1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Germany debates Angela Merkel's legacy

April 17, 2023

Germany's president has honored former Chancellor Angela Merkel with the country's highest Order of Merit. The occasion has been an opportunity to evaluate her legacy.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (L) awards the Order of Merit to former German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Bellevue presidential palace in Berlin on April 17, 2023.
Former Chancellor Angela Merkel received the highest Order of MeritImage: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

She was head of government. He is head of state. Both represent Germany to the world. On Monday (17.04.), President Frank-Walter Steinmeier presented former Chancellor Angela Merkel with the country's highest honor.

The president, a largely symbolic position in Germany, has a range of awards and medals he can bestow upon "individuals who have rendered distinguished services to the nation," according to the presidential office. The Order of Merit is the most distinguished, which since 1951 has been "awarded to Germans as well as foreigners for achievements in the political, economic, social or intellectual realm."

There is no financial reward attached to the Order of Merit.

While more than 260,000 people have received an Order of Merit of some kind, according to the presidential office, Merkel will be only the third to receive the highest version of it available to German citizens: the Großkreuz, or "large cross." One final higher level is reserved for foreign dignitaries and the German president himself.

Three chancellors' charm

The other two were also chancellors, of then-West Germany, and belonged to the same conservative party as Merkel, the Christian Democratic Union. Konrad Adenauer, the country's first leader after Adolf Hitler, was awarded the Großkreuz in 1954. Helmut Kohl, who oversaw German reunification and green-lit the euro to replace the Deutsche Mark, was honored in 1998.

Adenauer and Kohl presided over momentous periods in post-war German history. Regardless of one's political views or the consequences of their decisions, Albrecht von Lucke, a commentator for Blätter political journal, told DW that they were compelled to make "daring" policy choices.

Merkel, in von Lucke's view, did not rise to that level of leadership, calling her time in power an "era of 16 lost years."

"We are only just beginning to see how problematic Angela Merkel's legacy is," he said. "To give Angela Merkel such an award now is totally premature and not the right award. It still isn't clear what her merits are and what her failures are."

Merkel's legacy: open to interpretation

A worsening climate crisis and Russia's full-scale war against Ukraine, which kicked off shortly after Merkel left office, have muted the widespread support she enjoyed both at home and abroad while in power.

Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel stand in front of a background of German and Russian Federation flags
Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin had a long-standing relationship as leaders of their respective countriesImage: /AP Photo/picture alliance

Once dubbed the "climate chancellor," Germany under Merkel often missed its own targets to reduce greenhouse emissions. Critics have said that Merkel was too soft on Russia, while Germany's increasing energy dependence on Russia during Merkel's tenure was undoubtedly a mistake.

In a rare public appearance last year, Merkel denounced Russia's war in Ukraine, but defended her diplomatic efforts.

"I therefore won't apologize," she told an audience in Berlin.

Defenders of Merkel's leadership note that her Russia policy was not much different to that of other chancellors, regardless of party. Germany has long nurtured closer economic, energy and cultural ties with Russia than many of Germany's European allies, often to the latter's displeasure.

While some see her years as chancellor as a lost opportunity, others give her credit for merely defending the status quo during a period of immense upheaval.

Angela Merkel talks to DW

Uncomfortable spotlight

"She managed to keep the EU together and strengthen it in tumultuous times," Lucas Schramm, a political scientist at Munich's Ludwig-Maximilians-University, told DW.

The banking, debt, and refugee crises all hit the European Union on Merkel's watch. The United Kingdom left the bloc, while the United States under President Donald Trump was openly hostile towards it.

"Contemporary heads of state and government recently have said that Merkel is being missed at European Council summits because of her authority," Schramm said.

The debate over Merkel's legacy is far from over, and subject to events yet to fully play out. Whether well-deserved or premature, the decision to award her with the Order of Merit on Monday puts the retired chancellor back in the public spotlight.

That's a place she tried to avoid while in office and has stayed largely out of since returning to life as a private citizen of the German Republic.

Edited by: Lucy James

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.