Chancellor Angela Merkel spent a decade amassing political capital. Now, with the refugee crisis showing no signs of abating, she has decided to spend it. With her legacy in the balance, she has finally found an issue to fight for. But why now?
On a Sunday evening in early January, Angela Merkel went to a piano concert by Antonio Acunto in the Konzerthaus on Berlin’s beautiful Gendarmenmarkt. The program included works from Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Schumann, but the chancellor didn’t just come for the music. It was also for a good cause and to show support. The concert was a benefit for the refugees. Her refugees.
Shortly before the concert began, Merkel saw an old acquaintance: Reverend Rainer Eppelmann. In 1990, Eppelmann was head of the Democratic Awakening, a party formed in East Germany soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Merkel was its spokesperson. The party was ultimately folded into the Christian Democratic Union, of which Merkel is now the head.
At the concert, Eppelmann told Merkel how courageous and wonderful he thought her refugee policies were. Given the situation in which Merkel is now in, Eppelmann said, he finds himself thinking often about his favorite quote from the former Czech president and writer Vaclav Havel. “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
The concert began and Merkel listened to a melancholic Chopin ballad in G-minor. When the intermission arrived, she jumped up from her chair and walked directly over to Eppelmann. She asked: “How did that quote about hope go again?”
It is completely unclear how the experiment will end that the German chancellor has forced upon the European Continent, upon her fellow citizens and, not least, upon her party. Her decision late last summer to open the German border to refugees transformed Merkel into a historic figure. It was the most consequential decision of her entire decade in office. The US newsmagazine Time named her Person of the Year and in the fall, she was widely considered to be in the running for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Since then, the mood has shifted, and not just in Germany. To prevent “a rebirth of 1930s-style political violence,” New York Times columnist Ross Douthat recently wrote, “Angela Merkel must go.”
Within Merkel’s conservatives, there are those who have begun envisioning a government without the party’s current leader. At the beginning of last week, Transportation Minister Alexander Dobrindt, a member of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), openly criticized Merkel, something that generally isn’t done. In the past, mutiny on the part of government-level ministers has been a sign that a chancellor may soon be forced out of office.
The Rough Draft of Merkel’s Downfall
The screenplay for Merkel’s downfall hasn’t yet been written, but an initial rough draft already exists. CSU head Horst Seehofer intends to heap pressure on Merkel for as long as it takes until she changes course. He isn’t trying to push her out of office, but if she doesn’t acquiesce, there are some in the conservative camp who could easily imagine Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble taking over the reins of government.
It hasn’t come that far yet, but a critical mass is slowly coalescing. In a letter to the chancellor last week, 44 conservative parliamentarians voiced their opposition to Merkel’s course. On Wednesday, Austria announced the introduction of a cap on refugees. The chancellor is becoming increasingly isolated.
As much as the decision to open the borders itself, what amazes many observers is the stubbornness with which Merkel has maintained her political course. Neither the terror attacks in Paris nor the sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve in Cologne — neither the indignation of furious German citizens nor the warnings from within her own party — has led Merkel to question her decision to keep Germany’s borders open. It seems as though Angela Merkel — à la Vaclav Havel — is convinced that her course of action makes sense. No matter how the situation turns out.
“The German people are going to riot. The German people are going to end up overthrowing that woman,” Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump predicted in mid-January. “I don’t know what the hell she is thinking.”
Trump isn’t the only one who has questions. Half the world is wondering what is motivating the German chancellor. What’s the answer? What’s driving Angela Merkel, a woman who gained power by virtue of her implacable pragmatism and who is now governing so unconditionally? Why has she thus far shown no serious indication that she might shift course on refugee policy despite the fact that her popularity ratings are plummeting and the foundations of her power are crumbling?
Merkel’s chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, has a beautiful office in the Chancellery with a view of Berlin’s central train station and of the government quarter. But the thick windows keep out the din of the city — such that the most conspicuous quality of the seat of government is the silence inside. Altmaier is the voice of Merkel’s refugee policy, even if, as the interview takes place, he is suffering from a terrible cold. From Merkel’s perspective, Altmaier explains, this is what the world looks like: In order to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe late last summer, she had little choice but to open the borders. Now, the task is that of preventing Europe from falling apart. Were Germany to now close its borders, it wouldn’t just mark a failure for Europe’s border-free travel regime known as Schengen. The refugee flow would also backup across the Balkans and would destabilize the fragile young democracies there.
A Chain of Political Necessities
Greece would become overrun with desperate refugees from Syria and Iraq while Jordan and Lebanon, which are already hosting almost 2 million refugees, could be pushed to the brink of collapse. The alternative is a deal with Turkey, the country through which almost all the refugees have to travel.
That, at least, is the official version. When speaking with Merkel’s people, her refugee policies come across as being entirely rational. Like a chain of political necessities.
One reason that Merkel has been able to stay in the Chancellery for so long is that she has never fought for a larger political project. She had no great political goals. She liked playing the role of crisis chancellor, similar to Helmut Schmidt before her. But now, at this late phase of her rule, she suddenly resembles an early Willy Brandt, the visionary.
It’s not that Merkel had no convictions when she moved into the Chancellery in 2005. Having grown up in East Germany, she believed in the power of freedom and of the markets. But because voters weren’t particularly enamored of her reform proposals in 2005, she dropped them. And early on, she hardly spoke at all about her East German origins or her faith.
That reticence was an element of her success, enabling her to avoid alienating western Germans, atheists and faithful Catholics. Over time, she rose to become the most popular of all politicians in Germany — and she remained there. Early last summer, she was way ahead in all of the polls and she had collected a significant amount of political capital. The question was if she would ever spend it.
On July 15, Merkel met a 13-year-old girl named Reem Sahwil at a town meeting in the northern German city of Rostock. The girl had fled to Germany from Lebanon four years before but she was now in danger of being deported. “It is really painful to see others really enjoying life when you can’t enjoy life yourself,” the girl said.
It was the old Merkel who answered. She didn’t want to seem heartless, but she also didn’t want to make any promises just because she had stumbled into an awkward situation. “(If we would say) you can all come from Africa, and you can all come — we couldn’t handle that,” Merkel stammered. Couldn’t handle it. Not long after Merkel finished, Reem began crying and Merkel awkwardly tried to comfort her. In the days that followed, Merkel was accused of being cold-hearted and she was widely criticized on the Internet.
A Lynch-Mob Atmosphere
At the end of August, she and her spokesman Steffen Seibert traveled to Heidenau. The town in Saxony is home to a former DIY store that had been transformed into a refugee shelter — and in front of which right-wing hooligans had rioted a few days earlier. As Merkel’s motorcade pulled up, she was received by a furiously whistling crowd. As she climbed back into her car an hour later, a woman yelled: “Cunt! Get back into your ugly car!” Even much later, Seibert was still talking about the lynch-mob atmosphere.
In the days that followed, something changed in the Chancellery. When Merkel gave her annual summer press conference on August 31, she no longer said that Germany is unable to take everybody. Neither did she speak of the risk of being overwhelmed, like she had in Rostock. “Germany is a strong country,” Merkel said. “The motivation with which we should approach these things has to be: We have handled so much. We can handle it!”
Merkel had decided to fight for an issue. She had saved for so long and carefully protected her power — now she was intent on spending her political capital. It was only then that the Germans began getting to know the real Angela Merkel.
On Sept. 4, she opened up the border to the refugees trapped in Hungary. Later, she said that she had watched on television as people from Syria had gathered in the Keleti train station in Budapest and were then prevented from continuing their journey. She found it outrageous. Merkel decided to allow the refugees to come to Germany. Three days later, she said she was “a bit proud of our country.”
From then on, the numbers of refugees coming to Germany began to climb rapidly. Soon, it was 10,000 per day — and as the influx grew, so too did the number of Merkel’s critics. Bavarian Governor Seehofer said that Merkel had made a mistake that would affect Germany for a long time to come. It was a sentence that helped transform the refugee issue into a power struggle. Until then, Merkel had always been flexible. She used to be in favor of general conscription, and then she got rid of it. She was against shutting down Germany’s nuclear power plants, and then she was in favor. “But she isn’t flexible when she is under pressure,” says one of her confidants. “Perhaps that is her greatest blemish.”
On Oct. 6, she was sitting in a plane bringing her back to Berlin from a trip to India. She could certainly have used a bit of relaxation, but Merkel wanted to explain herself. She could feel that the questions were becoming more pressing and her answers less convincing.
Everything Was Connected
She had a paper brought to her from the cockpit showing the plane’s route from Bangalore to Berlin and, surrounded by reporters, her finger wandered across the map, pointing at Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey and Germany. For her, it was more than just a piece of paper, it was confirmation of her policies: a clear indication that Germany could no longer simply isolate itself. To Merkel, it showed that everything was connected to everything else.
The Germans may wish for a time prior to the refugee crisis, but that is a wish she cannot fulfill, Merkel said. Of course she could close the borders, but then masses of people would accumulate in front of the barbed wire. The images would be ugly. Germans, she said, can’t even stand it when someone is forced to spend the night outside.
She, though, wanted to combat the causes of the refugee crisis at the roots and cooperate with Turkey, Merkel said. As long as she was leading, Germany would not become a country that intentionally chased away people in need. “I will not become involved in a competition for who can treat the refugees the worst,” she said. It is a sentence full of pride, and one with a tiny bit of defiance directed at Seehofer as well.
One day later, in an appearance on a popular prime-time political talk show moderated by Anne Will, she repeated her message from the airplane almost word for word. Merkel, for whom almost nothing is less appealing than being forced to talk on television, smiled often during that talk show. On many other issues, you can see by the way she speaks that she doesn’t really care about what she’s saying. But on this issue, it is completely different. “She was more passionate than usual,” says Will, who has interviewed Merkel several times, in hindsight. During the show, Will says, she often thought to herself: “She seems looser, more unfettered in her choice of words. She seemed at peace with herself, almost gleeful. That was new.”
Merkel, of course, also saw the refugee crisis in the light of realpolitik. She has long pursued the goal of stealing centrist voters away from the center-left Social Democrats (SPD). The difficulties the SPD has had in recent years are also a product of Merkel’s active involvement in almost all issues near and dear to the left. The CDU has long pursued the goal of ensuring that no party could establish itself to its right on the political spectrum. But, says a close confidant only half joking, “Merkel is the first CDU leader who has pursued the goal of ensuring that no party to the left of the CDU can establish itself.”
Yet if it had only been about tactics, Merkel would have abandoned her approach long ago, at the latest when the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) began rising in the polls and her own popularity figures began dropping. There must be a different, more personal motivation, for her unwillingness to change course.
Building a Fence
At the end of October, she went to a summit in Brussels involving the countries along the Balkan Route, the trail used by most refugees to get to Germany. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who built a barbed wire fence around his country to keep out the migrants, was also there. He saw, and enjoyed, seeing Merkel in a fix. He took the floor and said: “It is only a matter of time before Germany builds a fence. Then I’ll have the Europe that I believe is right.”
Merkel said nothing at first, a person present at the meeting relates. Only later, after a couple other heads of government had their say, did Merkel turn to Orbán and say: “I lived behind a fence for too long for me to now wish for those times to return.” Merkel, the refugee crisis has made clear, has found the courage to justify her politics with her own biography. She no longer wants to be the woman without a face.
“It is an astounding late-life friendship,” Klaus von Dohnanyi, the Social Democrat and former Hamburg mayor, says of his relationship with Angela Merkel. They meet regularly, usually together with their spouses, and only rarely talk politics. More often, they chat about concerts they have been to recently, visits to the theater and the natural sciences.
Dohnanyi knew Merkel’s parents and he believes that her Christian roots are very apparent in her approach to the refugee crisis. “She is the daughter of a socialist pastor. And her mother was an extremely devout woman. Such things are deep within you, they don’t just disappear,” he says. The Kasner family (Merkel is the name of the chancellor’s first husband) adhered to a practical form of theology that involved helping the poor, sick and disadvantaged, Dohnanyi says.
Merkel grew up with the tenet that, if a stranger is standing in the rain before your door, you let him in and help, he continues. “And when you let them in, you don’t grimace,” Dohnanyi says. “Christians don’t do that.” Merkel herself recently said something similar. “We hold speeches on Sundays and we talk about values. I am the chair of a Christian political party. And then people come to us from 2,000 kilometers away and then you’re supposed to say: You can’t show a friendly face here anymore?”
Pastor Eppelmann is likewise convinced that Merkel’s approach to the refugee crisis is deeply rooted in her past. “She stands on a solid foundation that was poured in her childhood and youth.” He also points out that her childhood home was not a normal Protestant parsonage, rather it was a church-run home for people with disabilities. Angela Kasner grew up surrounded by disabled people who needed to be cared for. “She breathed in empathy like air and oxygen,” says Eppelmann.
Later, Eppelmann goes on, Merkel also experienced what it is like to be pushed around by a regime. She initially was not granted a slot at university despite being best in her class. “Such an experience can break a person,” Eppelmann says. As such, Merkel can understand what it must be like for people fleeing Islamic State or the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria.
The Protestant Parsonage
The most important element, though, was the evangelical parsonage, emphasizes Eppelmann, who also worked as a pastor in East Germany. One “becomes aware of a certain ethical standards regarding how life should be led.” That includes that one shouldn’t value oneself more than other people, no matter where they come from, Eppelmann says.
Every day, Jesus and God were discussed in the Kasner household, Eppelmann continues. The daily message was: “Love thy neighbor as yourself. Not just German people. God loves everybody.” You should compare the Protestant Church’s statement on the refugee crisis with Merkel’s words, Eppelmann suggests. “They are virtually identical.”
When Merkel spoke to the CDU party convention in the middle of December, her speech was indeed reminiscent of a sermon. She recalled significant CDU achievements from the past, such as binding Germany to the West and reunification, which former chancellors Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl had pushed through against opposition and doubt. Then she presented her own policies as the heir to these miracles of Christian Democracy.
“The founding of the CDU was in reality an outrageous idea,” she said. “A party that finds its foundation in C, in the God-given dignity of each individual person. That means that today, it isn’t a mass of people that is coming to us. It means they are individuals.” When she stopped speaking after an hour, even the doubters and skeptics applauded her speech. For nine full minutes. Only one member of the audience seemed unimpressed: Wolfgang Schäuble, Merkel’s finance minister.
Schäuble, despite the sweater thrown over his shirt, is a bit chilly. It is the end of November and Schäuble spent four hours that morning in parliament, where it is always a bit drafty. But he hadn’t wanted to leave early. Merkel was delivering her speech on the Chancellery budget and Schäuble didn’t want it to look once again as though he wanted nothing to do with her policies.
Only a few days earlier, Schäuble had compared the chancellor to a clumsy skier who triggers an avalanche on a steep slope. It was an image that provided confirmation to those who blame Merkel for the flood of refugees arriving in Europe. In the papers, there were stories claiming that Schäuble was prepared to take over for Merkel if necessary. But is that accurate?
German conservatives believe that only Schäuble would be able to fill Merkel’s shoes. He was chief of staff in the Chancellery back when Merkel was still working as a scientist at East Germany’s Academy of Sciences. He has also served as interior minister, CDU head and CDU floor leader in parliament. Now, at age 73, he embodies the hopes of those who would like to see the back of Merkel.
Searching for a Cap
Schäuble believes Merkel was right to open up Germany’s borders to refugees stranded in Hungary on that night in early September. But he would like to have seen an indication from her at the same time that Germany cannot continue accepting refugees without limits.
In mid-September, he encouraged Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière to demand that a system be created whereby Europe would accept a certain number of refugees — as a way to cap the numbers coming to Germany. De Maizière took his advice and made the proposal in the form of an interview with DER SPIEGEL that appeared on Sept. 19.
It didn’t take long, however, for both SPD head and Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert to distance themselves from de Maizière’s proposal, much to Schäuble’s chagrin. Not long later, Schäuble had a meeting with Merkel in the Chancellery. You can’t just leave de Maizière fluttering in the wind, he complained. Merkel responded that Seibert had no other choice because the SPD, Merkel’s junior coalition partner, would not have gone along with de Maizière’s proposal. But SPD voters also want to see a reduction in the number of refugees coming to Germany, which is why Gabriel would ultimately come around, Schäuble insisted. “They wouldn’t stick to their rejection for even three days,” he said.
In recent years, Schäuble has developed an elder-statesmanlike aura, but when it comes to domestic policy, he was long a hardliner. He believes that Merkel pays too little attention to the sensitivities of the right wing. Had it been up to him, he would have drastically cut benefits available to asylum-seekers while demanding that they pay for at least part of their German lessons. Schäuble is uninterested in the fact that Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court ruled a few years ago that the state cannot simply continue cutting asylum-seeker benefits. “I’ll throw out any constitutional consultant who says such a thing,” he growled to his people.
Schäuble has perfected the art of playing the dissident role without openly contradicting the chancellor. He is a loyalist and a rebel at the same time — which helps explain his popularity and the fact that he has passed up Merkel in the opinion polls. When he was asked by the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper a few days ago whether he follows Merkel in the refugee crisis out of conviction or out of loyalty, he responded: “You can’t ask such a question to an intelligent person.” It was another typical Schäuble sentence that allows for a number of different interpretations. Of all senior politicians in Berlin, it is Schäuble who is most likely to play Brutus.
Not long after comparing Merkel to a skier who triggered an avalanche, Schäuble called the chancellor to apologize. But as he often does, he threw in a bit of devilish humor. “Comparing you to a skier was wrong, that hardly fits you,” he said. One has to remember that two years ago Merkel broke her pelvis while cross-country skiing despite her extremely slow pace. One can definitely not imagine her powder skiing on a steep slope.
But how far will he go? Merkel’s people comfort themselves with the fact that Schäuble has never before risked an open rebellion. He didn’t attempt to topple Helmut Kohl when the chancellor refused to make way for a younger generation of CDU politicians in the 1990s. And when Merkel kept Greece in the euro zone against his will, he also declined to revolt.
Yet even today, it is difficult for Schäuble to accept his position as number two in the party behind Merkel. It was Schäuble, after all, who promoted Merkel to the position of CDU general secretary back in 1998, only to see her replace him as party chair after he stumbled over the same donation scandal that has tainted Kohl’s legacy. In moments of clarity, it is clear to him that he is actually too old to take over the Chancellery. On the other hand, though, wasn’t Adenauer also 73 when he became chancellor?
Ultimately, everything depends on CSU head Horst Seehofer. Like Schäuble, his political view is generally a coldly rational one, but at times he too sees the world through the lens of past political affronts, the unavoidable product of a long career in the public eye. Recently, Seehofer has been issuing new threats and ultimatums on a weekly basis. He has the reputation of being a flip-flopper, but in the refugee crisis, he has pursued the same strategy from the very beginning. It is a strategy based on numbers: Germany can accept refugees, but a million each year is too many. No chancellor can hold out long against such an influx, Seehofer believes.
“When the situation drifts completely out of control, it will no longer be possible to restrain the political mood in the country.” Seehofer uttered that sentence on Nov. 3, 2015. It was a Tuesday and Seehofer was in the Bavarian representation in Berlin. He had spent the previous weekend in the capital for meetings on the refugee crisis.
One of those meetings was a 10-hour marathon with Merkel in the Chancellery, along with Chief of Staff Altmaier, conservative floor leader Volker Kauder and Gerda Hasselfeldt, who is head of the group of CSU federal parliamentarians from Bavaria. The Bavarians were trying to convince the others of the necessity of capping the number of refugees coming to Germany, but Merkel and Altmaier were having none of it. In the end, they agreed that the number of refugees coming to Germany had to drop. Merkel herself wrote down the decisive sentence.
“The chancellor herself retrieved the paper. It was a formulation marathon,” Seehofer said afterwards. “At the moment we are very pleased with the paper,” he added with a crooked smile. The formulation represented his first small victory in the battle with Merkel. For Seehofer, the struggle isn’t just about refugee numbers. It is also about the future of the CSU, which has always derived its disproportionate power from the fact that it consistently wins absolute majorities in Bavarian state elections. “The CDU can afford it if its support slides below 40 percent. But for us, it is existential,” Seehofer says.
From Seehofer’s perspective, Merkel committed her cardinal sin when she opened the doors to the refugees trapped in Hungary. That night, she tried to reach Seehofer by mobile phone. But he was sleeping and didn’t answer — at least according to his version of events. When she finally got through to him the next morning, she knew the precise time she had tried to reach him the night before. It sounded as though she had a bad conscience.
‘A Very Receptive Country’
“We won’t be able to handle it,” Seehofer said of the number of refugees now making their way to Germany.
“I’m saddened to hear you say that,” Merkel responded.
Looking back, Seehofer says the chancellor made a huge mistake despite having the best intentions. From his perspective, it would still have been possible to impose order on the situation later. One could have declared that the opening of the border was a humanitarian exception. But when Merkel defended her decision at a press conference on Sept. 7 with Vice Chancellor Gabriel, she said something different. “Germany is a receptive country,” she said.
Seehofer has a theory about dealing with political mistakes: Problems are not the consequence of erroneous decisions, but of the inability to rapidly correct them. “Often, politicians are doomed by the beta mistakes,” he says. It becomes particularly problematic, he says, when the initial mistake is justified with a political philosophy. For Seehofer, Merkel’s fatal philosophy her idea of a Wilkommenskultur, of welcoming the refugees.
He says he doesn’t think Merkel consciously intended to put her position at risk. “She is of an age when you no longer give up power willingly. She might cook for her husband every now and then, but politics is her life,” Seehofer says. The beginning of the end for every chancellor, he says, is when the distance to the party’s grassroots begins to grow. Helmut Schmidt fell when he agreed to allow NATO to station nuclear missiles in West Germany, he notes, and Gerhard Schröder fell when he cut unemployment and retirement benefits.
Merkel, he continues, is certainly able to correct her mistakes. He leans back and thinks back to 2004, a time when conservatives in Germany were bickering about far-reaching reform plans — plans that Seehofer felt were neo-liberal aberrations. When Merkel came within a hair’s breadth of losing the 2005 election, she simply discarded her reform plans. “There was no official funeral,” Seehofer says. Were Merkel to now correct her course in the refugee crisis, Seehofer says she wouldn’t admit it. “She would never say that it had been wrong.”
It may be that Merkel never admits to making mistakes. But it is more likely that she is convinced she is doing the right thing. And that, in part, has to do with people like Hassan Alasad. He’s wearing a dark blue sweater-vest over a light blue shirt and sitting in a shelter in northwest Berlin. Two mobile phones are lying in front of him. He takes one of them and begins swiping through photos. Of course he still has it: He will always have it with him, for his entire life.
The photo, which transformed the Syrian refugee into a symbol, shows him next to the chancellor smiling into the mobile phone camera. It is perhaps the most famous selfie of 2015 and it was quickly shared around the world. It became symbolic of Germany’s efforts to welcome the refugees — efforts that are now synonymous with Merkel’s name and that have led her to the low point of her political career.
‘An Amazing Feeling’
It was Sept. 10 when Merkel visited the shelter, where Alasad still lives. She seemed so friendly, so approachable, he now says, that he spontaneously asked her for a selfie. Back home, Alasad explains, it was impossible to ever approach those in power. In 12 years, he never even shook hands with the mayor of his own hometown. “Then, I had only been in Germany for just a couple of days and the chancellor comes by in person to greet us.” Alasad shakes his head and laughs. “That was an amazing feeling.”
Friends from around the world called him after the photo began to go viral: from Dubai, from Belgrade and even from Afghanistan. It was printed in countless newspapers and Internet sites. He saved almost all of them in his mobile phone.
“I thought Germany was a paradise,” Alasad says. “The most orderly country in the world. A country with structures.” His vision of Germany is everything that his homeland doesn’t have. Before bombs destroyed his office and warehouse, Hassan Alasad was a businessman. He didn’t want to leave Syria, but he felt useless there, a feeling he had had for quite some time. When he and his brother went to a lake one day and airplanes dropped bombs that ripped apart friends and acquaintances, they decided to leave Syria.
On Jan. 5, Merkel was in the lobby of the Chancellery to listen to the Sternsinger children’s choir as she does every year in early January. She sang along with the boys and girls to a Biblical song called “We Saw His Star in the East.” At one point, it looked almost as though Merkel had to wipe away a tear from the corner of her eye.
Then she held a brief address. She noted that people now see the Sternsinger, who go from house to house singing carols on the Epiphany, as cultural heritage. But in actuality, she went on, it is a Christian tradition. The motto of the Sternsinger is respect, and respect is also anchored in the German constitution, where it says that human dignity is inviolable, she said. But that doesn’t just apply to Germans and Europeans. “Rather it also applies to all people — to every person as God’s creature.” Her approach to the refugees, it seemed, hadn’t changed with the New Year.
Still, since that November day she spent with Seehofer in the Chancellery, the situation has become more acute almost by the day. The number of refugees arriving in Germany has dropped slightly, but that could change again soon once winter storms subside. Seehofer has continued steering his party into a conflict with Merkel and since the sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, the hate felt in broad swaths of the populace for Merkel’s refugee policies has only intensified.
No Mood to Admit Defeat
“We have to continually urge each other on so that we can change things for the good,” Merkel told the Sternsinger. It was a touching sentence. Merkel is doing her best to fight against the growing numbers, particularly since Cologne, of those who would like to see her fail — and against the increasingly sneering sentiment that her approach was a naive attempt to make the world more humane.
Her confidants these days are in no mood to admit defeat. At most, they will own up to minor mistakes: the tweet sent out by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees on August 25, for example, which gave the impression that Germany was opening its doors to all Syrian refugees. But it is obvious to all that Merkel has lost control of refugee policy. There is a discrepancy between that which she feels is right and the side effects these policies are having on her country. It seems as though she is playing for time, but the game doesn’t look to be turning in her favor.
Angela Merkel wanted to give Germany a friendly, humanitarian face. And it worked for a few weeks. But now, the German face has become a grimace. It is no longer the unburdened, smiling face of Merkel, but that of the grim Pegida marchers and AfD populists. In fact, AfD has ridden its refugee opposition to unprecedented opinion poll highs of over 10 percent in recent surveys.
Merkel is disappointed that her party and the German people ultimately declined to follow her lead. But she herself failed to link her message of welcome together with a solid plan for at least halfway controlling the influx of refugees. That is ultimately what caused the mood in Germany to shift, what triggered opposition in the rest of Europe and what propelled the right-wing populists to unprecedented heights. That is also on Merkel.
The Greatest Surprise of All
Even Hassan Alasad, Merkel’s selfie partner, now has a different image of Germany than he did four months ago. Although there is nothing that would get in the way of him being officially recognized as a refugee — which would allow him to work — he still hasn’t received his papers. Each week, he stands in line in front of the relevant office, but thus far his efforts have been in vain. The officials have no time for him and are completely overwhelmed. Were Merkel to drop by for another visit, he says he would ask her what’s wrong in her country.
It could still be that Merkel will find her way back to her old pragmatism and will pursue the Plan B of turning back most refugees at the Slovenian border. Such a plan would allow the continuation of border-free travel in the Schengen Zone, but it would mean that people would be stranded in the Balkans or in Greece — and Germany would contribute to Europe showing its ugly face.
“I would feel terribly sorry for her as a person if she were to get into a situation where she was forced to abandon her convictions and her past,” says Eppelmann. “But if it came to that, she would step down first.”
Among all of the surprises that Merkel has sprung on the Germans in the past several months, that would be the greatest one of all.