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Outgoing Chancellor Merkel sent off with military honors

December 2, 2021

The Bundeswehr, Germany's federal armed forces, bid farewell to Chancellor Angela Merkel. The "Grosser Zapfenstreich" is the highest military ceremony for a civilian.

Angela Merkel makes a speech at the Defence Ministry during the Grand Tattoo
The German army bid Merkel farewell with a military parade at the Defense MinistryImage: Odd Andersen/AP Photo/picture alliance

At a ceremony held by torchlight, the Bundeswehr, Germany's federal armed forces, said goodbye to Chancellor Angela Merkel. The military tattoo has become the unofficial farewell ceremony for defense ministers, presidents and chancellors.

In a short, earnest speech on Thursday night, Merkel thanked Germans and called on them to approach life with a "lightness of heart" and be optimistic about their country's future.

Merkel waves goodbye at the Grand Tattoo
Merkel said some events during her time as chancellor were challenging politically and for her as a human beingImage: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

"Sixteen years as chancellor of Germany were full of events, often very challenging — politically and as a human being," she said.

Multiple crises have shown the importance of international cooperation while tackling the challenges that face the world, she said.

The chancellor added that the "last two years of the pandemic in particular" had shown "how important trust in political leaders, science, and public discourse really is."

Democracy, Merkel said, was also based on trust, "on solidarity, on listening to one another, and also on facts."

"I would like to encourage you in the future to look at the world from other people's perspectives as well," she concluded.

Soldiers carry torches during the military parade bidding Merkel farewell
The military parade, or "Zapfenstreich," ceremony is held only for particularly important occasions Image: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

Merkel was the country's first East German chancellor and the first chancellor of post-war Germany to be seen off in Berlin.

She chose the Ministry of Defense's Bendler Block complex for the ceremony. It is a place layered with history. Built as an office for the Imperial German Navy in 1914, it was enlarged by the Nazis and became the headquarters of a group of German officers who attempted to remove Adolf Hitler from power on July 20, 1944. The leaders of the conspiracy were executed in the courtyard, where a memorial to German resistance stands today. Since 1993, the complex has served as a secondary seat of the German Federal Ministry of Defense.

Merkel's 'modesty, restraint, steadiness' will be missed

Merkel is only the third German chancellor to be honored with such a military grand tattoo ceremony, the "Zapfenstreich." Helmut Kohl, Christian Democrat chancellor from 1982 to1998, was the first. He chose the Speyer Cathedral in his home state of Rhineland-Palatinate, a UNESCO world heritage site, as the backdrop for the ceremony. Social Democrat chancellor from 1998 to 2005, Gerhard Schröder, chose to have the ceremony staged in his hometown of Hannover.

The ceremony provides the outgoing chancellor with one of their final opportunities to speak. Kohl took full advantage of that opportunity, speaking for 13 minutes in 1998 about German and European history, the gift of peace and freedom, and the importance of universal conscription — since abolished. In 2005, Gerhard Schröder declined to give a speech.

Since the government and parliament moved from Bonn to Berlin in 1999, it has been the music, not the speeches, that have been best remembered. The music played by the military band is chosen by the person being honored and does not have to be marching music. In recent years, German officials' requests have ranged from jazz to rock.

Merkel's choices were distinctly German, and they gained considerable attention for the insight they seemed to show into the woman behind the politician.

Angela Merkel talks to DW

The military tattoo is an unusual piece of continuity in German politics. A state ceremony lasting some 20 minutes, it harkens back to the days of Prussian militarism when it was first established in the 16th century and became set in its structure in the 19th century.

After the playing of the national anthem, the soldiers depart to the sound of a drum roll, bidding farewell to the chancellor and ending another chapter in German history.

As Merkel left the stage, DW's Chief Political Correspondent Melinda Crane summed up what people, both in Germany and internationally, will miss the most about Merkel: "Her modesty, her restraint, and her enormous personal integrity."

"Her steadiness in a crisis, her pragmatism, and her ability to speak plainly," will also be missed on the German and international political stage, Crane said.

Christoph Strack contributed to this report. 

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, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.