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Americas

Americans also wonder if Merkel will make it

The US conservative media is saying "I told you so" when it comes to Angela Merkel's refugee policies, says Karl Vick. Ines Pohl spoke with the author of Time magazine's Person of the Year cover story on the chancellor.

DW: What were the reasons for Time magazine to pick

Merkel as the "Person of the Year 2015?"

Karl Vick: I gather Merkel had been a strong contender in preceding years by virtue of her centrality to the euro crisis and her position as the de-facto leader of Europe. So there was that foundation, and then the extraordinary moves she made in the migrant crisis just lifted her comfortably above the competition.

Would you share who the competitors were? And what was the final argument for Merkel?

I'm not privy to that actually. I do think she was head and shoulders above all the others for the reasons above. I think it helped that the way she made the refugee decision was unusual for her - less deliberate, less cautious and measured, apparently more from the "gut" - yet also entirely, and even profoundly, in line with her long-expressed principles of openness, inclusiveness and embracing a world based more and more on understanding and less on barriers.

When you did your reporting for the piece in Germany, did you learn something about our country and our chancellor that really surprised you?

I had not realized how diverse Germany already is. I knew about the Turkish guest worker population and its descendants, but not about the later waves of immigrants. I also had not realized that the roots of the "welcome culture" extended to the days right after World War II, and how many Germans had take in homeless countrymen and -women during that time.

Angela Merkel on the cover of Time magazine as Person of the Year 2015

Merkel had been a contender for Time's honor in the past

As for the chancellor, everything I learned built on everything else - her life seems entirely of a piece; quite consistent. If there was a moment when I was surprised, it was late in my reporting when I happened upon what I think was a BBC documentary on her biography, which included footage of her not long after the Wall had come down. She was, I think, in her capacity as deputy spokesperson or some such for her party, and was prodded to read out a summary of a meeting. She was shy, reticent, and in appearance even waifish - not the matronly figure the world has seen. And this would have been in her mid-30s, so not a kid, either.

Which stereotypes were confirmed when it comes to Germans and political power?

Almost none. The cartoon Germany of the newsreels and Hollywood just wasn't there, though, mind, I was mostly in groovy Berlin. I was impressed by the deliberate, consensus-building character of German politics - very different from ours - and the access [collaborator] Simon Shuster and I were able to gain to leading politicians.

The one throwback I saw was also in the British documentary - footage of Merkel, when she must have been a junior minister, actually being chased around a meeting room by a couple of stout middle-aged guys from her own party who just want to touch her, in that familiar, male way. It both made vivid her status as "the girl" and how oppressive the male culture was in that era.

How much did this choice have to do with the current situation in the United States and the wish for some realpolitik, for someone who is very down to earth?

Gosh, I don't know. I know the magazine was happy to have a clear choice who was a person of real, demonstrated substance, a woman, and, an individual - which the "Person of the Year" isn't always.

How was the initial perception of this choice in the US?

It varied. Americans are not terribly attuned to the world beyond America. I'm not entirely sure how well known your chancellor is, though she was in the news so much with the refugee crisis that her profile was likely at its highest. So among some, there was probably a measure of dismay, edging toward curiosity. Among Americans who do follow foreign news, the choice was well-received - for all the reasons Time liked it too. I was on public radio the morning of the choice, and several callers were ecstatic - especially immigrants or children of immigrants, who were moved by her actions on refugees, by seeing that action validated by the "Person of the Year" selection, and, in several cases, by the transformation of German society since the war.

All that said, Donald Trump and his supporters were sharply disappointed. He famously tweeted his dissent, and I gathered that some of the political world was surprised as well that we didn't name him, just because he has so dominated that space since announcing, and certainly qualified as the biggest "newsmaker" of the year. But Time has never chosen a candidate.

Do you think Americans are becoming more critical of Merkel because of how she is handling the refugee crisis in Europe?

I don't, but only because I don't think many Americans are invested in her. Her situation is usually framed in terms of her political survival: Will she remain in office; is she up or down; can she get through this? People want to sound savvy and well-informed when they're talking about foreign affairs, and that becomes the frame.

Angela Merkel stands bending down to a seated Helmut Kohl in 1991

Merkel (here in 1991) made space for herself in a heavily male-dominated party

Beyond that, yes, there is some general sense of: Well, she took a risk -

now she's reaping the whirlwind.

There may also be, in some nativist quarters here or conservative media, some sense of "I told you so." But immigrants and terror - and the linkage that's occurred in the public mind in the US of those two things - loom so large in the public discussion here that that backlash is probably inevitable. Americans as a rule are far, far less generous on this matter lately, oddly for an immigrant nation.

How much is the brand "Made in Germany" harmed by the latest scandals from VW or Deutsche Bank?

Not my area, but I doubt much. The decades, if not centuries, of

image-making by German industry

and quality, precision workmanship will not be easily undone.

Is there also a little Schadenfreude involved, that the know-it-all country is in quite some trouble?

Not that I've sensed. I don't think Germans are viewed by Americans as coming off as superior. This is, after all, a country based on "exceptionalism" itself, and in the trans-Atlantic relationship Berlin has traditionally appeared demur.

What do you think are the three most popular adjectives Americans use when they describe Germans?

I don't think enough Americans have met Germans lately to say. Which leaves stereotypes: fat German tourists, beer hall, lederhosen, and of course the dark glamour of the Nazis as refracted through Hollywood and the History Channel. Over time, Merkel is herself becoming an icon as well.

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