The most striking thing is what's missing: noise, bustle and haste. When entering the Chancellery and taking one of the mint-colored elevators to the upper floors, one gets the impression that someone abruptly turned off the volume. Outside, the traffic hums and demonstrators chant. It is hot, wet or cold. Inside, one hears, smells and feels almost nothing. Only now and then does a dish caddy roll back into the kitchen very quietly. Then one suspects that there’s been another emergency meeting.
This feeling of being in the eye of the storm is not new. But it’s never seemed so surreal. There outside, there isn't just humming traffic. There outside, peoples are migrating.
And no one has ever asked themselves the question: Is Angela Merkel, the woman sitting here in the eye of the storm and in charge, really not afraid? Of what’s brewing there outside? Of what she’s brewing for us there?
Merkel is the most rational politician he has ever met, says a man who has known her for a long time and met many politicians from Germany and around the world. He’s never detected fear in the chancellor, he says. He’s always found this to be her greatest strength. In recent days, it has occurred to him that maybe this could also be a flaw.
During all the many crises of recent years, Merkel has always been a reliable player for Germans, like the flight crew on an airplane. As long as Merkel wasn't unsettled, as long as the chancellor didn't frantically buckle her seatbelt and rummage about for the safety vest, one could also stay calm oneself. Now she says: "If we start having to apologize for showing a friendly face in emergencies, then that isn't my country." Bang. One sentence showing that, for Merkel, this is the moment of truth. One sentence uttered spontaneously from very deep within.
This crisis is different. It’s closer – to Merkel, too – and it goes deeper. It’s bigger than September 11 and harder than German reunification. It’s more complicated than both, as the echo chambers of communication have become amplified. When Merkel says "asylum knows no upper limit," it’s a response to the CSU, the Bavarian sister party of her own Christian Democratic Union (CDU) led by Horst Seehofer. What she means is the human right to asylum. But, in Iraq, this is understood as meaning: "Germany won't just take Syrians – it will take us, too!" In Afghanistan, according to rumors wafting in government circles in Berlin, hundreds of thousands of people have applied for passports so that they can leave the country. It’s a humane gesture when Merkel takes a selfie with a refugee. On social media, this is interpreted as a denial of information campaigns and assertions that not everyone can come.
It’s Merkel's first crisis in real time. Everything she says sets things in motion. Literally.
Merkel is also different herself. After a decade in office, she has shed one of the strongest motives driving politicians: the fear of losing power. Merkel no longer occupies herself with the question, "How can I get in?" If anything, she’s more worried about, "How can I ever get back out?"
Daily inquiries in the Chancellery about whether Germany’s opening up has been right always elicit the same response: "Absolutely right." Is that just good nerves, or is there also a good plan?