Two years ago, I and millions around the world were shocked to learn that after a long stint in office that had begun when most of today's world leaders were minor regional officials or television hosts, Angela Merkel would not seek a fifth term as chancellor of Germany. Now perhaps just as many of us have a hard time believing that she really intends not to run again next year, despite her recent assurances to the contrary.
How could she actually go? Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merkel's political heir, has made a hash of leading the Christian Democratic Party, which is now seeking a new chair; despite being considered the leading candidate as recently as 2019, Kramp-Karrenbauer now says that she will not seek the chancellorship herself. Meanwhile, Merkel's handling of COVID-19 has been widely praised; after decades of making what some had considered an idol of fiscal prudence, she is now insisting upon massive public investment in the ailing European economy, dictating the terms of continental engagement with China (whose ambitions she rightly fears), and facing down Russian aggression. For years it was impolitic to say so, but it is now undeniable: Germany stands alone at the head of European affairs every bit as much as it did during the time of the Hohenstaufens and the Hohenzollerns.
What is often forgotten is that for all her cunning, the most salient feature of Merkel's leadership is its undeniably moral character. (How many of her glib American admirers, I wonder, are aware that she voted against legalizing same-sex marriage in 2017 and insists to this day that "marriage is a man and a woman living together"?) It was Merkel who took it upon herself to accept one million refugees in 2015, the victims of a crisis in whose making Germany and the rest of the continent had played no meaningful part. This was not an easy decision for her or for her country, but it was necessary. Men (in this case President Obama) make messes, and it is women who clean them up, often thanklessly. For reminding the world of the obligations that wealthy nations have toward the global poor, she deserves our lasting thanks. She showed us that even in its death throes, Christian democracy and the whole world of vanished humanism that it represents is the noblest political force to have emerged out of the ashes of the Second World War.
It is one thing to have the right views. It is another entirely to be able to put them into effect and another thing still to do so with the quiet intelligence and personal dignity that have been characteristic of Merkel during her many years in power. She is among many other things a welcome antidote to cloying and at times frankly condescending ra-ra girl power stylings of so many female politicians in our own country. Unlike so many world leaders of either sex, she has a genuinely fascinating (and highly enigmatic) personality, and a life outside the realm of glad-handing summits, news conferences, and soundbites. I remain steadfast in my assertion that she is the only living politician whose memoirs I would be interested in reading.
How will history remember Merkel? The iron force of her personality may have been enough to continue the Christian democratic experiment in Germany long after the old post-war optimism had exhausted itself everywhere else on the continent (to say nothing of the United States). There is no indication that it will outlast her or that its twin enemies, the antinomianism of the left or the atavism of the new nationalist right, will be held in check by its moral example.
But the ephemerality does not lessen her achievement. It makes it all the more remarkable.
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