As Germany's Merkel steps down, those who guided her into politics remember her
Updated December 7, 2021 at 5:14 PM ET
Editor's note: Angela Merkel steps down Wednesday after 16 years as Germany's chancellor. Earlier this fall, NPR caught up with some people who remembered her earliest days as a politician and asked them to reflect on her legacy.
RUEGEN, Germany — It was a cold, misty morning in November of 1990 when the fishermen noticed a woman standing outside their hut. They'd been fishing in the Baltic Sea and were approaching shore, trying to make out who it was. Hans-Joachim Bull was worried the stranger might be an inspector sent by the government to enforce fishing quotas.
"We offloaded our fish and then we asked her what she wanted," he remembers. "She said she was running for parliament and wanted to learn how we fishermen were doing. So we naturally invited her into our hut to drink schnapps with us."
The young candidate was Angela Merkel. And a smoky, liquor-filled fishing hut in northeastern Germany was her first campaign stop.
Bull shares what is now a famous photograph of the visit, showing five fishermen smoking, dressed in blue work uniforms, seated around two tables while Merkel chats with one of them. Another bearded fisherman sits in the background, taking a drag from his cigarette while gazing out a window. Rays of light stream into the hut, making the picture look like an old Dutch painting.
The 36-year-old Merkel, in her jeans, white shirt and maroon cardigan, almost looks like a time traveler visiting fishermen of the distant past. And in some ways, she was — it was Germany's first election after reunification.
Bull, a fifth-generation fisherman who grew up in Communist East Germany, was worried about the changes the Western world would bring. "We talked about fishing and [European] quotas – new to us East Germans at the time – and Merkel said she'd take our concerns to parliament," he says. "It was a down-to-earth conversation and she was easy to talk to."
Bull voted for Merkel then, and has done so ever since. So have most others in this seaside region. Even as chancellor, Merkel is a member of parliament and she has represented this district in the Bundestag for 31 years. On Sunday, millions of Germans will head to the polls to vote in a federal election that will determine who will succeed her.
Further along the Baltic coast, Steffen Meisner cleans the deck of his sailboat in the harbor city of Stralsund. The 58-year-old has never once voted for Merkel and her conservative party; he's a diehard Green Party voter and climate change is his biggest concern. But he's had a drink at a local bar with her when she came to visit her district, and he says she's humorous and down to earth. He's proud Merkel represents him in parliament and on the world stage.
"For her, being a politician wasn't just a job but a duty," he says. "And she wasn't in it for the money or to prioritize profit above people. She is a good listener and she is happy to hear views that contradict her own. And she has no issue with changing course or even apologizing. Politicians rarely apologize!"
Then again, Merkel has never been a typical politician, Meisner says. "She's a scientist, and she's always had both her feet on the ground," he says.
That's the Angela Merkel whom Michael Schindhelm met in December 1983, at the height of the Cold War. Schindhelm, born and raised in East Germany, had just finished five years of study in the Soviet Union when he returned home to present a paper at his country's Academy of Sciences.
Among the scientists in attendance that day, says Schindhelm, were 11 old men and one young woman — 29-year-old Angela Merkel, a quantum chemist. She asked to chat with Schindhelm alone after his presentation — but she didn't have questions about his scientific work. "She was interested in the political situation in the Soviet Union and the life there, and many of the details which were not even much known in East Germany about what does it mean to live in Russia," he remembers.
The two struck up a friendship. They were both young Christians in an atheist society, they had both found science as an outlet and they were both asking big questions about communism's future.
Those questions were answered in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Schindhelm says the end of communism in Germany forced him, Merkel and many others to reevaluate their paths in life.
"In our generation, we felt that this is the most important moment of our life: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the total collapse of the political system that we had expected would be there forever," he says. "And of course, we had to make a choice: do you want to be part of this? Or do you want to cling to where you came from?"
Schindhelm gave Merkel a book when he left the Academy of Sciences to become a writer and filmmaker. In it, he wrote a dedication to her: "Go out into the Wide Open."
Merkel quit science and entered politics. She later recounted Schindhelm's advice in speeches after she became chancellor in 2005. As Germany's leader, Schindhelm says, Merkel has balanced this desire to take risks and "go out into the open" with what he calls her East German scientific side — an inclination to be cautious and analytical.
That inclination has led to criticism — Merkel has been slammed for being too cautious, and for a lack of drive and ambition while planning Germany's future. But Stefan Kornelius, the author of a Merkel biography, says her approach is balanced and has helped Merkel maintain a calm, steady leadership at a time when Europe's cohesion was constantly under threat.
"She kept the euro from collapsing. She kept Europe united at a point where their economic crisis was tearing the continent apart. She calmed one of the major military crises we had in Ukraine with negotiating a cease-fire with Russia," he says.
And even though she was heavily criticized for opening Germany's doors to hundreds of thousands of migrants from war-torn Middle Eastern and North African countries in 2015, Kornelius says the decision lessened the impact on the rest of Europe.
But Merkel's legacy is much bigger than all of this, he believes. "I think her biggest accomplishment is that she keeps up the flame of a liberal-minded democracy in a time when the foundation of our democracies are shaken, when we are questioning whether this type of government is the right one for us, when populists all over the world rise, and when the West as a unifying ideal of so many countries with the United States at its helm, is collapsing."
Another Merkel biographer, Ralph Bollmann, says Merkel was originally planning to step down in 2017, but thought better of it after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. With a populist in the White House, the world needed a leader to fight for democracy, he says, and she stayed on.
Now, after 16 years, Angela Merkel is finally stepping down. She's leaving Germany better than she found it, say many of her constituents.
Her old friend Michael Schindhelm has familiar advice for her. "After such a long period of governing, it's about time to do something else, and you could say again: 'Go into the wide open.'"
He's convinced that after leading Germany for so long, Merkel is poised to do interesting things yet again.
Esme Nicholson contributed to this report from Berlin and Stralsund.
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