When German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced this week that she would not seek another term in office, one line from her speech was particularly resonant: “I wasn’t born a chancellor,” she said, “and I never forgot this.”
It would have sounded peculiar coming from anyone else, but for Merkel the sentiment made complete sense. She may not have been born chancellor, but it’s difficult to imagine a time before the 64-year-old was such a dominant force in German and eventually international politics. Merkel took office as Germany’s first female chancellor in 2005, more than 13 years ago; her tenure has spanned, among other things, a global financial crisis, a massive influx of refugees and the renewed rise of right-wing populism in Europe.
Will history remember Merkel as the woman who helped build the current liberal world order or someone whose decisions have put it in jeopardy?
As Germany and the world contemplate the coming post-Merkel era — known in German as Merkeldämmerung, or “the twilight of Merkel” — analyzing her legacy is ultimately a complicated and contradictory undertaking. Merkel was long seen as a steady hand in turbulent times, a politically invincible force that helped shape the politics and economy of her country as well as the direction of the European Union. But as Europe faces new political headwinds, the German leader is no longer seen as quite so invincible. In fact, her actions, particularly with regard to the refugee crisis in 2015, have contributed to today’s unstable political environment.
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In other words, will history remember Merkel as the woman who helped build the current liberal world order or someone whose decisions have put it in jeopardy? Or both?
Despite initially cultivating an uncontroversial and non-ideological image, Merkel has managed to become a deeply polarizing figure both at home and abroad. To one group of people, she is the comforting figure Mutti, or “mother.” She’s the “Queen of Europe,” who helped Germany weather the post-2008 recession and took it to new heights of economic prosperity. And she is the last woman standing in the liberal world order, a bulwark for liberal democracy who’s been forced to repeatedly defend its institutions in the age of Brexit and Donald Trump.