One of the best and most accurate analyzis of the Merkel era is Stephan Hebel’s article in the German magazine Freitag „We’ll soon will overcome her“ / “Bald haben wir sie geschafft”. Almost three years ago, in October 2018, Angela Merkel made a double announcement: she would give up the CDU chairmanship and not apply for the office of Chancellor again in 2021. This was followed by extensive appraisals in all the media, which sometimes sounded like very premature obituaries. This was also the case at the time when Jana Hensel published a “personal” farewell text. It is perhaps an example of the fascination that this politician arouses not only in the liberal-bourgeois spectrum, but also far beyond the support of her party. And it stands for the errors associated with this already historical figure. Jana Hensel wrote: “Angela Merkel was – is – as German Chancellor, along with a few others, leader of the free world. (…) My feeling about Germany, it’s actually an Angela Merkel feeling. (…) That she would put the CDU in the middle, it was fine with me. I only voted for this party because of them. I wanted to be at home with her in this Germany for a long time. I like their dark circles, which are sometimes bigger, sometimes smaller, for me they are dark circles of trust. „The text ended with perhaps the greatest compliment that can be given in politics:“ Actually, you only say that about men. But now I’ll say it about you: Angela Merkel is a great statesman. A great statesman. Or no, let’s just say right away: Angela Merkel is a great stateswoman. “ Anyone who thinks this is a favor from the “mainstream press” is mistaken: Jana Hensel’s “Angela Merkel feeling” is recognizably real, as is the feeling of being “at home” with this woman. And anyone who is having conversations about the Merkel era these days will hear something similar far into left-wing circles.
That doesn’t make it easy to draw a critical balance based on sober facts. Especially one that has nothing to do with the right-wing tones of the “Merkel dictatorship”. Doesn’t this Chancellor has to defended anyone who wants to counter the outcry? Don’t these or that mistakes from 16 years in office fade in the face of the radiance of your personality? No: This text is based on the thesis that sparing the chancellor, who is still in office, would as little justice as defamatory criticism, exaggerating her person or neglecting her personal qualities. If you want something to change in this country, you have to understand her legacy without personally degrading her.
Person A few days ago, on July 17th, Angela Merkel celebrated her 67th birthday. It won’t be long before she will practice what her government will impose on all working people in the future: retirement at 67. The fact that Merkel is going into a kind of retirement so late is not, however, due to the intention of wanting to be a role model for employees. It was the overall political situation and the upcoming election date that dictated the timing for the Chancellor. But it fits her image: hard-working, a loyal servant of the state, but also ready to say goodbye as long as she can still decide for herself. This perception is certainly not entirely wrong. The first woman at the top of the German government can neither be accused of laziness nor a lack of personal integrity or this dogged obsession with power that drove Helmut Kohl into the failed candidacy of 1998 and his successor Gerhard Schröder into that absurd scene from the 2005 election evening when he was denying Merkel the Chancellory in public.Angela Merkel has credibly embodied her favorite phrase „We have to work on it“, repeated hundreds of times. With seemingly unlimited zeal for work and steel-hard nerves, she has earned the same respect that is justified, but also tarnishes the view of the factual balance of her work.
Power Personal modesty and the absence of potent poses do not mean, however, that Angela Merkel had no relation to power. In 2000, when she was Secretary General of CDU chairman Helmut Kohl, she pushed the former chancellor off his pedestal with courage and determination. At that time she would have guessed that she would either maneuver herself out of the way – or to the top. As is well known, she calmly got rid of the men’s groups who tried to stand in her way or endangered her project. What was special, however, was that this woman never gave the impression that she was striving for power for power’s sake. To this day there are hardly any voices to be taken seriously who deny that they did not seek power to have it, but to do something with it. Something she believes will serve the country and its people.
Ideology If it is true, however, that power was never an end in itself for Merkel, then her actions must have had a goal, an ideological fixed point to which she was oriented. In political journalism there are two theses that deny precisely that: either that it had no goals at all and that it is nothing but a reactive pragmatist; or that she “moved the CDU to the left” and “social democratized” it. But things can also be viewed quite differently: Angela Merkel was and is, out of deep conviction, a bulwark against a socio-ecological restructuring of capitalism. As the? Those who are not prone to conspiracy stories will certainly not get the idea of accusing the Chancellor of bribery. The fact that in case of doubt it decides in favor of the interests of capital is not due to any whisperings or even donations from mysterious economic powers and probably not even to the influence of the unmanageable number of lobbyists. To put it bluntly: it is worse, this woman acts out of conviction.
Merkel really believes that everyone is fine when companies and the wealthy are doing well. She is deeply skeptical of state interventions to restrict their privileges, redistribute wealth and strengthen social systems. Perhaps, with all caution against speculation about personal motives, a biographical trace can be discerned here. Angela Merkel grew up in a system that, in this context, could be described as an “authoritarian welfare state”: Protection against important life risks at the price of close control over the society and economic activity. It would never occur to her that personal freedom in no way contradicts comprehensive public services, yes, that social security and personal freedom are even mutually dependent. An apparent contradiction to this thesis is the modernization of the state and the capitalist economy in terms of childcare, women and family. The fact that the female half of the population, at least in large part, still saw themselves pushed into the role of unpaid care workers, obviously did not correspond to Merkel’s worldview at all. The expansion of childcare and other reforms to reconcile family and work should have been a real concern of her heart.
Here, however, something else becomes apparent: The modernization was and is certainly a real advance in the interests of many women. But it did not contradict the interests of “the economy”, by which capital is always meant nowadays. The companies were and are no less interested than the women themselves when, from their point of view, it is a matter of securing a sufficient potential of workers. That does not diminish the gratifying increase in gender equality. But it should at least be noted that it did not have to be enforced against capital interests. Above all, it should not cloud the view of the countless issues on which the Chancellor successfully defended these capital interests against demands for a comprehensive transformation.
Reform backlog The number of examples for the defense of the capitalist status quo is large, the most important points can only be briefly and incompletely listed here: Pretty much every tightening of the EU emissions regulations was softened under pressure from the German auto industry and “their” government before they were passed. With regard to climate protection as a whole, far-reaching measures have been and are thwarted with the mantra “No prohibitions and commands!” – A look at the most recent election manifesto of the Union parties suggests a fatal continuity with the Merkel era. Europe has continued to develop into a neoliberal competitive platform for national economies. The broadband cable expansion, which was praised at every opportunity as the foundation of the digital future, ended time and again in Germany with the short-term interests of the telecommunications companies; including Deutsche Telekom, which for years avoided investing in fiber optic cables with the help of technical tricks (“vectoring”). Germany ranks sixth from last among 37 industrialized countries of the OECD (as of the end of 2020) in terms of fiber optic expansion and penultimate place for mobile network coverage with LTE standard in rural areas.
The attempt to effectively shackle the real estate market was thwarted by the Union parties with tenacious resistance – only „rent brakes“ with a very limited effect had to be wrested from the Merkel camp. Not even their own goals in social housing were fully achieved. In the healthcare sector, the number of private clinics rose significantly during the Merkel era, while the number of public hospitals fell. When it comes to health, care and pensions, reform concepts such as citizens‘ insurance, on which the Greens, SPD and Left parties agree in principle, had no chance with Merkel and her party.
A direct consequence of Merkel’s state skepticism is the insistence on the „black zero“, combined with the rejection of tax increases at the upper end of the income and wealth scale. Interesting by the way that hardly anyone screams when Merkel hides the question of redistribution behind the dumb slogan “No tax increases”. Apparently forgotten is the most drastic tax policy decision of her chancellorhood: the increase in the standard rate of value added tax from 16 to 19 percentage points. Above all, it affects those who have to spend most of their low incomes on daily consumption anyway – at least when they need a little more than the lower-taxed basic equipment of daily life. The fact that the SPD did not dare to support this decision does not absolve the Chancellor from responsibility. Among other things, because of the refusal to raise the necessary money, the Merkel governments are leaving an investment gap that will be increasingly difficult to close. Even before the pandemic, in 2019, the union-related Institute for Macroeconomics and Business Cycle Research, together with its employer-related counterpart, the Institute of German Economy, put the need for additional government investments at 450 billion euros in ten years. Angela Merkel’s image of the “Swabian housewife” is downright an insult to women from Württemberg: If they behaved like the German governments of the past 16 years, it would have rained through their roof long ago. The Hartz IV humiliation system, including sanctions, has changed as little as the rate of people at risk of poverty in the country. Pragmatism As much as the thesis that this Chancellor pursued political goals more or less stringently may initially come as a surprise: The points mentioned are all striking examples. And yet – depending on the point of view, full of admiration or outrage – the rumor of the pragmatist, who would rather have thrown ideological beliefs overboard than defend them while accepting the risk of political harm.
Pragmatism As much as the thesis that this Chancellor pursued political goals more or less stringently may initially come as a surprise: The points mentioned are all striking examples. And yet – depending on the point of view, full of admiration or outrage – the rumor of the pragmatist, who would rather have thrown ideological beliefs overboard than defend them while accepting the risk of political harm. This thesis has become so firmly established in public perception that it is not easy to contradict. And as in all legends, there is a real core to it. In fact, Angela Merkel has repeatedly distanced herself from supposedly immovable positions: nuclear phase-out, suspension of compulsory military service, statutory minimum wage and, above all, the summer of the refugees – all of which were tough turning maneuvers. But it takes a certain degree of factual denial to interpret these moments of reversal as evidence of the fundamental lack of an ideological compass, an idea of society. On closer inspection, it is much closer to the interpretation that Angela Merkel gave in precisely at the points where social pressure or the simple facts forced her to do so – she did not want to endanger her majority, i.e. her chancellorship and thus her political project.
hen it came to phasing out nuclear power, it was known to be Fukushima. The nuclear disaster in Japan not only made it clear to the Chancellor what many of her compatriots knew beforehand: that this technology harbors considerable risks. Above all, she became aware – admittedly faster than her party – that with the exit from the red-green nuclear phase-out, which had just taken place, parts of the bourgeois electorate could also be lost – that was too hegemonic: “Nuclear power? No thanks! ”has become a part of society.
The situation was similar with the minimum wage: the defense was already crumbling in one’s own party, the topic became more and more apparent since the correctness of the slogan “poor despite work” in the growing low-wage sector became more and more evident. So it was social and political pressure that Merkel – insofar a pragmatist of power – bowed to. She would rather take the reins into her own hands and make the minimum wage as business-friendly as possible than risk the loss of majority and power.
Most astonishing is the idea that the suspension of compulsory military service was a concession to the critics of compulsory service. Rather, the establishment of a professional army was the imperative for the plan to turn the Bundeswehr into an intervention force that could be deployed around the world.
Migration Finally, a more detailed mention needs to be made of the supposed turnaround in migration policy, which must always serve as a prime example of the Chancellor’s ability to learn: The historical moment that is notoriously incorrectly referred to in the current narratives as the „opening of the border“ has made a decisive contribution to the polarized perception of her person after she seemed to float successfully above things for a decade. But what really happened? There is no doubt that the federal government prevented an escalation that night from September 4th to 5th, 2015 and carried out an act that was ultimately humanitarian. That can and must be appreciated. But on closer inspection, there is no reason for what both the angry anti-Merkel scene and the fans of the Chancellor are doing with it: Both pretend (one is outraged, the other is enthusiastic) as if it was a fundamental change in policy .
Neither the situation at the time nor what happened before and after supports this perception. On the morning of September 4th, when the caravan of refugees was long on the way, government spokesman Steffen Seibert expressed the German attitude: Hungary has „the legally binding duty (…) to carry out the asylum procedure itself in accordance with European standards in Hungary“ . This referred to the notorious “Dublin procedure”, which came into force in 1997, not least because of German instigation: The country in which refugees first enter the EU is responsible for the initial reception and the asylum procedure. Landlocked states like Germany had thus dumped the humanitarian duty, insofar as it was recognized at all, on the countries with external borders.
So now the caravan was approaching the German border because Hungary and Austria didn’t even think about taking the people. In retrospect, Die Zeit described the situation as follows: “You can only stop the marchers by force, Merkel and her people are convinced of that, with water cannons, batons, irritant gas. There would be tumults and terrible images. Merkel fears such images. Their political force. She is convinced that Germany cannot withstand such images. “ That was the reason for not “opening” the border, which was never closed, but leaving it open. If Angela Merkel has anything to be credited with, it is this: When migration, which had always been kept away from the German perception area by Dublin, showed itself very concretely and physically at its own borders, she interrupted the practice of foreclosure for a moment, around the Avoid escalation. Without a doubt, the humanitarian effect at that moment was just as great as if the Chancellor had changed her policy out of conviction and perhaps even permanently: people in Germany were given accommodation and asylum procedures. The motive for not closing the border would not have mattered – had Germany under Merkel and the entire EU not immediately returned to the policy of isolation. The refugee-keep-away agreement with Turkey and comparable agreements with states on the African refugee routes, the billion-dollar armament of the so-called border protection agency Frontex, the camps in Greece, the deportations even to Afghanistan, the multiple tightening of asylum laws: all of this speaks of the „refugee chancellor“ is simply a mockery.
Society As we have seen, the image of Merkel differs in large parts of the public from the factual balance sheet of the Chancellor – at least when this balance sheet is viewed under the aspect of a necessary socio-ecological restructuring. But how did Angela Merkel manage to float in the public eye above the things she was responsible for, at least until autumn 2015, as if she had nothing to do with them – at least not with the failures? Why is she rated so much better, even among people on the left, than the results of her policies suggest? That has to do with the personal characteristics mentioned above. In a world in which the Erdoğans and Bolsonaros, the Trumps and Putins and many others trudge through the china shops with their legs apart, a certain modesty, a willingness to listen, the competence in matters of compromise stands out positively in itself. Something like this has what it takes to provide a certain calming down in times of crisis. For the feeling that things could still be sorted out if we would only “work on them” diligently.
But this calming habitus also has a reverse side that is not at all good for the social climate. It gives the impression that reality is a kind of workpiece that only needs to be sanded and polished a little in the right places in order to function. To reshape the workpiece, consisting of the state, economy and society – this idea did not and does not occur in the communicative cosmos of Merkelism. And this reluctance to seek alternatives or even visions has left deep marks in the public mood – especially since the SPD, as a multiple coalition partner of the Union, and the Greens as the next future alliance partner, have done too little to arouse something like reform euphoria. So today we are faced with the results of what is called “asymmetrical demobilization”: By giving her policy the aura of no alternatives, almost natural law, she successfully nipped the mobilization for alternative models in the bud. And it is becoming apparent that this will continue after September 26th with new staff. That too is part of Angela Merkel’s legacy.
Another interesting analysis is a contribution of Nils Markwardt “ Marital years of a chancellor”/”Ehejahre einer Kanzlerin”in the “Freitag” who analyses the reports of the German yellow press about Merkel´s private life and how they contribute to her election victories as the readers arethe million strong women electorate above the age of 60.
One of the often repeated remarks about Angela Merkel is that in her 16-year term in office she has always been a “Teflon Chancellor”, to whom discursively nothing sticks. On closer inspection, however, the matter appears more complex. On the one hand, it is not simply the case that Merkel was quasi-presidential hovering over political operations and eluding any classification. Rather, she mastered an intricate attribution management that usually turned out to be in her favor. The audience was able to assume that her successes came about thanks to her expertise and strategic foresight, while at the same time she could give the impression that defeats and mistakes happened not because of, but in spite of her. Or to put it another way: Merkel succeeded in claiming a political hermeneutic of benevolence, which, in case of doubt, took away from her that she had nothing to do with the decisions for which Andi Scheuer or Horst Seehofer were responsible. The Teflon metaphor also seems inadequate because the Chancellor’s media-political capital included a specific form of authenticity: a habitus of modesty, down-to-earthness and indecency. Now this authenticity conveyed by the media may also follow a staging calculation, as Merkel will know that when she makes regular purchases in a supermarket in Berlin-Mitte, mobile phone pictures are taken of bystanders who paint the portrait of an unpretentious top politician on Facebook and Twitter, who buys wine and sometimes toilet paper herself.
But regardless of whether there is a calculation or not, this down-to-earth habit unfolds its effect. You can see this not only in the fact that her husband is hardly mentioned in a journalistic portrait of Merkel, but you can see it even more clearly when you descend into the deepest valleys of the boulevard, which can no longer be adequately grasped with the term journalism. What are meant are those thin papers such as frau aktuell, Freizeit Woche or Neue Post, which are lined up by the dozen in the magazine trade and on the front pages are always the same scandal and heart stories with exclamation marks of pop singers, actors and the European aristocracy, which then tease each other when reading it turn out to be absurd misleading or outright lies.
Regarding Angela Merkel, however, it is not only interesting that she is one of the few politicians that appears regularly in these papers, which can be explained by her fame and prominent position, but above all how she does it. As problematic as these postillas are, of course, they not only gain journalistic weight because they are „read“ in particular by the over-60 generation who decide elections, but their obscure design also distorts one of Angela Merkel’s essential recipe for success. But this can only be fully recognized at second glance.
At first, the Chancellor appears in this literal yellow press with the same topics as Helene Fischer: love, illness, work. The fact that this “reporting” does not depend on facts is exemplified by the fact that the Chancellor’s Freizeit Woche on 23 June had the headline: “Her husband is gone! Will she soon be the loneliest woman in the world? „(Occasion: Joachim Sauer was accepted into the Turin Academy of Sciences), while on the same day The Neue Frau opened with the headline:“ Marriage saved! She fought for her love – and won ”(Reason: Sauer accompanied Merkel to the G7 summit in Cornwall). On September 1st, the headline of the Freizeit Woche was again: “Terminally ill? Is the Chancellor really that bad ”(reason: she allegedly suffers from excessive nail biting), while Frau Aktuell reported on the cover from September 4th:“ Finally happy! Big plans for the future ”(occasion: Merkel finally had time for herself in retirement).
Practically all the other Merkel headlines in these magazines follow a similar pattern: “Surprising new beginning” (Frau aktuell, 08/28/21), “The truth about their marriage (Freizeit Vergnügen, 09/14/21),“ All out! – Is she now threaten to have a life in bitter loneliness ”( Woche aktuell, 10/28/20) or“ Bitter End! She sacrificed her luck for duty ”(Neue Post, 01/20/21). If these stories make it clear on the one hand that even the most powerful woman in Europe is reduced to her role as a wife, on the other hand there is a narrative constant in the fact that the Chancellor, regardless of whether it is supposed to be togetherness or the pain of separation, shows herself in search of petty-bourgeois happiness. Seeker of little happiness
Regardless of whether alleged marital problems or „a lot of stress and overtime“ (leisure time pleasure) torment the Chancellor, the narrative vanishing point of almost all of these reports is the existentialist vision of a Biedermeier shrink conservatism, according to which happiness in life is the combination of marriage and comfortable manageability results. Whether the post-war geopolitical order collapses or the climate catastrophe looms, one wishes above all that Merkel “can enjoy a glass of wine with husband and friends in the idyllic holiday home in the Uckermark without deadline pressure” () or “has time [has] to try out new recipes „(Frau aktuell).
The fact that tabloid magazines cultivate such Biedermeier fantasies may not come as a surprise, but in relation to Merkel it fulfills a not inconsiderable function. Because in contrast to Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schröder, who ostentatiously staged their supposed down-to-earth attitude at Lake Wolfgang or in allotments, Merkel refused to use this media-effective form of semi-private contact. The fact that the Chancellor, who was biographically and personally always a challenge for the male union FRG conservatism, is nevertheless given a nimbus of petty-bourgeois housewife solidity from the over-60 aged boulevard is fatal from a gender-political perspective, but from a Christian Democratic internal perspective it is a kind of journalistic gift.
Roger Willemsen once remarked in 2014 that Angela Merkel was „Helene Fischer’s transposition into politics“. Similar to Germany’s Schlagerqueen/song queen the Chancellor stands for a form of permanent blurring which, through total frictionlessness, encourages a depoliticization of the situation. Something is certainly right about this, which is evident not least from the fact that the cover head lines of the pensioners`yellow press in terms of Helene Fischer and Angela Merkel sometimes seem interchangeable. But apart from the fact that Willemsen, who died far too early, might have revised this judgment in view of Merkel’s actions in the refugee crisis, the matter also seems more dialectical in principle. Merkel was able to enforce her comparatively disruptive course in terms of migration or nuclear policy against internal party resistance, not least because her personal approval ratings always remained so high. And that, in turn, had to do with the fact that her personal fuzziness was not simply a lack of contours, but rather functioned as a kind of general store of identity politics. While some recognized in her a Christian Democratic quasi-feminist, others could see in her a seeker of little (marital) happiness. In this respect, Frau aktuell and Co. contributed in a peculiar way to what is perhaps the central secret of Angela Merkel’s success: her perception as a one-woman people’s party.