As the head of the country’s biggest political party for eighteen years, and its chancellor for twelve, Angela Merkel has done more to shape contemporary Germany than any postwar leader other than Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt, and Helmut Kohl. So her recent announcement that she will hand over the leadership of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) this December, and refrain from seeking another term in federal elections expected to be held in 2021, marks the beginning of the end of an era.
Since Merkel has been a deeply stabilizing force, and political extremists are lying in wait to exploit her departure, it is only natural to wonder how the country will change in the coming years. Will the CDU lurch to the right after its proudly moderate leader leaves the stage? Can the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has already established itself as a major force in German politics, use the power vacuum she leaves behind to its advantage? Or might a change of political personnel actually help to calm the anger that Merkel has increasingly inspired in the past years?
These are all important questions that concern the country’s likely future. But in order to understand the political predicament in which Germany now finds itself, and make an educated guess as to how Merkel’s departure might change the country, it is first necessary to understand the legacy she leaves behind.
Merkel is both one of the most impressive and one of the least likely politicians to lead Germany in its postwar history. Born in Hamburg but raised in the country’s east as the daughter of a pastor, she was a triple outsider: in a party dominated by westerners, she was an Ossi who had lived under the yoke of the communist regime until the age of thirty-five; in a party historically dominated by Catholics, she was a Protestant; and in a party that was overwhelmingly male and frequently chauvinist—her mentor, Helmut Kohl, often referred to
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