Germany: Germany devours book on Angela Merkel decision to open borders

Non-fiction thriller and a novel on her state of mind both claim refugee crisis changed relationship between chancellor and her people

As Angela Merkel gears up for her third re-election later this year, observers could be forgiven for assuming that the issue which has come to dominate Germany’s image abroad will only play a minor role in the campaign.
Robin Alexander’s Die Getriebenen (The Driven Ones) describes Angela Merkel’s choices on refugees as tactical blundering and communication failures.



A year and a half after the German chancellor and her Austrian counterpart opened borders to thousands of refugees in September 2015, the anti-migrant party Alternative für Deutschland has dropped in the polls to pre-crisis levels.

At last month’s regional elections in Saarland, a state that had voluntarily taken in a larger share of asylum seekers than required, the refugee issue barely registered.

But two books published this spring suggest that Germans are still hungry for answers to what exactly happened in the autumn of 2015.

Robin Alexander’s Die Getriebenen (The Driven Ones), a political non-fiction thriller which reconstructs the backroom deals and rushed decisions behind the headlines, has sold 120,000 copies in less than a month and sits atop the bestseller charts.

It is followed this Friday by Konstantin Richter’s Die Kanzlerin: Eine Fiktion (The Chancellor: A Fiction), the first novel to speculate what may have gone on in the German leader’s mind in that same period.

Even though neither book is unsympathetic to its protagonist – Alexander introduces his work as “neither a tale of sainthood nor villainy” – both propose that the refugee crisis has fundamentally changed the relationship between Germany’s chancellor and her people.

Alexander, a parliamentary correspondent for the broadsheet Die Welt, paints Merkel’s decision to keep open German borders not as the result of either rational planning nor moral righteousness, but tactical blundering and communication failures.

The book suggests that Merkel’s Social Democratic coalition partners had been deliberately goading her into action on the refugee issue because they knew that it represented a political minefield for a conservative chancellor: until autumn 2015, she had spent almost a decade avoiding an official visit to an asylum seekers’ shelter.
 Konstantin Richter’s novel suggests Angela Merkel’s decision to allow refugees entry was a project of emotional self-discovery.

In the end, Merkel changes her mind because polling indicates that she has the public mood on her side: a week before the border opening, a poll-of-polls states that up to 93% of the German population think the refugee crisis is the most important issue of the moment.

Yet Alexander’s research also shows that a week later the German government was only a signature away from shutting the borders again, even to asylum seekers. In the end the barriers stayed up, the journalist writes, “not because Merkel or anyone else in government had consciously made a decision that it should. It was simply that in the crucial hours no one stepped forward who wanted to take responsibility for the closure”.

Alexander charts with admiration how quickly a plan made up on the hoof in the chancellory is executed to perfection across the rest of the country. But The Driven Ones remains highly critical of the moral justifications for her decisions that Merkel presented to the public after the event.

Richter’s novel takes a more existential approach. The Chancellor: A Fiction is bookended by Merkel attending performances of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde at the Bayreuth festival.

Richter paints a picture of a chancellor tired of her usual trial-and-error approach to politics and worn out by the burden of office. Not without a trace of vanity, the refugee crisis becomes a project of emotional self-discovery.

After visiting a refugee shelter in Heidenau and witnessing for the first time herself the hatred leveled at foreigners, Richter writes, “she legitimised the emotions that she had learnt to ignore by allowing herself to feel with the refugees and making their cause her own”.

Before its official publication, the novel has already won both enthusiastic praise and damning indictment. “Richter’s interpretation will shape the international perspective on Merkel’s late era in the same way that House of Cards did for the Thatcher years and Primary Colours did for the Clintons,” wrote the Hannoversche Allgemeine newspaper.

“Sometimes life writes the best stories,” was the Frankfurter Allgemeine’s verdict, “and the worst ones are written by authors who overestimate their talent”.

Richter, a former Wall Street Journal staff writer who has also written for Politico and the Guardian, said he came up with the idea for his book after cycling past Merkel leaving her inner-city apartment one morning and having to explain her role to his young daughter.

“In my book I tried to portray the refugee crisis as the moment that could have been a defining moment in Merkel’s career, and in the end it wasn’t,” Richter said.

“The way I saw it, Merkel felt the need to come up with a new approach to politics – more brave and more proactive – but couldn’t make it work. And in the end she wasn’t much wiser than at the beginning, only less popular, because the Germans are no longer sure what she is really about. There’s a certain tragicomedy in that.”


guardian

Comments