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Do politicians actually make history? Or does it just happen to them?

There has hardly ever been a statement made by a German politician that has had such an effect on the otherwise self-obsessed American public. And it can’t even be said that Angela Merkel had chosen a particularly snazzy way of putting it into words Sunday in that beer tent in the Munich suburb of Trudering. "The times in which we can completely rely on others are somewhat over, as I have experienced in the past few days." That isn’t exactly what she said, of course, because some of it can’t be precisely translated into English. For example, she used the words "ein Stück," meaning a bit, somewhat, or to some extent, typically used by Germans in open discussions to mitigate statements that would otherwise come over too strongly.

But the mild way she packaged it didn’t help at all because the substance of what she said exploded right out of it. Many see Ms. Merkel’s statement as a farewell to a trans-Atlantic alliance that has lasted seven years, others offered elaborate interpretations to dispel precisely that impression. But the sentence itself can be interpreted in any way. The only recourse is to ask what was really meant. The following approximation of the most up-to-date versions of the genesis and the, well, historical meaning of her statement was pieced together from four sources, two Christian Democrats (Ms. Merkel’s party), a Green and a Socialist, who have good to excellent access to the Chancellor.

Why in a beer tent?

Some of those worried about trans-Atlantic friendship believe the Chancellor, after all the pain and effort of a grueling summit week, was perhaps simply rattling on in an overheated tent without thinking. The fact is she most likely said it despite, not because of, the beer tent. Her campaign appearance there was the first event that was available, that is why she decided to say something Sunday morning. Something significant.

Why at that particular time?

She couldn’t have waited longer because the US president’s unbelievable trip was virtually crying out for an official take, a common understanding on the question, is he crazy or is it the Europeans? Is the Chancellor seeing what the people are seeing or is she living in the far-off world of diplomacy? Merkel had hitherto kept her comments about Trump to a minimum; after his election, she had reminded him about Western values but otherwise held back. But now, as she saw it, she needed to speak out frankly. Otherwise, the Social Democrats would have beat her to the punch. The SPD’s candidate for chancellor, Martin Schulz, and the party’s chairman until recently, Sigmar Gabriel, most certainly would have loudly given voice to many Germans’ rejection of Trump and put the chancellor on the defensive. Ever since her no-reliable-partner statement, the Social Democrats can still argue among themselves and with her if they take the criticism to extremes. They are already at it.

Was it simply electioneering?

Ms. Merkel’s beer tent speech reminds some of Gerhard Schröder’s refusal to take part in the Iraq War that the USA was planning at the start of 2003. Schröder, who was chancellor at the time, called out his "no" to George W. Bush’s administration on a marketplace in Goslar; a short time later Schröder’s SPD won the Lower Saxony state election. So now instead of a marketplace, it’s a beer tent? The comparison doesn’t exactly hold true. For one thing, at this early stage in the election campaign, the chancellor doesn’t yet really feel under pressure, at most she feels an unprecedented free hand because she is pretty much likely to win but doesn’t have to do anything more herself. For another, her comments go far beyond those of her predecessor. He refused allegiance to the USA on one point; she is refusing allegiance as such.

Is Merkel simply sick and tired of Trump?

The Chancellor isn’t given to emotional outbursts. If she is fed up with the president’s absurd behavior, that by no means signifies she will say something about it.