Since Angela Merkel left office last year after a remarkable 16-year reign as German Chancellor, the timing is perfect to examine her history and her legacy. German-born filmmaker Eva Weber has seized the challenge and created a thoughtful portrait of Merkel. An impressive group of witnesses — including Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, Tony Blair, journalist Christiane Amanpour and even award-winning filmmaker Volker Schlondorff (a longtime friend of Merkel’s) — help to put her achievements and even some of her failings into sharp focus.
Merkel’s background was as remarkable as her rise to the central corridors of power. She grew up in East Germany under the repressive Communist regime but achieved unusual success when she earned a doctorate in physics. So she was a pioneer in several areas — as a scientist and a woman before she ever entered politics. Her life spans much of the history of the Cold War. She recalled the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and its demolition in 1989.
The Bottom Line
An apt tribute to a political ground-breaker.
Her memories of life in East Germany are especially vivid. She recalled in one interview that at almost any social gathering of at least 20 people, a member of the Stasi was likely to be lurking in the background. So the fall of Communism came as a relief to her. It was not long after that when she decided to enter politics, and by 2005 she was Chancellor of Germany.
Once Merkel rose to the leadership of a united Germany (partly as a result of a scandal that rocked the administration of her predecessor, Helmut Kohl), she faced plenty of resistance as a rare woman leader in an elite dominated by men. But her intelligence quickly earned her the respect of leaders around the world. When she met Vladimir Putin, she found that of course they had similar backgrounds in growing up under repressive Communist regimes. But the huge difference was that Putin regarded the breakup of the Soviet Union as the worst event of his life, whereas Merkel found it to be utterly liberating.
Yet one potent criticism of Merkel concerns her relationship with Putin’s Russia. She helped to achieve unprecedented prosperity for Germany, but her critics felt this was a result of her overreliance on Russian energy, a kind of deal with the devil that of course was not unique to Merkel.
Another crisis placed her in a very different light. When the situation in Syria led to an influx of migrants from the Middle East, Merkel welcomed the refugees. This led to a fierce backlash against her from many of the right-wing elements in Germany and in other parts of the world as well. Trump criticized her savagely, whereas Obama said pointedly, “she is on the right side of history.” During his presidency, Obama awarded Merkel the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and before his term in office ended, a visit to Merkel was one of his last official acts as president.
Trump plays only a minor part in the Merkel story, which is as it should be. But the contrast between his toxic mantra of “Build the wall” and Merkel’s tribute to the fall of the Berlin Wall tells the essential story. At a time when too many world leaders have traveled to the dark side, Merkel’s intelligence and modesty are worth celebrating.