Angela Merkel inertia

Germany’s new coalition government has finally been sworn in. Will anything actually change?

Image for Angela Merkel inertia
Angela Merkel receives a standing ovation in the Bundestag. Photo: IMAGO / epd


For 16 years now we in Germany have lived as if Merkel’s personal decency was a good proxy for having a decent society.

After all that, after 16 years of just living, of accepting that things are as they are and they can never be different and that this is somehow good, something happened at the moment when Olaf Scholz was sworn in as the next German chancellor.

He had raised his hand, the whole of the Bundestag was standing around him, the new parliament’s new president held up the oath printed in a big coffee-table hardback with a ribbon, and there, looking down from the glass balconies of the gallery was his predecessor, having just been honoured with her own standing ovation.

Suddenly you realised what had been weighing Germany down, clutching the country’s heart with a warm-gloved hand: Not Angela Merkel herself, but the affection for her. I like her too. It’s hard not to like her. She was calm and level-headed. She seemed to embody the difficult-to-translate German adjective sachlich (fact-based, objective). But more than that, she was just there. I don’t just mean that she hung around so you got used to her, she had a quality of reassuring “thereness” that seemed to hold the republic together.

Also, as people never tired of pointing out, she was a scientist. She knew what the word exponential meant, so we decided that the fact that she presided over the terrible spread of COVID-19 this autumn and a terrible booster vaccine rollout couldn’t have actually been her fault. All the inefficiencies in the healthcare system that the Corona crisis exposed couldn’t have been down to her. She’s way too sachlich.

They weren’t exactly her fault personally. But they were the fault of the system that created Merkelism. People liked her so much it fed a feedback loop of inactivity. This is a problem with government and politics generally. The affection for Merkel is the reason why Germany still has fax machines and bad internet, and why the Klimakanzlerin planned to dig up lignite for another two decades – the bigger and deeper the necessary reforms, the more politically painful they are. At some point Merkel realised: The more I do, the less people like me. It makes political sense not to change anything.

Once Merkel disappeared, and the political imperative for inertia lifted. Suddenly strange old laws from evil times that had been causing many kinds of human misery were swept away in one go: The transgender law (which forced trans people to provide psychiatric assessments to claim the right to register their gender), paragraph 219a (which meant doctors couldn’t advertise abortion services), the ban on having two nationalities, allowing 16-year-olds to vote. Such a relief! But also they are simple and obvious measures for a civilised society. For 16 years now, we in Germany have lived as if Merkel’s personal decency was a good proxy for having a decent society.

But once the above flurry of legislation passes, what happens next? Scholz, Habeck and Lindner have given themselves some massive tasks to do, but doing them is likely to make them unpopular. Soon they’ll realise it’s best to do as little as possible. That’s how people like you.