This used to be the office of ex-Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Before that, back when the Berlin Wall still ran by outside the window, it was used by East German National Education Minister Margot Honecker. When Merkel heard about this for the first time, her reported response was: "Oh, shit."
She was still chancellor at the time, but likely had a foreboding that such historical baggage could weigh heavy.
Almost exactly a year ago, Angela Merkel left the Chancellery as a heroine of the free world. The last images of her as Germany's leader showed a woman in a heavy overcoat against the icy cold at the Bendlerblock – the Defense Ministry in Berlin where Claus von Stauffenberg and his accomplices were hanged following their unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler – listening to the German military band playing a folk-pop song by Nina Hagen, who is from East Berlin, though left for the West and even became famous as a punk singer in New York. A song from Hildegard Knef followed, a singer who injected a bit of rebelliousness into stolid postwar Germany.
They were the song requests of a confident German woman. The first to ever hold the office, the first eastern German, the first scientist. The polar opposite of the populists and machos of this world.
German public broadcasters televised the entire farewell ceremony. And just like with global stars, viewers found themselves wondering: Is she crying, or is it just the cold?
Angela Merkel's successor was Olaf Scholz, a small, rather stiff man from the German Social Democrats. He wears dark, slim-fit suits and the Germans initially hoped that he would just continue on as she had. But one year later, the world is a different place. Russia has invaded Ukraine, natural gas and gasoline are expensive and Germany is afraid of what might happen this winter. Her successor has deprived her of her legacy. Once a shining example of leadership acumen, Merkel now appears to bear no small share of the blame; she has transformed from crisis manager to crisis maker.
It is surprising just how unchanged she looks. How uncontrite. She seems so relaxed, its almost as if no bad news finds its way here into her doll house. On a chair at the window sits Beate Baumann, seemingly also part of the office furnishings. She has been Merkel's office manager for decades, following her from position to position, and she was an important part of Merkel's tenure as chancellor. The two women are now writing the chancellor's political memoirs together.
Merkel takes a seat on a black sofa and elevates her leg, propping herself up with a bright-red heart pillow that has also been brought over from the Chancellery. During a summer trip to Salzburg with her husband, she injured her knee in a restaurant. The place had reserved an exclusive room for the famous couple, and on the way there, she slipped on the wet floorboards. And tore her ACL.
"The Austrians are always so agitated when dealing with famous people," she says, a comment which almost suffices to turn the accident into an international affair.
For 16 years, everything that happened to her was somehow relevant. The unwanted neck massage given to her by an American president, her décolleté at an opera premier in Oslo, the selfie she took with a refugee, the uncontrollable shaking on display during a couple of appearances late in her tenure.
She was at the top of the list of the world's most powerful women for 14 years. And when she starts talking about Xi Jinping's unmoving facial expression, she seems statesmanlike even though her arm is resting on a red-satin pillow. Like everyone else, she was only watching on television as Hu Jintao was led away from the Communist Party Congress. But she knows Xi; she knows how to read him.
She also met the queen on several occasions, of course, and visited Windsor Castle last year on her parting visit. Did they talk about her legacy?
"She always asked questions," says Merkel. "And the type of questions certainly indicated what she was interested in."
In Buckingham Palace with Queen Elizabeth
One time when she arrived at Buckingham Palace, the queen was staring out of the window holding a cup of tea. Another time, Elizabeth II imitated the trotting of the palace horses. Angela Merkel giggles like a groupie. She watched the film "The Queen" with Helen Mirren and also, in her empty weeks after leaving the Chancellery, the Netflix series "The Crown." She also followed the long broadcast of her funeral on television. It seems as though she could talk about the queen forever.
Did she see herself in the queen?
Merkel looks up, that famous skepticism writ across her face. A trick question? She responds decisively: "No."
But she is fully aware that – aside from the horses – the small royal gestures could just as easily come from her own leadership profile. As could the description: Reliable, close to nature, a preference for sensible shoes, a bit cool, scornful, married to a quirky husband who got used to his role entertaining the first ladies. She found it "astounding" how Elizabeth II, just two days before her death, received the new prime minister and asked her to form a new government. It was almost as if she gathered all of her strength, Merkel says, to be sure that Boris Johnson was really gone.
"The death of Queen Elizabeth II marked the end of an era," says Merkel.
"Coincidentally" Reading a Churchill Biography
An era of rationality, predictability, perseverance – not dissimilar to her own era. An age of watching, waiting and drinking tea. An age in which things seemed to take care of themselves if you just kept your nerve. Merkel says she doesn't know what the queen really thought of Brexit. It was commendable, she says, that even then, the queen didn't interfere with politics. One of the queen's rare visits to Downing Street was to honor Winston Churchill, Merkel says, adding that "coincidentally," she had just finished Sebastian Haffner's Churchill biography.
"According to the book, Churchill apparently loved the war. It sounds perhaps strange. But in that respect, he is the complete opposite of me."
Now, we get to down to the business at hand. Others might talk about the weather to warm up, but she talks about the British monarchy. The global crisis, though, is waiting.
When we spoke at the Berlin Ensemble theater in June, she responded to the question as to how she was doing by immediately talking about the Russian war. It was during this discussion, almost exactly half a year after the end of her tenure, an interview that had actually been scheduled to discuss a book of her speeches that had just been published, that Merkel broke her silence. She spoke briefly about wintertime walks on the Baltic Sea coast to "air out" her chancellorship. She says she listened to "Macbeth" as she walked along the beach, and in Shakespeare, a battle is always right around the corner. One wonders how she felt in winter as Putin gathered his troops on the Ukrainian border, with the Scottish storms and the Baltic Sea winds jumbling together in her ears.
"When the hulyburly's done, when the battle's lost and won," calls out one of the witches in the opening scene of "Macbeth." And then all three together: "Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air."
"I would have preferred a more peaceful period after my departure, because I really did spend a lot of time on Ukraine," says Merkel.
"But it didn't come as a surprise. The Minsk agreements had eroded. In summer 2021, after President Biden met with Putin, Emmanuel Macron and I had wanted to put together a productive negotiating format in the EU Council. Some were opposed to the idea and I no longer had the power to push it through, because everyone knew I'd be gone that autumn. I asked others in the Council: 'Why aren't you speaking up? Say something.' One said: 'It's too big for me.' The other merely shrugged his shoulders, saying that it was an issue for the big countries. If I had run again for re-election that September, I would have followed up. It was the same story during my farewell visit in Moscow. The feeling was quite clear: 'You're done with power politics.' For Putin, only power counts. He brought Lavrov along for this last visit. Usually, we tended to meet face-to-face."
From that perspective, does she regret not having run again?
"No," she says. "It was time for someone new. Domestically it was overdue. And on foreign policy, I was also no longer making any progress on a lot of things we were trying to do. Not just on Ukraine. Transnistria and Moldova, Georgia and Abkhazia, Syria and Libya. It was time for a new approach."
She waits four or five seconds, and then says: "But you can't now act as if everything would have been just fine with the correct attitude."
Is she talking about current German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock of the Green Party? About value-driven foreign policy?
A scant smile emerges, with her lips compressing as it fades as if she's going to start whistling.
"I don't want to interfere in current politics," she says. "It is difficult to talk about the past, because you are immediately in the present. Deliberate self-restraint is the order of the day."
It is tempting to believe that she admired the queen for precisely that quality. A woman who didn't even speak up when her daughter-in-law was chased to death by the paparazzi or after her allegedly favorite son became involved in a sex scandal with an underage girl. A woman who kept silent about problems until they simply faded away.
During her tenure, Merkel often behaved a bit like a monarch. She would wave from the stands during important football matches, she spoke to her people at New Year's and, during the pandemic, she gave them courage, not unlike Elizabeth.
She often took care of the rest herself.
"There are certain decisions people expect politicians to make without burdening their constituents," she says. "Otherwise, people get the impression: Oh, if you have to explain so much, it's probably difficult to push it through. That is important for the acceptance of decisions. It won't become greater just because you have explained them. Look at the NATO summit in Bucharest that is the focus of so much debate because at the time, I didn't yet want us to welcome Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. At the time, it was only interesting to experts, if at all."
Merkel suddenly recalls that in addition to watching "The Crown" and "Babylon Berlin" with all her free time, she also took in "Munich: The Edge of War," the Netflix film about Neville Chamberlain's role in the run-up to World War II. Jeremy Irons played Chamberlain. She liked it because it shows Churchill's predecessor in a different light – not just as a frightened pawn for Hitler, but as a strategist who gave his country the buffer it needed to prepare for the German attack. In her telling, the Munich of 1938 sounds a bit like Bucharest of 2008. She believes that back then, and then later during the Minsk talks, she was able to buy the time Ukraine needed to better fend off the Russian attack. She says it is now a strong, well-fortified country. Back then, she is certain, it would have been overrun by Putin's troops.
"Pretty Dark," She Says
It's the standard defense, this time embedded in world history. Without blood and pain, free of rubble and fear. Broadcast by a streaming service.
"Matthes plays Hitler," says Merkel.
Beate Baumann nods.
The chancellor meets privately every now and then with the Berlin actor Ulrich Matthes to talk about drama, both onstage and in the world. As a young woman, she saw Hilmar Thate as Richard III in the Deutsches Theater, and later Lars Eidinger in the same role in a different Berlin theater. She saw Ekkehard Schall play Arturo Ui. "Pretty dark," she says, and it's not totally clear if she is talking about Putin or Bertolt Brecht. At one G-7 summit, she accused Boris Johnson, who was trying to undermine the Northern Ireland Protocol, of being on a path to becoming a dark Shakespearean character. Johnson turned around in annoyance, but returned five minutes later and said: If so, then I'm Hamlet.
In the calm of her post-Chancellery life, it all seems to be mixing together with her political experiences. Classical conflicts, the relationship between Putin and Zelenskyy, between Scholz and Macron, between Xi and Hu, between her and Kohl. The lonely Gerhard Schröder. Her failed search for a successor to her throne. The jesters within her own party. At Wolfgang Schäuble's 80th birthday, everyone again talked about what a wonderful chancellor he would have made.
She describes the June 2019 Berlin visit of Ukraine's newly elected President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as if it was an historical drama. The German chancellor was visibly shaking before the two of them strode past the honor formation. The young Ukrainian visitor could not muster the courage to tell her, the mother figure of Europe, what he really thought of her, and his advisers held a different view anyway.
She has always been excellent at imitating her adversaries: Seehofer, Sarkozy, Schröder, Putin, Bush and Kaczynski. She seems to be searching for a universal story where she finds her role – a role she doesn't currently have in the global crisis.
The Culture Section
She keeps close tabs on the news, of course, but the most interesting pieces are in the culture section, she says. She can recite parts of an interview in the Munich daily Süddeutsche Zeitung with a former CIA analyst, who complains that diplomacy has become a bad word. The analyst says in the interview that the current state of affairs reminds him of the international situation just before World War I, when European heads of state erroneously believed that they would be able to quickly bring a limited war to an end. Before ultimately sliding into a catastrophe that killed an entire generation.
She says she has flipped through a recently published biography of her, written by Ralph Bollmann. He ends with the finding: "Angela Merkel came in as a chancellor of change, but she became a chancellor of stasis. Slowly and painfully, she learned how unprepared the residents of the Western world were for the new."
She shows little patience for such assessments. She checks the numbers and the recollections – she was there after all.
"Writing about 2013 and 2014 as though I had nothing to do other than negotiate Minsk before then asking how I could lose sight of Ukraine, that's too simplistic for me," she says. "There were also general elections that year, coalition negotiations, there was still Greece, I broke my pelvis. At the moment, for example, everybody is talking about the Russian war, but nobody is saying anything about the EU-Turkey deal. At some point, somebody is going to ask: How could you have forgotten that? I think its important for us to ask ourselves how world history works. According to what rules. Otherwise, we'll keep making the same mistakes."
Perhaps she just doesn't like being the subject of portraits – not by painters, not by photographers and not by biographers. It must be intolerable for her to be evaluated by every new op-ed writer who pops up.
"A Politician Doesn't Have to Set an Example"
A few years ago, I asked her how she can deal with sometimes being completely written off in public. She says she just waits until it passes, that views of her ebb and flow. She essentially described her reputation as a law of nature.
"A politician doesn't have to set an example," she says. "That's not their job."
On the table of her office lies a thick volume of documents pertaining to German foreign policy in 1991, in which she has just read about the concerns that Helmut Kohl had about the disintegrating Soviet Union. Merkel says that Moscow's foreign minister at the time, Eduard Shevardnadze, predicted to his German counterpart, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, that if the USSR collapsed, the Crimea question would once again become an issue. Thirty years ago. She repeatedly mentions "The Light that Failed," an analysis jointly written by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes about the West's amnesia and the East's loss of identity following 1989. She reads Shakespeare and Schiller to better understand what is currently going on – including with her.
Her role in the great passage of time. Her legacy. What remains.
As she was watching the funeral service for the queen on television, she saw her one-time British counterpart Tony Blair among the mourners. A great political talent, she says, a political contemporary who completely ruined his reputation – in the Iraq War as Bush's "poodle."
Did she see how George W. Bush recently confused the war in Ukraine with the Iraq War during a recent public appearance, and then tried to pass it off by joking about his age?
A Portrait from George W. Bush
She shakes her head.
"I think it's a form of self-critique," she says. "On the Iraq War, though, I have to be rather critical of myself as well. I was one of those who chastised Gerhard Schröder at the time for risking the division of the West" for his vocal refusal to join the war effort.
She starts looking for something on her iPad. Perhaps the pathetic "proof" offered by then U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell of Iraq's alleged WMD program? Or the article that she wrote for the Washington Post at the time defending the war? Instead, she shows a picture that George W. Bush painted of her. The former president took up painting several years ago.
"He painted Berlusconi, Putin, everyone," says Merkel smiling. Perhaps it's a form of therapy Bush uses to quiet his demons. At his ranch in Texas, Bush told her that his father thought his other son, Jeb, would have made the better president.
One wonders how she fits all the pieces together emotionally, the tens of thousands of deaths and the hobby of the president, who seems to have wanted the war as a way of proving himself to his father. But it is perhaps just a reflection of the skills that the leader of a country has to possess. The big and the small. Above the sofa on the wall behind her hangs a photograph that a German astronaut took from space and gave her. It shows the Baltic Sea island of Rügen, part of her eastern Germany constituency. Everything is there in one picture. Her electoral district. And the rest of the world. Her perspective, her life.
But its over now. Kairos, the god of favorable timing, can no longer help her. It must be torture to recognize the correct moment for a decision, if it's a decision that you can't make.
The only thing she can do now is admit to mistakes and beg forgiveness. Everyone wants an apology, particularly for her Russia policies. Wolfgang Schäuble, her former finance minister, wants one, as do 86 percent of the readers of a Zeit Magazin newsletter. But it seems that she isn't interested in expressing remorse because she isn't certain that she really did anything wrong. She's not sure whether history might ultimately prove her right.
Merkel Is No Longer Much of a Topic in Berlin
If you talk to members of the current government, it becomes clear that Angela Merkel is no longer a topic of conversation. Her legacy has been wrapped in protective Styrofoam, as a kind of respect for what she achieved in her time at the top, her longevity. But such conversations also make it clear that her legacy is looking worse and worse: in Russia policy, in energy policy, in health policy, in climate policy, in digitalization. There is a reflex, they say, to avoid blaming her for everything, though that might change in the next campaign. In current discussions, though, she doesn't play much of a role.
The long hallways of the building that is her new professional home also includes a number of offices belonging to parliamentarians from her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). At the end of sitting weeks, a bell echoes through the corridors to remind lawmakers that they must make their way to the plenary floor to cast their votes. For Merkel, though, the bell is just a reminder that she is trapped here, trapped in time. Her party allies make their way to the elevators to vote on this and that. She only has her legacy, which seems to grow darker by the day. For years, her goal every morning was to "get ahead of the situation," as she puts it. Now, she reads about the situation on SPIEGEL.de. Her office, the costs of which have already become an issue with the bean counters in parliament, is her internal banishment. Angela Merkel's German exile.
Together with her former office manager Beate Baumann, she has developed escape plans. The book, which they are going to write together, is at the top of the list. Their view of things. In addition is a series of public appearances that doesn't seem to follow any kind of pattern.
She Now Flies Commercial
One month after she broke her silence at the Berliner Ensemble theater, she appeared at a symposium held at the Leopoldina, the German Academy of Sciences, in Halle. The event marked the 70th birthday of Jörg Hacker, a bacteriologist who once led the Robert Koch Institute and who spent 10 years as a member of Merkel's innovation dialogue when she was in the Chancellery. The motto of the symposium was: "On bacteria, people and sciences." Merkel wore a red blazer and pushed the ailing professor into the hall in his wheelchair. She looked like his nurse. The photographer Herlinde Koelbl, who was also present, began shooting regular portraits of Merkel in 1991. Her change in appearance, Koelbl says, is most prominent in her eyes. They lost their radiance.
Merkel approached the podium to hold her first big speech since leaving office. "Of bacteria, people and sciences," she said, looking up. "Let's begin at the beginning, with the bacteria."
That was her message to Germany. Let's begin at the beginning, with the bacteria.
She had been in Washington a couple of days previously to meet with Barack Obama, the West's other famous political retiree. During his final visit to Berlin, he seemed to beg her not to leave the world alone with the crazies. And she stayed in office for another four years. But the number of crazies didn't drop.
She now flies commercial, but still isn't exactly a normal passenger. Her husband was also on the plane, on his way to an academic conference in Virginia. They had different reasons for making the trip, and he was seated in a different row, she says, but the Lufthansa crew couldn't imagine such a thing and reseated them next to each other. Perhaps it is such occasions that produce the rumors about their marriage. Serious journalists will sometimes confront you unbidden with shockingly detailed information about who Merkel is supposed to have a relationship with and with whom her husband is allegedly liaised.
On her first evening in Washington, she went to a meeting of American historians in the German Embassy. Merkel thought the focus would be on the war in Ukraine, but it was actually U.S. abortion law. Roe versus Wade. Germany was presented as a role model.
"A strange situation," she says. "Surprising."
With Obama, she also ended up talking less about Russia than she thought they would. And even less about Germany.
"He, of course, has been out of office for longer than me. I have the impression that we agree when it comes to Putin," she says. "After Russia's annexation of the Crimea, we did all we could to prevent further Russian attacks on Ukraine and we coordinated our sanctions down to the last detail."
Is Obama pleased with his legacy?
"I'm Still Searching a Bit"
"I think he's at peace with himself. He knows that he will always be a unique personality. I'm still searching a bit. Being able to withstand criticism is part of being in a democracy, but my impression is that once American presidents leave office, they are treated with greater respect in public than are German chancellors."
Obama "airs out" in Hawaii, not on the Baltic Sea coast. He never flies commercial. She visited Obama's office in Washington and says that around 150 people are working for his foundation. She went with him to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which was completely closed to other visitors during their tour. At the Italian restaurant in the evening, they were the only people in the room. She sensed his aura, she says. But it is also true that Americans expect their presidents to remain present even after leaving office. Libraries are built for them after their presidencies, while in Germany, chancellor's only get a federal foundation once they die.
The opening event for the Helmut Kohl Foundation, which Merkel attended a few weeks later, is reminiscent of a memorial service. It takes place in the French Church on Berlin's Gendarmenmarkt square. A line is waiting at the side entrance, with two CDU lawmakers at its end, Ralph Brinkhaus and Manfred Grund. As if ascending to a stage, Merkel labors her way up the steps to the main entrance, slowly and carefully because of her injured knee.
"The lady seems to be carrying quite a burden," Grund jokes to Brinkhaus, and both laugh. It is with guys like that Merkel had the privilege of spending half her life.
Taking Russia Seriously
CDU chief Friedrich Merz is the first to speak, she's the last. In between, there is someone from the Allensbach Institute, a respected polling firm, which has determined what the Germans think about their chancellors. Adenauer is the most important, followed by Brandt, and then Merkel. She is ahead among 15- to 25-year-olds. Sixteen percent of them don't even know who Helmut Kohl was, the chancellor who delivered German unity. Statistics drape themselves over everyone like a shroud and they are forgotten. Angela Merkel, though, is here to revive Kohl. Her jacket is bright yellow and her voice as clear as a bell. A contrast to Merz, whose voice always sounds like he's speaking into a horn.
Merkel shares a few anecdotes about Helmut Kohl and names three lessons she learned from her predecessor.
First: The importance of the personal in politics.
Second: The joy of creating.
Third: Thinking in historical context.
Give that approach, she says, she is quite certain that Kohl would already be thinking about a time when relations with Russia could be resumed. Because that time will come at some point. She also says that taking Russia seriously isn't a sign of weakness. For a moment, there is reverent, indecisive silence in the CDU. Take Russia seriously? Is that how it works? Then the room breaks into applause. Loud and sustained. Merkel smiles, nods and hobbles off the stage, leaving her party behind with Friedrich Merz in the Berlin night.
Once again, everyone seems quite surprised by how good-humored she is.
Rainer Eppelmann, a Berlin pastor with whom she started engaging in politics 32 years ago, jaunts perkily through the side entrance. "Good speech," says Eppelmann."A good woman."
Two days later, Merkel dives even deeper into German history. In the main square of Goslar, she holds the ceremonial address on the occasion of the city's 1,100th anniversary.
The audience includes the city's most esteemed citizens, including the mayor and one of the Goslar's famous sons, Sigmar Gabriel, the former head of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). Also, for some reason, the ambassador of Indonesia is here. "A very interesting country," as the mayor asserts in her welcoming address. The hall greets Merkel like a pop star. She delivers her speech sitting down because of her knee. She speaks about the history of Goslar like a local guide. Ore mine, the Rammelsberg UNESCO World Heritage site, the Upper Harz water management. Words that she is probably uttering for the first time in her life. Forty-seven churches and chapels, a showplace of Nazi propaganda, host of the founding party conference of the CDU. Afterward, a local jazz band plays their version of Nina Hagen, the same song played for her at the Bendlerblock.
Merkel rushes back to Berlin with her two Audis, which wait for her wherever she goes. Sigmar Gabriel heads out for a meal with the Indonesian ambassador, floating through the ancient alleys of his hometown as if on a cushion of air. Merkel had dropped by the Gabriels for coffee two hours before the anniversary event. She turns down speech offers from American agencies for several hundred thousand dollars, but in Goslar, she delivers a sit-down speech – a favor for Sigmar Gabriel, her former vice chancellor.
Gabriel returns the favor. "I wouldn't worry too much about Angela Merkel's legacy," he says. "She was a good chancellor, and in many ways a great one. There is absolutely no reason for her to apologize about anything. Nord Stream and the sale of gas storage facilities, for which I was responsible, were a consequence of the liberalization of the European energy markets, which was decided by the European Union in 2002. No one wants to hear that today. Angela Merkel certainly didn't believe, as Gerhard Schröder did, that we could politically integrate Russia through the pipelines. That's why she went to Putin and negotiated the political terms. And it was already clear under what conditions Nord Stream 2 would be stopped. The current ones, for example."
Gabriel believes that Putin wouldn't have attacked Ukraine if Merkel were still chancellor. He says Putin had incredible respect for her. As a woman who led the most powerful country in Europe, and, more importantly, a person with a deep understanding of Russia. In October, after visiting Olaf Scholz in Berlin, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán also said at a press briefing that the war wouldn't have happened if Merkel were still in office.
You can't choose your contemporaries.
The mountain hikes and opera visits to Bayreuth aside, Merkel has spent the last 32 years in politics. What is actually left of friendships, of human relationships?
She says she's spoken to two people from the party, one in the Uckermark region and one from her constituency. From time to time, she also talks to Macron on the phone. The other day, she sent her greetings to Gerhard Schröder through one of his security staff.
At the end of October, we meet again in the Uckermark, the region where she grew up. She has chosen a small church as our meeting place, a landmark in the forest. She steps out from the autumn leaves like a ghost. She has known the little church that the Huguenots once put here since childhood. By the end of East Germany, it had fallen into complete disrepair, but after the fall of the Wall, Merkel's father Horst Kasner, a former pastor and director of the Templin Pastoral College, made the church his pet project. He founded an association to raise money for the project and they rebuilt the church, completing it in 1994.
"I Want the Chantrelles"
His wife Herlind had obtained her driver's license just a few years earlier. As Merkel tells it, it was an act of liberation. Her mother was able to escape to Berlin from time to time in her Trabant, and she even got an apartment there and taught English and Latin. She would meet up with her daughter in the city, while her husband Horst, left behind in the Uckermark, had to learn how to cook.
"That hit my dad pretty hard," she says. "My mother's independence."
The church could also be seen as a monument to emancipation. Merkel shows the interior of her father's church – simple, tasteful, Protestant.
"Ulrich Matthes has also done a reading here," she says.
I tell her that Matthes doesn't want to talk to me about her anymore. She smiles with satisfaction. The actor has already told her. That's how it has always worked. Loyalty in the Chancellery. If you talked, you were out.
Outside again, in the autumn sun, she briefly brushes off photographer Peter Rigaud. It's all too much for her – the two assistants, the spotlight, the reflective screen. She doesn't like it when others tell her where to stand or what to do.
At a dinner in Berlin's Wilmersdorf district this summer, she wanted to have chanterelles to go with the sauteed calf liver. The patron advised against it, saying it wouldn't go well with the caramelized onions. He recommended spinach instead. She listened, but then said: "I want chanterelles."
She's now standing in front of a tree, with the Uckermark sun glowing behind her.
"That looks great," the photographer exclaims.
"Yeah, sure. Great," she says, shaking her head. "Are we done?"
Beate Baumann calls out from behind. "Don't be so grumpy."
We walk a ways down the dirt road, her security personnel following at a distance of 50 meters. She seems lonely, perhaps because, more than any other area, this is where she belongs. When asked what the Uckermark is to her, she says: "Familiarity and, yes, you have to say, something like home."
Something like home. It's about as far as she'll go in Germany.
Only a year ago, in a speech she gave on German unity in Halle, she revealed how the West had sometimes humiliated her, "as if the previous history, that is, life in the GDR, was somehow a kind of imposition," she said. "A ballast." In the east, on the other hand, her fellow compatriots felt that the chancellor had forgotten her origins. "Merkel needs to go!" they shouted. No one credits her with having taken her own path in life. She was born in Hamburg, but her father wanted to spread his Christian message in the east. She grew up in a parish household, but won the Russian Olympiad, a contest promoting the Russian language in the GDR. Merkel studied physics because she didn't want to be a teacher in the East, and then helped out with the East German Citizen's Movement, which pushed for democratic reforms and was later swallowed up by the West German CDU. These were good pre-conditions for a German chancellor who would represent the entire, reunified country. But they could also be bad ones. In the east, she was despised for the very achievement for which the West most admired her: the decision to let the war refugees into the country.
The sentence that seemed to speak most deeply to her wasn't: "We can do this." Rather, it was: "If we start having to apologize for showing a friendly face in an emergency situation, then this is not my country."
Merkel in the Uckermark in 2022Foto: Peter Rigaud / DER SPIEGEL
During her farewell ceremony at the Bendlerblock in Berlin, there was also a third song. And in contrast to the first two, it's easy to see why she chose it. The ecumenical hymn, "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name."
In the ninth stanza, it says:
"Look mercifully on your people; Help us, bless us, Lord we are your inheritance! Guide them on the proper course, so that the evil one does not destroy them. Help that in due time. They see thy eternal glory!"
She probably doesn't trust the entire German people.
In the autumn of 1989, she observed that the GDR was collapsing primarily due to its economic shortcomings, rather than its democratic ones. That's perhaps the decisive lesson Merkel drew from the first half of her life for the second. A lesson, it seems possible, that she ultimately applied to trade with China and gas deals with Russia.
"There is an intellectual elite that is very value-driven. But it has no chance if it is not backed by the broad majority. The success model of the West is that people are doing well. And that everyone gets something out of it, whether they are freedom-loving or not. In any case, I think it is very much the right thing to support with multi-billion programs and not to overtax the Germans when it comes to prices," she says. "Not everyone can freeze for Ukraine."
Put On a Sweater, Merkel Said
Baumann laughs. She complained the other morning at the office that it was too cold. Then put on a sweater, Merkel said.
She walks through the Uckermark village as if on inspection. She talks about how one of the old farmhouses is for sale, and even knows the asking price. She talks about the forester's lodge, which corresponds to some Prussian prototype. Back at the little church, she suddenly recalls a motif on the façade of the cathedral in Modena – Cain and Abel, the fratricide, a Biblical scene that, as art historian Horst Bredekamp says, became the experimental field of artistic freedom. And with that, we're back on the topic of war.
In spring, she traveled with Bredekamp to Tuscany to study the Renaissance, one of the first private vacations she had taken since leaving office. When she was there, a tweet reached her from Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk saying she should be visiting the mass graves of Bucha rather than Italian cultural sites. It was only a rhetorical barb, but it clearly highlighted the dilemma she is facing. She feels the need to get involved, but she can't. No one wants her at the table, and she thinks she knows why. She's been out of office for too long.
"You need to experience everything from the inside to be able to meaningfully contribute. So many things have happened since February 24," she says. "But if someone comes to me with question, I'll give them an answer."
"Complicated Enough As It Is"
But no one calls. A few days after our conversation, Scholz said he had always had good contact with her and would keep it that way. But that was likely more of a rhetorical observation. The Chancellor Scholz is on thin ice. His party had a stronger connection to Russian natural gas than Merkel ever did, and Scholz was sitting at Putin's long table just a few days before the war broke out, looking to all the world like a small child.
Some have found themselves wondering why Merkel's experience with the main actors isn't being used in a global crisis of this magnitude. She says the focus should be on Ukraine and not her, and that the Ukrainians would have to request her participation in negotiations. Then it would be up to the German government to approve it. In any case, it's little more than a thought experiment, she hasn't received any requests.
"No," she says. "And why should they? It is already complicated enough as it is."
We go for a meal at the Mühlenwirtschaft, a restaurant in the town of Lychen, where she knows the owner. Getting there requires a 12-kilometer drive through beautiful autumnal forests. Once again, there is a separate dining room for her. In that half hour, she has escaped from the world of the Steinmeiers, Scholzes and Zelenskyys and is back in the past, back to where there are lessons, beginnings and endings. The Weimar Republic, the Congress of Vienna, the Religious Peace of Augsburg. All the historical events that she has been examining over the past year. All situations that took place in the calm after the guns fell silent. After World War I, after the Napoleonic campaigns, after the Princes' Revolt and the Second Margravial War.
Can She Still Sleep?
She has a postwar order in mind. Even as the war is continuing.
Merkel and Baumann started reading Churchill's mammoth work on World War II and discovered that the British prime minister wasn't nearly as enamored of war as they first thought. They say he had a critical view of the League of Nations and the missed diplomatic opportunities.
"Do you know what he called World War II when he spoke with Roosevelt?" Merkel asks.
"The unnecessary war," she says in unison with Baumann.
They glance at each other and nod. It is, one can assume, their commentary on the current situation in the world.
"Through the current war, a certain phase of history has ended. A euphoric phase. The victory of freedom in 1989. Today, we are more facing a world that is again full of complications," says Merkel. Once again, she seems to have fallen into a scientific, law-of-nature perspective. She says she hopes her book will provide answers as to whether she would have been able to intervene and stop the war, she hopes those answers will come to her and develop as she writes.
Can she still sleep after seeing all the terrible images on the evening news?
"Yes," she says. "Of course, sometimes I wake up at night thinking."
"History does not repeat itself, but I fear that patterns do repeat themselves. The horror disappears with the witnesses. But the spirit of reconciliation also disappears," says Merkel.
"Ms. Baumann noticed that I had become increasingly pessimistic toward the end of my tenure," she says.
"Gloomy," Baumann adds.
Perhaps the most devastating aspect is that she has had to watch how poorly diplomatic solutions are working, and yet she can see no real alternative to them. She offers praise for the resistance of the Ukrainian people, but believes that Germany should not be the first nation to send modern tanks because, as she says, "Germany can still be used to good effect" in Russia. Her thinking revolves around the temperaments of state leaders, seating arrangements, place cards and travel plans, moods, potential partners and unusual coalitions. Merkel was the queen of crisis diplomacy, the empress of late-night negotiating sessions. Before the Minsk agreement, she shuttled back and forth between Berlin, Brussels, Moscow, Kyiv and Washington over the course of eight days until, at one point, as the sun was slowly setting, she sat in a monumental Belarusian palace and negotiated through until morning as waiters tried serving vodka nonstop. Putin would later state that it had been the hardest night of his life.
She was a top diplomat on the global stage, but now she's a diplomatic armchair quarterback. She watched the Shanghai meeting on TV and could see how the relationship between Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and Putin has changed.
"Despite the two countries' different political systems, Tokayev is a point of connection for us," she says." He has openly refused to support Putin's war. It requires, I think, incredible strength for a man like that to stand up to Russia. I think President Xi has registered that."
Our hostess comes to take our orders. For a moment, the former chancellor takes a break from her geostrategic considerations. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the president of Kazakhstan, disappears from the Mühlenwirtschaft in Lychen. Merkel orders venison medallions with rosemary potatoes. And a small carafe of red wine. The game was harvested from the forests of the Uckermark.
Take a Deep Breath
When the hostess heads for the kitchen, Merkel switches her focus from the menu back to the world order.
"In Uzbekistan, President Xi was welcomed with troops and by the president. In Putin's case, only the prime minister came. Something is stirring. We have to be careful that we don't set our bar so high that there's no one left at the end who can meet our standards."
She recommends taking a deep breath. And to listen to a number of different voices, not just one. Reflection. Of course, she's aware of the stress Scholz is currently under. There is so much to be done at the same time. So many opinions.
"I can imagine it quite well, it's like they're on a hamster wheel," she says. "I also read the articles and can imagine what the chancellor's press clippings must sometimes look like. You have staffers who are concerned. That is what his life is like now. And an ambitious schedule to go with it. One day, it's China. From Paris to Greece and back again. Ms. Baumann would sometimes exercise her veto so that we wouldn't lose our might. Otherwise, you couldn't think," says Merkel.
"We Humans Are Trivial"
Our hostess comes by to ask if everything is OK.
"Excellent," Merkel says. "The venison is very tender. How is business going?"
"It's OK," the owner says. "Yesterday was dead. Even though it's vacation time."
"Maybe people just have to save money," Merkel says.
"I think they're all on Mallorca," the owner says. "They couldn't travel for such a long time."
"Right," says Merkel. Perhaps she's thinking about her corona policies. Easter rest and all that.
"You've got something on the corner of your mouth," Baumann says. "It's been there the whole time."
The former chancellor wipes it away like a child.
So, what about Scholz and Macron? France and Germany?
"It's always about personal relationships as well, although that might sound trivial. But we humans are trivial, and Germany and France have always overcome their differences," she says. And one can assume in this context that she is referring to men and not humans in general.
Playing with Self-Important Boys
Many years ago, she once arranged to meet Jacques Chirac and Vladimir Putin for crisis talks. When she arrived at the agreed-upon time, the men had already been sitting together for an hour. They had just decided to meet up earlier without the woman. On another occasion, Olaf Scholz announced to her at a meeting of state governors on the federal-state fiscal equalization that her legacy would be decided that night. He was mayor of the city-state of Hamburg at the time. Federal-state fiscal equalization – as her legacy.
She has spent her entire political career alongside self-important boys – and she has frequently won. Merkel prevailed over Helmut Kohl, Edmund Stoiber, Gerhard Schröder and Horst Seehofer, against Pedro Sánchez, Nicolas Sarkozy and George W. Bush. Her whole life has basically been an example of feminist politics, both in domestic and foreign policy. She may not have outwardly pursued feminist politics, but she always embodied it. She never played the woman card, she simply prevailed. Merkel had none of the scandals, no affairs, no plagiarized books, oversold family stories or plagiarized doctoral theses that have plagued other politicians in Germany.
As things currently look, though, that may not help her in the end. Putin, of all people, a man she knew so well and for so long, with all his tricks, his lies, his bravado, is destroying her legacy. The biggest bully of them all. And Trump, whom she once wanted to outlast, is also seeking re-election.
In her party, the blusterers are now getting their way. She says she was extremely bothered by the recent "bickering" in German parliament. The fact that Scholz had adopted Merz's "egregious tone" and was then even celebrated for it in the media. The balancing, moderating, mitigating, asymmetrical demobilization with which she confronted the political positions of her opponent – all that is gone now. She lulled the German people to sleep during her time in office, but now that she has stopped singing, they have woken up.
As long as she continued winning elections, everything worked fine. But everyone seeks to take advantage of weakness. The Queen hadn't even been buried yet, for example, before many Jamaicans started trying to leave the Commonwealth. Some voices inside the German government say that Merkel left office just in time, leaving her successor to pay the tab.
During her final term in office, Merkel had intended to push forward Germany's transition to clean energy, digitalization, to groom a successor and perhaps even to prepare the ground for the first ever government coalition that would include her center-left CDU and the Greens. But those plans all got lost in the daily political grind.
Then, of course, the coronavirus pandemic arrived, but that, too, demonstrated above all how sluggish and inert the country has become under her leadership. When she looked up from the books about the Congress of Vienna and the Augsburg Religious Peace, she once counted how many meetings she had had with the state governors in response the pandemic. There were 28 of them.
"It's amazing how much work is still incomplete after 16 years of work," she says, before adding, surprisingly: "For example, there still isn't a well-functioning electronic health record card. Germany is sometimes lacking in basic curiosity, the joy of new things."
So does one ultimately not achieve anything?
"This is life's trajectory," Merkel says. "I'm a state of pupation right now. You go through different phases in life. The first phase is to get distance from the daily politics. A new phase comes through writing. You used to be trying to shape the next day, but now you're writing about the past. No more hero narratives, no more traps. The best thing about writing is that nothing more can be added. It's material that has been concluded."
"I Have Arrived at the Period of Reflection"
It sounds like a mantra of self-calming. An exercise in hypnosis. Everything is getting heavier and heavier.
A state of pupation.
Merkel and Baumann initially wanted to write a book about the refugee year. The golden year when Time magazine featured Merkel on its cover as its "Person of the Year." But then came the coronavirus and Putin. Now, they want to tell the story of her entire political career. But how will it end? They found a publisher late this summer, and it is reportedly paying a large fee for the German chancellor's memoir. They only just started writing.
Each passing day sheds new light on her legacy. And the past doesn't rest. Recently, when an air defense missile struck Poland, it briefly looked like it might spark a world war. How is it possible to write a book in times like that. With all the noise.
"I have now arrived at the period of reflection," Merkel says. "There is less of the hamster wheel phenomenon."
Baumann writes something down in her notebook. Perhaps the words hamster wheel phenomenon.
As the autumn sun slowly sets, Merkel walks down to the two black Audis that are waiting to take her back into exile. To Berlin. Where, at some point, it will be decided whether the pupated chancellor will become a butterfly.
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