“We talked about the book the whole time.” Angela Merkel sums it up smugly in her own way – about the actual reason for her return to the public stage, a book with three very special speeches by her chancellorship, she wrote in her 90s didn’t talk at all for minutes.
It all started with the fact that the Chancellor had to wait a whopping 15 minutes behind the red curtain in the Berliner Ensemble when she was off duty, because the Spiegel reporter Alexander Osang first read out her own portrait of Merkel, to make her so well-known to Germans and yet often so to better explain the distant long-term chancellor.
Including the anecdote of how, during a conversation with the then new leader of the CDU, at whose request he told her so much about the Rocky Mountains and her dream country, the USA, that at some point the time ran out, Merkel giggling – and Osang stood there without an interview.
The large hall of the Berliner Ensemble is packed, there are so many questions about where she was, the balance of her Russia policy, the resurrection of Friedrich Merz. What can be seen is a visibly recovered Merkel, who doesn’t want to see any mistakes, but also has the space to put everything into context. She also wants to write a book with her long-standing office manager, Beate Baumann, to present the decisions and long lines of the 16-year chancellorship from her point of view.
And what has she been up to for the past six months? “Tomorrow it will be exactly six months since the last pictures of me were in the Chancellery.” There was this picture of her doing THE Corona fist with Olaf Scholz, getting into the limousine and driving into a new life.
30 years of politics. Dates, dates, dates. She was alone, unrecognized, on the Baltic Sea for five weeks. “More exercise, the Baltic Sea is wonderful for that,” says the 67-year-old. She read a lot. Really big books. Among others Macbeth, the Shakespearean tragedy. “And I’ve worked my way into the field of audio books.”
In summer she shouldn’t show up there, in winter she puts on a hood and walks along the beach, recently with headphones, listening to audio books.
Surprisingly, she was never bored. “I got through the day surprisingly well.” Osang asks her about the final phase of her chancellorship, the tremors. The first trembling attack, she remembers clearly, was when Volodymyr Zelenskyj visited her in Berlin.
She was exhausted, her mother’s death affected her more than she thought. And then there was always the fear of the shaking coming back, hence the seated performances. It does something to you when the telephoto lenses are pointed at you all the time. This is another reason why the sea has “something calming for me”.
The advantage is also that it had been her constituency for over 30 years. “Because the people there are used to me, they are also very silent.” The constituency has always been life insurance for her, where she always got an unfiltered judgment of what moves people. “And above all, there was never anything about it in the newspaper.”
And Merkel makes it clear that she is now claiming a different role for herself, which is also why she has been reluctant to make this first major appearance until now, despite the Russian attack on Ukraine. “I’ve made one thing: I’ll choose the formats.” She wants to do something “that I enjoy.”
When she reads that Merkel now only makes feel-good appointments, she answers: “I say yes.” She is no longer obliged to comment on every point, whether the 9-euro ticket is good or not. She also always said that she wanted to recover after the chancellorship.
However, it was unfortunate that the Russian atrocities became public when she strolled through Florence and asked Selenskyj Merkel to travel to Bucha and see what her veto against NATO membership of Ukraine had done.
She already suspected that she would be discovered in Italy and thought for a long time whether she should make the trip, a bathing trip in the South Seas was certainly not appropriate in the situation. She’s interested in the Renaissance, she thinks it’s essential for enlightenment and the development of democracy. And look at Michelangelo’s David in peace.
“I can’t stop traveling and only be in the Uckermark because of everything that’s happening in the world,” says Merkel. “I wanted that for myself, it was individually important for my decoupling process from politics.”
Other travel destinations? Bhutan finds them interesting “because they have this happiness index”. But as chancellor, a trip there was out of the question. She found out “that we don’t have any diplomatic representation there.” India is also very appealing to her, as are the Rocky Mountains. “And I used to want to drive through Russia with Transib. That is now superfluous.”
But the conversation very quickly turns to the questions that everyone is asking. Merkel goes on to say that the US services had already given information at the G20 summit in Rome that there was more behind the Russian troop deployment.
She sums up how she deliberately took Olaf Scholz with her to the meeting with US President Joe Biden. “I was at peace with myself that the change of government went very well.” Scholz always had access to all information during the transition. “That makes things a little easier, despite all the anxiety and trepidation.” She has confidence in the new government, at least in terms of foreign policy, as she emphasizes.
Her relationship with Vladimir Putin is at stake for a long time. Osang wants to know whether he would not have dared the attack if Merkel had still been chancellor. Merkel does not like to speculate, she is highly concentrated as usual. The corona pandemic, elections in Germany, the failure of the West in Afghanistan – it is pure speculation what the decisive factors were for Putin.
Because of Corona, you would hardly have seen each other for two years, no direct talks, Putin at no G20 meeting. Merkel quarrels with the fact that she did not try to involve Putin more closely with French President Emmanuel Macron in 2021, to restart de-escalation, but there was no agreement at European level and Merkel was only a few months in office.
“In the past I might have pushed it through.” And she emphasizes: “I don’t have to blame myself, I didn’t try enough to prevent such an event.”
The Minsk Agreement was certainly never perfect, but it did bring some peace. And it gave Ukraine seven years to develop into the way it is today.” Diplomacy is not wrong if it doesn’t work. “That’s why I won’t apologize.”
Russia is the second largest nuclear power in the world, so to say: We don’t talk to them? That’s not an approach. These are words that her successor Scholz would also sign. One of Ukraine’s central allegations against Merkel is her blocking of an early entry into NATO at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest.
At that time it was about the Membership Action Plan, the preliminary stage of membership. Merkel explains that at that time the Ukraine was not an internally democratically stable country. And she was sure that Putin would take that as some kind of declaration of war. “He wouldn’t let that happen in Ukraine.”
During her visit to Sochi in 2007, Putin told her that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century for him – Merkel replied that being able to live in freedom was the greatest happiness for her. And at that time Ukraine was a country ruled by oligarchs, with a lot of corruption.
“I knew that Putin would do something that would not be good for Ukraine,” says Merkel. “Those were my motives.” Beforehand, Osang had exchanged text messages with the Ukrainian Ambassador Andrei Melnyk, accusing Merkel of a failed appeasement policy.
Merkel rejects this, she sees a continuous series of border crossings with Putin, ultimately it was about damage limitation and the Minsk Agreement bought time, in 2014 Ukraine could not have defended itself as well and is now much more united domestically.
All differences are about “coexisting with each other,” she says, referring to Russia. The solution cannot be that Russia and China tie themselves even more closely together. But with a view to the stopped Baltic Sea pipeline, Merkel does not want to admit mistakes like Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
But her explanations arrive in the Berliner Ensemble, she creates an emotional bridge of understanding, there is also a difference to Chancellor Scholz, whom she gives a few tips, mainly because of his allegations that the Union had saved the Bundeswehr to pieces. Merkel emphasizes how long she persuaded the SPD to buy armed drones. “I want Ukraine to do as well as possible,” says Merkel.
She makes it clear that she had no illusions about Putin, it’ll work again, she recalls the Labrador Koni, whom Putin let sniff around Merkel at the 2007 meeting in Sochi. “I heard you have a problem with dogs,” Putin said on the very first visit and gave her a stuffed dog.
At the next meeting follows the encounter with a real dog. “A brave chancellor has to deal with a dog like that.” Merkel continues to take things as they come, also that her adversary Friedrich Merz is now leading the CDU, so the story of the two peers “found an interesting continuation”.
At the very end, Osang tries to make the connection to Merkel’s speech booklet, which she signed a hundred times and kept in the Knesset when Merkel quoted the founder of the State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion. It fits in very well with today’s times and Merkel’s political approach : “Anyone who does not believe in miracles is not a realist.”