Germans had long suspected there was something rotten in their system of government. Then one of their most senior politicians called the finance minister a Smurf.
It happened in March, at a meeting of Germany’s 16 regional governors to discuss the coronavirus pandemic. As always, the discussion dragged on for hours: tempers flared; insults flew; and Markus Söder, the rambunctious prime minister of Bavaria, launched a vicious tirade against finance minister Olaf Scholz that was immediately leaked to the press.
“You’re not the king of Germany, you know, nor the ruler of the world,” he said. “So you can stop grinning like a Smurf.”
The altercation features prominently in Machtverfall, Robin Alexander’s new book on Angela Merkel’s final term as chancellor. For Alexander, the frayed nerves, confusion, finger-pointing and name-calling summed up the chaotic state of Germany’s crisis management (which has since become the focus of criticism in the wake of the catastrophic floods). “The last stage of Merkel’s time in office began in the White House,” he writes. “It ended in Smurf Village.”
Machtverfall — which roughly translates as “Decline of Power” — will cement Alexander’s reputation as one of the most astute and best-informed observers of German politics. Building on the success of his 2017 book Die Getriebenen, which delved into Merkel’s handling of the 2015-16 refugee crisis, it dissects the highs and lows of her final years as Europe’s elder stateswoman. It is hardly a flattering portrait. “There was never so much government,” he writes. “And never so much government failure.”
But it is also the portrait of a political party — the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) — and its tortured attempts to find a successor to Merkel and reassert its claim to being Germany’s natural party of government. Alexander, deputy editor of the daily Die Welt newspaper, is particularly good on the rise and fall of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer — “AKK” — the woman long seen as Merkel’s anointed heir, who was elected CDU leader in late 2018 and threw in the towel after little more than a year.
Merkel, whose ruthlessness towards potential rivals is legendary, grew increasingly disenchanted with her erstwhile protégée and ended up hanging her out to dry — and the way this happened makes for gripping reading. The chancellor’s understanding of politics is “social Darwinism” in action, Alexander writes. “In her view, those who don’t prevail in the battle for high office didn’t deserve it in the first place.” She allegedly told a colleague: “I place people in position. But they have to walk by themselves.”
The book offers a riveting glimpse of the toxic duel between Söder, the Bavarian leader, and his Rhineland rival Armin Laschet for the mantle of successor to Merkel. This climaxed in a stunning stand-off this spring over who should be the centre-right’s candidate for chancellor, a battle that Laschet ultimately won but left deep scars on both men. Alexander describes it as a clash of opposites: Söder the hard-charging, decisive man of action who continually upstaged the more hesitant Laschet and sought to portray him as a weak-willed ditherer. His fly-on-the-wall accounts of the CDU meetings where the duel played out are hugely entertaining.
Few of Alexander’s protagonists come out of his narrative well. Friedrich Merz, the millionaire corporate lawyer who was once a contender to succeed Merkel, emerges as an egomaniac felled by his own overweening pride. Alexander is also good on health minister Jens Spahn’s spectacular fall from grace. Once seen as a future chancellor, he was floored by Covid and his own missteps.
But ultimately they are all just extras: it is Merkel herself who is Machtverfall’s chief protagonist. Alexander is right that her legacy could end up being shaped by her handling of a pandemic that exposed deep flaws in the German model — as seen in the slow pace of vaccinations (initially at least), the dysfunctional relationship between Berlin and the regions, the huge delays in the disbursement of financial aid, the broken promises on mass testing, and an education system that was wholly ill-equipped for digital learning.
Though he has much sympathy for Merkel, Alexander’s ultimate verdict is damning. Once celebrated as the last defender of the free world, she is now seen by many of her erstwhile fans around the world as “the tired regent of a risk-averse, overly bureaucratic and technologically backward country”.
Machtverfall — Merkels Ende und das Drama der deutschen Politik: Ein Report by Robin Alexander, Siedler Verlag €22, 384 pages
Guy Chazan is the FT’s Berlin bureau chief
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