Conventional wisdom has it that her decision to let in refugees might mar her legacy; in reality, historians might well celebrate her for this moment of courage and compassion. It is the long-term effects of her reign on German politics and her evident inability to create a lasting architecture for European integration that make a straightforwardly positive assessment of her tenure more doubtful.
Merkel has had an even more profound influence on German politics than the oft-discussed fragmentation of the party system suggests. As the German political scientist Philip Manow has argued, she was less a chancellor with a strong party behind her than a president, or sometimes even something like a civil servant-in-chief, floating above parties in an era when a succession of crises—starting with the financial crisis—made concentration of power in the executive more legitimate. Contrary to the cliche that strong political leaders must be charismatic, she often appeared passive or even impersonal. She once suggested to German citizens that they should re-elect her because, “You know me.” In actual fact, most Germans will feel precisely the opposite: They see Merkel as an eminently reliable and highly analytical civil servant, but not as a politician who has ever systematically staked out a vision for the country. She could govern smoothly, because for most of her time in office, public coffers were full. (Whether Germany’s boom is the result of the harsh labor market and welfare state reforms undertaken by her Social Democratic predecessor Gerhard Schröder remains disputed; what cannot be disputed is Manow’s insight that, unlike previous chancellors, she had to contend much less with the checks and balances built into the German political system, because rising tax revenues made compromises easier.)