For many years Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany from 2005-2021, was acclaimed as one of the world’s great leaders. Liberal commentators lamented that British leadership in this period was so markedly inferior.
This was a thriving school of thought. In 2020 a book appeared, Why The Germans Do It Better: Notes From A Grown-Up Country, by John Kampfner, which in retrospect can be seen as the high point of this school.
German conservatism had produced Merkel, “easily the most respected democratic leader in the world”, while British conservatism had produced Boris Johnson.
She was a genius and the British Prime Minister was a buffoon. That was until recently the prevailing view in liberal circles.
Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine, has just addressed some remarks to Merkel and to her French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, President of France from 2007-2012:
“I invite Mrs Merkel and Mr Sarkozy to visit Bucha and see what the policy of concessions to Russia has led to in 14 years. To see with their own eyes the tortured Ukrainian men and women.”
Merkel’s policy towards Russia has been reduced to a heap of rubble. When she took office in 2005, construction of the Nord Stream pipeline from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea had not begun.
She could have stopped the project, but said she did not want to upset the Social Democrats, with whom she had formed a coalition government.
From that day on, she rejected criticism of Nord Stream by insisting it was “an economic project”.
What her real motives were is difficult to say. Even she might be hard put, were she inclined to stop being disingenuous, to explain why she decided to deepen Germany’s reliance on Russian energy. But it seems pretty clear that domestic political considerations took precedence over strategic thinking.
In 2011 she deepened Germany’s reliance by announcing the shut down of the country’s remaining nuclear power stations. She did this in response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, caused by a tidal wave.
There are no tidal waves in Germany. Merkel, one was tempted to conclude, had done this to damage the Greens, who benefited from hostility among the German public to nuclear power.
Merkel remained in power for 16 years in part because she was so good at placing herself at the head of a domestic political consensus. She stole enough of her opponents’ clothes to leave them looking under-dressed.
Helmut Kohl, Chancellor from 1982-1998, had done the same in the 1990s when he replaced the German mark, proud symbol of West German recovery, with the euro. His opponents on the Left actually believed in this policy, while his followers on the Right, in the Christian Democratic Union, were forced to swallow their reservations and vote for it too.
The introduction of the euro was rendered more tolerable by arranging things in such a way as to be good for German exporters, though less good for the Greeks.
Merkel aroused deep misgivings among the Christian Democrats, whose leader she became in 2002. They were used to being led by Roman Catholic men from the Rhineland, and had no idea who this Lutheran woman from East Germany was, or what she was thinking, nor did she ever tell them.
She was eligible for the leadership not only on account of her acute feel for politics but because, unlike her rivals, she was not contaminated by undue proximity to Kohl, who was found to have operated an illegal network of donations and bank accounts.
While growing up in East Germany as the daughter of a Lutheran clergyman who had arrived there from the West, so was a figure of suspicion to the authorities, she began a successful career as a scientist, without actually joining the ruling communist party.
Merkel spoke excellent Russian and visited Moscow. She was not a dissident. She accommodated herself to the realities of power.
In due course she accommodated herself to the realities of being Chancellor. A cardinal point was to be on good terms with Moscow.
Her immediate predecessor as Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, a Social Democrat, had been on such good terms with Moscow that as soon as he stepped down, he got a wonderful job as Chairman of the Shareholders’ Committee of Nord Stream.
Merkel knew the Russians well, spoke their language and believed she could trust them. After all, they had withdrawn from East Germany without a shot being fired. As far as the Germans were concerned, the Russians had behaved in an exemplary fashion.
Members of the German political class could flatter themselves that they were no mere provincials. By dealing with Moscow, they were dealing with a great power.
So too by dealing with Beijing. Here too they were in the premier division, and were doing what German industry wanted. They had less time for countries like Ukraine, which would soon be cut out of the gas business by the Baltic pipeline.
It suited members of the German political class to show they were not just in the pockets of the Americans, while allowing the Americans to pay the cost of their defence, should the Russians after all prove not quite so trustworthy.
Germany’s armed forces were run down into a pitiful condition. But surely the Russians would not do anything mad. Surely in the end they would be as prudent as the Germans.
Then Putin did something which was both mad and bad. He invaded Ukraine. Germany’s policy had been based on an illusion; on mere wishful thinking.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who had succeeded Merkel, broke with her policy, and said Germany would at last spend proper money on defence, in order to pull its weight within NATO.
Schröder is now a totally discredited figure. Merkel too is in a rather embarrassing position. Her spokesperson said that in view of “the atrocities becoming visible in Bucha and other places in Ukraine”, all efforts by the German government and international community to stand by Ukraine “and put an end to Russia’s barbarism” have her full support, as well they might.
We can now expect a reevaluation of Merkel’s 16 years in power. How respected she was at the time, and how discredited she now looks.