BERLIN. When Angela Merkel became Chancellor 16 years ago, George W. Bush was in the White House and Tony Blair was Prime Minister of Great Britain. There was no Twitter or iPhone. Liberal democracy was undergoing a seemingly irreversible expansion when the Orange Revolution swept through Ukraine.
On Wednesday, when Ms Merkel’s successor Olaf Scholz becomes chancellor, Twitter becomes a veritable tool of diplomacy, Russian troops gather on Ukraine’s divided border, and democracy itself around the world seems far less secure.
Over the years, Ms Merkel has confronted Russian President Vladimir Putin (even as he tried to intimidate her with his dog). She became close to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and scolded President Donald Trump. She has become a symbol of hope for refugees and an object of contempt for populists around the world.
It was a long journey that began behind the Iron Curtain. Ms. Merkel was born in the western port city of Hamburg and raised the daughter of a Protestant pastor in the former communist East in a small town north of Berlin.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Ms. Merkel abandoned her research career to jump into politics, earning a parliamentary seat in Germany’s first unified elections. Before becoming chancellor, she held several ministerial posts and was the leader of her Conservative party after ousted her political mentor Helmut Kohl in a ruthless show of power, publicly calling for his resignation. She remained the head of the Christian Democratic Union until 2018, when she decided to step down, making her a lame duck in the last difficult years of her chancellorship.
Now that she is 67 years old, Ms Merkel’s long political life seems to be coming to an end (what will happen next is unknown). It was always clear to her that she wanted to leave the office on her own terms and at a convenient time for her. “I want to find the right time at some point to quit politics,” she told Herlinde Kölbl, a German photographer in 1998. “I don’t want to be a half-dead wreck.”
She kept that promise. Ms Merkel, the first chancellor of modern Germany, who stepped down from office instead of being rejected by legislators or the public, leaves the chancellery as the most popular politician in her country.
Her political career, which began in an era of hope after the fall of the Berlin Wall, ends in a time of great uncertainty. It’s a journey from the end of history and back again.