It is almost impossible to convey the significance of Angela Merkel's announcement that she will not run again for the chancellorship of Germany.
This is true for any number of reasons. The first is simply that she has been in power far longer than any other Western leader. In 2005, when Merkel became Germany's first female chancellor at the head of her seeming indestructible grand coalition, Barack Obama was a first-term senator from Illinois; in 2018, she is still chancellor while he is retired from politics, a Netflix pitchman. At the beginning of Merkel's chancellorship, Xi Jinping was an obscure regional party secretary; Theresa May, the shadow secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport with the opposition Conservative Party; Donald Trump, a reality television star who pretended to fire people on NBC. The only statesman with whom she can reasonably be compared, apart from impuissant constitutional monarchs, is Vladimir Putin. If she is allowed to complete her term, she will be among the longest-serving elected heads of government in modern history.
I cannot be the only person who somehow never expected Merkel to leave high office. Yes, her Christian Democratic Party has been losing its once astonishing share of the vote for years now. Yes, there has been a broad populist realignment in German politics, and indeed European politics generally, which has been a kiss of death for the established parties of the center, both right and left. But more so than any other democratic head of state in our time, she has always given the impression of being an unstoppable figure in politics, an almost elemental force. She has clawed her way out of more ambushes from intra-party opponents than observers can count.
Merkel's toughness and cunning defy description. She is smart in the hard way that only the leaders of Leninist student groups in the old GDR could be. We will probably never know the extent of her activity on behalf of communist causes, about which she has spoken equivocally. It is interesting, too, that she did not join the crowds who celebrated the fall of the hated wall in Berlin. But it is clear that she survived and even flourished after a fashion as an academic researcher while seemingly refusing to cooperate with the all-powerful Stasi.
With this extraordinary force of will she rose from Karl Marx University at Leipzig to the highest ranks of the post-1989 Democratic Awakening movement. A year later she was elected to the Bundestag. She quickly became the favored protégée of that stern old Cold Warrior Helmut Kohl, who called her "mein Mädchen" (roughly, "my daughter"). Within a decade she was leader of the opposition.
No other figure in German politics born since the conclusion of the Second World War has enjoyed anything like Merkel's influence, and it could be argued that her ultimate significance as architect of the post-9/11 European order will be greater than that of any modern politician in her country save Konrad Adenhauer, a man born at the zenith of the Hohenzollerns.
For more than a decade Merkel has controlled the destiny of Europe. The continent in the period from the beginning of the Iraq war until now has been made in her personal image. The European Union began as many things, but in practice it has meant what Peter Hitchens has called "the continuation of Germany by other means," which is to say, the modern German desire, born long ago in the forge of Prussian ambition, to dominate Europe. It was the dream of the Kaiser, of Bismarck, of Frederick the Great, of the Hohenstaufen emperors. Now, like the Elephant King in Babar eating the fatal mushroom, she has met her untimely end. What one thinks of her achievement — the spoliation of Greece, the intransigence towards Britain, the too-clever-by-half approach to the immigration crisis, the pessimism about the viability of the welfare state — is beside the point. I can think of no living politician whose memoirs I would be more interested in reading.
But there is another dream with which Merkel's legacy intersects, one that demands a less neutral assessment. Whatever has become of it, the post-war Christian democratic movement in Europe was a great dream of peace, prosperity, and humanity, a dream that free men dreamed together. For a period that now appears all too brief it appeared that the aspirations of Goethe, of Schiller and the young Wordsworth, of Beethoven and Wagner, of all the great poets and artists and musicians of modern Europe had been realized, and of Cardinal Ottaviani and St. John XXIII and Otto von Habsburg. Out of the ashes of the most brutal and far-ranging conflict into which the world had ever been drawn, there rose a new order that would be not only just but beautiful. It was this moderate anti-Communist consensus, extendeding beyond Europe to every post-war American presidency until that of Jimmy Carter, which made not only the extraordinary prosperity of the last half century possible. That consensus is now as dead as the enemy whose ultimate destruction was its greatest organizing principle.
Merkel's departure signals the end not only of the immediate post-Cold War era in German politics but the final twilight of the old humane assumptions about the mixed economy, the welfare state, and Christian values that she and her party embodied, however imperfectly, in a world that has moved past them. It is difficult to say what will follow her, but if the secular nationalist movements waxing in influence across the continent are any indication, I think a sense of foreboding is justified. Looking at Europe now, it is hard not to be reminded of those immortal words of Wilhelm II contemplating the ruin of Germany from his exile, who saw "a nation of poets and musicians, of artists and soldiers" becoming "a nation of hysterics and hermits, engulfed in a mob and led by a thousand liars or fanatics."
This, in fact, is how I like to imagine Merkel herself in 10 or 15 years living a quiet retirement, like the Kaiser in the last years of his exile at Doorn, muttering the slogans of yesteryear. It is certainly a more dignified prospect than Clintonian stadium tours.