Merkel’s Legacy

As Germany prepares to head to the polls, the chancellor’s exhausted, Europe’s in shambles, and a neo-Nazi party is on the rise.

German Chancellor Angela Merke attends an election campaign event in Regensburg, Germany, on Monday.

Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images

This Sunday, German voters are expected to comfortably re-elect Angela Merkel as their Chancellor. But Merkel’s popularity in Germany should not overshadow how unsettled the continent’s politics remain. The German far-right is expected to garner its highest vote totals since the rise of Nazism, and the European project remains hotly contested, facing a number of challenges: Vladimir Putin, a refugee crisis, Brexit, and the aftershocks of the financial crash.

To discuss all this, I spoke by phone recently with William Drozdiak, the former foreign editor of the Washington Post and author of a new book, Fractured Continent: Europe’s Crisis and the Fate of the West. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the rise of the far-right in Germany, Merkel’s successes and failures as a bulwark against darker strains of European populism, and how the fraught history of Germany affects its role in Europe.

Isaac Chotiner: People tend to view Merkel as the only thing standing between western democracy and the abyss, but how much do you think the different crises facing Europe are actually the result of her actions, and German actions more broadly?

William Drozdiak: The fact is that she was left alone, basically, to solve all these problems with the absence of leadership from other European countries and even from the Obama administration. She’s dealing with the debt crisis. She singlehandedly had to negotiate the Greek situation with her finance ministers, and then Obama outsourced to her dealing with Putin on Ukraine. She had no support from the feckless leadership in France. She was just overwhelmed and literally exhausted when I saw her.

But the Germans did make big mistakes. I think they pressed too hard on austerity and so now the income gap between North and South in Europe is worse than ever. They did not have a coherent policy on Ukraine because a lot of Europeans, even though they went along with sanctions, were grumbling about all the lost trade and, indeed, even within Germany that was the case. On Brexit, they could have had a deal in which they could have talked David Cameron back from doing his referendum, but not enough was done to let him off the hook. A lot of these problems, I think, resulted from basically Merkel just being overwhelmed.

On refugees, she showed great moral and humanitarian courage, but she hadn’t thought through the consequences, and she didn’t have any support, or much to speak of, from other European leaders. So as a result, you had this huge influx of people coming into Germany, and the Eastern countries, like Poland and Hungary, refusing to take any refugees. Germany stuck with 1 million and now you have this right-wing, xenophobic backlash, which is fueling the rise of the neo-Nazi party, Alternative für Deutschland, which may get more than 10 percent in the election this Sunday.

There seems to be this weird situation where the Europeans don’t want America to be too involved, they resent German power, and yet no other countries step up. How do you think Merkel views having to take on this role?

The reason why Merkel was ambivalent about taking the reins and showing dominant, forceful leadership, is that Germans are very uncomfortable in wielding too much power. They know how much resentment that fuels with their neighbors, partly from the history and the legacy of the war. As you see now, Poland is raising the issue of war reparations with Germany, so that relationship is really going south. The Germans are very nervous about being too arrogant and bullying. They really shy away from the exercise of power and for 70 years, they’ve outsourced their security to the United States. Now there’s a sense of being adrift because, for the first time, they have an American president who treats Europe more as a commercial rival than a strategic ally. That’s why she says we have to take our destiny in our own hands, but Germans are reluctant to do that.

How do you understand Merkel’s refugee decision? What do you think drove it?

Her personal background plays an enormous role in this. She was raised by a Lutheran pastor who ran a disabled center, who drilled in her every day, “The most important thing you can do is to help people who are in need.”

Unless they’re Greek.

She woke up on this Saturday and she couldn’t reach other leaders and she saw the horrible scenes in the Budapest train station and she just said, “We have to let them in.” She opened the gates and let them come into Germany. Initially it was applauded by the German people. They were greeting the refugees as they arrived in the Munich train station etc. But then the backlash started setting in and saying, “Well, wait a minute. Where does all this end? Are we going to have a million people flooding in?” I think that the fact that she hadn’t worked out a strategy to deal with this was a big part of her problem.

Why hasn’t it hurt her more politically, even if it has helped the far-right?

Well, I think a lot of people admired her and respected her for doing that and showing such humanitarian courage, but they also started grumbling after a few months saying, “Hey, wait a minute. Hasn’t she thought through the consequences?” Then when it started being reflected in the polls, she started adopting a much stricter line on immigration, deporting those who were clearly economic refugees and only allowing those who suffered political persecution to stay. That basically helped her regain the momentum in the polls and regain control over her party, but there was a time there where a lot of people thought that she was going to be forced to the brink of resignation.

To broaden this out a little, where do you think Europe is today compared to where it was several years ago? We have a lot of new leaders, and we have Brexit.

Right, I think there’s a certain degree of complacency and even cautious optimism that has settled over Europe in recent months. There has been a positive economic recovery in many places, including Spain, over the last few months, and so people think, “Aha, the crisis is ending and Europe is coming out of this.” But I would argue that this is very fragile and could fall apart very quickly.

The political landscape is very fragmented. The negotiations with Britain are really going to turn ugly and poisonous. The North–South economic gap is worse than ever. The argument had been that a single European currency would create convergence. If anything, it’s done just the opposite. Then you have this political gap between the East and the West with Poland and Hungary cracking down on dissent, on the free press, on an independent judiciary, adopting what they say is an illiberal form of democracy, which is at odds with European Union values. And then on Oct. 1, let’s not forget, there’s an important vote on Catalonian separatism. If that is more than 50 percent, they said within 48 hours they’re going to declare an independent state and that will feed the separatist movements in Scotland and elsewhere.

Nobody is paying attention to this because they’ve all got North Korea on their minds, but I think this could blow up in a big way, particularly if there’s a surprise in the German election on Sunday. Half the people say, according to the polls, that they haven’t made up their minds. If the neo-Nazi party scores more than 10 percent, that will be a real shock because under the German system, they will then receive government financial support. If there are a continuing wave of terrorist attacks and problems with these refugees, it’s going to feed this—for the first time since Hitler, we [might have] a neo-Nazi party in the German Parliament. That’s kind of scary.

There was hope after Emmanuel Macron was elected in France that Germany would start to go easier on European countries as a reward for the French not choosing Marine Le Pen, and because, as the thinking went, Merkel would recognize that she needed to lighten up on the austerity to prevent this sort of rise in populism.

You started this conversation by saying Merkel was forced into this a little bit against her will, but do you think she has a sense of how Germany has helped cause these problems and why a somewhat new approach on economic issues on the continent is needed?

I think, first of all, this will be her last term. In a way, she is going to be using this to establish her legacy. She realizes that what has been driving her is that she wants Europe to move forward. The question will be whether she challenges people within her party and even her own voting constituency to say, “Look, in order to save Europe, we are going to have to change our policies dramatically.” Macron has sided, basically, with the other southern states who are saying, “If you’re going to save Europe from populist nationalism, you need to do everything you can to create jobs, especially for young people, and cast aside this austerity drive.”

The German view has been, well, we can’t. They have to engage in austerity to reform their economies, otherwise we’re just going to waste this money that we’re throwing at them. So there’s a lot of that sentiment in Germany. A lot of Germans, because it’s an aging population, say, “We’re trying to save for our retirement and meanwhile we see the Greeks still retire at the age of 55 and sail around the Aegean on their yachts, and here we have to work until 67.” So there’s a lot of resentment that has built up.

It’s going to be a real challenge after this election to see what Merkel does in terms of building her legacy, and she has said on repeated occasions, “I want to establish Europe on firmer ground.” If Macron fails, I think she realizes that this will bring back Le Pen or somebody even worse on the populist nationalist front. She told me that France’s weakness is one of Germany’s biggest problems.

What did you make of her?

She’s shy, but she has a very impish sense of humor in talking about other leaders such as Putin and even George W. Bush and others. She doesn’t say anything undiplomatic, but she loves to laugh. When I saw her, what struck me was just the sense of exhaustion that is weighing down on her after 12 years in power.

What did she say about Putin?

That he either continues to lie congenitally or just refuses to accept reality. She said that in a lot of the conversations she has with him, he just engages in this persistent lying. She would say, “Look, you have troops in Eastern Ukraine.” And he’d go, “Absolutely not.” She’d say, “We have proof.” Once she shows proof—“Here are pictures of Russian soldiers” etc.—he’d finally say, “Well, yes, maybe a little bit.” But that’s time and time again, she says, that he just lies systematically so you can’t trust him or depend on him in any way.