Geopolitics

Angela Merkel: Germany's Global Cover Story For 16 Years

Approaching Angela Merkel's final days in office, we take a look back at the major chapters in her reign as German Chancellor and an unlikely political icon on magazine covers around the world.

Angela Merkel waves to the crowd

After 16 years as German chancellor, Angela Merkel is leaving the world stage

As Angela Merkel makes her final preparations to leave the world stage, it's hard to imagine what politician could fill the shoes of the woman Germans came to call "Mutti": the mother of the nation. Having spent most of the first 35 years of her life in the former East Germany, trained as a quantum chemist, this unassuming daughter of a Lutheran pastor had an unlikely rise to lead Europe's largest country for a generation.

Fast forward to today, and Germany's first female leader is heralded both at home and abroad as a supreme tactician, skillful problem-solver and guarantor of European stability.

Sweden's Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeld summed up Merkel's achievements in an interview with Swedish broadcaster SVT: "She is well-read, she is calm, she thinks ahead in a world where everyone is nervous, moody and short-sighted."


That world the leaders were facing, of course has been riddled through Merkel's time in office with one crisis on top of another: from the 2008 financial crash and the conflicts in Libya and Syria, to Russia's annexation of Crimea and the migration wave to Europe in 2015 to the global pandemic.

In the final days of a near 16-year chancellorship — becoming the country's first premier to leave power of her own volition — we take a look back on four key chapters of Merkel's time in office, and how it all looked on the covers of the German and global press:

Bild, 10/11/2005

Bild (Germany), 10/11/2005

2005: A trained chemist finds winning formula in politics

Seemingly headed for a career in science, it was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that prompted Merkel to hang up the lab coat and embrace a lifelong commitment to politics. Steadily ascending the ranks of a newly unified German government, she was elected leader of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in 2001. And yet few believed that the quiet, unemotional woman from the East would ever be a serious contender for the top job.

But the day came — in a razor-close election in 2005. The vote happened two months after an inconclusive election forced Germany's biggest parties to settle for a grand coalition between Merkel's conservatives and the center-left Social Democratic Party.


Still, doubts over Merkel's abilities persisted: few expected drastic change, with former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder dismissing the notion that she would be able to form a governing coalition, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported at the time. Even less so, no one predicted that the new leader would in time be crowned the most powerful woman in the world.

The Economist, 10/15-21/2005

The Economist (U.S.A), 10/15-21/2005

Courrier International, 01/13-17/2007

Courrier International (France), 01/13-17/2007

2007-2011: Rescuing economy, saving the euro

Having taken the reins at a time of relative stability, Germany's economy slowly gained steam under Merkel's rule after years of stagnation. The first fire test came with the 2008 Lehman Brothers collapse and the ensuing Euro crisis, marking the beginning of the Chancellor's role as a reassuring yet often controversial crisis manager.

At home, her guarantees of federal protection of Germans' savings helped prevent a run on the banks, while her government's payment of the largest bailout of Greece in 2010 cemented her place as a staunch defender of European unity.

When the debt crisis came in 2012, the confidence in Merkel had reached new heights. "Europe will fail if the euro fails. Europe wins if the euro wins," Merkel told the German Bundestag in 2012. Merkel took charge, creating a massive fund to salvage not just Greece's economy but those of other debt-ridden Eurozone nations as well.

While the bailouts are largely considered a success, the tough austerity measures partly negotiated by Germany courted some opprobrium at home while leading to loud protest in Greece. However, many still hold that Merkel's action likely saved the single currency.

Der Spiegel, 12/01/2008

Der Spiegel (Germany), 12/01/2008

Bloomberg Businessweek, 12/5-12/2011

Bloomberg Businessweek (U.S.A.), 12/5-12/2011

New Statesman, 06/25/2012

New Statesman (U.S.A.), 06/25/2012

The Economist, 09/14-20/2013

The Economist (U.S.A.), 09/14-20/2013

Der Spiegel, 9/19/2015

Der Spiegel (Germany), 9/19/2015

Time, 12/21/2015

Time (U.S.A.), 12/21/2015 - Person of the Year

2015: Migrant Crisis tests European values

In 2015, the question of European unity would take center stage again as more than a million refugees, the majority fleeing wars in Syria and Afghanistan, arrived on the southern shores of Europe. Under the rallying cry "wir schaffen das," (We can do it) Merkel took the decision to take in nearly one million migrants while also striking a controversial deal with Turkey to prevent further waves of people arriving.

To some, her decision to open the borders was the ultimate expression of European solidarity while, for others, it was putting democracy at risk as right-wing political parties used the opportunity to strengthen their profile — including Alternative für Deutschland that won 12.6% of the votes in the 2017 Bundestag elections, becoming the largest opposition party.

Newsweek, 10/09/2015

Newsweek (U.K.), 10/09/2015

Maclean's, 03/02/2015

Maclean's (Canada), 03/02/2015

Stern, 06/30/2016

Stern (Germany), 06/30/2016

Panorama, 07/06/2016

Panorama (Italy), 07/06/2016

2016: Trump, Putin, COVID

While almost universally recognized as a competent stateswoman and brilliant tactician, Merkel has throughout her reign been criticized for lacking a grander political vision. However, the turbulent rule of Donald Trump was a four-year reminder of the virtues of humble and stable leadership. Emphasizing the importance of dialogue, Merkel — whose chancellorship has spanned four US presidencies — impressed the world with her handling of a US leader representing her opposite pole in the western camp.

It's better to "talk to each other rather than about one another," Merkel noted in a reference to Trump's frequent trolling of her leadership during his campaign.

Neither did another demagogue in the form of Vladimir Putin manage to shake her self-possession, even when bringing his black labrador to a 2007 meeting at his Black Sea residence — knowing Merkel was fearful of dogs. Calmly sitting through the meeting, Merkel later told journalists that Putin "had to prove he's a man." Seven years later, Merkel would lead the EU response to Russia's annexation of Crimea, building consensus both in Germany and the EU for sanctions.

In the final years of her reign, however, some criticized Merkel for negotiating with Putin for crucial gas supplies at the expense of a firm line on Russia's aggressions, foreign and domestic.

In what would be her final crisis to manage, Merkel was one of the first leaders to recognize the scale of the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, calling it the greatest challenge to Germany since World War II. On the economic front, as Le Monde recalled last week, Merkel "again took all by surprise" by reversing the longtime German stance to back a plan for common European debt to face the risk of the shutdown of trade and commerce caused by the pandemic.

But perhaps even more notable was her reaction to the human aspect of the crisis. In a parliamentary speech in December 2020, marking the end of a year she described as the toughest of her career, Merkel pleaded to Germans to accept continued national restriction: "I really am sorry, from the bottom of my heart." Speaking directly to shopkeepers that would be affected by the lockdown, it was a rare show of emotion from a leader whose 16 years at the helm of a nation were handled much like the scientist she might have been.

Stern, 11/23/2017

Stern (Germany), 11/23/2017

L'Espresso, 10/01/2017

L'Espresso (Italy), 10/01/2017

hvg, 09/21/2017

hvg (Hungary), 09/21/2017

Der Spiegel, 07/14/2018

Der Spiegel (Germany), 07/14/2018

Die Tageszeitung, 01/22/2018

Die Tageszeitung (Germany), 01/22/2018

L'Obs, 06/25-07/1/2020

L'Obs (France), 06/25-07/1/2020

La Vie, 09/23-29/2021

La Vie (France), 09/23-29/2021

Libération, 09/21/2021

Libération (France), 09/21/2021

Hamburgen Morgenpost, 09/22/2021

Hamburgen Morgenpost (Germany), 09/22/2021

Internazionale, 09/17-23/2021

Internazionale (Italy), 09/17-23/2021

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Society

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum

-Analysis-

SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.


It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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