I woke up this morning in Berlin to catch my flight home to the USA. And when I stepped out the door of my Prenzlauer Berg apartment, I saw a long line of people stretching down the block. It’s Election Day, and today the Germans choose who will succeed Angela Merkel after 16 years as Chancellor.
As I leave Europe, after two long years of dreaming of being back here, I find it especially poignant that my last few days coincide with the end of Merkel’s rule. I remember traveling here when she was first elected in 2004, and worrying that she would take Germany in a conservative, regressive direction. Instead she is, almost without contest, the most successful and respected Chancellor Germany has had since Reunification. She’s broadly supported and appreciated by all political stripes, at home and abroad, for the sensible stability she brought this country. Her nickname, “Mutti” — “Mom” — smacks of sexism, but the Germans intend it as a very high compliment. Mutti helped them feel safe, cared for, and seen over her 16 years in the Chancellery.
And as I return to the United States, I’m especially sad to say Auf Wiedersehen to Mutti, because I feel like the era she represents — of reasonable, consensus, centrist rule — is a dinosaur. In my own country, the political discourse has been hijacked by the fringe on both sides of the political spectrum. The same thing is happening across Europe; over the last few years, I’ve seen country after country that I love — Hungary, Poland, Slovenia — opt for extremism instead of centrist cooperation. I often think that if only the USA could find its own Angela Merkel, we might somehow make our way out of our current mess. But she’s one of those generational figures that don’t grow on trees. Joe Biden has attempted this, but the headwinds are fierce.
In order to avoid the perception that this is a partisan post, let me stress that Merkel leads the dominant conservative party of Germany (though they have a multi-party system, so Merkel’s CDU is effectively the moderate conservatives — think the GOP before Trump, along the lines of John McCain and Mitt Romney). Imagine if Elizabeth Warren were somehow a Republican, and you’re getting the idea.
Even my most progressive friends in Berlin, begrudgingly, speak admiringly of Merkel’s gift for sensible governance. One of them even bumped into Mutti once in the local supermarket; she shops and cooks for herself, and enjoys showing up to buy groceries unannounced. The biggest complaint Berlin’s liberals can register is that she has allowed leftist policies (such as legal same-sex marriage) to be implemented, then implicitly gets the credit for them.
She certainly has some detractors — including those who say she’s not done enough, fast enough, to protect the environment (again, shades of Joe Biden). But even progressives can’t deny that she’s leaving a Germany with a huge and affluent middle class, an elevated status on the world stage, and a more diverse populace than ever (with 25 percent of Germans having at least one parent who was born abroad).
In fact, one of Angela Merkel’s signature achievements was a “bleeding-heart” humanitarian one, when during the 2015 refugee crisis she invited over one million migrants to take shelter in Germany. This did not come without growing pains. But Merkel’s continued popularity suggests that the Germans agree with her vision to be a compassionate society and a moral leader for the world. Imagine: going from der Führer to die Mutti, from gas chambers to safe harbors, in just 70 years. There are many reasons for this incremental evolution — in fact, I’ve spent this visit to Berlin trying to understand how it happened — but it’s clear that Merkel represents the culmination of that transformation.
And, as a scientist herself, Merkel was the perfect person to lead Germany through the COVID pandemic. Traveling here, I find a remarkably high awareness and understanding of the science and adoption of masking, testing, and other mitigation measures. They understand the stakes, and what works, because their Mutti explained it to them, with patience, reason, and a compelling compassion. One of my friends was grousing that “only” 73 percent of Germans are fully vaccinated. When I expressed envy at this extraordinarily high (by American standards) figure, he ranted a bit longer about how it should be at least in the 80s, if not the 90s! This is a country whose leader has encouraged them to set a very high bar.
Merkel is not term limited, and many suspect that if she ran for another term, she could make it an even 20 years (if not longer). She is the first Chancellor to leave office voluntarily. But, like George Washington before her, she has the wisdom to recognize when the time comes to step aside for fresh leadership.
The German word for “vote” is wählen — “choose.” For 16 years, the Germans have chosen centrist leadership that is confident yet reasonable, compassionate but not wishy-washy, strong but not strongarm. Now they are faced with a variety of potential successors, and everything I’m hearing is that each one appears more flawed than the last. In fact, virtually anyone would be flawed when compared to the combination of attributes that Merkel has brought to the Chancellery. Each one of my Berlin friends offered a different prediction as to the outcome of today’s vote, but all of them clearly felt that anyone who wins will be a downgrade. (One of them told me that, in a recent poll, the top vote-getter was “none of the above” — obviously a stand-in for a hypothetical Mutti fifth term.)
Merkel herself has joked this week about who will fill her shoes, by pointing out how (literally) small those shoes are. Of course, even this joke revealed precisely the opposite: that her pragmatic humility is one of the many traits that make her darn near irreplaceable.
As I get on my plane back to the USA, and Germany votes to say goodbye to their Mutti, we’re both heading to a place of uncertainty, frustration, and fear. I wish all of us good luck weathering our second pandemic winter. And I can only hope that each country eventually finds its own Angela Merkel to show them the way.
Vielen dank, Mutti! And viel Glück, Deutschland.