Middle Israel: Germany's tragic heroine

Once hailed as a United Europe’s George Washington, Angela Merkel now emerges as the admiral atop its sinking Titanic.

GERMAN Chancellor Angela Merkel on a sinking ship? (photo credit: REUTERS)
GERMAN Chancellor Angela Merkel on a sinking ship?
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Angela Merkel was taking her weekly sauna this side of Berlin when the Wall came tumbling down, which is why by the time she arrived there the multitude’s jeering, cheering and hammering had faded, as thousands had already poured from east to west, while history marched from west to east.
History could wait because the 35-year-old chemist would emerge as the dawning era’s queen, much the way she now emerges as the tragic heroine of the same era’s unfolding dusk.
Merkel did not have to rush to the Wall, because history would now make way for the pastor’s daughter, who was old enough to have acquired the departing era’s Marxist schooling and Russian tongue, but was also young enough to climb the new era’s cresting wave.
No, she was no Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, or Andrei Sakharov. She did not agitate, she was never arrested, and journalists didn’t know her name.
She was younger than the East Bloc’s iconic dissidents, just as she was older than most of the 300,000 East Germans who flocked to Bruce Springsteen’s East Berlin concert in 1988, where they responded with delirium when he told them “one day all the barriers will be torn down.”
Ensconced in her lab at the Academy of Sciences, there was little heroic about Merkel’s life in East Germany other than her refusal to become a secret police informant in turn for a professorship, a decision she cleverly excused by claiming “I don’t know how to keep a secret.”
Merkel’s own secret was a remarkable ability to emerge in the right place at the right time.
She knew to be there when East Germany’s first free elections landed her a seat in its last parliament; she knew to be there when West German party bosses searched for Eastern loyalists; she knew to emerge from those chaotic circumstances a protégée of chancellor Helmut Kohl, and a 37-year-old minister in the reunited Germany’s first government.
Having journeyed in 15 months from that East Berlin sauna to Bonn’s corridors of power, Merkel embodied the new era’s optimism and opportunities. By the time she was elected leader of the Christian Democrats, following Kohl’s electoral defeat in 1998, her East German origin was already a nonissue.
Two decades on, and after having been at her country’s helm for more years than Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill, and Franklin Roosevelt’s incumbencies, Merkel loomed tall as the most prominent European leader and arguably the most powerful woman in history.
Understandably, then, recalling her multiple electoral victories, the prosperity over which she presided, and the central role she played in forging Europe’s responses to economic meltdown in Greece, military crisis in Ukraine, and humanitarian catastrophe in the Mediterranean, many assumed the woman they called the Iron Chancellor shaped her era.
She didn’t.
THE GREAT debate concerning the role of the individual in history – pitting historian Thomas Carlyle, who thought that history is made by its heroes, against novelist Leo Tolstoy, who thought that even Napoleon was but a pawn in predestined events – does not even begin in the case of Angela Merkel.
Merkel shaped neither the era that catapulted her to political stardom, nor the one that is now fomenting her demise.
To the departing age of freedom, fraternity and optimism, she was neither an oracle like John Paul II nor an inspiration like Natan Sharansky, and in the unfolding age of sacro egoismo she is no rhetorical match for its demagogues’ xenophobia, bigotry and wrath.
Merkel played no role in the creation of the European Union she has fought to preserve, she played no role in manufacturing the European currency she fought to defend, and she played no role in dissolving the Soviet imperium whose Russian reincarnation she struggled to prevent.
Instead, Merkel inherited other people’s ideas, the ones she did her best to uphold, only to see them washed away by a social tsunami that mercilessly undid her reputation as a shaper of history.
The idea that inspired Merkel’s statecraft was universalism; the emotion that drove her politics was post-nationalism; and the platform that these dictated was regionalism – the quest to diminish ethnic, religious and geographic borders, and replace them with vast, transnational alternatives.
Raised in a priest’s home while Nazism’s carnage was still visible outside, Merkel knew nationalism’s dangers intimately. Marching through the Wall the night it fell, she truly believed in the rise of a post-national, humanistic, fraternal world.
It was this naïveté that led Merkel to make her career’s fatal mistake, when she opened her country’s door to an influx of Middle Eastern immigrants whom too many of her citizens would soon want out.
Three years on, like Napoleon exiting Moscow, the chancellor is already on the retreat, and defeat is but a matter of time.
MERKEL’S DEAL last week with her European colleagues to establish “control centers” that will deflect illegal migrants, and this week’s near collapse of her already fragile government, after her interior minister demanded harsher anti-immigrant policies, are but the beginning.
With millions of Germans refusing to swallow the immigrants Merkel has shoved down their throat, and with the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany steadily gaining followers while Merkel’s popularity tanks, history’s new direction is clear.
With Britain abandoning the EU, Greece cracking its currency, Poland hounding judges and Hungary criminalizing aid to asylum-seekers, the woman who was once hailed as a United Europe’s George Washington emerges as the admiral atop its sinking Titanic.
Like us Middle Israelis, who sought a New Middle East only to be defeated by forces of reaction, Merkel was humbled by historic forces that defied her convictions and overpowered her resolve.
And so, Merkel is now to the European idea what her previous life’s Antichrist, East German leader Erich Honecker, was in his own twilight to the country he saw unravel, and to the idea that made it tick: a relic from a vanishing era, and a believer in a fallen faith.