Angela Merkel.

Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images

Nation & World

Angela Merkel, the scientist who became a world leader

In word portraits, those who know the German chancellor, Harvard’s Commencement speaker, explain her rise to longtime prominence

long read

World War II was at a critical juncture when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill traveled to Harvard in September 1943 at the urging of his ally and friend President Franklin D. Roosevelt 1904, L.L.D. ’29. Taking a rare respite from the war, Churchill came to accept an honorary Doctor of Laws degree recognizing his international leadership that “turned back the tide of tyranny in freedom’s darkest hour.”

In 1947, as Europe’s vast devastation from that war had become clearer, U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall accepted an honorary Doctor of Laws degree for his success as the five-star Army general who had overseen much of the U.S. war operations in Europe. Marshall used his Commencement appearance in June that year to deliver a landmark speech pledging $13 billion for a new, U.S.-led aid program for Europe. That effort became known as the Marshall Plan and revitalized the continent.

Now, as national-populist forces again threaten to overtake much of Europe and undermine relations between the U.S. and the continent, Harvard again welcomes a pivotal democratic figure, a woman widely regarded as the most respected leader in the world, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. On Thursday, Harvard will award Merkel an honorary Doctor of Laws degree during Morning Exercises, and she will address the annual meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association during the Afternoon Program at the 368th Commencement.

Trained as a quantum chemist, Merkel spent her first 35 years living in Soviet-controlled East Germany working at a state-run research center until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. That historic shift prompted Merkel to abandon scientific work and embrace a lifelong interest in politics, steadily ascending the ranks of a newly unified German government.

Elected chancellor in 2005, Merkel is the first woman and the first East German to hold her nation’s highest elective office. When she steps down in 2021, she will be Germany’s second-longest-serving leader of the modern era, after her former mentor, Helmut Kohl, who spoke at Harvard’s Commencement in 1990.

In advance of her visit, the Gazette spoke with current and former Merkel colleagues, diplomats, scholars, and journalists about her life, her rise to political power, and her extraordinary influence on Germany and the world. Here are their reflections.

A figure of hope

She is extraordinary. She knows who she is. She does not try to be anything other. She is an authentic leader, which is critical. She has a set of strong values, and she understands Germany’s history exceedingly well, in part because she comes from East Germany. So she has a certain humility that comes from her particular biography. She fights for her country and for her people. She is analytical, she’s fierce, she’s a very skilled politician. She didn’t start out that way, but she certainly has become that. And she knows how to operate on the world stage — no easy task.

WENDY R. SHERMAN (Click to expand)

Under secretary of state for political affairs (2011‒2015); counselor of the State Department under Secretary Madeleine K. Albright (1997‒2001); special adviser to President Bill Clinton. Now professor of the practice of public leadership and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS).

The most dangerous issue in the West is that democracy is under siege. It’s being challenged by Russian cyberattacks, by divisive politics here at home, by the rise of the anti-democratic populists in Europe, and by Donald Trump. And for a lot of us who think that the West is important, the idea of a democratic world, she’s now the leader of the West. I’m told that she doesn’t want that mantle. But for all of us who think that democracy is under challenge and we must do everything we can to revive it, she’s the one Western leader who’s never flinched. I think she will arrive at Harvard with many, many people on both sides of the Atlantic seeing her as a figure of hope.


Under secretary of state for political affairs (2005‒2008); U.S. ambassador to NATO (2001‒2005); U.S. ambassador to Greece (1997‒2001). Now director of the Aspen Strategy Group and the Roy and Barbara Goodman Family Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations at HKS.

As ambassador to the Holy See, I witnessed the reaction to the way Merkel handled the migration crisis. She was viewed as “the woman who saved the dignity of Europe.” For Merkel, this decision was critical. While populists were maneuvering to use the issue to their advantage, she viewed it as the hour of truth for a Christian democracy. How Europe treated refugees was a testament to how it treats human beings. For her, the migration crisis was a turning point for Europe to demonstrate how to act responsibly.


German ambassador to the Holy See (2014‒2018); minister of education and research (2005‒2013); deputy chair, Christian Democratic Union party (1998‒2012); longtime Merkel confidante.

Considering the challenges she has faced, I would rank her as one of the great chancellors because she dealt with, like some of her predecessors, a major critical development: the breakdown of the established rules-based system in the wake of the U.S. election. She’s handled that very well, so far. That is her big crisis. She kept the European Union together in difficult times, particularly when the question came up of dealing with Russia, which is another crisis where she did well. Inside the European Union, there was a lot of divergence on whether or not to impose sanctions on Russia after the annexation of Crimea. She twisted the arms of some countries quite successfully to keep them on board, in close cooperation with the White House under [Barack] Obama.


Director of the German Council on Foreign Relations in Bonn/Berlin (1973‒2003); an adviser to German Chancellors Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt; founder and senior associate of the Project on Europe and the Transatlantic Relationship at HKS.

What constitutes her success? If you ask me, it’s not visible at first sight. Probably the most remarkable achievement will be to have kept so much stability and continuity to the system in Germany, to government, to the country, to everyone’s life — with continued growth in economic terms, but also politically. When she took office, we were living through the terrorist age, then immediately slid into the most tumultuous economic times with 2008 and the ensuing economic crises, the European currency crisis. Her biggest, first achievement was preventing the euro from disintegrating. The second was to keep the EU together as it is now. Even the way the British show how difficult it is to get out, and what attraction the EU still can project, this shows that there must be something to it. She’s not a big performer, she’s not a huge visionary. She’s the stable hand.


Author of the definitive biography “Angela Merkel: The Chancellor and Her World” (2014); foreign policy editor of the Munich daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.

“She doesn’t need to win every argument. She doesn’t have to get in the last word. She quietly assesses the different factors involved in a given situation and then decides which way she wants to go, and does it quietly and without fanfare.”

She does everything possible not to talk about herself. She doesn’t give interviews to correspondents from leading Western newspapers and magazines; she gives interviews to local papers when it’s politically advantageous. She seems to have no vanity. I’m sure she does, but she seems to have none, and that’s been one of her great assets as a politician. Whenever she runs up against a powerful and vain male German politician, she’s inevitably underestimated. She bides her time, and then, when the moment is right, she gives a small but decisive shove, and that person has to find some other line of work. That’s been her way to the top from the beginning. She doesn’t need to win every argument. She doesn’t have to get in the last word. She quietly assesses the different factors involved in a given situation and then decides which way she wants to go, and does it quietly and without fanfare. It’s a different kind of political style that Germans had not known until Merkel.


Staff writer for The New Yorker (2003‒2018) who wrote an authoritative profile of Merkel, “The Quiet German,” in 2014; staff writer for The Atlantic (2018‒present); author, “Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century” (2019).

She’s seen to be a problem-solver who sometimes puts other people’s best interests forward. And that’s just so remarkably unlike most politicians, on both sides of the Atlantic, that she’s stood out — to be serious, analytical, not always looking for the votes. She leads a country that has become, without any question, the strongest in Europe economically and politically, far stronger than France or Britain, the other two of that triumvirate. Her personal behavior, her seriousness, the way she drills down on issues — she’s substantive, she’s not superficial. If you took a private poll of the G20 leaders, the most powerful leaders in the world, and you asked, “Who do you respect the most in this group?” Merkel wins the poll. Or ask “Who would chair this group in a fair way?” They’d put the gavel in her hands.

A number of things are distinctive about her, but the thing that distinguishes her from most other politicians is that she’s genuinely not needy. She genuinely doesn’t need politics to be happy. People who know her much better say she ran for a fourth term because she felt responsible. She felt that she needed to, as it were, “finish her job.” Whenever she gets to step away, she will do so very happily. And I find that more credible than with most other politicians I’ve met.


Robert Bosch Senior Fellow, the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution (2014‒present); Senior Transatlantic Fellow, German Marshall Fund of the U.S. in Berlin (2009‒2014); visiting scholar, CES (2010).

Her political career could have never been anticipated, and never gave the idea that she could end up as chancellor or that she would be the leader of the Western world somehow. The speed in which she took on politics after ’89, especially when she joined the first unified German cabinet in ’91 and the continuing years, was breathtaking. There’s hardly a political career in these professionalized times where you start that late, at age 35, and not that high. So yes, this is stunning.

The second stunning thing is that her private character, the base on which all of this stands, has changed remarkably little. Yes, she has become, through and through, a political animal. She is breathing and thinking and dreaming politics, I guess. But on the other side, her character has not changed at all — the way she deals with people, the way she shows interest, the way she engages. She has not disappeared in the fog of prominence or of being a superhero. She’s a very down-to-earth woman, very self-critical. She’s always suspicious of people adoring her too much. She has kept that kind of ability to stand beside herself, watch herself, and tell herself, “Don’t take yourself too seriously, Angela.”

Ever the East German

Her father was called “The Red Minister” because when everyone else was going west after the division of Germany following World War II, he went east and took over a parish north of Berlin, in the heartland of Brandenburg. It’s known for its correctness and its uprightness and the values of German Protestantism: hard work, discipline, self-effacement, all those things different from the German south. That was the region that shaped Merkel. That was the father who gave her a sense of purpose and responsibility. But she certainly didn’t take his politics and live by them. She was a good East German. She did not become a dissident. She avoided all the traps that could have derailed her career and even worse. She kept her head down and did what you had to do in order to have a decent life and a reasonably successful career.

She always was deeply interested in politics. She tells the story that she listened to West German radio in secret at her parents’ home, that she always dreamt of visiting Westminster in London, and so Parliament. Her first trip abroad led her to London. The first thing she did from Heathrow was to come up the escalator at Parliament Square in London and see the Churchill statue and then Parliament. Then, going on to Speakers’ Corner, watching those people debating. She had this deep desire to engage in public affairs and the public exchange of arguments.

Angela Merkel holds a beaker in 1995.

Angela Merkel worked as a research scientist until 1989. Here, as Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, she examines a beaker filled with water at a water-control station.

Photo by Ulrich Baumgarten via Getty Images

I met Angela Merkel for the first time on Sept. 23, 1989, at an event organized by the Pastoral College in Templin. Her father, Horst Kasner, was in charge of this continuing education institution for the Protestant church. Together with friends and acquaintances, I attended a seminar with Professor Christofer Frey from Bochum on the relation of theology and natural sciences, ethics and responsibility, etc. My friend Marcus Kasner, Angela Merkel’s brother, also participated. One of the participants was Hans-Jürgen Fischbeck from the initiative Democracy Now, whose texts our ecumenical peace group had distributed the weekend before, after the worship. Another one was Angela Merkel, who was visiting her parents. I remember that she did not say much, but at one point when her father, as was typical for his generation, was suggesting moderation, she contradicted him. She was open-minded and acted politically in the spirit of the new civil rights movements, although she did not belong to one. For us, the most important date is the 9th of October, the Monday of the peaceful rally in Leipzig. One month later, the wall came down.

Personal representative of the German Chancellor for Africa (2010‒present); BMZ commissioner for Africa (2014‒present); federal commissioner for human rights policy and humanitarian aid in Germany’s Federal Foreign Office (2006‒2010).

She wasn’t among the first to go over to the West. After it became clear people could cross, she didn’t go immediately. She actually took a sauna with a friend while others were crossing, and then joined a crowd. I picture her quietly taking it all in and assessing what it meant, rather than getting caught up in the euphoria and taking the lead. And that’s sort of been true of her for most of her political career. She doesn’t like to get out in front of the crowd. She likes to test the winds and make her decision like a scientist, based on a careful calculation of all the different factors at play.

She was a quantum chemist. She was divorced without children. She was working at an East German scientific institution that was decaying throughout the ’80s. You can’t think of a less-likely origin story for a world leader. I just have to speculate that as a really intelligent, ambitious, and capable person, she saw the fall of the wall as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and showed up at the local CDU [Christian Democratic Union] meeting and from there began to make her way upward. But whether she’d been planning it all along, I don’t believe it’s possible, because the fall of the Berlin Wall took everyone by surprise, including Merkel. I think she just saw the opportunity and realized that this was her moment, and she took it.

She had this career as a physicist, and she knew that the academic credentials she brought, the training and learning on the job she had enjoyed for about five to seven years in East Germany, wasn’t nearly enough of what was expected in the West. The East was so far behind in terms of equipment, in terms of scientific advances, that she knew she wouldn’t stand a chance in this competitive new environment. So she made the decision to join politics. She went from one political party to another to check on what she liked best. She disliked, for example, with the Social Democrats, the way that they always addressed each other by first name. That was too casual for her — or always this obligation to sing songs at the meetings. And the Greens, the same. That was alien to her. Her initial steps led her to a party called the Democratic Awakening, or Demokratischer Aufbruch. This party was, soon after unification, dissolved.

“The key to understanding Angela Merkel is that her biographical experiences have shaped her world view. With the fall of the wall, her political life began.”

The key to understanding Angela Merkel is that her biographical experiences have shaped her world view. With the fall of the wall, her political life began. That extraordinary event changed everything, shaped how she views political developments, and how to handle them. Merkel is motivated by a perspective that says, “What is impossible can be made possible.” When she lived in East Berlin, it appeared that life would never change. Even six months before the Berlin Wall fell, most people thought that its fall would be impossible. Her position on the migration crisis and her statement “Wir schaffen das” (“We can do it”) is a case in point. Merkel looks at a situation and then looks at its possibilities, not its obstacles. Her critics demanded that she take back this statement. But by doing so, they would have taken away her ability to lead. She, however, shaped the situation herself and decided how to handle it. She reacted the same way as with other topics. Rather than complaining, she looked at the opportunities the situation offered.

After a long cabinet meeting, we went out of her office. During the meeting there had been tough conversations between some members of the government about the [Syrian] refugee issue. Some cabinet members asked for closing the borders and building fences. I was vice chancellor and leader of the Social Democratic party. She took me aside and said, “Please promise me that we will never build new fences in Germany against people who are refugees of civil wars and who only want to save their lives and the lives of their children.” To understand her position, one has to remember that she lived in East Germany, which was divided from West Germany through a fence. For me, it was her deep conviction that it is her duty as a Christian to help people who are in danger. And, of course, we did not build new fences in Germany.

Vice chancellor of Germany (2013‒2018); leader of the Social Democratic Party (2009‒2017); minister for foreign affairs (2017‒2018); minister for economic affairs and energy (2013‒2017); JFK Memorial Policy Fellow at the Center for European Studies (CES) at Harvard (2018); senior fellow, Center for European Studies (2019).

For a long time, there was a line I heard from many German journalists and politicians that she had no core values, that she was a politician who just went with what was popular and followed public opinion rather than led it — and that may have been true, but it’s no longer true. The second great event of her life, after the fall of the wall, has been something that echoes it: the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees at the borders of Germany. Those two moments are the bookends of her career. And there, she led and people learned that Merkel has core values, that they were shaped by being a product and a victim of Communism and being an East German, with all that that means.

Her suspicion of the police state, her suspicion of authoritarian systems, her deep, deep belief that liberalism and individualism are core to our whole existence — this all comes from her 35-year-old experience of being taught there and having to grow up in a system where she always felt suppressed. She grew up in a pastoral household. Her father was the priest-teacher in East Germany, the Protestant pastors’ teacher. So, yes, the family was watched. She was approached by the East German secret police when she started to study at the age of 17, 18, in Leipzig. She refused to cooperate, or actually told them she couldn’t keep a secret anyway, so it wouldn’t be worth recruiting her. So this is all part of her upbringing. It’s not pretension, it’s true. It is extremely honest, and you still do feel this honesty when she talks about democracy and liberalism and freedom.

Taking power and leading

Chancellor Helmut Kohl had good instincts, and choosing her as a successor was a good move. There was nothing for anybody to object to. There was nothing really for people to be able to say, “This is a real visionary; this is a person of great moral stature.” She was not that, but she clearly was not an apparatchik in any sense. She was a person whom no one could take offense with. I think the people in her party felt she’ll be the transitional figure between Kohl and whoever was the next major leader of the party. And, as it turned out, she was the major leader of the party.

’60, Ph.D. ’67; Leverett Saltonstall Professor of History at Harvard; noted historian of German history, awarded the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the nation’s highest honor for political, economic, social, or intellectual achievement.
Angela Merkel talks to her mentor, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, in 1991.

In 1991, Merkel was appointed Federal Minister for Women and Youth by Helmut Kohl, her mentor and, before her, the longest-serving German chancellor.

Michael Jung/Picture-alliance-dpa/AP Images

In Germany, there is a kind of blandness and blindness to politics, at least as I saw it back then. It’s changing; Germany is becoming more like the rest of Europe, but slowly. We here [in America] don’t recognize a politician like Merkel. It’s part of Germany’s political culture to distrust bombast. Look at what bombast led to in Germany. When Merkel and then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder sat around a table on a news talk show after the 2005 election, it was clear that her party had won the most votes. But Schröder was trying to claim a victory. He was certainly bombastic. Merkel just quietly let him talk and talk and finally said, “We won the election. We will form the government.” It was so devastating that it deflated him in front of the eyes of the country. That’s Merkel. That’s how she has succeeded. Not in spite of that, but that is how she’s succeeded.

In the German vernacular, we have this expression that has become a verb: to merkeln, which is “to wait for the strategic opportunity, or see how the chips lie, or how a landscape presents itself, and then make a strategic move.” Because she’s a woman, they call her Mutti, which is short for Mommy. Mommy Merkel. That’s partially in admiration, because she’s not mommy-ish at all. She’s not the mother hen of the nation. She’s a shrewd, straightforward, straight shooter who doesn’t take too many risks. She’s comforting in that sense — because she’s not a risk-taker. That’s why when she did open the doors to millions of refugees; that, for people, really broke character, because usually she’s so calculated, she’s so strategic, she’s so good at thinking a couple steps ahead.

Founding executive director of the Future of Diplomacy Project and executive director of the Project on Europe and the Transatlantic Relationship at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at HKS. A U.S./German national, she provides analyses of U.S., European Union, and German politics to German, American, and international news outlets.

She’s not taken away by the grandeur of the office. She’s not a pomp-and-circumstance woman. She hates standing at a party conference giving a speech and being applauded for 20 minutes. You can see she is physically uncomfortable being pushed into the limelight. She prefers to govern quietly and step by step, not by grandiose ideas, approaches, speeches. She rejects that role, and this makes her suspicious of all of us who expect more of that leadership type. The thing is, she’s utterly self-confident. There’s no question about that. She never has any doubt that she is right. She has the strength to make it through troubles. She went through at least three or four near-death moments in her political life where she was solely alone, especially during the refugee crisis. She never had any doubt that she was doing the right thing. How does this go along with the lack of the wish to show off? I can’t explain.

I think what people really appreciate about her is her sense of humor. That’s something you hear all the time, that she is wickedly funny in private and really good at imitating other people. She’s famous for that. She is also one of the most experienced world leaders, if not the most. Merkel can point to a degree of experience, including with American presidents, that just makes for a sense of judgment and ability to bridge conversations that is in very short supply right now and is really appreciated by politicians who are newer to the game. A case in point is how she managed to charm Alexis Tsipras of Greece. I’m very critical of Germany’s policy toward Greece, but, bizarrely, the German-Greek relationship and the relationship between Merkel and Tsipras appear to be excellent and have come through all this with a consensus that the Greeks are now in a better place. That’s a fairly remarkable achievement. My sense is that she is very good at three things: reasonableness, listening, and empathy. That creates a certain amount of trust. She is never theatrical. She doesn’t grandstand. What you see is what you get, and that also inspires trust. There’s a fundamental sense that you may disagree with her, you may think that she takes too long to make decisions, that she isn’t fast enough or bold enough, but there’s never the sense that there is double-dealing. And that, in this day and age, is helpful.

Persuasion, using German resources like her predecessors did. Her word counts because she represents the biggest economic power in the European Union, and her personal standing does too. She is very cautious and very diplomatic, and the way she treats other politicians is very different from who’s now in the White House. She’s respected because of her success, because of her competence, because of her rationality, and because of her reliability. And she’s been in power for a long time — that helps. Her strength is to find consensus quietly and not publicly, never to humiliate anybody publicly, and to work until the early morning hours to work out a compromise, which is the method of the European Union. That’s her style: Work long nights, and then come out with a compromise.

In nearly every European or international negotiation during the last decade, she played a very important role. Without her, it would have not been possible to stop the war at a certain level in the east of Ukraine. It was her outstanding role to convince the heads of state and government to participate at the Paris Climate Summit in 2015. Without the participation of many heads of state and government, the summit would not have been so successful. And she was, without great media participation, very active in the difficult regions of West Africa.

“I think what people really appreciate about her is her sense of humor. That’s something you hear all the time, that she is wickedly funny in private and really good at imitating other people.”

Over the 13 years, France and Germany have pulled off many important things. The most important bilateral challenge was definitely to hold the eurozone together, particularly after the sovereign debt and banking crisis broke. That was not an easy bilateral cooperation. Both worked their way toward each other. And in the end, Germany did change its position on some of the key issues because of that intense dialogue with France and also because of the reality of the crisis evolving even further.

She simply underestimated how strong the resistance would be on the quota system that was introduced for the refugees who arrived to get distributed across the EU member states. That was never accepted, although the decision was taken in the European Council with a majority vote. I would say there was a lack of understanding for the east/west and north/south divides in Europe over various issues: migration, the eurozone, questions of national identity. But on the other hand, at the time of Brexit negotiations, Germany was one of the states that firmly stuck to the EU negotiation line, and that was crucial for the EU to really hold together.

Director of the German Council on Foreign Relations (2016‒present); senior director of research and Europe program director at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. in Berlin (2014‒2016); Fritz Thyssen Fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard (2012‒2013).

Her technocratic style of government certainly left room for new political groupings that spoke to people’s emotions, to the sense of insecurity, to the fear generated by the great series of crises and the sense that globalization was something that affected people negatively and there was no way of fending off those negative impacts. On the migration decision, it’s often said, particularly in America, that she “threw open the borders.” That’s just factually untrue. We would have broken European law if we had closed them. We would have also left the Austrians and the central Eastern Europeans and the Balkan countries with that problem, political economies that were much more vulnerable to stress than ours was. We would have pushed off the problems in a way that we would have been justifiably accused of irresponsibility for. Frankly, what caught people by surprise in the negative was that the government then struggled for such a long time to get a grip on the situation.

German society has become much more open, much more welcoming, much more liberal. Where all Western societies were engulfed by racial issues or gender issues, gay marriage, all of these things, she pushed her conservative party extremely to the center and changed the political landscape. Second, and this is the much more important point, during her chancellorship, this country grew into a foreign policy role which postwar Germany never had and never dreamt of: being a foreign political actor, being the central balancing moderating power in Europe, leading the European Union. Holding it together was always France, Germany, and Britain doing that in concert. Now, with Britain dropping out of that equation, and France with President Emmanuel Macron being engulfed in huge domestic problems, this role of keeping Europe together and yet not dominating it falls to Germany. The age-old trap this country fell into — it was always too small to rule Europe, but too big to be denied as the role of the main actor. So you have to calibrate that role of leading without dominating extremely carefully. This is what she mastered very well.

Fraying ties of U.S. and Germany

Merkel has always said how much America was an ideal for her when she was still a young adult in the GDR [German Democratic Republic, or East Germany]. I’ve seen that in a lot of East Germans who were not in conformity with the system or part of the system. America always represented a hope, an ideal, and … the whole Trump era has been so hard to process because we have clung for such a long time to this notion of America as a model. I don’t think that Trump has destroyed that model because that ideal is much bigger than Trump or the people around him. But I think that what we’re seeing is, in many ways, an America that mirrors our own troubles, a society that, despite the fact that it’s wealthy and highly developed, is really struggling with the impact of globalization and integration, is really struggling with political polarization and with adapting its democratic structure to the new international gale-force winds that are buffeting all countries, large and small.

She is a typical German in the sense that she considers a close relationship with the U.S. the most important part of Germany’s foreign policy and she’s profoundly disappointed by the destructive impact of Trump’s foreign policy in questioning that basis. She has tried to minimize the damage as much as possible and tried to educate her German compatriots, but also the European Union, that, on the one hand, one can no longer rely in the same way as in the past on the U.S., but on the other, to do everything one can to preserve the basics of that relationship.

Angela Merkel, surrounded by world leaders at G& summit in 2018, leans over table to face Donald Trump, whose arms are folded.

Last year, this photo of a defiant Donald Trump facing Merkel and other leaders of the European Union at the G7 summit in Quebec went viral.

Photo by Jesco Denzel/German Federal Government via AP

Of all the honors Merkel has received, the most meaningful to her was the Presidential Medal of Freedom that President Obama presented to her on June 7, 2011. It underscored what she holds most dear: her deep conviction of the value of freedom. From her perspective, Europeans are losing [a sense of] the value of freedom.

The main reason why she ran for the fourth time was Donald Trump. She was undecided by the time he was elected in November 2016. She had to decide by December 2016 whether she would run again or not. After he was elected, she decided she couldn’t leave the West exposed to so much change at once. There was a French election coming up that year with, at that point, an extremely unperceivable outcome. Marine Le Pen was strong in the polls, and [French President] Emmanuel Macron wasn’t there yet. There was the danger that France would be the next to jump off the ship. Brexit was just starting to become reality. We had Trump in the United States. So at that point she decided that, “Even if I would consider it best to have a democratic change in Germany, it is far too dangerous right now.”

I’m one of the oldest members of the Munich Security Conference. I’ve been there since the late ’70s. It has never happened that a person got such a standing ovation. This is not done. And it was done. Because for the first time in the history of the conference, you had an America that consisted of two parts: one that challenges everything this conference had been standing for, and the other one that represented what had been the consensus of what originally was a NATO conference. That is why there was this enormous relief. Here is somebody who represents what we think: she, as the German chancellor, and then [former Vice President Joseph] Biden as the American. What struck all of us who know her from other occasions, she was totally liberated. I’ve never seen that.

Considering her legacy

The biggest misunderstanding is that she is simply sitting on her hands and that she really hasn’t changed the country, that she never came up with one big major theme or issue which will define her chancellorship. That’s not true. Probably these are things that might become clearer in retrospect: being the one who preserves rather than destroys, being the one who maintains, the one who solves crises rather than causes crises. This is defensive, not offensive, and this is probably the biggest misunderstanding: that these gifts are actually valuable and not for nothing. But she was never able to explain it, and she will never be, so it will be up to historians to judge.

I guess [history will recognize her for] two things: to handle – quietly — really great international and domestic challenges while keeping the European Union together; and secondly, to preside over Europe’s most powerful country without reviving any fear of German power. It’s obviously her decision to have an orderly transition and not to repeat what happened under some of her predecessors. Some of the German chancellors ended very sadly. To leave when you’re at the top is very desirable, and to make sure that you have a successor you think is the best to continue your work.

“She slowly walks out now into the sunset.”

Angela Merkel walks under an umbrella with Krisjanis Karins, prime minister of Latvia.

In 2021, Merkel will step down from office, perhaps exiting the world stage.

Photo by Jesco Denzel

It’s been a really interesting road for her because she’s had a difficult relationship with the idea of being a feminist. In the modern European era, aside from British Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher, she’s the longest-serving female leader, but that hasn’t necessarily meant that the state of women, or how women are seen in [Germany], or how women are perceived as leaders in the corporate or political environment, has radically shifted. I do believe she wrestles with whether she’s a feminist or not. I think she would just consider herself a shrewd and calculating politician regardless of her gender, and that has been entirely borne out in the way that she ascended the ranks to party leadership. Despite that, we now have a would-be female successor to her in Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

She is a feminist by example and by asserting the right of women to be at the table and to lead at the table. Part of [that] is generational, and part is she is someone who believes in doing more than saying. I hope it doesn’t escape anyone that her likely successor is a woman. I think she believes that if you have the competence, if you have the skill, if you have the wherewithal — whoever you are — you should be able to move ahead.

Within the EU, the migration crisis and the strong stance Germany took on eurozone issues will remain points of criticism. The question is whether, under her leadership, Germany will move further with its positions on eurozone questions. With the current coalition, this is possible. We’ll see. But I don’t think domestically this will define her legacy. In terms of European affairs or international affairs, I think [she will be remembered for] her determined stance on Russia and the way she engaged for the EU with Vladimir Putin on Ukraine and Russia, and the way that she became “The European” to talk with Putin. And secondly, standing up for liberal international values and a strong Europe in a situation where trans-Atlantic relations are fragile at least, or challenged by the U.S. president.

She might have won it, but the price would have been huge. The country would have been paralyzed by that debate. She would have been engulfed by domestic fights or party fights, so she decided to decide on her own terms how to leave and when. Actually, the “when” is not decided yet, but at least she regained the initiative. Public opinion swung around immediately, and many applauded her. She slowly walks out now into the sunset.

What I wish her to do is to use this occasion as an appeal to America about the basic premises of what America and Europe are about and what their relationship is about in the age of Trump. She is one of the leading spokesmen of Europe and of everything America stood for and what America created. Germany is the greatest success of American foreign policy. And to have re-created that country, the country of the Holocaust, which went to war with America, and is now America’s most important ally? Fantastic when you think about it and see it in historic terms.

[South African leader Nelson] Mandela had been the biggest, most respected global leader, without question, when he was alive. I think that leader is now Merkel. The career incentives for our students are so unbalanced — the salaries in the private sector and on Wall Street. We want Harvard students also to think about their obligations and the good they can do in the public sector. And so, you think back to Marshall and [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn and Mandela, all on a Harvard stage. She’s someone whom our students can look up to and say, “This is someone I can follow. This is someone I can try to emulate.” That’s powerful for a Harvard Commencement, I think. Very powerful.

These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.