Ron Malzer: Angela Merkel’s departure leaves hole in global leadership
Angela Dorothea Merkel (nee Kasner) was born in 1954. She was raised and educated in the police state that was East Germany. Horst, her father, was a Lutheran pastor who preached despite state-proclaimed atheism; her mother, Herlind, was an English teacher whose professional work was halted by the Russian-controlled regime.
Angela and her family learned to calibrate carefully what could be said or done, and what must not be said or done, given the frequent punitive wrath of the Stasi, East Germany’s notorious state police.
Merkel was an extremely bright student, with particular excellence in physics and Russian language studies. By the time she majored in science at college, she was German-Russian-English trilingual. Earning a Ph.D. at the German Academy of Sciences, she went on to have multiple papers published in the field of quantum chemistry.
Merkel did not plan for a career in politics. Rather, she was sucked in by the European whirlwinds of change of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Over a two-year period, Europe was turned upside down: the Berlin Wall collapsed; the East German government gave up the ghost; plans for German reunification were being aired; and Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as leader of the Soviet Union.
Germany’s youngest-ever Cabinet Minister, her portfolio focused on women and children’s issues. She later headed the Environment ministry, and, served effectively as chief negotiator for the 1995 German-hosted United Nations Climate Change Conference.
Underestimated by many, she was belittled early in her career as “Kohl’s girl” (the German chancellor was her political mentor), and, alternatively, “Angela Machiavelli”. She deflected those and all other belittling jabs using a combination of exceptional analytical skills for problem-solving, and, a no-drama, boring but effective approach to implementing what she determined to be right.
Merkel’s political outlook was impacted by her having lived three decades trapped within a dictatorship. She was fiercely pro-American, and initially idealized the free market. Yet she was also enough of a pragmatist to learn, increasingly over time, that unrestricted markets, lacking government regulation and timely intervention, were at risk of devastating crises. She saw also that sadly, America could not always be counted upon to be pro-Western Europe.
Beyond her early work for climate change prevention, she achieved as Chancellor three dramatic gains for Germany, Europe, and arguably, for the world: the prevention of bankruptcy of Greece through a massive infusion of aid; the halting, through punitive measures, of the forward movement by the Russian military into eastern Ukraine; and the rallying of intra-Europe cooperation over two decades, most importantly when needed to offset both Brexit and the 2017-2020 abdication of America’s role in European security through its pro-Russia, anti-EU tilt.
Most of all, Merkel stood tall in 2015, facing down blustering criticism and rampant Islamophobia as she provided welcome immigration status and successful integration of over a million of the now-nearly 7 million refugees who have fled Syria. Their new safe haven is a godsend, given they needed to escape from the massive killing carried out by both ISIS and the cold-blooded, Russian-backed Syrian Prime Minister Bashir al-Assad.
In his excellent 2016 biography of Angela Merkel, British political scientist Matthew Qvortrup describes Merkel’s crisis management approach this way: “While other international colleagues would go off like firecrackers, Merkel would wait, play the long game and then, when things had settled down, take resolute action.”
Regarding Merkel’s effectiveness, he concludes: “It was this woman who shaped— and arguably saved —Europe during the Euro crisis, who stood firm when Europe was on the brink of war in Ukraine, and who showed compassion when innocent Syrians fled the horrors of the so-called Islamic State.”
By the end of her 16-year tenure, Germans of all political stripes were calling Angela Merkel “Mutti,” the German word for “mommy,” for her unshakeable grownup-in-the-room presence during crises. As Angela Merkel exits the world stage, we are all, at least to some extent, orphans.