What Angela Merkel Left Behind

Last Wednesday, at about noon local time in Germany, the question of who the most powerful woman in the world is became harder to answer. Until then, the easy response was Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany. But, that afternoon, Olaf Scholz, of the Social Democratic Party, was sworn in as Chancellor, and Merkel, of the Christian Democratic Union, who had held the job for a little more than sixteen years, began her life as a retired politician. She didn’t lose the last election, which was held in late September (it’s taken since then for Scholz, a former mayor of Hamburg, to form a governing coalition); she didn’t run at all. On Wednesday, she watched from the visitors’ gallery as members of the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament, cast their votes for Scholz. Afterward, during a brief exchange in which Merkel formally handed over occupancy of the chancellery offices to Scholz, she wished him good luck, and he gave her a bouquet of flowers. Merkel, the first woman to hold the office, is also the first postwar Chancellor to leave the office on her own terms, neither resigning under pressure nor leaving in defeat. That is a rare kind of power, too.

Merkel wasn’t only a spectator in the transition; she used the occasion to deliver statements both symbolic and explicit. Last week, she was honored with a ceremony known as a Großer Zapfenstreich, a marching-band military salute and presentation of arms. It is held after dark and involves soldiers, in formation, carrying torches. Bettina Schausten, who was anchoring coverage of the ceremony for ZDF, a public-television broadcaster, noted that the Großer Zapfenstreich has its roots in the sixteenth century, when something like it was used as a sort of last call to tell soldiers to stop drinking and go to bed. It has been part of Germany’s postwar democratic tradition, used to honor departing Chancellors and ministers of defense. Still, Schausten observed, the torch aesthetics might have “odd” and “false associations” for some—Merkel’s ceremony was held in the courtyard of the Bendlerblock, which was used by the Wehrmacht during the Second World War and now houses both the Ministry of Defense and a memorial to the German resistance to the Nazis. “Sort of shows the burden of history, of course,” Schausten said.

Before the torches came out, though, Merkel, wearing a simple black coat, spoke about the things other than festive rituals that sustain a democracy. She praised health-care workers, and noted that the pandemic has been a demonstration of how important trust is to politics—“and how fragile it can be.” She spoke about the value of dialogue and tolerance and the danger of conspiracy theories and pessimism. She thanked her colleagues, many of whom were seated, masked, in the stands, along with Scholz. He may have been a competitor, but he was a colleague, too: Merkel’s C.D.U. governed in coalition with the S.P.D., and Scholz served as her Vice-Chancellor and finance minister. (German politics has its extremes, most troublingly the far-right Alternative for Germany, but its center is broad.) Joachim Sauer, Merkel’s husband, was also in the stands….

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