In Germany, Russia, Ukraine


Portrait of Angela Merkel (CDU), Chancellor of Germany. Picture taken in february 17, 2011 in the Congress Center, Hamburg. Wikipedia Commons

Note from the NCW Team: For the sake of avoiding mis-quotes or inferences we are providing the English translation rather than commentary citing the interview in the German language. 

Angela Merkel on her new phase of life, possible mistakes in her Russia policy, her role in the refugee crisis and the question of whether German chancellors are being treated ungraciously. 


Interview: Tina Hildebrandt and Giovanni di Lorenzo


Angela Merkel’s new office was formerly occupied by her predecessor as Altkanzler (former chancellor).  It is on the fourth floor of an unadorned GDR building, in which Margot Honecker resided as Minister for Public Education, on the Unter den Linden avenue, between the Hotel Adlon and the Russian embassy. For the interview, she chose the meeting room on the same floor, which offers a beautiful view of Pariser Platz and the Brandenburg Gate. Her political adviser Beate Baumann was there throughout.  Before it starts, photos are taken, quickly, because Merkel doesn’t like being photographed. Why this is so will also play a role in the conversation. Then the cameras are gone, Merkel relaxes. She has now been out of office for a year. In the past, the simple question “How are you?” could arouse her suspicions. Today she finds such a question proper, Merkel states and makes a characteristically ironic Merkel pout. . “And I would also like to answer that I’m fine personally.” However, she finds the overall political situation troubling. Like all former chancellors, Angela Merkel has the right to be addressed as “Frau Bundeskanzlerin”. Kohl was happy to be called Chancellor even after he had left office and even demanded his ‘Dr’ while chancellor. She prefers: Ms. Merkel.


DIE ZEIT: Ms. Merkel, you are no longer chancellor, but you still look pretty much the same as before.


Angela Merkel: Did you think I’d come with a ponytail? My clothingis practical for me, I’ve made friends with the hairstyle. Of course, I meet you as Chancellor a. D. But you can draw the reverse conclusion from this, that I did not play an artificial role as Chancellor. That was me. And that’s what I am today, in a somewhat more expedient form, let’s put it that way. I don’t have to pay as much attention to makeup. But I can reassure you: I don’t sit in my jacket in my living room. I’ll take a cardigan.


ZEIT: In 2019, you received the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of all people in front of the Chancellery and suddenly you began to tremble very badly and visibly Did the private woman Merkel get in the way of Chancellor Merkel?


Merkel: That was definitely an oppressive moment. In a way, I fainted for a moment, and that in a very official situation, the inspectionof military honors. There was obviously a lot of tension building up in me. It had to do with my mother’s death. I could not spend much time with her in her final weeks. It was also hot, and as always, camera lenses were aimed at me like gun barrels and suddenly I got this feeling: You are completely transparent.


ZEIT: The American writer Siri Hustvedt had similar experiences and wrote a book about them, The Trembling Woman. In it she asks herself: Am I afraid of something that is completely hidden from me? Have you asked yourself a question like this?


Merkel: I asked myself: What is that? It was clear, there was something I can’t articulate. That was towards the end of my term of office and also after the decision not to stand again. And it was basically another indication that this decision was the right one.


ZEIT: Do you think that we in Germany will ever get so far that a top politician can also say in such a situation: I sought psychotherapeutic help?


Merkel: I didn’t have to, but I wouldn’t mind if a politician said that. Of course, I went to the doctor to make sure everything was fine neurologically, I was and still am interested in my health.


ZEIT: Would you say that nature or God has blessed you with a certain fearlessness?


Merkel: Trust in God, I would say, or optimism, yes.


ZEIT: You tangled with Helmut Kohl, in whose office you are now sitting. He was a heavyweight politically, but also physically a colossus. It took a certain fearlessness to meet him.


Merkel: I’ve also experienced this in other contexts with men in politics – the deeper voice, the much larger body, both are also used. Former Federal Minister Rexrodt could speak into the microphone over my head, even if I had fought for a seat in the front row. Helmut Kohl could also speak extra loud when he was angry.


ZEIT: You mean that he then screamed?


Merkel: Then he was massive and you had to consider whether you would  and could resist him. The fact that I sometimes said things that were unusual in politics has to do with my background. I was not shaped by the student union, young union, RCDS from childhood, but came with my own language and my own ideas. This was noticeable at times and seemed fearless to some – but it wasn’t.


“I was firmly convinced that I had to take this risk”


ZEIT: You’ve said at different times that it gave you pause for thought that the GDR collapsed less from a lack of democratic freedoms than from the fact that it wasn’t functioning economically. Our former editor Helmut Schmidt, as someone who had experienced a dictatorship and was not entirely blameless, said that a certain distrust of his own people remained as a result. Do you have something like that too?


Merkel: I wouldn’t call it distrust of one’s own people, but general distrust of people, because people are capable of the incomprehensible. Germany took this to extremes in a terrible way under National Socialism. That is why I am so staunch that the structure of our state and the Basic Law contain a high degree of wisdom, in which the independence of the press, the judiciary, the democratic processes are well thought out. How quick is it to question this, for example to declare court judgments to be non-plausible. For example, I myself have been reprimanded by the Federal Constitutional Court for saying in 2019 that the result of the prime ministerial election in Thuringia in February must be reversed with votes from the AfD. I could have said a lot about this decision, but I didn’t do it, I had and have to respect it. We must never weaken here.


ZEIT: Do you fear that the system could quickly collapse again?


Merkel: It has to be lived by each individual, otherwise it can quickly collapse. That’s why I don’t think labels like the “Prenzlauer Berg bubble” are good either. Of course, that’s not all of Germany, but we must never declare some of the individuals in a country to be outsiders and the rest to be representatives of real democracy, so to speak. This doesn’t end well.


ZEIT: Your chancellorship was strongly influenced by an issue that came up relatively late: refugee policy in September 2015. In this context, when asked about the consequences of your liberal policy, you said: “If we now start aplogising for showing  a friendly face in emergency situations, then this is not my country.” Many found this sentence to be very authoritarian and also ostracizing. It seemed to some that you were entitled to dictate what the country should be like.


Merkel: When I said that,  I had in mind especially the people in Munich’s main train station mind who were welcoming the arriving refugees. I saw my decision to let them in as consistent with our fundamental rights and values. And I wanted to uphold these basic values with the sentence.


ZEIT: But the sentence had something of a call to the people, didn’t it?


Merkel: I had not didn’t thought through this sentence in the days before.  It was a very emotional response, but still not random. This was based on my understanding that human dignity shouldn’t just be something out of a Sunday speech, but has practical implications. To brand that as authoritarian and to say: Well, that’s what East Germans are like, they stand next to the country – I thought that was brazen.


ZEIT: Have you never been troubled by the thought that your policies have nonetheless contributed significantly to the division of the country?


Merkel: Of course that concerned me. And of course, politically, it’s always wonderful when 90 percent agree, and best of all  agree with me. But there are situations in which controversy cannot be avoided. I helped the people who were standing on our doorstep, so to speak, and at the same time, with the EU-Turkey agreement, I made a contribution to tackling the root causes of the flight.


ZEIT: As a politician of whom it is said that she thinks things through to the end,  did you anticipate the price of this controversy, and did you accept it?


Merkel: I believed that this argument could be won. And I was firmly convinced that I had to take this risk because, conversely, it would also have divided society if I hadn’t.


“Perhaps crises are the norm in human life”


ZEIT: Would you act differently at any point today?


Merkel: No!


ZEIT: At no point?


Merkel: Of course I’m learning. That’s why, looking back, I would have worked much earlier to ensure that a situation like the summer of 2015 did not have to arise in the first place, for example, by increasing the contributions to  the World Food Program for refugee camps in neighboring countries that are particularly affected by migration, like we do then have made.


ZEIT: In your chancellorship, the number of crises and their simultaneity increased from year to year…


Merkel: In my memory, the first two years were a very quiet time, then it all started with the global financial crisis, the euro crisis, and the news about climate change kept getting worse. After the first report from the Club of Rome, it seemed that in reality things went a little better than predicted. With every report by the International Climate Council, the IPCC, however, it became more alarming, raising the question whether we still have the time to react appropriately. But maybe crises are the norm in human life, and we only had a few years that were special.


ZEIT: Do you ask yourself whether the years of relative calm were also years of inertia and whether you were not only a crisis manager, but also partly the cause of crises?


Merkel: I wouldn’t be a political person if I didn’t concern myself with  it. Let’s take climate protection, in which Germany has done a great deal in international comparison. With regard to the topic itself, however, I concede: Judging by what the IPCC’s International Climate Report says today, not enough has happened. Or let’s look at my policy towards Russia and Ukraine. I conclude that I made decisions back then that I can understand today. It was an attempt to prevent just such a war. The fact that this was not successful does not mean that the attempts were wrong.


ZEIT: But one can, however, still plausibly find that how one  acted in earlier circumstances and consider it wrong in view of the results today.


Merkel: But also requires saying  what exactly the alternatives were at the time. I thought the discussion of NATO accession for Ukraine and Georgia 2008 to be wrong. The countries neither had the necessary prerequisites for this, nor had the consequences of such a decision been fully considered, both with regard to Russia’s actions against Georgia and Ukraine and to NATO and its rules of assistance. And the 2014 Minsk agreement was an attempt to give Ukraine time.


Note d. Red.: The Minsk Agreement is a set of agreements for the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, which broke away from Ukraine under Russian influence. The aim was to gain time with a ceasefire in order to later come to a peace between Russia and Ukraine.


She also used this time to get stronger, as you can see today. The Ukraine of 2014/15 is not the Ukraine of today. As you saw in the battle for Debaltseve (railway town in Donbass, Donetsk Oblast, ed.) in early 2015, Putin could easily have overrun them at the time. And I very much doubt that the NATO countries could have done as much then as they do now to help Ukraine.


ZEIT: In your first public appearance after the end of your chancellorship, you said that you had already recognized in 2007 how Putin thinks about Europe and that the only language he understands is toughness. If this realization came so early, why did you pursue an energy policy that made us so dependent on Russia?


Merkel: It was clear to all of us that the conflict was frozen, that the problem had not been solved, but that gave Ukraine valuable time. Of course, one can now ask the question: Why was the construction of Nord Stream 2 still approved in such a situation?


“We should have reacted more quickly to Russia’s aggressiveness”


ZEIT: Yes, why? Especially since there was already very strong criticism of the construction of the pipeline at that time, for example from Poland and the USA.


Merkel: Yes, one could come to different opinions. What was it about? On the one hand, Ukraine attached great importance to remaining a transit country for Russian gas. She wanted to channel gas through her territory and not through the Baltic Sea. Today people act  as if every Russian gas molecule was the devil’s. It wasn’t like that, the gas was contested. On the other hand, it was not the case that the federal government had applied for the approval of Nord Stream 2, the companies did that. Ultimately, for the federal government and for me, it was a matter of deciding whether we would make a new law as a political act to expressly refuse approval of Nord Stream 2.


ZEIT: What prevented you from doing that?


Merkel: On the one hand, such a refusal in combination with the Minsk Agreement would, in my view, have dangerously worsened the climate with Russia. On the other hand, the energy policy dependency arose because there was less gas from the Netherlands and Great Britain and limited production volumes in Norway.


ZEIT: And there was the phase-out of nuclear energy. Also initiated by you.


Merkel: Right, and the cross-party decision to produce less gas in Germany as well. One could have  decided to buy more expensive LNG from Qatar or Saudi Arabia, the USA only became available as an export nation later. That would have made our competitiveness significantly worse. Today, under the pressure of war, this is what I support, but at the time it would have been a much more massive political decision.


ZEIT: Should you have made this decision anyway?


Merkel: No, especially since there would have been no acceptance at all. If you ask me for self-criticism, I’ll give you another example.


ZEIT: The whole world is waiting for a word of self-criticism!


Merkel: That may be, but the attitude of the critics does not correspond to my opinion on many points. To simply bow to it just because it’s expected, I think would be cheap. I had so many thoughts back then! It would be downright a sign of inadequacy if, just to have peace of mind and without really thinking like that, I simply said: Oh, right, now I realize it too, that was wrong. But I’ll tell you one point that bothers me. It has to do with the fact that the Cold War never really ended because Russia was basically not at peace. When Putin invaded Crimea in 2014, he was expelled from the G8. NATO has also stationed troops in the Baltic States to show that we, as NATO, were ready for defence.  In addition, we in the Alliance have decided to spend two percent of each country’s gross domestic product on defense. The CDU and CSU were the only ones who still had that in their government program. But we too should have reacted more quickly to Russia’s aggressiveness. Germany has not reached the two percent target despite the increase. And I didn’t give a passionate speech about it every day either.


ZEIT: Why not? Because you secretly thought you didn’t need it?


Merkel: No, but because I acted according to Helmut Kohl’s principle: What matters is what comes out at the end. Giving a rousing speech only to end up as a bedside rug wouldn’t have helped the budget. But when I look through history for successful recipes, I come to the NATO double-track decision …


ZEIT: … because of this decision, Helmut Schmidt ultimately lost his chancellorship …


Merkel: Right, which only increased my respect for him. What was intelligent about the NATO double-track decision was the dual approach of retrofitting and diplomacy. Translated into the 2 percent target, that means we haven’t done enough to deter through increased defense spending.


ZEIT: You said the following to Alexander Osang for a portrait in Der Spiegel: “Tolerating criticism is part of democracy, but at the same time I have the impression that an American president is treated with more respect in public than a German chancellor.” What exactly did you mean by that?


Merkel: On the one hand, I meant that today political decisions of the past are judged very quickly without recalling the context and critically examining alternatives. The second thing is that some people simply disagree with the fact that after 30 years in politics and 16 years as Chancellor, I voluntarily left office at the tender age of 67, and now say I would like to make “feel-good appointments“. For me, this means that I don’t always have to justify myself if I also want to set my own agenda. I don’t always want to be driven by what’s coming at me from the outside.


ZEIT: Do you also mean the discussion about furnishing your office? That your employing nine people was not  understood? 


Merkel: That is perhaps a side effect. What proof of performance do I have to provide that the equipment is justified?


“Wars end at the negotiating table”


ZEIT: At the beginning of your term of office you pointed out that in the past there were seemingly invincible advanced cultures that went under because they couldn’t change fast enough. Could it be that, despite all the knowledge about the degree of global warming, humanity simply cannot manage to organize its own survival because not everyone wants to pull together?


Merkel: My motto in politics was always: We will do it. And that’s why, as a politician, I’ve never dealt with such doomsday scenarios, but always looked for solutions. As a citizen, you can ask yourself the question, but since I’m still at an intermediate stage, I would say that we have to do everything we can to ensure that exactly that doesn’t happen.


ZEIT: 30 percent Chinese CO₂ emissions, almost two percent German, those are the numbers.


Merkel: But that doesn’t justify us not doing anything. We can be a model, even if others are pulling their weight.  China is the biggest emitter today, right. It is at once a rival, competitor and partner. Balancing that will be the big diplomatic question of the future. But the war in Ukraine has once again dramatically worsened the chances of saving the climate because it threatens to fade into the background.


ZEIT: Do you have any idea how this war can end? And is it completely out of the question that you could play a role in it?


Merkel: The second question does not arise. To the first: To be honest, I don’t know. Itwill end in negotiations one day. Wars end at the negotiating table.


ZEIT: Precisely because this war has had so many dramatic effects, can the question of when and under what circumstances negotiations be started be left to Ukraine alone?


Merkel: There is a difference between a dictated peace, which I, like many others, do not want, and friendly, open discussions with one another. I don’t want to say more about it.


ZEIT: So many unforeseen things happened during and after your term of office. Could you have ever imagined that in the last few years of your chancellorship and to this day the harshest criticism came and still comes from Springer-Verlag – with whose publisher you have a friendly relationship?


Merkel: Freedom of the press is a very important asset. (smiles)


ZEIT: Do you let the criticism get to you? Do you read Bild?


Merkel: Even if I don’t read them, there is guaranteed to be someone who will hold the criticism under my nose.


ZEIT: When you left a year ago, like all outgoing chancellors, you were allowed to choose three songs. Among others, you selected It should rain red roses for me. It says: “… submit, be content. I cannot submit, cannot be content, still want to win, want everything or nothing” and then “to develop anew far from the old, from what awaits, get the most.” Which line has the most Angela Merkel in it?


Merkel: I chose the song as a whole. I wanted to say that I’m looking forward to a chapter in my life. I experienced wonderful things, it was also exhausting. But it was a great thing: Who can become Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany? I’ve always done it with joy, and now there’s still a certain tension: What else can happen beyond that?


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