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

Twilight of a chancellor

Felix Steiner
Felix Steiner
September 28, 2015

Three weeks after the opening of German borders to incoming refugees, opinion polls show that Chancellor Angela Merkel's popularity has slumped dramatically - and it will only get worse, writes DW's Felix Steiner.

Berlin Bundestag Müde Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Kumm

Is history repeating itself? There are at least parallels between Angela Merkel and two of her predecessors.

Parallel 1: Willy Brandt's genuflection at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial on December 7, 1970. The gesture, which by now has become the synonym of the Brandt government's policy of détente, was by no means planned. It was something that came over Brandt spontaneously and intuitively: "I suddenly felt that bowing my head wouldn't do," he was later quoted as saying.

Spontaneous impulse

Led by a similarly spontaneous impulse, Angela Merkel decided three weeks ago that those refugees who were pushing and shoving in wretched conditions in Hungary could enter Germany. Like Brandt, she did not consult with anyone prior to her decision. She just did it because she had a feeling - was it her conscience? - that told her: This can't go on.

Today, few are aware that Willy Brandt certainly did not receive only praise. "Was Brandt justified in kneeling down?" asked "Der Spiegel" news magazine one week later, whereupon it also provided the answer: 41 percent of West Germans deemed Brandt's gesture appropriate; 48 percent, however, thought it was exaggerated. The positive assessment and general agreement that the gesture was "historical" only came about after some time had elapsed. Almost exactly one year later Willy Brandt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Since the decision came at a time when the government's eastern policies were hotly disputed, this was something else that many Germans did not understand, let alone approve of.

Steiner Felix Kommentarbild App
DW's Felix Steiner

So maybe there's hope for Angela Merkel that she may receive a call from Oslo?

Parallel 2: Gerhard Schröder's "Agenda" policy. Today, whenever someone asks why Germany's economy is performing better than that of most of its European neighbors, experts of all political stripes usually refer them to reform policies implemented by the Schröder government between 2003 and 2005. Since then, millions of new jobs have been created, the economy is booming, and there are buoyant tax revenues. Thanks to the Social Democrats and the Greens, the country formerly referred to as "the sick man of Europe" was turned into the continent's economic driving force. With the benefit of hindsight, even the CDU/CSU and Free Democrat camps - who had never been courageous enough to administer such radical measures - pay their respects to Gerhard Schröder.

Applause from the wrong camp

It was Schröder's personal tragedy, however, that he was voted out of office over the reform agenda and that Angela Merkel has been reaping the fruits of his labors. After all, those who are full of praise for the so-called "Agenda 2010" have never voted for the Social Democrats, and will never do so in the future. As for the party itself, it was almost torn apart by its former leader's policies. To this day, it hasn't fully recovered, having struggled in opinion polls and at the ballot box for years.

Now that Angela Merkel's handling of the refugee crisis is provoking resentment and criticism primarily within the CDU/CSU camp, this brings back fateful memories of the Social Democrats' situation ten years ago: With respect to party politics, praise is coming from the wrong camp, unfortunately. In any case, it wasn't the CDU/CSU's core voters who welcomed refugees at various train stations across Germany, clapping their hands.

First signs of crisis

Both parallels have something in common. Brandt's and, even quicker still, Schröder's chancellorship were plunged into crisis. They were crises characterized by internal frictions, harsh verbal attacks and provocative public confrontations.

Some of this is resurfacing now. CSU leader Horst Seehofer's recent invitation of Merkel critic Viktor Orban was just as disloyal as former SPD parliamentary party leader Herbert Wehner's underhanded remark on Willy Brandt during a visit to Moscow: "The man prefers lukewarm baths." And there is something of Schröder's take-it-or-leave-it attitude in Merkel's statement made during last Tuesday's CDU/CSU parliamentary party session: "I don't care if I'm to blame for the influx of refugees - now they're here." Quite obviously, her nerves are now jangled.

Nothing but indicators - true. But while just a few weeks ago, the SPD was discussing which Social Democratic candidate was going to lose the 2017 elections against Merkel, in light of the refugee crisis it now suddenly seems that the twilight of the chancellorship of the hitherto most powerful woman in the world has already begun.

There are only question marks as to exactly how it will come to an end: Will she step down during the current legislative period (like Brandt) or will she be voted out in two years (like Schröder)?

Have something to say? Add your comments below.