Why Merkel dreams in black and white

‘Asked once on TV what the word “Germany” inspired in her, she replied: “Pretty, airtight windows”’
Image of Simon Kuper

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If Donald Trump is the world’s most colourful politician, Angela Merkel is probably the least. She is resolutely tedious even by the standards of German politics. The new German verb merkeln means “to do nothing, make no decisions or statement”. She never talks about a “German dream”, and you will not see her campaign under the slogan, “Make Germany great again”.

Even when she suddenly opened Germany’s borders to more than one million people last summer, she phrased this quixotic act in pragmatic language: “Wir schaffen das,” “We can do this.” Germany’s centre has largely held since, despite big advances for the anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland in last Sunday’s regional elections. Even amid the migrant crisis, most mainstream German politicians have remained boring pragmatists. Their aim: very slowly improve most people’s lives a little, while averting disaster.

© Luis Grañena

That distinguishes Germany from other large countries. In the US, France and Russia, politics is couched in the language of dreams, greatness, heroes and utopia. There are pragmatic political cultures and utopian ones, and, oddly, it’s the pragmatists who get closer to utopia.

Utopian politicians raise high expectations that they can only disappoint. Every American president campaigns as a great leader who will restore the American dream but then governs in prose. Pretty soon people start complaining that he hasn’t delivered the American dream, but of course he hasn’t: by definition, dreams are not reality.

Utopians rarely improve people’s lives a little. That’s partly because they are guided by hallowed old documents rather than by modern best practice. A daft old document such as the Communist Manifesto is particularly damaging but even a wise one such as the American constitution often misleads. For instance, the main reason the US has more than 30,000 gun deaths a year is the second amendment, adopted in 1791.

French politics, too, is packed with misleading old verities. One — derived from the French Revolution — is that “the people” should always be mounting the barricades to thwart the government. Another verity, treasured by the French left, is that “the workers” (imagined as figures in a socialist realist statue) must fight anything proposed by “the bosses” (imagined as top-hatted capitalists in a 19th-century cartoon).

Most utopians don’t even strive to improve people’s lives. They aim for something greater. Russia annexed the Crimea to regain imperial greatness, and no matter that western sanctions then made Russian lives worse.

In Germany, by contrast, dreams of greatness have been taboo since 1945. The first postwar chancellor Konrad Adenauer campaigned under the slogan: “No Experiments”. A later successor, Helmut Schmidt, famously advised: “Anyone who has visions should go to the doctor.”

Merkel got an additional anti-utopian inoculation: she spent her first 35 years in a failed utopia, East Germany. She rarely tells her own story, perhaps for fear of sounding inspirational, but she graduated from Karl Marx University in Leipzig, and later, for her physics PhD, had to write an additional “Marxist-Leninist” thesis. Her topic: the farmer-worker relationship in the farmer-worker state. She got a bad grade for overemphasising the farmers.

Freedom for Merkel means freedom from ideology, explains her German biographer Stefan Kornelius. She is the politician as wonk: facts and analyses rather than stirring rhetoric. Asked once on TV what the word “Germany” inspired in her, she replied: “Pretty, airtight windows.”

Most northern European political cultures are similarly boring. I grew up in the Netherlands in the 1980s under another Christian Democratic leader, Ruud Lubbers, of whom it was said that when he read from the Bible at party meetings it sounded like a cookbook. After 10 years in office he boasted: “I have made the Netherlands duller.”

Britain has shuffled towards this boring pragmatic tradition. Quietly and gradually, the country has dropped “Great” from its name. Even Brexit campaigners aren’t selling imperial dreams; instead, they depict a plucky little England signing trade deals alone. Luckily, the UK has an escape valve that American politics lacks: all British fairytale fantasies can be projected on to the royals. That allows the prime minister to be just a functionary.

Boring pragmatic functionaries often make people’s lives better. Northern European countries lead the world’s happiness rankings. Germany has cut unemployment to a historic low of 6.2 per cent without trashing its welfare state.

But the pragmatists’ greatest achievement goes unseen: averting disaster. In John le Carré’s novel A Small Town in Germany, a British diplomat calls this his lifetime mission. He says, “Every night, as I go to sleep, I say to myself: another day achieved. Another day added to the unnatural life of a world on its deathbed. And if I never relax, if I never lift my eye, we may run on for another hundred years.”

Germans understand the sentiment. They experienced complete collapse in 1945, and then again under Merkel’s eyes in East Germany in 1989. She once said she possessed “competence in the early detection of collapsing systems”. When it looked as if the euro would collapse she told Bulgaria’s prime minister Boyko Borisov that the “Maya and other civilisations” had disappeared. In other words, today’s Europe could too. Her heroic task: keep politics boring.

simon.kuper@ft.com; Twitter @KuperSimon

Illustration by Luis Grañena

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