When I say, “The world’s most powerful woman," who do you think of? To many, Angela Merkel met that description after she became Germany’s first female head of state. And she may have achieved that status in part thanks to her chief nemesis: Donald Trump. That’s according to her biographer, who I spoke with in Berlin.
The daughter of a pastor, Angela Merkel grew up in communist East Germany. Merkel biographer Ralph Bollman says that upbringing is one reason Merkel felt so strongly about opening Germany to Muslim refugees flooding into Europe in 2015.
Ralph Bollman: And to live in an open society and to make Germany more open was always an important political aim or topic for her.
But 1 million asylum-seekers came with a $6.6 billion price tag in 2015 alone. And there was backlash after Islamic extremist refugees launched multiple terrorist attacks in Germany in 2016. Germany quietly closed its doors and ramped up deportations.
Sharyl: Someone in London said to me that with Merkel at the helm, she was almost a world leader in addition to being a German leader.
Bollman: Yeah, that's true. During her time in office, she became more and more an international leader, and especially after the election of Donald Trump in 2016, she was seen as the leader of the free world. She became only during those four years when Donald Trump was in the White House, and she always was seen as the contrary role model to him, and the leader of the free West, the woman who stood for democracy, compromise, moderation.
Bollman says one weakness in Merkel’s tenure as chancellor involved energy policy and something it turns out Trump was right about.
Bollman: And so it was very difficult to make an exit plan from nuclear energy and coal energy at the same time.
Sharyl: But is that what she did? She made a plan to exit from nuclear and coal?
Bollman: Yeah, yeah, but without having a solution how to promote the progress of renewables.
Notably, Merkel’s fossil fuel exit plan involved making a deal with Russia to supply fossil fuel and a pipeline to transport gas directly from Russia to Germany, bypassing Ukraine: Nord Stream 2.
That drew criticism from then-President Trump who said the pipeline would give Russian President Putin too much influence over Germany’s fate. Trump says he sent Merkel a white flag to make the point.
Former President Donald Trump (September 3, 2022): I told Germany, "Don’t make a deal with Russia on the pipeline," and they said, "Oh that's so funny." I actually sent, during a meeting, G7, I sent Angela, Angela Merkel, a white flag of surrender.
President Trump put sanctions on the Russian pipeline in December 2019. President Biden lifted the Russian sanctions in 2021—over Ukraine’s objection. Then Biden reimposed sanctions last year as Russia prepared to invade Ukraine.
President Joe Biden (February 7, 2022): There will be no longer a Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it.
But Trump’s predictions proved prophetic. Germany’s reliance on Russia has left Germany facing an energy crisis with skyrocketing prices, shortages, and rationing.
Bollman says eventually the German people wanted a future of change and bold new ideas, in contrast to the steady leadership Merkel provided. Her contentious dynamic with Trump will remain a defining characteristic of her final years in office.
Sharyl: That makes me think, if Donald Trump had stayed in office, might she have been able to stay in office?
Bollman: Yes, well, I thought about this question very often during the last elections in the U.S. But of course, she was very much aware that this would be a risk because, to re-candidate, it would have been very, very risky, and I think that her chancellorship wouldn't have found to a good end, in this case.
Merkel left office in December 2021, Europe’s longest-serving elected female head of government, at 16 years, just surpassing the time of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Bollman: Despite of all the international crisis, it went well for Germans in an economic sense, but also in another sense of security, and so on. And perhaps at a certain time, it will be the good old time for many people in Germany.
Sharyl (on-camera): Succeeding Merkel is her one-time vice chancellor, Olaf Scholz of the Social Democratic Party, which says it stands for freedom and social justice.