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?
Merkel is born of crisis in two senses
Whoever wants to answer this question must first look at this crisis through the previous crises in Merkel's life. They must understand that Merkel is the German crisis chancellor par excellence, even more so than Helmut Schmidt with the Hamburg flood, the oil crisis, the RAF kidnapping of Hanns Martin Schleyer and the hijacking in Mogadishu.
Merkel is born of crisis in two senses. The Hamburg native came to the GDR as a child refugee. It was an unusual flight, in the wrong direction in a way, but out of conviction. For her father, Horst Kasner, a Protestant minister, the GDR was the better state because it was anti-fascist. This is also where Merkel gets her unwavering loyalty to Israel, her unwillingness to compromise regarding anything too far on the right.
The collapse of the GDR, its economic, communicative and moral failure, brought Merkel into politics and became her first big mentor. From it, she has her desire for things to function. For her, the pragmatic is not some ancillary matter for politics; it’s the test of truth. The thing that particularly bothered her about the GDR, she has said, was that people weren't able to go to the limits of their abilities, that the limitation always came from outside. In 2010, Merkel said that going to her limits and beyond remained a "beautiful feeling." But now she isn't testing just her own limits. She's testing ours, too.
Merkel's political ascent also started with a crisis. The contributions scandal of 1999 pitched the CDU into an identity conflict. Helmut Kohl, who had made Merkel a cabinet minister, became her second political mentor. But unlike the many others who were part of the Kohl system, Merkel was an outsider who recognized that the party had to not only move beyond Kohl, but also separate itself from him. With her famous letter to the FAZ newspaper, she called on the CDU to emancipate itself from Kohl. Did Merkel know that this moment would lead to her ascent? Whatever the case may be, that's what it did.
Merkel had made the decision independently, without consulting with the party committees or with Wolfgang Schäuble, then chairman of the CDU. And, for the first time, she learned: This can work, provided the moment is right.
The path forward was bumpy. Merkel made mistakes in tone and in measures. She often seemed to be at odds with the republic and with her own party. In 2002, by announcing that she wanted to be her party's chancellor candidate, Merkel mobilized in less than a week such a powerful opposition among the state premiers from her party that she, the party’s head, drove to Wolfratshausen on January 11 to offer the candidacy to her rival Edmund Stoiber. It was holding on to power by relinquishing it.
Politically, that was a near-death experience. And, at the same time, she learned: I can survive this way.
Stoiber lost. Merkel got her chance – and immediately paid the price for following her own convictions. By insisting on turbo reforms, the CDU only secured 35.2 percent of the vote in the early elections of 2005. In the televised debate of the so-called heavyweight round, Merkel, the CDU head, sat across from an electrified Gerhard Schröder, Germany’s Social Democratic chancellor at the time, and looked like she’d been run over by a truck. "Do you seriously believe that my party will accept Ms. Merkel's offer for (coalition) talks in which, she says, she wants to be chancellor?" Schröder ranted.
This coming Tuesday, exactly ten years after Schröder's drunken attack, Merkel will present his biography "in the Presence of the Former Chancellor," as it says in the announcement. It is her personal tit for tat. And now a second thing is unexpectedly coming full circle: Whereas Schröder once tied his chancellorship to his Agenda 2010 labor and unemployment-benefits reforms, these days, Merkel is tying hers tighter and tighter to her "yes" to the refugees.
In the fall of 2005, when Merkel moved into the Chancellery by the skin of her teeth, she could have sensed: She’s good at crises, but not so good without them. Despite starting off in a superb position, her programmatic attempt to remodel Germany and to intend to govern in a my-way-or-the-highway manner almost led her to lose the election against Schröder. But, for her government’s first project, she once again chose something programmatic, a major healthcare reform – and lost her way in a maze of special interests.
The method she used at that time while wrangling with doctors and health insurance companies looks at first glance like that of today's crisis chancellor: systematic penetration, studying the details to the point of political microscopy. What was lacking was strong energy for change. Lacking were the opponents who would sooner or later lose their nerve because the pace was too swift. In short, the thing missing was this: a crisis. And so her reforms got tangled up. Angela Merkel, the young chancellor, had yet to come into her own.
In the first days of October 2008, the leadership of the grand coalition of the time discretely received unsettling news: The world was in the middle of a financial crisis triggered by the collapse of an American bank. All of a sudden, Germans started going to ATMs much more frequently than normal. What the individual saver couldn't have known yet, and wasn't supposed to know, was this: The dreaded bank run that can cause the entire financial system to collapse within just a few days had already started.
Angela Merkel and Peer Steinbrück, her finance minister, saw themselves facing a task that was extremely risky in psychological terms: How can we put Germans' minds at ease with a dramatic gesture without creating fresh unease with the drama itself? And how can we make individual savers believe that their deposits are secure when these will only be secure if they believe they are? The result was the right sentence at the right time: "We say to savers that their deposits are safe. And the federal government will also vouch for that." That was high-stakes gambling, cold-bloodedly executed and, more than anything, successful.
Once, when asked why she hadn’t been part of the opposition in the GDR, Merkel cited as a reason the fact that civil activists had been opposed to atomic energy because of the reactor accident in Chernobyl, whereas she had thought that the Soviet Union just needed better nuclear power plants. She even hung on to this sympathy for nuclear power, born from her background in the natural sciences, after German reunification. During her second term as chancellor, she was planning to abandon the nuclear phase-out of Schröder's SPD-Greens coalition government – despite the constant survey majorities opposed to doing so and the unresolved questions about sites for permanently disposing of nuclear waste.
On March 11, 2011, at 2:47 p.m. Japanese time, the earthquakes and tsunamis that would cause the Fukushima reactors to melt down a short time later started. On March 12, Chancellor Merkel asserted that nuclear power was still "sound and justifiable." Two days later, the government declared a moratorium on the operation of German nuclear power plants. The phase-out of the phase-out of the phase-out of atomic power had begun. And with it began the energy turnaround (Energiewende) that would transform the country as one of the biggest infrastructure projects in the history of the republic.
Fukushima was chancellor's first creative crisis. Here, she got a taste of the creative power she can tap in such heated moments. It’s a paradox: The systematic, cautious, step-by-step Angela Merkel functions best in combination with a bit of chaos, anxiety and euphoria for change. We’ll come back to this later.
She wants to do right
For Germans, the chancellor’s blatant flip-flopping was an important experience: She doesn’t want to be right; she wants to do right. Whenever a mistake is made, she corrects it. This can also help build trust. Merkel is now using this trust while simultaneously straining it like never before. Indeed, there is also something different about the refugee crisis: If the way Merkel is reacting to it turns out to be a mistake, it won't be so easy to correct this time. Nuclear power plants can be turned on and off. But Syrians can't.
Merkel has often been reproached for using a stubbornly silent style of pragmatic "so-what?" governing that supposedly depoliticizes people and even imperils the democracy. In reality, however, before history became a permanent guest in the Chancellery, there were time and again phases of stagnation – or perhaps more nicely put, of administration. Merkel's respective coalition partners have usually looked like the driving (and thereby self-consuming) force, whether it was the gung-ho Free Democrats or the SPD on its eternal quest for the lost social part. One could even say that Merkel doesn't make a particularly good impression as a non-crisis chancellor.
But wait. When was the last time there wasn't a crisis? Can anyone remember the last summer slump, the cultivated boredom of a sated republic? For some time now, Germany and Europe, as well, have not only constantly been in a crisis, but in several crises. Merkel doesn’t have to have visions anymore. The visions come to her, and the nightmares, too.
Tibetan monks sometimes swat their pupils' shoulders with a stick, but this is meant to help them concentrate rather than to punish them. A similar effect can be seen on Merkel whenever she is swatted. It sharpens her senses, but it rarely changes her policies. During this summer's Greece crisis, practically the entire global public was lashing out at her, but the chancellor pushed through her line – right or wrong – with only minor changes. She had learned that this also works on the international stage. In the Euro crisis, she is now using the principle that she had already employed with her Fukushima turnaround – namely, that you should come out of a crisis stronger than you went into it. She wants to make the EU stronger. It’s crisis energy as creative force. However, with a view to the present, one must also keep in mind what’s different: During the Greece crisis, Merkel enjoyed a whole lot of leverage, as absolutely nothing was going to happen without Germany.
And something else happened, too: During the Euro crisis, Angela Merkel has emancipated herself once and for all from one of major authorities in her life – from Helmut Kohl. Since the contributions scandal, he no longer represented an authority as CDU chairman; and at least since the Euro crisis and the one in Ukraine, he has no longer represented an authority as a great European. He has publicly opposed her; he has warned her that she shouldn't destroy Europe. For her, that was the last straw. Today, if she asks Helmut Kohl a question in her head, she doesn’t get any answers for the crises she currently faces.
The case is similar when it comes to the United States. In 2002, when war in Iraq was being debated, she still had a hard time objecting to US government policy. But, since then, there have been American invasions that she has rejected. Still, it was during the Ukraine crisis more than anything that the chancellor emerged as the chief negotiator of the West, and even today, she is the one who determines the choice of means. The crises have also brought this about: Merkel allows herself to be advised, but she no longer allows herself to be lectured. The sky above the Chancellery is empty.
These, then, were the circumstances Merkel found herself in this summer before the number of refugees suddenly skyrocketed: She has found her political form in the crisis; she isn't afraid of it; she embraces it. All the crises that Europe is going through come close to being a new formation, or at least a restructuring, of the EU – economically, in terms of security policies, fiscally and humanly. It’s a metamorphosis that Merkel has helped shape at least as much as Jacques Delors or even Helmut Kohl once did. She doesn’t wake up in the morning with such thoughts, as all that would be too much for her – but she still knows it. At the same time, Merkel feels free, free from old men and distant powers, but also free from the necessity of holding on to power. It's an enviable position. But could it also be a risky one?
Members of the Green Party and the Left Party criticize the government, saying that it underestimates the refugee issue, that it’s sleeping through it. The truth is, Merkel did underestimate it, but she hasn’t sleep through it. In fact, she almost had to underestimate it, seeing that it swelled without interruption – not linearly, but exponentially. The decision that Merkel made 10 days ago was not the cause of an escalation, but a reaction to it – even if she has maybe overdone it a bit since then with the signals of openness.
"We can do it"
Since the beginning of May, a new story has been unfolding for Germany and for the chancellor – not as a big plan, but as a rapid sequence of actions and reactions. Events are constantly shifting from immediate facts to larger principles:
May 7, 2015: Federal Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière announces in Berlin that 450,000 refugees are expected to arrive in Germany this year.
August 19, 2015: The Interior Ministry revises this figure steeply upward, to 800,000. Between May and August, the situations in Syria, northern Iraq and Afghanistan worsen dramatically; hundreds of boat refugees die; Greece is completely consumed with its own problems; there’s an election campaign in Turkey. Both countries simply wave through huge numbers of refugees.
Less than a week later, at a meeting of representatives from the Interior Ministry, the federal states and the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), someone asks the question: "What will we do with the people who come? Should we send them back to Hungary?" An agreement is reached: No, we can't do that.
August 25, 2015, at 4:30 a.m.: The BAMF confirms via Twitter (in German): "We are at present largely no longer enforcing #Dublin procedures for Syrian citizens." The tweet goes around the world thousands of time. Neither Angela Merkel nor Chancellery Minister Peter Altmaier, her chief of staff, know about it.
August 25, at around noon in the Marxloh neighborhood of the western German city of Duisburg: During an event on "living well," citizens tell the chancellor that the refugees are perceived as an "invasion."
August 25, 2015: In Heidenau, a small town in Saxony, an uninhibited mob calls Merkel a "traitor to the people" and a "whore."
August 31, 2015, in Berlin: Merkel holds her summer press conference. Austria and Hungary have deployed trains to transfer the influx of refugees to Germany. "We live in orderly, in very orderly circumstances," the chancellor said. "Most of us do not know the feeling of complete exhaustion combined with fear." The state will respond to excesses with the utmost severity, she goes on. "No experience in one's own life justifies this kind of behavior," she adds. Journalists ask questions. The government wonders once again what it will do with the trains. The Chancellery decides to put the concerns of the Interior Ministry on the back burner and to not turn the trains away. After all, how is turning away the refugees coming from Hungary supposed to happen in concrete terms?
September 1, 2015: Syrians, Albanians and Iraqis shout "Germany, Germany!" and "Merkel! Merkel!" at a train station in Budapest.
When the chancellor sees this on television, she is touched.
September 3, 2015: Hungary halts the trains, so the refugees continue their journey on foot. They march alongside highways, on railway tracks, through meadows. They march toward Germany, to Merkel.
September 4, 2015: Germany's federal government reckons that the high point of the flood of refugees will be reached that weekend, that the refugees can no longer be held back. Merkel suspects that terrible images are also now imminent – images of run-over refugees, images of police taking action against distraught people, possibly even images of Hungarian soldiers. These are images, as one member of her cabinet puts it, "that Europe can’t allow itself to be associated with."
September 5, 2015: Merkel speaks by telephone with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary and Chancellor Werner Faymann of Austria. Orbán says the situation is no longer under control. Merkel and Faymann decide to allow the refugees to leave Hungary. Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, who also serves as minister of economic affairs and energy as well as chairman of the SPD, is included in the decision-making process, but the telephone conversation has more of a "briefing-like character." The chancellor is on the move. Late in the evening, Merkel has Georg Streiter, her deputy spokesman, declare that Germany will not turn the refugees away. "We have now addressed an acute emergency," Streiter says. No big speech to the nation, no big production marks this decision, which might possibly be the most important of Merkel's time in office. Pragmatism with historical consequences.
Back in July, Merkel had said to Reem, a 14-year-old Palestinian refugee living in northern Germany: "We can't accept everybody." What has gotten into Merkel since then? The answer is: reality. Plus a big dose of global history – as the crises in the Near and Middle East are also consequences of European colonial policies, the upheavals are also an echo of September 11. Plus, perhaps, a dose of emotions. In the following week, refugees arrive in Munich almost hourly. "We can do it," Merkel says.
September 13, 2015: Interior Minister de Maizière announces that Germany will reintroduce border controls. It's his suggestion, but it's been OK'd by SPD chairman Gabriel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Confusion reigns for a few hours. Does this mean that the borders will be shut? Is the government backpedaling? From the outset, one hears in the Chancellery, it has been clear that the exception to Dublin needed to be limited, that one had to find a way back to an orderly procedure.
Thus, openness, but an orderly one. No change in course, just a slowdown. However, it’s more of a symbolic slowdown meant to show Germany's European partners: We can also do this differently. The problem, as everyone knows, won't be solved with border controls.
September 15, 2015: The chancellor is in a defiant, defensive mode. When asked if she has contributed to the escalation herself, she says: "There are situations in which one can't think things over for 12 hours." In these cases, she adds, one simply has to make a decision. Of course, those in her inner circle do everything they can to convey the impression that the chancellor is neither livid about the hostility she is facing nor stirred by the inundation of love from the refugees. At most, they admit that the chancellor is "impressed" by the readiness to help of her fellow countrymen and -women, who are fueling this yearning for Germany in the same way as the chancellor's selfies.
Being chancellor is a special position
This much is probably true: Being chancellor is a special position. Along with the office comes the fact that one can never have any experiences without being recognized, like Caliph Harun al-Rashid, who traveled the streets at night in disguise in One Thousand and One Nights. Merely being present inevitably alters the situation and thereby the experiences one can have, as well. Harshly put, a chancellor can no longer have any "genuine" experiences. One can be conscious of this to a greater or lesser degree. Kohl knew it less; Merkel more. But she still can't change it.
This is why Merkel is so frugal with what she says. She knows that if she says something, it's something different than if someone else had said it. For all that, she is still surprised time and again by the impact of what she says – as well as by the impact of what she doesn’t say, but merely allows to be conveyed, such as what was said by Mr. Streiter, whom nobody knows.
Merkel is different in this crisis. Perhaps because everything about her is now coming together: Her warning right-wingers not to set the lodgings of asylum seekers on fire fits with her anti-fascist upbringing. Her own personal history causes her to be moved when people climb over fences in Hungary. As a Christian, which she still is, she doesn’t want it any other way. She senses within herself the accumulated power of the previous crises.
This time, unlike in the other crises, Merkel only has limited leverage. While Europe couldn't manage without the Germans during the debt crisis, Germany now can't manage without the Europeans. Whoever asks members of the federal government how one could build up pressure in the EU, one will say: "Can’t be done." Another will speculate: "If we hoist a white flag." A third will say: "If we apply financial pressure." But that’s already the crowbar, a tool that doesn't become Germans – or only too well, depending on how you see it.
The crisis is also different because, this time, the chancellor has put all her trust in the people. Without the thousands of volunteers, the state would have collapsed. But she must also rely on a continued sense of urgency. Merkel has always had the feeling that Germans are a bit spoiled and whiny, but now she has tied her biggest project to the belief that this actually isn't the case. Can one be sure of that? Hard to say. In any case, two bitterly inimical mindsets are now working against each other here in Germany and in Europe: We are opening our arms because people are coming (Merkel) vs. Because we are opening our arms, people are coming (Seehofer). Being a Christian means helping all people in need (Germany) vs.: Being a Christian means keeping Muslims out (Hungary).
But this crisis is also different because it’s bigger. This time, it's not about money flows or solar roof panels. Nor is it merely about people in search of protection. Instead, it's about the kind of people who will remain and thereby change the identity of this country. Angela Merkel, the woman who grew up in a homogenous society and was long skeptical toward multiculturalism, believes in diversity. She believes that diversity will help Germans succeed in the face of global competition. In short, she believes it's better to be too multicolored than too old.
As in other battles, Chancellor Merkel won't engage in this one with big speeches. So what will she do? If one asks around in the Chancellery about what is keeping her occupied at the moment, one always hears the word "beds": Do the refugees have enough places to sleep? Antje Vollmer, a former prominent parliamentarian with the Greens, once criticized the men who participated in the political movements and social protests of the late 1960s (known in German as the "68ers"), saying: You, always with your big speeches and your "eternally unmade beds"! But, with Merkel, it's exactly the opposite: No big speeches, but the chancellery minister is asked every evening whether beds have been made for the foreigners. In the tenth year of her chancellorship, this is how it is with Merkel: Pragmatism begets strategy, and strategy thrives on pragmatism.
With this crisis, Angela Merkel is leading Germans into a risky situation and to a decision. Once again, a wall is falling. But unlike when the Berlin Wall fell, this time, Merkel isn't sitting in the sauna. She is sitting in the washing machine. Is that better? We'll see.
Translation: Josh Ward