BERLIN — During her final visit to the United States last year as Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel was asked about her plans for when she stepped down as her country’s leader in December.
“Maybe I will try to read something,” she said. “Then my eyes will start to close because I’m tired, then I’ll take a little nap, and then we’ll see where I pop up.”
She acknowledged her job will “now be done by someone else.”
“I think I will like this very much,” she added.
In the days before her goodbye on Dec. 8, Merkel was celebrated for her steadiness, resolve and pragmatism as the chancellor who led Germany and Europe through such major upheavals as a global recession, a refugee crisis and a pandemic.
On Dec. 2, Merkel received farewell military honors from the Bundeswehr, Germany’s federal armed forces. In her final address, she encouraged Germans to go forward with a “lightness of heart” and “look at the world from other people’s perspectives as well.”
Now, three months later, she is rarely seen or heard, even as the Russian invasion rages in Ukraine and the atmosphere and mood here in Germany’s capital has been one of protests, rapid mobilization for refugee services and, at times, simple astonishment. The amount of Ukrainian and Russian overheard being spoken in the streets of Berlin has notably increased in the last few weeks.
Beyond the news that Merkel’s wallet, which reportedly contained her ID, driver’’ license, debit card and cash, was stolen while grocery shopping in late February in Berlin (despite at least one of her bodyguards being nearby), she has kept a low profile. (Even during her chancellorship, Merkel was known to do her own grocery shopping.) She turned down a job offer from United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres as a high-level adviser; she also rejected an offer to become honorary chairwoman of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), her political party.
Known to live simply, Merkel and her husband, Joachim Sauer, a professor of quantum chemistry at Humboldt University, live on the fourth floor of an unremarkable apartment building in Berlin, the same residence they’ve lived in since she was chancellor. They also own a holiday home in the Uckermark region in northeast Germany.
Merkel’s current public profile starkly contrasts with former American presidents who often stay in the limelight, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars for speaking engagements and offering opinions and commentary on a wide variety of political, social and cultural issues. (Merkel’s office turned down PassBlue’s request for comment.)
“There’s definitely this practice and tradition in Germany in which politicians allow their successors to take the stage as they gracefully exit,” said Sudha David-Wilp, senior trans-Atlantic fellow and deputy director of the German Marshall Fund’s Berlin office. “That can be quite different than what we see in the U.S.”
“The past 30 years have really been an ideal time for Germany,” she added. “The conflict that previous generations had to experience, and that hard power used as a tool really felt like something of yesteryear. This idea of a responsible power in the center of Europe with a multilateral outlook was what Germany sought to represent.”
But since Merkel’s departure more than three months ago, Germany has seen a drastic shift in its longstanding policies that defined the country under her 16-year leadership. Though Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who stepped into the role on Dec. 8, was reportedly consulting with Merkel about the lead-up to Russia’s incursion in Ukraine, he soon announced an about-face on Germany’s domestic and foreign policies, discarding decades of foreign policy tradition by committing up to two percent of Germany’s gross domestic product to defense spending (compared with a current level of 1.4 percent) and announcing that Germany was halting the certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia, a project that began under Merkel’s leadership.
Scholz called Putin’s war one “in cold blood” and said it was a “watershed” moment for Europe.
“When February 24 happened, many policymakers were shocked by the naked aggression from Putin,” David-Wilp said. “I think people finally realized that the last 30 years have been a respite from history. There was a lot of pressure from the U.S. and Germany’s European counterparts. It was just clear that Germany wasn’t matching the expectations that it should play in Europe.”
On Feb. 25, Merkel released her only statement thus far on Russia’s invasion, saying there was “no justification” for this “blatant violation of international law,” which she “condemned in the strongest terms.”
She added: “Russia’s war of aggression marks a profound turning point in European history after the end of the Cold War.” She offered “solidarity” to Ukraine’s government and citizens and her “full support” to Scholz, who served as her finance minister and vice chancellor for three years.
Merkel grew up a pastor’s daughter in East Germany, speaks fluent Russian, enjoys baking pflaumenkuchen mit streusel (plum cake with crumbles) and has a doctorate in quantum chemistry. She said in an interview with Der Spiegel in 2019 that as a former East German citizen, she dreamed of seeing the Rocky Mountains, driving around in a car, “in something better than a Trabant,” and listening to Bruce Springsteen.
Often seen during her chancellorship as the interlocutor between Russia and the West and possessing the ability to communicate personally with President Vladimir Putin, Merkel’s leadership and policies are now being more scrutinized since Russia’s military assault in Ukraine. Some pundits argue that her policies left Europe too dependent on Russia.
Europe, and especially Germany, have become increasingly dependent on Russian oil and gas in the last two decades, with about 40 percent of Europe’s supply coming from Russia, according to Eurostat. Germany is one of its most reliant customers, having paid more than 40 billion euros (about $36 billion) to Russia for fossil fuels in 2021. About 55 percent of its natural gas comes from Russia.
Still, David-Wilp noted that Merkel had not been making these decisions on Germany’s energy imports alone. She had a grand coalition — a governing group among the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its sister party the Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CSU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) — for three of the four terms she served. So everyone was party to the decisions being made.
“I think it’s understandable to look back on her tenure in a different way because of the new environment we’re in,” David-Wilp said. “But really, she left office with a stellar record and lots of praise.”
As the world adapts to the rapidly changing geopolitics right now, Merkel’s policies and mandates during her chancellorship will no doubt continue to be scrutinized. Whether she weighs in again on the war in Ukraine remains to be seen. One thing is probably certain: she’ll keep a better eye on her wallet during her next grocery run.