Ideas German elections 2021

The disenchanted “Generation Merkel”: a divorce between youth and political power

Like many young Germans born after reunification, Paul Ostwald has barely known anyone but Angela Merkel as chancellor. Now, as Merkel prepares to step down, the reassuring stability she embodied has turned to disenchantment, which is likely to turn up at the ballot box on 26 September.

Published on 23 September 2021 at 10:51

In 2015, when Germany seemed for a brief moment the most elated  country in the world – football world champion, export world champion and allround role model – "Merkel memes" did the rounds in Germany. The caption "thank you Merkel!" was pasted on images showing everyday problems: flat tire? "Thank you Merkel!" Crooked gutter? "Thank you Merkel!" Burnt pizza? "Thank you Merkel!" 

What made these memes so amusing was the exaggeration of the seemingly endless trust in Angela Merkel that had come to define the previous ten years, and the ironic punchline: the chancellor, even at the height of her powers, is neither omnipotent nor responsible for every little thing – tire, gutter or pizza – in the Republic.

These memes were especially viral among younger people. I am of the generation of Germans that has known no other chancellor. Like everyone born around 2000, Gerhard Schröder's chancellorship is at best a dim memory, except for some vague images from talk shows. And the longer I contemplate such images, the more I suspect that such memories were in fact only acquired post facto.

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Merkel was chancellor when the global economy collapsed like a house of cards in 2008, when the Syrian war broke out, and when Donald Trump became US president. But above all, she was chancellor when we started school, when we were given our first flip phone and our first pet. The flip phones and pets disappeared, while Angela Merkel remained. Her face accompanied us as we grew up. Every four years, various men would appear on posters, only to disappear right after elections in which we were too young to participate. Merkel, it seemed to us, was unassailable.

Those memes were just a prequel to our tale of disenchantment that began in autumn 2015. As if awakened from a slumber, we suddenly realised that Merkel the all-powerful had become a flesh and bone politician. Shortly after the summer of that year, topics of which we had been blissfully ignorant suddenly entered the agenda: climate, migration, digitalisation, social cohesion. This was new territory where blind faith in our chancellor was no longer an option. For the first time we had the feeling that Merkel’s policies were not for us. 

In the 2017 Bundestag election, the first in which I could participate, I did not vote for the CDU. And I was not alone. Only one in five Germans under 24 voted for Merkel’s party. Initial gnashing of teeth grew into frustration, eventually leading to nationwide climate protests in 2018. Millions of pupils and students took to  the streets to protest against the German government's climate policy – Merkel's climate policy. YouTuber Rezo hit a nerve when he accused the CDU and Angela Merkel of systematically failing on this front, declaring the incumbent chancellor "unelectable". The "Merkel generation" was now protesting against its namesake. The results were clear: in the 2019 European elections, only around every tenth person under 24 voted for the CDU. 

In public discourse the "Merkel generation" suddenly became the "climate generation". Merkel, it seemed, was no longer the most important common denominator of this generation. Many sensed a great deception: the baby boomers, not us, are the real "Merkel generation". The pensioners, rather than the students. While not completely fair, the disillusion was all too apparent.In a survey conducted by Die Welt in cooperation with polling company Civey, 85 percent of voters under 25 affirmed that the CDU had lost touch with young people. 

For many, now that her withdrawal is imminent, relief is mixed with uncertainty

The sluggish vaccination campaign and botched withdrawal from Afghanistan are the latest episodes in this tale of alienation, which will come to a close on 26 September. The pandemic revealed a overstrained education system. Financial injections for airline companies and the car industry looked like investments into the business models of the past, instead of the tough love required to build the future. A chaotic ping-pong between relaxation and closure along with a bungled vaccine policy sealed the deal. 

For many, now that her withdrawal is imminent, relief is mixed with uncertainty. On the one hand, there is hope that now the leaden heaviness with which Germany seems to move on issues like digitalisation and climate change will finally give way. On the other hand, there is still uncertainty as to whether Merkel’s successors will have the necessary energy for that to happen. 

And now, is a "Baerbock generation", or a "Scholz generation", on the way? I don't think so. The historical constellation that made Merkel the first female chancellor, and brought such economic stability and trust, is  unlikely to repeat itself anytime soon. But perhaps that is one of the most important legacies of the chancellor: a highly politicised generation that no longer places blind faith in its leaders, and stands up for its own interests. And, of course, the memes. They're here to stay. Thank you, Merkel.

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