At a meeting with German schoolchildren in July, Chancellor Angela Merkel met Reem Sahwil, a Palestinian refugee girl from Lebanon. She told Ms. Merkel that her family was afraid to be denied residence, and started to cry. In front of reporters, Ms. Merkel told the girl she was sorry, but that Germany couldn’t take in everybody.
Within minutes, the story went viral, seeming to prove to everyone that Germany, and its leader, were just as hardhearted as their handling of the Greek financial crisis had led many to believe. And yet it was vintage Merkel. As a way of speaking and acting, ironic distance, a noncommittal coolness, has long been her trademark, deeply ingrained in her politics, her rhetoric, her personality.
Then, just a few weeks later, Ms. Merkel held her annual summer news conference. Word had spread that German immigration officers had orders to allow all Syrians who had made it to Germany to stay. “Germany is a strong country,” Ms. Merkel said. “We can make it.”
The world swooned. She had gone from “Heartless Merkel” to “Mother Merkel” in the blink of an eye. And now Germans are asking: Are we seeing the end of Angela’s irony?
Germans have long grown used to the unflappable, unemotional Ms. Merkel. For example, she recently spoke at a reception for a new biography of her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder. Mr. Schröder attended, too, and the press crammed into the room to witness the historic encounter: Ms. Merkel meets Mr. Schröder, the man who once met her with arrogance and condescension, the man she bested in the 2005 chancellor’s race.
But Ms. Merkel is not one to indulge in revenge, and in her comments about Mr. Schröder, she was at her best: respectful, funny in her pointed and dry way, and full of self-mockery. It was this, the author of the book, the historian Gregor Schöllgen, concluded when asked what it took to be chancellor: the ability to detach, to self-ironize.
Such a stance has allowed Ms. Merkel to play the political sphinx. When convenient, she has coolly separated herself from key elements of her party’s program — abandoning, for example, nuclear power and the German Army’s draft system. Her course in the Greek debt crisis has made her look hard and pragmatic, detached from the value-driven policy you might expect from one of the most outspoken pro-Europeans in Europe. Analysts say she is guided not by a vision, but by cool pragmatism.
In comparison, “We can make it” is a sentence of immense boldness. To the German ear, it sounds unusually American, almost Obamaesque. Strong stuff. No detachment. No irony.
Few people really know Angela Merkel, and I am certainly not one of them. But the Merkelologists in the German media were impressed. What she had said came from “deep down,” wrote Bernd Ulrich and Tina Hildebrandt in the leading weekly newspaper Die Zeit.
The question of Ms. Merkel’s sudden turn is important, because in the 10 years she has governed Germany, she has become our mascot. She is an icon, she is our new normal; she is venerated and identified with at the same time.
People are impressed with her inhuman workload and the way she has maneuvered Germany into a new position of power in the European Union. And then, every summer, when she goes on vacation to the Alps, blurry photographs appear in the tabloids; Ms. Merkel with her hair in a mess, wearing a puffy jacket and hiking boots, a middle-aged woman struggling to keep up with her slightly fitter middle-aged husband.
Merkel is Germany. Germany is Merkel. Which means: If this is the end of irony for her, it’s the end of irony for all of us.
The country is re-politicizing. Irony and political disinterest seem like luxuries we can no longer afford, decadence from a golden age that has now passed. A new sense of urgency reigns. Optimists accuse the pessimists of racism; the pessimists accuse the optimists of naïveté.
In a way, Ms. Merkel has struck just the right tone. However, for the first time in years, she is losing support. According to a major survey conducted last week, only 45 percent of all Germans think that Germany can manage the current influx of refugees — at the end of September, 50 percent thought so. And while 70 percent think Ms. Merkel is doing a good job altogether, only 46 approve of her management of the refugee crisis.
In the weeks since the first flush of pro-refugee warmth, Germany’s political class has hastened to reverse the impression that the country will take in everybody. The Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of Ms. Merkel’s conservatives, and her minister of homeland affairs, Thomas de Maizière, have pushed for the introduction of “transit zones” at the borders, from which those migrants originating from countries considered safe can be sent back swiftly. After weeks of open attacks from the ranks of her own party, the chancellor has given in to restore intraparty peace.
At the very moment Ms. Merkel has started to follow her heart, she is losing the hearts and minds of her voters. Maybe there still is some irony left in Germany after all.
But there is also still a lot of the old Merkel in the new Merkel. In an emergency meeting with her party’s caucus at the Bundestag, several of her fellow conservatives bucked at the idea of accommodating more refugees. How could conservatives accept the burden of more people? Ms. Merkel shut them down, reportedly saying, “Well, now they are here.”
This might be the end of irony. But it is certainly not the end of pragmatism. It could turn out that once again, she is just what we need.
Anna Sauerbrey is an editor on the opinion page of the daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel.