The audience at the Berliner Ensemble in the German capital was made up of fans and journalists. Many of the fans were journalists themselves and many of the journalists were fans. Particularly the man allowed to ask the former German leader questions, writer and journalist Alexander Osang. “She is and remains my chancellor,” he said before Angela Merkel came onto the stage, setting the tone for the occasion, which was almost like an audience. It was only logical henceforth that Merkel would direct the evening and that only she would decide what to reveal about herself and her decisions.
On a human level, she was generous: The former chancellor presented herself as an East German devoted to her home and gave an insight into how she has mastered the transition from active duty to retirement. She also talked about her need for privacy.
However, as soon as it came to politics, Merkel was still the “Teflon chancellor,” able to brush off criticism without it sticking. Of course, Russia’s war against Ukraine was the main focus of the evening — and the extent of her role. After all, during her 16 years in office, Merkel had a much larger influence on German foreign policy than all her foreign ministers combined.
As was to be expected, she joined the ranks of those condemning the Russian attack in the strongest possible terms. However, what was disappointing was that the ex-chancellor did not seem to have any doubts about her approach. Indeed, she seemed all the more intent on justifying her policies.
In essence, she argued that her strategy of economic rapprochement with Russia had “bought time” for Ukraine. It had allowed the country to reposition itself militarily and politically, after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Though this may be true, could Germany really not have done more for Ukraine? Merkel quickly made clear that there was no need for her to apologize. Though no-one had expected an apology, perhaps a modicum of self-reflection was called for?
Of course, it’s easy to look at a political era with hindsight. There is no doubt that Merkel never took any of her decisions lightly. However, there was little mention of the fact that perhaps some of these decisions were made more with the health of the German economy in mind than the security of Europe. And there was little critical questioning to follow up on this. It was also absent when Merkel described convincingly that she had understood Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s mindset in 2007 and said that it was clear to her already back then that he regarded Ukraine as the “geopolitical hostage of the West,” that for him the Cold War had never ended and the West was not building an appropriate security architecture.
Though this analysis appeared remarkably apt, Merkel seemed to be strangely uninvolved at this moment in the interview. One would have hoped that her interviewer would ask her how she had translated her insight into political action, or not.
But that would have put a damper on the evening, which was supposed to be an entertaining tribute to a former chancellor who was able to lead Germany through numerous crises.
It was never meant to be a serious examination of her policies. It soon became obvious that any criticism would be almost akin to lese majeste.
It seems that Germany will need more than six months to detach itself from its former chancellor.
This article was translated from German.
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