Visiting Berlin speaks volumes about Germany’s experience with the 20th century. The hauntingly beautiful Holocaust Memorial, a sea of different sized concrete blocks arranged in a grid pattern, occupies an entire block in central Berlin. No more than 2 blocks away, the Brandenburg Gate, center of the original Berlin wall, towers over the entire city, a keen reminder of the harsh division imposed by the Cold War. Remaining pieces of the wall are scattered throughout the city, tokens from a much darker time.
These modern tourist attractions show a city in flux, deeply embarrassed by its difficult past but coming to terms with a new self-definition. The city brims with a youthful excitement and vibrant art scene, while solemnly bearing the responsibility of some of the great atrocities of the 20th century.
So it makes perfect sense that Chancellor Angela Merkel embodies none of these traits. Merkel, who was recently reelected to her third term in the Chancellorship with her party gaining an unprecedented 41.5% of the vote, instead displays an incredible lack of excitement in almost everything she does. In fact, upon learning of her massive victory, Ms. Merkel told supporters that she would “treat this result with great care.” She also called the vote a “super result.”
Are you cheering yet?
Merkel’s phlegmatic words are a small part of her monochromatic persona. The Chancellor leads a quiet life at home, with a quantum chemist husband who prides himself on staying out of the limelight. Her record is scandal free, with the exception of one time that she wore the same dress to the annual Bayreuth festival that she had worn several years before. Anthony Weiner she is not.
Even the substantive side of Ms. Merkel fails to excite. Addressing Humboldt University in 2009 about her vision for Europe’s future, Ms. Merkel told them that she was “going to have the disappoint [them]” because she believes “that long-term goals can make the immediate steps more difficult.” True to form, she’s proved herself a largely reactive leader, adept at dealing with the Euro-crisis but remarkably devoid of any long term planning. She often sets the guidelines to solve any problem, but remains open to any solutions. She believes in Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum of “this lady’s not for the turning,” but she remains pragmatic in every sense of the word. In fact, after speaking out against intervention by the European Central Bank, Ms. Merkel later supported measures designed to help keep weaker European economies afloat.
In her piecemeal and sometimes contradictory approach, Ms. Merkel cannot be viewed as anything other than successful. She has been and will continue to be the leader of Europe. In an increasingly frustrating Europe (re: Greece and any other assortment of failing European economies), Merkel keeps her cool and calmly guides the way. And the Germans love her for it.
The reason for her success may not be as clear though. Her unorthodox style and unoffensive vision cement her status as an incredibly boring person, but confuse her successful reputation. Society tends to view the dynamic movers and shakers as the true leaders of a generation, but Ms. Merkel couldn’t be more different. Her success, instead, comes from her direct repudiation of traditional leadership.
Merkel’s moderate conservative party provides exactly what Germans want and Europe needs: a facilitator. Merkel leads from behind and lets the technocrats act in front. For example, instead of thumping the drum of war when Greece fell to pieces, Merkel calmly sent European Union bureaucrats to institute commonplace reform. She creates few enemies and produces the sensible results. In every way, she embodies the opposite of 20th century Germany and its more notable leaders.
But she doesn’t dwell on Germany’s past or jump out of her seat when discussing Germany’s future either, as many current Germans might. Yet that may be exactly what they want. Scarred by their past with charismatic and visionary leaders, Germans trust Ms. Merkel. Two thirds of them say they’re happy with her handling of the Euro crisis and people feel comfortable in her message of “no experiments.” She ensures safety of the state, exactly what they have been looking for.
And on top of that, Ms. Merkel has produced results. Apart from the Golden Dawn party in Greece, populist parties struggle to gain momentum even in desperate countries. The wealth of data would suggest that right-wing extremism appears strongest in areas of economic depression, but Ms. Merkel’s policies have almost completely avoided that. She has imposed tough austerity measures, but never looked to expand German influence. While Europe clearly needs work to emerge from the recession still, Ms. Merkel promises a responsible way to do so.
So although Ms. Merkel may look ineffective from afar, her decisive reelection confirms she’s just the woman for the job of fixing a very broken Europe. While history may never pass down epics of Angela Merkel’s leadership, her record proves that success doesn’t always require great dynamism.