Angela Merkel was assured of a place in the history books as soon as she became Germany’s first female chancellor on Nov. 22, 2005.
Over the next 16 years, she was credited with raising Germany’s profile and influence, working to hold a fractious European Union together, managing a string of crises and being a role model for women.
Now that near-record tenure is ending with her leaving office at age 67 to praise from abroad and enduring popularity at home. Her designated successor, Olaf Scholz, is expected to take office Wednesday.
Merkel, a former scientist who grew up in communist East Germany, is bowing out about a week short of the record for longevity held by her one-time mentor, Helmut Kohl, who reunited Germany during his 1982-1998 tenure.
While Merkel perhaps lacks a spectacular signature achievement, the center-right Christian Democrat came to be viewed as an indispensable crisis manager and defender of Western values in turbulent times.
She served alongside four U.S. presidents, four French presidents, five British prime ministers and eight Italian premiers. Her chancellorship was marked by four major challenges: the global financial crisis, Europe’s debt crisis, the 2015-16 influx of refugees to Europe and the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s undeniable that she’s given Germany a lot of soft power,” said Sudha David-Wilp, the deputy director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Berlin office. “Undoubtedly she’s elevated Germany’s image in the world.”
“When she first came onto the scene in 2005, a lot of people underestimated her, but she grew in stature along with Germany’s role in the world,” David-Wilp added. Others in Europe and beyond “want more of an active Germany to play a role in the world — that may not have been the case before she was in office, necessarily.”
In a video message at Merkel’s final EU summit in October, former U.S. President Barack Obama thanked her for “taking the high ground for so many years.”
“Thanks to you, the center has held through many storms,” he said.
Merkel was a driving force behind EU sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea and backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine, and also spearheaded so-far-unfinished efforts to bring about a diplomatic solution there. She was regarded as being “able to have a dialogue with (Russian President Vladimir) Putin on behalf of the West,” David-Wilp said.