BERLIN — Former Chancellor Angela Merkel received Germany’s highest federal decoration on Monday, an honor bestowed on only two other former leaders before her, though some within her own party questioned whether her legacy matches up.
Merkel, who led the country for over 16 years as one of its longest-serving chancellors, received the top Grand Cross of the Order of Merit for special achievement from President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, her former vice chancellor and foreign minister.
Steinmeier praised Merkel as an “unprecedented politician” who successfully steered Germany through difficult times, including the 2008 financial meltdown and the 2015 refugee crisis.
“You have helped our country achieve economic success anew under unprecedented challenges. We look back on 16 years of almost uninterrupted economic growth, during which the scourge of unemployment increasingly lost its horror for most Germans,” Steinmeier said. “At a time when our continent threatened to break apart, you held together the center and the periphery, the north and the south, the east and the west.”
While Steinmeier spoke for half an hour, Merkel kept her acceptance speech to a much shorter 5 minutes.
“I just want to say thank you for having me here today because it has something to do with your decision,” Merkel told Steinmeier. “In that sense, the people who are being introduced now represent not just tonight, but they represent that a whole lot of people are part of being chancellor for 16 years,” she added.
“People often talk about what a snake pit politics is. I may say I wouldn’t have survived it if there wasn’t the other side of politics. And that’s why I’ve always been able to enjoy it.”
The two other chancellors who received this honor were Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s first post-war chancellor, and Helmut Kohl, who oversaw the end of the Cold War, as well as German reunification and the creation of the European Union.
Some within Merkel’s center-right CDU/CSU political family took issue with Merkel joining the ranks of the two fellow Christian Democrats so soon after her leadership ended in December 2021, especially amid Russia’s war in Ukraine, which some have blamed in part on her soft approach toward Moscow.
“I think it’s a mistake to award Angela Merkel this Grand Cross now, a year and a half after the end of her term,” Andreas Rödder, head of the CDU’s so-called Fundamental Values Commission, told broadcaster ZDF. He added that Merkel’s stance toward Russia has been called one of the country’s worst foreign policy mistakes, and also criticized her energy, migration and nuclear phase-out policies.
Wolfgang Schäuble, Merkel’s longtime finance minister and ally in the CDU, also previously told the Handelsblatt newspaper that it was too early to make a final assessment of whether Merkel should be ranked among the “great” chancellors.
Still, others defended Merkel, including Peter Altmaier, her former chief of staff and later economy minister. Altmaier told broadcaster RTL that “I was pleased to see Angela Merkel receive the award because she has worked with all her might in German politics over the past 30 years,” adding that “whoever does politics also makes mistakes.”
Monday’s ceremony had a small audience of about 20 guests, including Merkel’s successor Olaf Scholz and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who each held Cabinet positions under Merkel. As Stern magazine first reported, no one from the current CDU leadership, including party leader Friedrich Merz, nor from the CSU or liberal FDP had been invited.