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The best books on Angela Merkel

recommended by Tom Nuttall

For 16 years, as chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel was the most powerful woman in the world. Here Tom Nuttall, the Economist's Berlin bureau chief, talks us through books to help us understand her time in office, and explains how her East German upbringing influenced her style of governance.

Interview by Benedict King

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Before we get into the books themselves, can you just say how Angela Merkel’s reign is being assessed—to the extent that it is—now it’s over? 

In recent weeks some have wondered how she might have handled the Ukraine crisis, given her long history with Vladimir Putin. But beyond that, she has been largely wiped from memory. That’s simply because we have the novelty, and it really is a novelty, of a government that doesn’t have her in it. If the question is, ‘how will she go down?’ or ‘how will she be regarded?’, let me answer that with an example.

There’s a debate in Germany right now over the introduction of compulsory vaccination for COVID-19. The debate has gone off the rails a bit, because Olaf Scholz proposed the idea back in November, before he became chancellor, but has provided very little leadership on the issue. He’s not introducing a bill. He wants it all to come from the Bundestag, rather than from the government. And it’s not at all clear where it’s going, especially with the advent of the less severe Omicron variant.

During the election campaign, Scholz sought to emulate Merkel and to present himself as her natural heir. But this is very un-Merkel-like because she was so careful never to promise anything that she wasn’t able to deliver. And now, almost at the first hurdle, Scholz seems to be failing that test because he has promised something and it’s not at all clear whether it can be delivered.

So you have an interesting contrast. Merkel was often criticized for not providing strong, clear leadership. On the other hand, people are starting to recognize that although she wasn’t one for big speeches and grand plans, when she did say that she was going to do something, you could be sure that she was going to follow through. And with this particular example—although it’s early days—there seems to be a little bit of a contrast in the extent to which you’re able to trust her word versus Scholz’s. I think that tells you a bit about how people may remember her as a leader.

And was she hampered in her ambitions by being in constant coalitions? Or was that the key to her success?

You don’t run Germany without a coalition, so it’s hard to think through the counterfactual. I’d describe it slightly differently because I think power in Germany, in general, is sometimes misunderstood. Every decision that is made here is the result of a constant process of negotiation and back and forth, not only within a coalition—that’s just the most obvious manifestation—but also in many other ways. The states and the federal government have to negotiate with each other, and with parliament. You have endless stakeholders and players, industry groups, unions, municipalities, research groups, churches and social organizations. The fragmentation of power here is extraordinary.

The big meta-lesson of being a correspondent here is that it’s about a hell of a lot more than just sitting in Berlin and watching what ministers in the federal government are doing. You really have to get out and about in the country and talk to these thousands and thousands of different stakeholders if you want to understand how decisions are made.

“She never overestimated the power that was vested in her own office”

Merkel was very good at playing that game. She never overestimated the power that was vested in her own office. Three of her four coalitions were grand coalitions with the SPD, and I think that suited her political temperament fairly well. She was a very centrist chancellor. The only one that wasn’t with the SPD, but rather with the pro-business Free Democrats—who are traditionally considered to be the natural coalition partner of her Christian Democrats—was, in some respects, the least successful of her four coalitions. That may tell you something.

The one thing I would add, though, is that there’s a bit of an exception to that power distribution when it comes to foreign policy. It’s the federal chancellor who goes to the European Council, it’s the federal chancellor, who has summits with Putin, or the American president or Erdogan, or whoever else it is. I think for Merkel, especially as the years went by and she became more confident—and in many of these cases established longstanding relationships with these other leaders—she was able to make use of the power that was vested in her in that capacity. In that respect, I draw a distinction between what she was able to do in foreign policy, and what happened on the domestic side.

Let’s get on to the books. The first one is Hans Kundnani’s The Paradox of German Power.

This was published in 2014, in the wake of the eurozone crisis, the first phase of which came to an end in 2012, with Mario Draghi’s famous ‘whatever it takes’ statements. Merkel was pretty much the key figure throughout the process. What the book tries to do is to explain the way that German power worked in the course of the eurozone crisis by drawing comparisons with Germany’s position in earlier phases of European history. The ‘German question’ that tormented 19th-century European statesmen after unification in 1871 was in effect settled by Germany’s defeat in two world wars and its Cold War division. The book argues that the eurozone crisis saw it re-emerge in new form, economic rather than military: a fresh example of the old adage of a country that is ‘too big for Europe, but too small for the world’. That was the dynamic that you saw play out during the eurozone crisis. Germany was a semi-hegemonic power. It was not in a position simply to impose its will on the rest of the eurozone, but it was the largest and richest country inside the EU and no decisions could be taken without it.

The Germany we saw emerge through the eurozone crisis was a geo-economic power in a way that it hadn’t necessarily been in the past. Traditionally, inside Europe, you’d had France providing a lot of the political energy and Germany providing the economic power, but not wanting to leverage that into political hegemony. That was a dynamic that shifted a little bit in the eurozone crisis. It became very clear that France and Germany were not equals. That was even manifested in the slightly tricky relationship that you had between Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, who was the French president. And although Germany was committed to the euro, not least because it suited its world-beating exporters, it was unwilling to make the grand gestures that a genuine hegemon might make to allow it to thrive, notably committing to common debt. So you got chaos, uncertainty, mistrust and, in southern Europe, a lot of pain.

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At the same time Germany was increasing its economic heft in the rest of the world. A very important dynamic was emerging between Germany and China. It was a very nice, harmonious relationship, where China, as a rapidly growing economy, had a desperate need for the sorts of things that German manufacturers were very good at producing and exporting.

The debate around this has really come back in the last couple of years. There was this notion, encapsulated by the German phrase Wandel durch Handel, which means ‘change through trade’,  that as non-democratic powers grew richer through trading with democracies like Germany, they would naturally liberalise. You’d have the emergence of a middle class, which would go on to push for democratic reforms in places like China. Therefore Germany could both engage and deepen its trading relationships with countries outside of Europe, while at the same time foster the growth of liberalism and democracy inside. That’s obviously an extremely self-serving narrative, but it worked very, very well for Germany. But it’s increasingly questioned now, as it’s become very clear that China has not liberalised and is not democratising as it has become integrated in the global trading system. Essentially, it has become harder for Germany to cloak its economic interests in the normative language of politics.

In fact, I’m sceptical about the extent to which that was ever believed in Germany, as opposed to simply being a nice way for a country that didn’t really want to do geopolitics to tell itself that it was doing geopolitics, while at the same time seeing its own companies getting rich on the back of growing markets in China and elsewhere.

Either way, this slightly diverted German attention away from the rest of Europe as European markets became a little bit less significant as a share of Germany’s overall trade. At the same time, it was a political priority for Germany to be able to hold Europe together. It was very common to say that the eurozone was not going to emerge intact from the eurozone crisis, that Greece was not going to be able to put up with the austerity that was being demanded of it, or that the Germans would force them out of the euro. And, indeed, Wolfgang Schäuble, who was Merkel’s finance minister at the time, wanted to chuck Greece out. Merkel overruled him. In the end, the eurozone did hold together. In fact, it’s even grown by a couple of members since then.

The lesson that we might draw from that is that some people perhaps didn’t pay sufficient attention to how strong the political will was, especially inside Germany, to hold projects like the single currency together. In spite of the brutal treatment meted out to countries like Greece, and the awful austerity, and in spite of some terrible decisions, the project held together. Angela Merkel was at the heart of all of those decisions, and it was important to her that the eurozone remained intact. One of her more famous sayings was that if the euro fails, Europe fails. She weighs her words very carefully. That was a strong signal that she was not going to let the eurozone fall apart because holding the EU together is a core national interest of Germany’s. But it was also going to ensure that the pain of adjustment would fall on the shoulders of others.

We’ve just celebrated—if that’s the right word—20 years of eurozone notes and coins. Although it’s not necessarily the most robust currency area in the world, it looks rather more stable now than it did when we went through the crisis. We’ve had some interesting developments, that Merkel assented to, such as the agreement in 2020 to establish a widespread recovery fund financed by common EU debt. Merkel had said she would never agree to that. So we’re in an interesting place now compared to 10 years ago. I think that is, to a certain extent, down to the political commitment that Merkel and Germany demonstrated in holding the eurozone together, albeit at great and lasting cost. The first phase of that is something that is charted in this book.

Next up is Jana Hensel’s After the Wall.

This is a memoir, published in 2002, by a young East German woman recounting her experiences after the Berlin Wall fell. Jana Hensel is a journalist who works for Die Zeit, which is a weekly based in Hamburg, but grew up in Leipzig. I think she was about 13 when the wall fell. It’s an interesting age because she had a childhood in the East, but an adolescence in reunified Germany. And what the book does very nicely is explain all of the difficulties and the challenges and the torments that some East Germans went through when they found that they had to reinvent their identity in a reunified country—and do so in the knowledge of just how little West Germans understood about what it was they were going through.

A minister once said to me that, on the night of reunification in October 1990, he was in Frankfurt and went to a party, and everyone celebrated. The next day, they all went back to work and they carried on as they always had done. For West Germans, nothing really changed very much. For East Germans, everything changed. It wasn’t only going through deindustrialization and mass unemployment, although that meant that the 1990s were a very difficult period for a lot of East Germans. It was not only that many East Germans had to shed every marker of identity they had acquired and find new ones in an unfamiliar land. It was the fact that West Germans seemed to have very little interest in understanding those changes. I think there was a lot of resentment bred in Easterners during this time.

A couple of years ago, for the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, I tried to explore some of these issues. I travelled around the East, talking to a lot of people. What you realize is that there are buried resentments and traumas. Some of it, fascinatingly, seemed to be transmitted down through the generations. I’d speak to people whose parents had really suffered in the 1990s. A lot of them worked for industrial concerns that were completely uneconomic, had been wound up and they’d lost their jobs. They’d been through extraordinary difficulties and just had to do what they could to survive.

Famously, you had mass emigration from the East to the West, and that created huge demographic problems in the East that have only grown more acute over time. For a lot of people who stayed, it was simply a question of trying to keep their heads above water. What you found is that often kids who may have no memory of the GDR, or maybe only the faintest memory, had developed a sort of Eastern identity, despite having not grown up in the separate country. In many cases that had been transmitted to them by what they had seen their parents go through. It was sometimes grounded in resentment or grievance about experiences that belonged to an earlier generation. I spoke to Jana Hensel at the time. She told me she had recently been shocked to find teenagers in her hometown of Leipzig peppering her with questions over whether special workplace quotas ought to be created for East Germans.

“She was 35 when the Wall came down”

One sociologist who worked on the GDR told me that in the previous two to three years the lectures he was giving, which used to be very sparsely attended, had become some of the most popular in his university. There was an extraordinary revival of interest in what had happened, both inside the GDR, but also in the Eastern states, in the period immediately after reunification. This memoir provides a way to understand these sorts of questions.

If you’d asked most East Germans in 1990 if people were still going to be talking about East-West differences three decades hence they would have thought that was absurd. But during the commemorations for the 30th anniversary, you did seem to have this very belated recognition in large parts of West Germany, especially its media, that they had got the east a little bit wrong by just assuming that if they poured vast amounts of subsidies into the east, and opened their doors to its workers and students, that all of a sudden the world would open up to the East, and that the West didn’t need to do much more than that.

I think that there was a belated recognition that that was wrong, that the history of the East for many people growing up in the GDR had been erased, that their identity had been ignored, and that this had created all sorts of resentments that people in the West, until quite recently, had been oblivious to.

The debate has improved compared to where it was maybe 10 years ago. But, when we look at things like the growth of the AfD, the far right party that does much better in the East than in the West; or even the protests that we’re seeing against COVID measures and potential compulsory vaccination: you find these protests all over the country, but you certainly find them in greater numbers and greater strength in the East. The AfD has been trying to foster some sort of identity of resentment against the West in some Eastern states. All of this goes back to a lot of the stuff that’s discussed in Jana Hensel’s book.

Merkel didn’t talk very much about her Eastern background when she was in charge. I think that was a very deliberate decision. She didn’t want to set herself aside, she wanted to be a chancellor for all Germans. But she made a bit of an exception in the last couple of years, perhaps because she realised she was in a unique position to tackle some of these grievances and resentments. She started to talk about it in very interesting ways, including in an interview with Jana Hensel in Die Zeit, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall.

But her Eastern background very clearly marked her. She was 35 when the Wall came down. At the end of the day, you can’t really understand Merkel without understanding that she grew up on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall. And some of the stuff in this book gives you a certain context. It might help you understand some of the ways that Merkel came to rule as somebody who had spent her formative years in the GDR.

I was going to ask you whether it was important to her as a politician, but you say she didn’t actually play on it particularly. But was it electorally important to her? Did she punch above her weight in the former GDR as a Christian Democratic leader?

No, I don’t think so. In 2017, the last election that she won—which was held with the refugee crisis very fresh in everybody’s minds because that had been particularly contentious in large parts of the East—she actually suffered, if anything. She had a very rough time when she was campaigning in the East in 2017 because of the very fresh memories of the refugee crisis. She was heckled by organized crowds. She was visibly upset, and I don’t think really understood what was going on in a lot of these places. I don’t think her GDR background particularly helped her and in some cases, particularly in that election, it may have actually hindered her. Travelling in the region you could occasionally detect a whiff of resentment—that some people thought this East German chancellor had in a sense betrayed her own people.

Let’s move on to Robin Alexander’s Die Getriebenen. 

It’s a slightly tricky one to translate. It basically means ‘the driven ones’. What it implies is that the cast of characters in the book, the governments and the ministers who are making decisions during the refugee crisis of 2015-16, were driven by events rather than driving them. So ‘the driven ones’ is probably the best way to translate it.

Robin Alexander is a correspondent for Die Welt. This is a pacy, journalistic account of the way that decisions were taken, or forced on the main players by the very fast-moving events in the refugee crisis of 2015/ 2016. The book was published in 2017. Before the election, it was a huge hit. Like Jana Hensel’s book, it was top of the bestseller charts for a long time. What’s interesting about it—and I think I broadly agree with this thesis—is that it doesn’t present Merkel and the people around as they’ve often been portrayed in the foreign press, as opening Germany’s borders to a million migrants and asylum seekers, in a grand act of charity that’s based on some kind of principle.

The focus of the book is a moment in September 2015 when you have this column of migrants walking towards Germany from Austria. A decision has to be taken: are they going to be let in or not? Is the border going to be closed or not? Thomas de Maiziere, who was the interior minister at the time, is described as prevaricating, having no idea what the right thing to do is, trying to get hold of Merkel but unable to get hold of her. The police received no clear instructions. In the end, far from being a principled decision of Germany to open its arms and take in all of these people, it appears—at least the way it’s portrayed in this book—that what they wanted to do was to make sure that they didn’t have some awful pictures on TV, of hundreds of thousands of people trying to cross the border and being repelled by police with tear gas and water cannon and whatever else, so they decided they’d better let them in. Then, a retrospective justification was provided and Merkel started to say, ‘you know, we’re big, and we’re rich, and we’re successful, and we can handle it, and we should do it.’ And you have the famous pictures of the railway station in Munich with the Germans lining up to applaud the refugees as they get off the train. This narrative emerges of Germany as a humanitarian champion.

But the picture painted in the book is rather different from that, it’s a very panicked and contingent response to a set of circumstances that nobody really was prepared for, as Merkel herself subsequently acknowledged. You see that also at the European level. I wasn’t in Germany at the time, I was in Brussels, but I was following the migrant crisis very closely. What was clear at the time was that for many European countries, they were very frustrated by Germany’s and Merkel’s lack of consultation with the decisions that she was making. The decisions that she was making obviously had big implications for countries across Europe, particularly those that were on the migrant trail, but also countries that could expect to receive a lot of the asylum seekers that might be making their way through Germany: the Netherlands, Sweden and other countries. There was very, very little consultation offered by Germany.

It was the same thing when she finally did the deal with Erdogan in the spring of 2016 that ended that phase of the crisis. Formally, it was an EU-Turkey deal. In reality, it was a Germany-Turkey deal done, again, without any real consultation.

This is a hallmark of the way that Merkel has tended to go about things. I talked a moment ago about the difficulties that she had in the 2017 election campaign around this issue, and I think one reason that many, many Germans really struggled at that time wasn’t so much that the decision had been taken to let in so many people, but that Merkel never stood up to explain, in a clear and comprehensive fashion, why this was the right thing to do.

There was the famous ‘Wir schaffen das’ ‘we can handle it’, or ‘we can deal with it’, speech. But that wasn’t really a justification or an explanation for why this was the right thing to do. This was something that Merkel was never really very good at. She could make decisions, for better or for worse, in the teeth of crisis at the German level, or at a European level. She was a very managerial politician. But she struggled to explain to people why she wanted to do this or that, or in this case, why it was the right thing for Germany to do this, and how it fitted into a foreign policy, or how Germany might hope to integrate all these people.

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So I think for a lot of Germans it was doubly traumatic, because you had these extraordinary thing happening very, very quickly, refugee centres filling up all over the country, but no real plan about what to do. Of course, Germany’s a fairly well organized place. Ultimately, that stuff—housing, education, integration—for the most part, was handled fairly well. But that trauma was compounded in many people’s minds by the failure to explain why this had happened and why Germany had chosen to do this. I think that’s why Merkel found herself confronted—throughout the country, not only in the East—by a lot of people who were very unhappy about some of these decisions that were taken. Of course, a lot of people supported the policy. It’s rare to hear Greens or Social Democrats speak well of Christian Democrats. But lots of them regretted Merkel’s departure from office, and her actions during this crisis are the main reason why.

The Robin Alexander book doesn’t deal in grand analysis or big theory. One of the interesting things about Merkel is that some of the most revealing pieces of writing about her have been done by journalists, rather than by analysts or political scientists or other big theorists. She’s the sort of politician whose work is small bore. She doesn’t deal in grand plans and grand strategy. Perhaps the sort of work that she does best is explained by people who can take you inside the room and explain exactly what happened at such-and-such a moment, and who spoke to whom, and what the lines of communication were. Robin Alexander is probably the best connected journalist in Germany, so he’s very good at that sort of thing.

Let’s move on to the biography of Merkel by Stefan Kornelius. 

The book was published in 2013, so around the time of her third election. It’s a so-called authorized biography. It’s not especially critical. It also has a focus on foreign policy, which is maybe not surprising because Kornelius works for Süddeutsche Zeitung, a Munich-based newspaper, as their chief foreign affairs commentator.

This goes back to what we were saying before about the importance of understanding Merkel’s origins in East Germany. There’s a lot of that in the Kornelius book. He suggests that Merkel, as somebody who grew up in the GDR, was always sceptical of the way that power was exercised there, but she was not by temperament a revolutionary. She went into the natural sciences. As she has observed herself, the GDR regime might be able to do all sorts of things, but it wasn’t able to tamper with natural law. So that was perhaps a suitable thing for somebody with Merkel’s temperament to go into.

She was fascinated, like many people from that part of the world and of her generation, by America, more so than the rest of Europe. I think that this actually comes through when you look at the way that she’s conducted herself as an EU decision-maker. She knows that Germany cannot flourish if Europe doesn’t flourish, but she does not have that sentimental attachment to the idea of European unity that you see in lots of other German politicians, like Helmut Kohl, who came from the Rhineland, or Armin Laschet, who had hoped to succeed Angela Merkel as the candidate for her party in the last election, though failed dismally. These politicians had a very sentimental commitment to the idea of European unity, and in particular to the relationship with France.

“Whenever she met Putin, she could speak Russian”

This stuff is more or less entirely absent from Merkel’s approach to Europe. She gave an important speech to the College of Europe in Bruges, during or maybe just after the eurozone crisis. It’s pretty much the closest that you can get to any sort of Merkel theory of Europe. The key part of it was when she explained that she was very sceptical about what’s called the ‘community method’, which means decision-making vested in supranational institutions like the European Commission and the European Parliament. She’s much more interested in a theory of European power where decision making is vested in the leaders of national governments, none of them more important than the Chancellor of Germany. Actually, this has been a much more accurate description of the way that the decisions have been taken at a European level for the last 10 years. The action has all been at the European Council, which is where the national leaders sit, rather than the Commission, which is much weaker than it used to be.

This book does a fairly good job of explaining the context, helping you understand why Merkel’s approach to Europe has been much more business-like and down-to-earth than it’s been with some other senior German politicians and chancellors. The attachment to America has been much stronger. You also have a little bit in the book about her interesting relationship with Russia and the Russian language. When she was a schoolgirl in the GDR, she won a prize for being something like the third-best Russian speaker in East Germany. It’s one of the interesting things about her that whenever she met Putin, she could speak Russian. He, of course, was a KGB agent in Dresden and was able to speak German.

There is a certain sentimentality too, not about the Russian regime—I think she came to distrust Putin quite violently, particularly after the Ukraine crisis in 2014—but to Russia and the Russian language, that is very, very common in the former GDR, particularly amongst people of an older generation. This shows up in opinion polls all the time. You find this attachment to Russi, in the states of the former GDR, which is not present in West Germany. Some of that is brought out in Kornelius’s book as well.

Let’s move on to the last book, Five Germanys I Have Known by Fritz Stern.

This is a bit more of a left-field selection in the sense that it was published in 2006, just a year after Merkel became chancellor. She is mentioned only in a footnote, which celebrates her rise to power as “an implicit recognition of the talents that had been liberated in the old east.” But it’s a great book, a blend of history and memoir by one of the foremost scholars of German history. The five Germanys he refers to in the title are Weimar Germany, Nazi Germany, the two Germanys between 1945 and 1990—West Germany and the GDR—and then reunified Germany. He was born in 1926 and grew up in what was then German Breslau, part of the Weimar Republic and is now the city of Wroclaw in Poland. He came from a family of Jewish origin, although I think his grandparents had converted to Christianity. He certainly didn’t grow up culturally Jewish, although, of course, for the Nazis that didn’t matter, given their biological theories of race.

His family were quite wealthy, very cultured and surrounded by intellectuals. They eventually, belatedly perhaps, emigrated to the US in 1938. So he does have childhood memories of Nazism. But he watched the war from the US and he established his academic career in the US at Columbia, and stayed there, became an American citizen, but made regular recces back to West Germany after the war.

He was quite frustrated with what he considered to be some of the slightly superficial analyses of how Nazism emerged, particularly in American scholarship. That is explored amply in this book, but what sets it aside are the regular injections of memoir, particularly the scenes painted of Weimar Germany and of his childhood. It really brings that period to life colourfully. Nazism is on the edges of things, it doesn’t feel real, or like something that’s going to affect him, until it does.

There are particular vignettes about the emigration office or encounters with SS officers, where you get this creeping feeling that something devastating is happening to this country, and potentially something devastating could happen to him. And, eventually, his family make the decision to emigrate.

Chapter 10, is “Unified Germany: A Second Chance?” It’s really moving because for most of Stern’s adult life, the division of Germany into East and West was considered an immovable, fundamental fact. The Cold War felt eternal and unchangeable. Then, all of a sudden, when Stern is approaching his twilight years, it all changes, the Wall comes down, the country is unified.

There is a moving epilogue to the book, in which Stern is invited in 2002 to give an address to mark the 300th anniversary of the University of Wroclaw, in the town of his birth. Bar a brief visit in 1979, described in noirish fashion at the start of the book, he has not been back since emigrating in the 1930s. The German and Polish presidents attend, he delivers a homily to the European peace and unity that had proved so elusive for most of his life, and a performance of Ode to Joy, the EU’s anthem, drives him to tears.

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Here is a city that has now taken on a new life as a Polish city, in a free Poland, after the end of the Cold War, at peace with its German neighbour, as well as with its Russian neighbour, something that for many Poles might have felt almost unthinkable for large parts of history. So although all of those parts of his own personal childhood have been pretty much expunged from the city, he is able to see a fresh beginning as a city in Poland that epitomises the new Europe. And a city that can connect him to a childhood that is by now distant, but not yet forgotten.

It’s a slightly tenuous link to Merkel but it does give you a different context for thinking about the Germany that Angela Merkel inherited, especially for a chancellor that herself grew up in the GDR and who for most of her young life would not have had any idea that her destiny was to be part of a free and unified Germany anchored in a secure Europe at peace with its Polish neighbour. Here it is presented by somebody who remembers not only the Cold War, not only Nazi Germany, but actually remembers Breslau as a German city in the Weimar Republic. It’s a fascinating piece of context for thinking about the Germany in Europe that Angela Merkel was to inherit.

Interview by Benedict King

March 11, 2022

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Tom Nuttall

Tom Nuttall

Tom Nuttall is the the Economist's Berlin bureau chief.

Tom Nuttall

Tom Nuttall

Tom Nuttall is the the Economist's Berlin bureau chief.