to function simultaneously as a loyal believer in her father’s Lutheran Church (an awkward presence in an atheist state) and as a member of the official Communist youth movement. Living in a country with perhaps the most thorough system of official surveillance ever created in Europe, she learned to have an inner life, a secret self that she almost never betrayed, even when she had one of the most public jobs in the world.

…She entered the Western world as an immigrant among “foreign company,” with all the alertness and self-control of the émigré. And she deployed the cold cunning of the supreme political opportunist. This was learned, no doubt, in the GDR, where she developed the habit of steely calculation in order to avoid the dangers of being either an informer or a dissident.

Certainly by the time she entered public life, in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the wall, Merkel had a knack for cool political patricide. Lothar de Maizière, the first and last democratically elected prime minister of the GDR, brought her into high-level politics by making her deputy spokesperson for his government. It was he who recommended Merkel to Kohl, who was then looking for an East German woman to fill the “soft” position of minister for women and youth in the federal government of the newly united state. These were, as de Maizière wryly noted, “two subjects Angela really did not care about at all,” but the position nonetheless made her, at thirty-six, the youngest minister in German history. Yet when de Maizière was falsely accused of having been a Stasi informant, Merkel did nothing to help her mentor. And in 1998, when Kohl was caught up in a scandal concerning illegal donations to his campaigns, it was Merkel who acted as his political assassin. Kohl had patronizingly referred to his protégée as his Mädchen—girl. He learned the hard way that she was a girl with a razor up her sleeve.

The mastery of these weapons made Merkel the most formidable democratic politician in Europe and allowed her to accumulate the authority with which she held the EU together…

…this self-image as a hardheaded pragmatist, concerned only with the pursuit of the best available outcomes, obscured the importance of her heritage as the daughter of a Lutheran pastor. At one of the crucial moments of contemporary European history, she behaved essentially as a religious moralist. Part of the problem was that she never seemed to understand this about herself.

It is, in retrospect, deeply ironic that Merkel was at her most narrowly pragmatic in dealing with Putin and at her most punitive in her approach toward fellow citizens of EU democracies. With Russia, even after its annexation of Crimea in 2014, she was all business, to the extent of believing that depending on Putin for Germany’s supplies of natural gas was just a commonsense calculation of mutual economic interests. Yet in the crisis of the eurozone following the great banking crash of 2008, Merkel treated an economic and political problem as if it were a test of moral righteousness. She threw her weight behind a division of the EU into good creditors (Germany and the other Northern European nations) and bad debtors (the so-called PIIGS: Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain). Marton usefully reminds us that in German, the word for debt—Schuld—is the same as that for guilt. Those countries whose banks had borrowed recklessly were guilty; those (like, of course, Germany) whose banks had lent recklessly were innocent. And the sinners must be punished—ordinary citizens of the debtor nations should be made to suffer so they would learn a lesson they would never forget.

This way of defining the crisis suited Germany, but it had nasty consequences for Merkel’s larger ambition to unify Europe. The imposition of drastic austerity measures prolonged and deepened the economic recession. Merkel, meanwhile, did very little to counter the impression that Germany was taking charge and dictating terms…

…the moralization of the debt crisis could also feed, in Germany itself, a self-pitying narrative in which the frugal, responsible Germans were being taken for a ride by the feckless Southern Europeans. This was the founding mentality of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, which emerged to challenge Merkel in 2013, and it subsequently fused with anti-immigrant sentiment to create a more virulent form of grievance that propelled the far right into the Bundestag for the first time since the fall of the Nazis.

Hence the larger paradox of the Merkel era: the leadership of a centrist Christian Democrat as the undisputed first among equals in the EU coincided with the loss of Christian Democracy’s dominance of the right-of-center space in European politics. The rise of far-right parties like the AfD, the League in Italy, Poland’s Law and Justice, the National Rally in France, Spain’s Vox, and Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz in Hungary has created a profound identity crisis in what used to be the dominant conservative parties, leaving them unsure whether they should fight against what Orbán calls “illiberal democracy” or shore up their own support by embracing it. In a short essay on Merkel’s departure, Orbán claimed that while Kohl had been “a dear, old friend, a Christian brother,” Merkel had created a “rupture” on the European right by supporting the “migratory invasion” of 2015…

The wider question Merkel has left unanswered is whether it is possible, in the new wartime that Putin has inaugurated, for a leader of the democratic world to combine ambition and vision on the one hand with modesty and decency on the other. She mattered so deeply because she had no interest in what has animated Putin and so many of his fellow nationalist authoritarians: the pursuit of greatness. The promise to make Russia (or America or Britain or China) great again has been at the core of reactionary politics over the past decade.

Merkel always knew that Germany, above all, must not be great…

Must, however, the eschewal of greatness involve the loss of any sense of large-scale and long-term purpose? Merkel once described herself as being “as focused and as concentrated as a tightrope walker, only thinking about the next step.” No one walked the high wire as sure-footedly as she did—and even after sixteen years she had not fallen off but chose to dismount gracefully. But that exclusive focus on thinking about the next step also meant that she had little sense of what might await at the end of the rope.

Nowhere was this more true than in her relations with Putin. In the crisis that followed his annexation of Crimea in 2014, Merkel became the West’s Putin whisperer. She spoke to him, according to Marton, thirty-eight times during that crisis and did more than anyone else to create the Minsk accords, which established the restoration of Ukraine’s sovereignty as a mutually recognized goal. They were a great testament to her skill, tenacity, and selfless care for the lives of those who would be threatened by a wider war. But they barely outlasted her chancellorship.

It has not taken long for Europe to pay Merkel the tribute of becoming painfully aware of both what she achieved and what she left unresolved, of what she meant to the defense of democracy and the fragile condition in which she left it. In The Life of Galileo, her compatriot Bertolt Brecht has the young Andrea sigh, “Unhappy the land that has no heroes!” and Galileo reply, “No. Unhappy the land that needs heroes.” For much of her remarkable career, Merkel was the marvelous exemplar of happily unheroic leadership. Now Western Europe finds itself very unhappily in need not of a swaggering hero, but of someone who can, in a suddenly altered world, fill her silences with urgency and purpose.

Meanwhile on the Macron front:

Earlier posts based on Mr O’Toole are here

Mark Collins

Twitter: @mark3ds

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One thought on “Angela Merkel: Despite All the Skill and Achievement, Failing to Grasp the Big Putin Picture”

  1. A relevant tweet:

    Mark Collins

    Like

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