After Angela: how one woman shaped a generation — and Europe

For most of her life, Josepha Albrecht has known only one leader. She doesn’t live in North Korea or in Russia under Vladimir Putin. She is a teenager living in prosperous, democratic Germany.

The 17-year-old student was a baby when Angela Merkel became Germany’s first female chancellor in November 2005. And she grew up in the years when Merkel established herself as Europe’s pre-eminent stateswoman, a rock of stability in a world convulsed by economic crises, political populism and the fracturing of old alliances.

“Just crazy,” is how Albrecht, a climate activist from Barnim, describes Merkel’s long reign. “In democratic terms it’s pretty shocking.” For Imanuel Röver, a 16-year-old from Neukölln in southern Berlin, Merkel has been a kind of background track his entire life. “As long as I can remember”, he says, “she’s always been there.”

That is about to change. After the federal election later this month, Merkel will step down as Germany’s leader, marking the end of an era and a critical turning point in her country’s postwar history. The young people of Generation Merkel are part of her legacy. They have grown up in a Germany that, under her leadership, became wealthier, more diverse, more economically powerful and more engaged in the world.

Albrecht and Röver are two of a clutch of young Germans the FT spoke to who were born or came of age over the past two decades and whose views range across the political spectrum. Many were enormously respectful of a woman who steered Germany through countless crises. They applauded her as a role model for young women who want to change the world.

Imanuel Röver, 16: ‘You have the feeling that in some respects at least the state is failing’. The photo collages shown in this story were constructed by the visual artist Anna Ehrenstein. Some of the social media posts and materials included were supplied by the young people she photographed © Anna Ehrenstein

Wiebke Winter, a 25-year-old lawyer from the port city of Bremen, is a rising star in Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). She says that a once abstract thing — for a girl to dream of ruling Germany — is now perfectly realistic. “There are children born today who have no idea what it means to have a male chancellor,” she adds.

But the past few months have cast a long shadow over Merkel’s legacy. A cascade of troubles — the pandemic, natural disasters, the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan — have raised doubts about Germany’s ability to respond to crises. Her government has been savaged for failing to anticipate the fall of Kabul and get local Afghan staff to safety. It has been accused of failing to provide adequate warning of this summer’s floods. Meanwhile, the pandemic has revealed the Germany she has led for 16 years to be ponderous, overly bureaucratic and, in many ways, stuck in an analogue past.

“You have the feeling that in some respects at least the state is failing,” says Röver, echoing concerns shared by many Germans. Robin Alexander, one of the country’s top political journalists, recently wrote a book on Merkel’s final term titled “The Decline of Power”.

Decline is a relative concept, the severity of which depends entirely on the timescale in question. Generation Merkel’s Germany has been defined by unity, stability and growth — qualities sorely lacking in much of its tumultuous 20th-century history.

Now, a generation whose worldview was shaped in great part by the constancy of one leader is facing an array of looming challenges. Any complacency about the moment in which Germany finds itself going into this month’s elections was wiped away by the floods that killed more than 180 people in July. “They’re a ­foretaste of what’s to come if we don’t act,” says Albrecht, who is part of the Fridays for Future environmentalist movement. The disaster, which experts say was exacerbated by the effects of climate change, further roiled German politics and fuelled the tensions that may define the next era for Generation Merkel.

When Merkel came to power, the iPhone had yet to be launched and the oil major ExxonMobil was still the US’s most valuable company (it would be six years before it was supplanted by Apple). The wider world looked very different too. George W Bush was in the White House and Tony Blair in 10 Downing Street. Germany was surrounded by solid friends and allies, the EU was united and strong, and liberal democracy seemed to be on the march.

But soon after, a series of convulsions shook Europe’s postwar consensus. The shockwaves that spread from the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the EU’s sovereign debt crisis and the arrival of millions of refugees on the continent’s shores in 2015-16 strained the capacities of Europe’s institutions. A new cohort of populist leaders stirred up long-dormant nationalisms and called the whole European project into question.

That the EU survived these trials was, to no small extent, thanks to Merkel — her ability to compromise and build consensus, her willingness to negotiate all night to defuse a crisis. “There were so many centrifugal forces in Europe it was really at risk of falling apart,” says Andrea Römmele, a professor of communications in politics at the Hertie School in Berlin. “But she kept the EU united, and you can’t underestimate the importance of that.”

The turmoil didn’t end there. In 2016 a woman who had seen herself as part of a global network of western leaders, united by common values and a shared commitment to the liberal world order, suddenly found herself very much alone. With the UK’s Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump as US president, Merkel became, in the words of one newspaper, the liberal west’s “last defender”.

She herself described the moniker as “grotesque”, but it stuck. “She became the Mother Teresa of world politics,” says Josef Janning, a senior associate fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “As someone who was all about negotiating, listening closely to her interlocutor and accommodating his or her views, she was the antithesis of Trump.”

Portrait of Rufus Franzen, 17. He is sitting sideways on a chair, dressed in jeans and T-shirt
Rufus Franzen, 17: ‘A lot of people feel Merkel isn’t drastic enough in her policies . . . especially when it comes to climate’ © Anna Ehrenstein

As Merkel prepares to step down, though, some are wondering whether new times require a different kind of leader. “Dogged, patient negotiation — the Merkel approach — won’t deliver the changes that are needed in climate policy. For that, you need brave and controversial decisions,” says Janning. “Merkel always believed you could only do things when you had all the important actors on board. And that just doesn’t suit the situation we’re in now.”

Rufus Franzen, a 17-year-old student who is part of the Berlin pupil council, a representative body for local school children, feels the same way. Merkel, he says, always seemed like “this wise lady who always knew exactly when to act, was rarely impulsive and never put a foot wrong”. But today people crave more “assertiveness . . . A lot of people feel Merkel isn’t drastic enough in her policies and want someone with more resolve, especially when it comes to climate.”

The limits of Merkel’s moderation were hinted at in 2019 when she unveiled her government’s climate protection law, the centrepiece of its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Critics said it was far too unambitious. It set the price of carbon in the transport sector at just €10 per tonne, for example, a level environmental groups dismissed as “ridiculously low”. In response, Merkel countered that “politics is all about what is possible”.

This was seized upon by opponents like Annalena Baerbock, the 40-year-old MP who is the Greens’ candidate for chancellor. In June, she told supporters that politics is not just about what is possible, but “what we can make possible”. “In the last few years government policy in Germany has run on autopilot,” she said. The Greens, in contrast, were fighting for “a new awakening”.

Portrait of Josepha Albrecht, 17, sitting on a chair, her arms folded on the backrest
Josepha Albrecht, 17: ‘The election will decide the future. It’s about really changing things, not just about managing the status quo’ © Anna Ehrenstein

Albrecht, the climate activist, says that as a small child she had a positive view of Merkel. Like the chancellor, her parents had grown up in communist East Germany. Albrecht’s father fled to the west via Hungary shortly before the Berlin Wall fell.

But once Josepha became politically active, joining the Green party’s youth organisation at the age of 14, that view was clouded. It didn’t matter that, as environment minister in the 1990s, Merkel had been in the vanguard of efforts to combat climate change. That she had decreed the phaseout of nuclear power, vastly expanded renewable energy and pledged to shut all of Germany’s dirty lignite plants and mines by 2038. For Albrecht’s generation, none of that was enough. “She’s been in government now for so long, and yet in the last few years at least she’s really not done much for the climate,” she says.

In 2018, Albrecht joined the Fridays for Future climate strikes and, like thousands of others, felt suddenly empowered. “The protests politicised a whole generation,” says Simon Schnetzer, a researcher who publishes regular studies of young Germans’ attitudes. “They discovered that they can achieve power and influence and really change established attitudes.”

Nothing symbolised this newly assertive mood better than the now famous 55-minute video tirade by Rezo, a 29-year-old YouTuber, accusing Merkel’s CDU party of “destroying our futures”. A viral sensation, the 2019 film has been viewed 19 million times.

Climate activists have enjoyed some notable successes, such as the case brought by a group of young people before Germany’s constitutional court over the much-criticised 2019 climate protection law. The plaintiffs included 22-year-old Sophie Backsen, whose family lives on a 300-year-old farm on the North Sea island of Pellworm, a place that could cease to exist if sea levels continue to rise.

Backsen and the other complainants said the government was moving too slowly to cut greenhouse gas emissions — and, in a sensational ruling in April, the court agreed with them. It said that by delaying measures to reduce CO2 to the period after 2030, it was placing a disproportionate burden on the young and curtailing their future. “Young people had to go to court to make the government take responsibility for future generations,” Albrecht says. “It was pressure from the streets, from the youth of this country, that forced them to act.”

The strength of feeling among young people on the climate issue is one of the reasons for the extraordinary rise of the German Greens. Having scored just 8.9 per cent in the last election in 2017, they are now polling at around 18 per cent and are widely expected to be part of the next government. The green sensibility has gone mainstream.

Sociologists say young people in Germany are increasingly distancing themselves from the values of their parents and focusing more on social justice and ecology than on the pursuit of wealth and career success. A recent study by the environment ministry found that only 19 per cent of 14- to 17-year-olds consider economic growth more important than protecting the environment.

For Albrecht, who plans to study social work, the election later this month will be a turning point. “It will decide the future,” she says. “It’s about really changing things, not just about managing the status quo.”

Despite her reputation for excessive caution, Merkel has at times acted boldly, often defying her own party and public opinion. In 2011, when an earthquake and tsunami unleashed a triple meltdown at Fukushima in Japan, she promptly announced that Germany would close all of its nuclear power plants by 2022. Four years later, at the height of the European refugee crisis, she allowed more than a million migrants to enter Germany.

The latter decision sent shockwaves through the country’s politics. But for many Germans it was a chance to present a different image to the world, of a nation that had learnt the lessons of its Nazi past and was now determined to show generosity and kindness to those in need. Thousands of people gathered at Munich central station to welcome the new arrivals with toys, food and bottled water.

Mohamed Sahly, 13, smiles towards the camera. He wears a yellow T-shirt
Mohamed Sahly, 13: ‘Germany did something very special. No other country let as many refugees in as Germany did . . . I’m so grateful to her for what she did’ © Anna Ehrenstein

Many in her CDU party were furious, but the chancellor was unrepentant. “I have to be honest, if we start having to apologise for showing a friendly face in emergencies, then this is not my country,” she said in September 2015. Her catchphrase of the time — “We can do it” — became the defining slogan of the crisis.

One of those directly affected was Mohamed Sahly, a 13-year-old from Damascus in Syria who arrived with his parents, two sisters and brother in Germany in the summer of 2015. He, too, is a member of Generation Merkel. “I’m so grateful to her for what she did,” he says. “All politicians should take an example from her.”

The Sahlys’ flight to Europe lasted 40 days and reached its climax in a terrifying crossing of the Aegean Sea aboard a small rubber dinghy shared with 40 other migrants. The boat got caught on rocks close to the Greek island of Samos and deflated. The group had to walk the rest of the way through chest-high water, mothers holding their babies above their heads. Mohamed says that he has been scared of the sea ever since.

The Sahlys had to sell their valuables, including jewellery and the family car, to finance the journey. But they had no choice, says Mohamed. “Any moment a rocket could come and blow up your house.” The family lived in Yarmouk camp, a Palestinian area of Damascus that saw intense fighting during the civil war and in April 2015 was overrun by militants of Islamic State. A relative recently sent pictures of their house. “It’s been completely looted,” he says. “They took the cables, sinks and toilets.”

They now live in Hermannstrasse, a mixed neighbourhood of Berlin that is a magnet for refugees from the Middle East. Mohamed attends a local school, speaks fluent German and dreams of becoming an engineer. Life in the country he calls his “second homeland” is not easy. His parents have yet to find jobs and struggle with the language. The whole family is crammed into a two-bedroom flat. “At least we’re safe,” he says. “Germany did something very special. No other [EU] country let as many refugees in as Germany did.”

Eric Engelhardt, a 19-year-old IT student from the eastern town of Sonneberg, views Merkel’s 2015 decision differently. “Should Germany have let so many people in? Was that a sensible thing to do? Or did it harm us?” His answer to these questions is clear: it was a disastrous mistake. “These people came to Germany and were subsidised by the state, while some young families here have to think twice about going on holiday,” he says. “You have this feeling that people who don’t belong to our nation get more than the people who are actually from here.”

Portrait of Eric Engelhardt, 19. He is wearing black jeans, sweatshirt and trainers
Eric Engelhardt, 19: ‘You have this feeling that people who don’t belong to our nation get more than the people who are actually from here’ © Anna Ehrenstein

Engelhardt is a member of the Alternative for Germany party (AfD), which in 2017 rode a huge backlash against Merkel’s “everybody welcome” immigration policy to become the most successful hard-right party in Germany’s postwar history. Its MPs form the largest opposition group in the Bundestag and it is represented in all 16 of Germany’s regional parliaments. Engelhardt joined a year ago. “I liked their focus on the German national identity,” he says.

The AfD is part of Merkel’s legacy. Her CDU had previously prided itself on being the broadest of churches, able to offer even hardline conservatives a political home. Yet her liberalism exposed the CDU’s right flank, creating a space for an upstart party with openly nationalist, xenophobic views. Many former Christian Democrats defected to the AfD.

Engelhardt, who is on the executive board of Junge Alternative, the AfD’s youth wing, says Merkel’s legacy is not just excessive immigration — it is also rising inequality. “The tax burden on family households — all the new carbon taxes and duties — is growing, but incomes aren’t rising,” he says. “There are people here with real existential fear.”

The problem is particularly acute in the former lands of East Germany, he says, where, 30 years after reunification, wage levels remain lower than in the west. “We have fewer big companies here, so skilled workers and apprentices still have to ‘emigrate’ to the west to find work,” he says. “That process has continued under Merkel and not much was done to stop it.” He also blames Merkel for shifting Germany “far to the left” over the past couple of decades. “She is leaving Germany a lot more leftwing than when she started.”

Germany has indeed become more liberal under Merkel, though one could argue this is mainly thanks to the left-of-centre Social Democrats, with whom she has governed for 12 of the past 16 years in “grand coalitions”. Under her, the country abolished compulsory military service, introduced a minimum wage, extended parental leave, massively expanded childcare provision and allowed gay marriage. It became more open to foreign influences and alternative visions of society and the family.

But the political mood also became more febrile. Though Germany is not nearly as polarised as America, it has seen an alarming uptick in political violence. That climaxed in the 2019 murder of Walter Lübcke, an official from Merkel’s CDU, by a neo-Nazi, the first rightwing assassination of a politician since the war. Lübcke had become a hate figure to the right for defending Merkel during the refugee crisis and saying that anyone who didn’t share her values of humanity “can leave this country any time”.

Sahly is no stranger to the increase in racial tension. His mother and sister have routinely been pushed and shoved by locals while out shopping in the affluent Berlin neighbourhood of Zehlendorf, he says. “They tell them to go home, but Germany is our home now.”

Many young Germans had become somewhat indifferent to Merkel by the time she began her fourth term in office in 2018. She was a fixture, always there on the TV news, but somewhere in the background. “She was Mutti [mummy],” says Franzen, the 17-year-old from Berlin.

That changed when the pandemic struck, and Merkel moved centre stage, right back into people’s consciousness. At the start of the coronavirus outbreak in early 2020, she was quick to impose a lockdown and went on television to address the nation, urging her compatriots to show solidarity with each other by reducing their social contacts to a minimum.

It was a sober speech, but it was softened with an unusually personal touch, as she referenced her upbringing in communist East Germany. “For someone like me, for whom freedom of movement was a hard-fought right, such restrictions can only be justified by their absolute necessity,” she said. Merkel, who has a doctorate in quantum chemistry, also listened closely to scientists and took their advice. “Young people really appreciated her calm, clear leadership,” says Schnetzer, the youth researcher.

The first lockdown worked, and Germany seemed to have stemmed the pandemic. But after the summer, case numbers started rising. Merkel pushed for another shutdown but was resisted by Germany’s 16 regional leaders. They finally relented in the winter of 2020, too late to stop an exponential growth in new infections. “The thing has slipped out of our hands,” Merkel famously told senior CDU officials in January. Matters were made worse as the country’s vaccination campaign got off to a shockingly slow start, even though one of the most effective vaccines was invented in Germany.

In the meantime, the young especially had been hit hard by the pandemic. Their schools and universities were forced to close while offices and factories stayed open. Online learning during the lockdown was a national joke as a result of Germany’s subpar digital network, while easy-to-use platforms such as Zoom were restricted over data protection concerns.

Röver, who is a member of the Social Democrat party’s youth wing, the Jusos, and dreams of becoming a teacher, describes chaotic online lessons where students couldn’t be seen or heard, or fell off due to poor internet connections. “When I was in a lesson, everyone else at home had to switch off their WiFi so mine could work,” he says. “In terms of WiFi, Germany lags far behind the rest of Europe, and the pandemic really showed that.”

In his conversations with young Germans, Schnetzer heard countless examples of how dysfunctional the system had become. “Some kids had to wait till 3am to upload their homework, because the school servers were completely overwhelmed during the day,” he says. He also spoke to children living in rural areas with such poor 4G networks that they “had to run up the nearest hill to get enough of a signal to receive their homework assignments”.

The crisis laid bare problems that commentators like Rezo had been railing against for years. In his 2019 YouTube video, he attacked both rising inequality under the CDU’s rule and Germany’s ramshackle schools. “What kind of incompetent shit is that?” he asked his viewers. His criticisms struck a chord. In elections to the European Parliament held days later, only 13 per cent of under-thirties voted Christian Democrat.

The problems Rezo and others highlighted still exist. Röver says: “I know schools where the windows don’t open, there’s no soap in the toilets and the buildings are crumbling.” By contrast, he says, “Look how much money they spent on saving Lufthansa.”

When talking about the challenges facing children during the pandemic, Merkel often failed to find the right tone. Asked about freezing classrooms in winter, when windows were often flung open to arrest the spread of coronavirus, she said children should “do little knee bends or clap their hands” to keep warm. The satirical TV programme Heute Show called her “Aerobic Angi”.

Young people’s anger grew. They were furious when it emerged in the spring that a number of Christian Democrat MPs had received huge commissions for deals to procure coronavirus face masks. “The CDU says it wants to make Germany fit for the future,” says Albrecht. “But how can that happen when they just ignore people and all that money’s flowing into their own pockets?”

This frustration in the younger generation is only getting stronger, with some warning of looming intergenerational tensions. Many German children are still suffering mental scars from the long lockdown months and live in fear of further school closures. “Kids say: the politicians never listen to us, they show us absolutely no consideration,” says Schnetzer. “And that could lead to conflict.”

Angela Merkel has always been reluctant to sum up her legacy. “I don’t think about my role in history. I do my job,” she once told the FT. But in a CDU campaign speech last month she listed what she considered her biggest achievements in office. Halving unemployment. Repairing Germany’s public finances. Launching the “Energiewende”, Germany’s historic shift from nuclear and fossil fuels to renewables. And saving the euro.

Though young people are ambivalent, a huge swath of German voters will sorely miss her. “She is leaving behind a vacuum,” says Manfred Güllner, head of the Forsa polling agency. “People are feeling very insecure.” For 16 years she “gave people a sense of security . . . of stability and continuity”, he adds. “People felt she was taking care of them, making sure that all those crises didn’t impinge too much on their daily lives. She was like a safety net.”

The man who hopes to succeed Merkel — Armin Laschet, CDU candidate for chancellor — is selling himself to voters as her natural heir. “But people aren’t buying it, because they just don’t believe he’s as capable a politician as she is,” says Güllner. The CDU, currently languishing at around 22 per cent in the polls, “runs the risk of losing a lot of Merkel voters”.

Meanwhile Merkel, who told an interviewer 23 years ago that she didn’t want to be “some half-dead wreck” when she left politics, seems to be getting her wish. She will be just 67 when she retires as chancellor. A whole new chapter lies ahead of her.

When she steps down later this year, she will be making history, becoming the first postwar chancellor to relinquish power of her own free will, and at a time of her choosing. Her great predecessor Konrad Adenauer was forced by his own party to make way for a rival. Helmut Kohl, the architect of German reunification, was voted out of power after 16 years.

Some of Germany’s youth will be sad to see Merkel go. Others are looking forward to the change at the top. “Whenever a new issue came up, you always kind of knew how Merkel would react. It was somehow predictable,” says Imanuel Röver. The future will be anything but.

Guy Chazan is the FT’s Berlin bureau chief

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