As the sun sets on her reign, Mutti's reputation is untarnished. Credit: TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP via Getty Images

September 27, 2021   5 mins

I would happily bet my house that by the time you read this article, about 73% of Germans will have voted for four parties, all of whom are pro-EU, pro-NATO, and able to form coalitions in any combination. The old Stalinist left and the neo-Nazi right, who will together have got around 18%, can shout as loudly as they want from the old East, which will be, as it always is, the only place where either gets a truly significant vote. So even if Angela Merkel’s own CDU isn’t the largest party any longer (and it will be much closer than recent polls suggested), she will have won.

How so? Because she has saved her one true love: the West. The real, European West, that is, not the “West” of wild, freebooting Ayn Rand-style fantasies which burst out when Communism fell (remember those “Ulster Scots” values which Anglosphere scribes so adored in the early 1990s? Remember Steve Bannon and his “we are all Leninists” ravings?). She understood what the West really means.

How could she not, with her life story? Unlike almost everyone else in East Germany, she was there not because of bad luck and barbed wire. Her father, a pastor, moved of his own free will from Hamburg to the East shortly after her birth in 1954, becoming a senior figure in the Lutheran Church there. This is less surprising than it sounds because the Lutherans, with their strict demarcation of worldly and spiritual realms (meaning that in practice they never seriously criticise the state) have been welcome helpmeets to rulers in eastern Germany ever since the Teutonic Knights embraced Luther, broke with Rome and founded their very own new state: Prussia.

The Wall went up when she was seven. She must have grown up knowing that she could have been a West German. As a distinctly talented young scientist working within the insane ideological bounds of Marxism-Leninism, she must have felt every day, directly, the effects of Papa Merkel’s deluded utopianism. At 35, she lived the triumph of the West not only as simple, literal freedom but also as mental freedom, at last, from the structural mendacity into which millennial ideas inevitably descend.

She swiftly embraced the CDU, that quintessentially western German party, directly descended from the Catholic Centre Party which had been founded specifically to oppose Bismarck’s Prussianisation of the West. It understands, and she understood, that the historical uniqueness of “the West” is not untrammelled, individual “freedom” but the principle that deals are cut and power shared between great institutions, neither of which will ever yield total domination to the other. This paradigm — the ultimate guarantee of freedom — goes back to 754AD, when Europe was rebooted from the Dark Ages in the great bargain of St Denis: the Frankish dynasty got the sanction of Rome, while the Church got worldly lands and Germanic muscle to defend it. Ever since, call it what you will — Church and State, King and Parliament, Checks and Balances — the principle stands against every heady fantasy, Left or Right, of some perfect society.

This is the key to Merkel’s instinct for seeking out the centre ground. She realised fast and early what all sane people eventually learn: that noisy idealism is not a virtue, but a curse, and that quiet, deal-making realism is not the absence of conviction, but its pure expression. No political lesson could be more different from the dire mix of grandstanding in the moment and backstabbing in the dark which our own Big Beasts learn in the gilded testosterone snake-pits of Eton and the Oxford Union.

Yes, she has been very lucky. It is almost comical now to recall the way that under Helmut Kohl, Germany was regularly written off by triumphant Anglosphere pundits as a dead weight on the European economy and even (declared The Economist in June 1999), “the sick man of Europe”. All that was changed by the Social Democratic/Green governments of 1998-2005, who modernised things in a thoroughly Blairite way (they even called their new, and far less generous, social security offices “Job Centres”, in English, by way of blatant homage).

And yes, she made breathtaking mistakes. Her 2011 decision to close all of Germany’s nuclear power stations in the wake of Fukushima was either a kneejerk reaction, or a cunning plan to win over Germany’s Green voters. The need to replace nuclear led her to keep filthy brown coal power stations open and to support the Nordstrom gas pipeline which feeds German industry’s maw directly from Russia. As a result, Germany is incredibly vulnerable to energy blackmail from Moscow, Putin’s regime has been mightily succoured, and the average German citizen now produces getting on for twice as much atmospheric carbon as the average Frenchman or Brit.

When she unilaterally decided in autumn 2015 to open Germany (and thereby, in practice, Europe) to mass immigration from the Middle East and elsewhere, one can only imagine that she was trying to recapture the moral high ground from the likes of Yanis Varoufakis, who had been telling the world that in the wake of the financial crash she was acting like some kind of economic Nazi (images of Merkel sporting a Hitler moustache were seen all over southern Europe and even in Ireland).

As the rest of Europe predictably failed to follow her high-minded, high-handed lead, Germany seemed for a while to be tottering on the edge of serious public discontent: just think back to 2016 and 2017, when gloomy liberals and delighted Trump-and-Brexit boosters were both intoning that the AfD was going to break out from its base in the old East Germany and tear into the CDU. Some in Merkel’s party itself were proclaiming that the only way to survive was to “close off the right flank” (die rechte Flanke schliessen) — i.e., adopt the AfD’s policies.

History must have been in the mood to make things pretty obvious for once, since it has given us the most perfect mathematical example of how, and how not, to deal with loud-mouthed populism. In 2017, the AfD won 12.6% of the national vote. That is, of course, exactly the same as Ukip won here in 2015. And look now at the tale of these two conservative parties.

The spineless David Cameron felt besieged by the people who eminent Tory predecessors had called “bastards” (John Major) and like “some demented Marxist sect” (Douglas Hurd) — and who he himself allegedly called “swivel-eyed loons”. So he rolled over and gave them the referendum he didn’t want himself, and which was the only way they would ever be able to enact their anti-EU, Anglosphere fantasies. He was blithely sure he would win, and hence become unchallengeable.

The stout Angela Merkel thought otherwise: I have twice been told by a German insider (I can’t name him, but he is undoubtedly of the status to have been the eyewitness he says he was) that at the 2015 G7 meeting at Schloss Elmau, Merkel, Cameron’s best friend in Europe, personally begged him not to hold his utterly needless referendum and “throw away 800 years of parliamentary rule”. But what? Have patience? See things quietly through? Make a rational, cross-party deal for what the vast majority of MPs on both sides agreed was the good of the country? Not he. If Angela Merkel had been Germany’s David Cameron, God alone knows where we would now be.

Instead, she stuck to her guns. She toughed it out. She refused point blank to trim her course in order to pick up AfD voters, or ever to countenance any form of coalition with the populist Right, even when siren voices urged it. The result is that the AfD, far from making any further advances into the old German West, is retreating even in its eastern fastnesses.

She may have made her mistakes, but when the healing sleep of time (as Goethe called it in Faust) has washed away her quotidian errors, she will be remembered as the leader who carried the CDU, not the other way around, and who saved the West in its hour of trial. And as she leaves the stage, irrespective of which coalition Germany ends up with, she will be able to say, like a German Mr Chips, “I thought I heard you — one of you — saying it was a pity Mutti never had any children 
 But I have, you know 
 I have 
 look, thousands of them – and all of them decent Western Centrists!”

Ave et vale, Angela Merkel, and thank God you were there when we needed you.

James Hawes’s The Shortest History of Germany is out in over 20 countries. The Shortest History of England is just out.