The Year Germany Said Auf Wiedersehen to Angela Merkel

Germany said goodbye to a generational leader—and hello to an entirely new era.

By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
Angela Merkel
Angela Merkel
  Markus Jans

2021

It’s not hard to list Angela Merkel’s achievements. Over the past 16 years as chancellor of Germany, Merkel initiated an ambitious renewable energy transition, oversaw an unprecedented strengthening of the European Union, and opened her country’s borders to a million refugees, mostly from the Middle East.

But her most impressive accomplishment may have come at the very end of her administration: that she managed to leave office as her country’s most popular current politician. Likely the only reason Merkel’s not still chancellor of Germany is that she chose not to run for reelection. And thus, she enjoyed a privilege rarely accorded politicians: going out entirely on one’s own terms.

Nevertheless, the generational duration of her time in office—and the close connection she forged with the German public, which allowed for it—also raised the stakes of her departure. This year’s election in Germany was about more than just selecting a new leader: It was a national reckoning with what kind of politics to embrace for the generation to come—what priorities to pursue and how to pursue them.

It’s not hard to list Angela Merkel’s achievements. Over the past 16 years as chancellor of Germany, Merkel initiated an ambitious renewable energy transition, oversaw an unprecedented strengthening of the European Union, and opened her country’s borders to a million refugees, mostly from the Middle East.

But her most impressive accomplishment may have come at the very end of her administration: that she managed to leave office as her country’s most popular current politician. Likely the only reason Merkel’s not still chancellor of Germany is that she chose not to run for reelection. And thus, she enjoyed a privilege rarely accorded politicians: going out entirely on one’s own terms.

Nevertheless, the generational duration of her time in office—and the close connection she forged with the German public, which allowed for it—also raised the stakes of her departure. This year’s election in Germany was about more than just selecting a new leader: It was a national reckoning with what kind of politics to embrace for the generation to come—what priorities to pursue and how to pursue them.

The challenges Merkel’s successor must address are clear enough. Can Germany prevent its close trading partnership with China from tipping into dependence? Will the country meet the demands of climate change without triggering social and economic disruption? Should it continue to rely on the United States as a close military and political ally? And if not, where should it turn instead?

None of this is to suggest the campaign to choose Merkel’s replacement was high-minded or particularly inspirational. The winner was Olaf Scholz, Merkel’s vice-chancellor, an avowed moderate in temperament and vision, albeit one from the opposing Social Democratic Party. But Scholz’s campaign offered the glimpses of a new era in the offing, in which less emphasis would be placed on the conservative economic orthodoxies that Merkel typically felt bound by.

The post-election coalition negotiations confirmed the shift, as Scholz’s Social Democratic Party forged an unprecedented alliance with the ecologically minded Greens and the market-friendly Free Democratic Party. They unveiled their new partnership under the motto “Dare More Progress.” It was not a slogan that Merkel, paragon of stability and prudence, would have ever endorsed.

Here are five standout Foreign Policy articles from this year on Germany’s big shift from Merkel to Scholz:


1. The Other Side of Angela Merkel

by Matthias Matthijs and R. Daniel Kelemen, July 9

The final months of Merkel’s time in office occasioned countless hagiographies in diplomatic circles and the media. Fair enough: Obituaries, political or otherwise, aren’t typically meant to magnify the faults. But the analyses of Merkel’s motives nevertheless sometimes went too far, indulging in outright sentimentality.

Matthias Matthijs and R. Daniel Kelemen offer an important corrective. “There has also been a darker side to Merkel’s leadership in Europe—both to the specific decision-making tactics she has relied on and to the general principles that have guided her policies,” they write. Merkel’s international policymaking wasn’t motivated by altruism, as is sometimes portrayed, they argue, but rather a shrewd calculation of Germany’s economic interests—even when those interests came at the expense of other values such as democracy and human rights.


2. Germany’s Post-Pacifist Generation Is Nearing Power

by Emily Schultheis, May 3

Annalena Baerbock, as the Green Party’s chancellor candidate in this year’s election, is generally thought to have done a poor job on the campaign trail, with her party ultimately earning only 15 percent at the polls—significantly below expectations. But she has emerged from coalition negotiations as Germany’s first female foreign minister, a post that fits her expertise.

In interviews with the German press, Baerbock has described her approach to the job, promising a far greater emphasis on human rights than Germany saw during Merkel’s years in office and a tougher approach to both Russia and China. Emily Schultheis’s profile of Baerbock offers a preview of these priorities that is even more relevant today than when it was published.


3. The Post-Merkel Return of German Ideologies

by Adam Tooze, Sept. 17

Merkel was the quintessential centrist. As a leader, her actions seemed mostly the product of a compromise between what circumstances required and what she believed the German public would bear. This approach allowed her to make some far-reaching changes under the banner of social consensus.

But as Adam Tooze points out in this article, Merkel didn’t eliminate Germany’s ideological divides—she merely suppressed them. And now that she’s gone, and her Christian Democratic Union party finds itself in the opposition alongside the far-right Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) and far-left Die Linke, those divides are bound to express themselves again more stridently in public. Tooze charts what that may mean for the rest of the world.


4. Olaf Scholz’s Quiet Revolution in German Economics

by Caroline de Gruyter, Oct. 8

Olaf Scholz, chancellor candidate of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), attends the annual ARD television summer interview with journalist Tina Hassel near the Reichstag on August 15, 2021 in Berlin.

Olaf Scholz, chancellor candidate of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), attends the annual ARD television summer interview with journalist Tina Hassel near the Reichstag on Aug. 15 in Berlin. Omer Messinger/Getty Images

As finance minister, Scholz liked to portray himself in public as a paragon of economic continuity with his conservative predecessors. “A German finance minister,” he once said, “is a German finance minister.”

But de Gruyter ably shows how, during his time in Berlin’s finance ministry, Scholz was quietly pursuing an economics revolution by promoting a new generation of heterodox economic thinkers. They have already made their mark on Germany’s Europe policy—and are likely to now do so in the halls of the Chancellery.


5. Germany Can Learn From Japan’s China Strategy

by Noah Barkin, Nov. 16

Germany’s biggest foreign-policy challenge is, on the surface, the same as the one facing the United States: negotiating its relationship with a rising China. But the nature of the transatlantic allies’ problems is not alike. Unlike the United States, Germany’s relationship with China is defined above all by economics—and, specifically, by German exports.

In that sense, as Noah Barkin points out in this piece, the more fruitful analogy for Germany might be Japan. He suggests that Scholz as chancellor would benefit from studying Japan’s newly developed ministry for economic security—and from more generally viewing Germany’s own economic relationships through a national-security lens.

Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CameronAbadi

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