Whenever you question the identity of a thing or person, the so-called duck test comes in handy. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s most likely a duck.
But what if something, or better someone, looks like Angela Merkel, walks like Angela Merkel, even wears Angela Merkel’s jacket – but doesn’t sound like Angela Merkel?
Instead, she makes statements of surprising clarity. Like she did on Vladimir Putin: “Russia’s actions question the European peace order and breache international law.”
Or on the anti-Islam Pegida demonstrators, when she implored: “Don’t follow those who rally for it.” Too often, she said, “cold, irreconcilability, even hatred” live in their hearts.
These are sentences that she can hardly backpedal from. Is this still our chancellor, Angela the uninterpretable?
Or is this a new chancellor, a more direct one?
In 2009, Ms. Merkel started an argument with the pope.
The question is whether Ms. Merkel is changing her method because the world is changing, and with it the demands it places on all of us. And whether something like an identity is starting to manifest itself - the identity of the woman who has frequently become synonymous with Europe and whose convictions, it's been said, are negotiatable.
In the 15 years the Germans have known Ms. Merkel – 10 of them in her role as chancellor – about six clear interventions from the tight-lipped lady have stuck in the consciousness of a broader audience.
The first message founded her political ascent. In an article for daily newspaper FAZ, the then general secretary of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) stated in 1999 that former chancellor Helmut Kohl had greatly damaged the party with his system of illegal budgets.
That was not just a clear way for Ms. Merkel to distance herself from her former patron Mr. Kohl, but also the emancipation of the CDU from its patriarch. Because back then, the CDU and Helmut Kohl were basically the same thing (even though not quite as much as the CDU and Angela Merkel are the same thing today).
Four years later, in 2003, there was the scandal surrounding CDU representative Martin Hohmann. The parliamentarian from Hesse had asked in a speech whether Jewish people might well be called a “people of perpetrators.”
Ms. Merkel, then the CDU’s parliamentary leader, pushed through Mr. Hohmann’s exclusion from the party. It was the first time in the CDU’s history that a member was excluded for right-wing agitations – and the first time a leader had demarcated the blurry line between conservative and right-wing thoughts.
In 2009, Ms. Merkel, a protestant and by now German chancellor, started an argument with the pope. Benedict XVI had revoked the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson, a Holocaust-denier claiming that gas chambers had never existed and denying the killing of six million Jews. The Vatican should “very unambiguously” clarify that there could be no relativization of the Holocaust, Ms. Merkel demanded. She received criticism both from her conservative party as well as from the Catholic church for her statements.
The next time Ms. Merkel stepped into the ring was one year later. In 2010, former finance minister Thilo Sarrazin had stirred up controversy with a book denouncing “headscarf girls” and claiming that migrants were spreading stupidity by procreating more frequently than Germans. Ms. Merkel called these statements “hurtful and polemic” and “absolutely not helpful.”
Ms. Merkel doesn’t think in national terms anymore. Her chancellorship isn’t dominated by domestic issues, but by foreign policy. She doesn’t have to prove anything to a suspicious electorate or an aloof public.
In 2012, she apologized to the victims of the right-wing terror group NSU that had killed more than 10 people in the first decade of the 2000s, most of them migrants. Ms. Merkel called the murders “a disgrace for our country.”
Last year, Ms. Merkel took on Vladimir Putin after months of grueling talks and diplomatic tact. She made it very clear that the Russian president was the aggressor, with his expansive territorial claims in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
And now it is Pegida and the emphatic reiteration of former German President Christian Wulff’s statement, “Islam is part of Germany.”
What is apparent, is that there are two or three issues on which Ms. Merkel holds very clear convictions. They can be summed up under the headings Putin, Israel and right-wing populism. In terms of values, you could say Ms. Merkel detests the exclusion of minorities and loves self-determination.
What has promted this change, what has made her speak out?
“Ms. Merkel is still the same as she has always been,” said someone who has known her for a long time. But, the person added, she is also shaped by her times, i.e. she has a very good instinct for what is expected of her. What has changed, therefore, might not be Ms. Merkel but the times and thus the expectations.
Against right-wing extremists, in favor of Israel, pro-immigration – that’s not exactly brave but rather mainstream, some might say.
But the parliamentarians of her center-right CDU intentionally didn't applaud her when she repeated Mr. Wulff’s statement in parliament last week. For the first time in years, there is a controversy stirring within the CDU about something the chancellor said, and it is hitting close to the core of the party. Ms. Merkel realizes that, and she accepts it.
Of course these discussions don’t go as far as to threaten her position; her party has virtually no alternative by now. Ms. Merkel’s excess of authority has grown to a point where she can basically say anything. What’s new is that she must say something – to fulfill the responsibility that comes with her position of authority.
If Ms. Merkel fails, Germany fails – and then Europe might fail.
First and foremost, Ms. Merkel doesn’t think in national terms anymore. Her chancellorship isn’t dominated by domestic issues, but by foreign policy. She doesn’t have to prove anything to a suspicious CDU electorate or an aloof public.
But she has to prove herself as a world stateswoman.
The euro crisis is back; Vladimir Putin’s ‘test the West’ policy threatens peace; in some of Germany’s European neighboring countries right-wing populists are gaining support; and after the Paris attacks, more and more citizens wonder whether the attacks of recent years might not be the peak, but rather the beginning, of a new threat. If Ms. Merkel fails, Germany fails – and then Europe might fail.
When Ms. Merkel says things like “Islam is part of Germany,” it’s not about the question whether or not this was a good way to put it. It’s about the question who is representing the majority in Germany.
The Pegida protestors rallying against Islam believe that they represent a repressed majority. The counter-protestors believe they represent an endangered majority. Who is really representative? It’s not always easy to tell in a diversified world. Ms. Merkel’s tough statement on Pegida therefore was an acid test, a vote of confidence for which she did not ask the parliament but the people.
The fact that the chancellor was vehemently advocating for Pegida being allowed to protest again soon after the demonstrations had to be cancelled because of terrorist threats is not a contradiction. One case is about the political direction, the other one about fundamental rights.
At a convention of the CDU party leadership early January, an opinion pollster presented numbers. A stable majority of Germans is in favor of integration, both for sociopolitical as well as economic reasons. At the same time, a majority is worried about Islam. These are the poles between which the debate is moving.
There’s a treatise from the 1980s by Guy Kirsch and Klaus Mackscheidt. It describes three types of politicians, the statesman, the demagogue and the incumbent. While the demagogue uses people’s fears to rally them, the incumbent lives the same worries and fears as his electorate and is therefore bound by them.
The statesman, however, knows about the fantasies and neuroses of his electorate, but he has managed to go beyond them and therefore is freer than his voters are. His success is not based on being as narrow-minded as his electorate, but rather on his taking counter measures. The relationship between him and the citizenry is very, very difficult for both sides.
If someone walks like Ms. Merkel, looks like Ms. Merkel, but increasingly talks very differently than Ms. Merkel, she might still not be a new chancellor. But it might be a strong sign that things are about to become much more challenging for everyone.
This article was originally published in weekly newspaper Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected].