In the past few months, as a flood of desperate people have escaped Syria and other intolerable places and flooded into Europe, I’ve watched German Chancellor Angela Merkel rise above a massive flood of panic and xenophobia that is sweeping most of Europe, the United States, and many other countries. Merkel could so easily have gone along with calls to close Germany’s borders and refuse to admit any but a tiny number of refugees. Instead, she called on Germany to prepare to admit as many as two million desperate people. In doing so, she has broken all the usual “politician rules”, and might well be voted out of office as a result.
But not if I could help it. Merkel has shown a degree of character, courage in the face of adversary, and basic decency that no other European leader has demonstrated in my lifetime. I’m not sure who I’ll vote for in the upcoming American Presidential election. If I were German, though, I’d know. I don’t care who else was running.
This isn’t how I felt a year ago. I read and speak German, so I follow the news in Germany. Until recently I viewed Merkel as a decent politician, competent but not outstanding. She’s not charismatic or a gifted public speaker: President Obama on his worst day can give a better speech. Before she turned to politics, she was a scientist, and has a scientist’s tendency to wait for the evidence and be guided by it on most issues. If she’s got any great overarching vision for Germany, I haven’t heard it. She’s a nuts-and-bolts person, more interested in making things work than getting credit. Her nickname in the German press and among most Germans is “Mutti” — “Mom”. It suits her. If I were German, I might have voted for her in the past, but might also have voted for one of her opponents.
Then came the immigration crisis. You really don’t know people til you see them tested. I don’t think anybody had a clue how Angela Merkel would respond to the crisis that has threatened not just Germany’s borders and economic health, but the stability of Europe. Instead of panicking and circling the wagons, as so many politicians and people did — in Germany, in much of Europe, and in America –, she told Germany to prepare to welcome, house, feed and care for two million desperate people. She said it was the right thing to do. And she kept saying this when others leaders were willing to bar millions of desperate refugees out of fear that a few terrorists might be among them.
Merkel is no fool. She has put measures in place to screen refugees. She understands the risks. She isn’t making promises that she can’t possibly keep. She lacks Barack Obama’s rhetorical gifts. But she has put her position, her career, and her legacy on the line to help desperate people who can’t vote for her or do anything for her.
I forget who first commented that you can best judge a person’s character by how they treat people who can do nothing for them, but Angela Merkel has passed that test. I can’t think of anybody running for US president this year who has.