The skinheads were outside blowing their whistles, and President Donald Trump was an ocean away threatening to “totally destroy” another country, when Angela Merkel stepped to the podium in this quietly prosperous seaside city to make her pitch to voters for another four years as Germany’s chancellor.
She would modestly increase tax cuts for working families. She would widen access to high-speed Internet in rural areas. She would keep talking to her fellow European leaders, even when it gets frustrating.
And oh by the way, she casually mentioned before shuffling off, she’d really appreciate your vote.
The speech, devoid of all rhetorical flourishes, lofty promises or cutting attacks, never elicited much applause from the hundreds of languid supporters arrayed before her. But by all measures, it was exactly what Germany wants to hear.
With days to go before the country casts ballots, and with the wider world convulsed by change, Merkel is on the cusp of something extraordinary: winning a fourth term in office with a campaign built on a promise to keep things more or less the same.
So how did she do it?
“Stability, stability, stability,” said Stefan Kornelius, a Merkel biographer. “She’s led Germany through 12 rather calm and prosperous years. The country, despite challenges from abroad, managed to escape all of these. People feel protected by her.”
But whether the low-key, incremental and reactive style of leadership that has served the 63-year-old so well in the past continues to work in her favor will be the question that defines her legacy – and helps to shape the West’s future.
Merkel shows no sign of changing, Kornelius said, with few hints of the sort of grand vision for Germany, Europe or the West that she has famously, and perhaps intentionally, eschewed.
But the environment around her has been profoundly altered, with Trump’s election and the growing threat of despotism worldwide creating pressure on Merkel, and on Germany, to fill the void in defense of democracy.
“She’s one of the few out there with the guts to serve as a role model for Western ideals,” said Kornelius, a journalist with Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung. “The time is over when Germany can only react.”
Merkel, who decided to run for another term after Trump’s victory last November, was once expected to face a strong challenge from both left and right in this year’s vote. But her center-right Christian Democrats have led the polls by double digits for months, and victory is now considered all but assured.
The win would put her in rarefied company: Another term would allow her to equal the longest tenure for a post-war German chancellor, and defy the political gravity of a world in which leaders who linger for a decade or more must choose between accepting inevitable defeat or employing authoritarian tactics to remain in power.
The mood in Wismar, a handsome, Gothic-brick port city of 13th century lineage that is tucked just inside the borders of the old East Germany, reflects how she’s managed to pull it off.
The city, with its industrial base of factories and shipbuilding, should be a heartland for the center-left Social Democrats (SPD). And on a local level, it is, with an SPD mayor.
But, the mayor said in an interview at city hall, there’s no denying that the politically ambidextrous and East German-raised Merkel is popular here – even if he’s a bit reluctant to admit it.
“She’s the mother of the nation,” said the mayor, Thomas Beyer.
When Merkel came to office, he said, the city was struggling with high unemployment and a declining population. A dozen years later, Wismar is thriving, with a demand for new schools, tourists thronging the cobblestone market square and hundreds of new jobs expected next year when a cruise-ship builder moves into town.
Although Merkel alone doesn’t deserve credit for the renaissance, he said there’s no doubt her government has contributed.
“People want this to continue,” Beyer said, “There’s a great need for continuity. There’s a great need for security. And people feel now is not the time for experiments.”
That point was driven home for Wismar resident Petra Lemsky, 56, during a recent vacation to the United States.
“The atmosphere was really bad. The wages were really low,” said Lemsky, whose blond hair is cut in a Merkel-esque bowl and who subconsciously arranged her hands in the signature Merkel diamond as she spoke. “Germany is doing really well compared to America. I want it to stay that way.”
Lemsky turned out this week at Wismar’s seaside market hall to cheer on her chancellor, who was making a campaign stop. But when Merkel arrived, the cheers were drowned out by jeers from a couple dozen far-right demonstrators blowing on whistles and chanting “Merkel get lost.”
“We’re becoming strangers in our own country,” boomed the voice on a protester’s loudspeaker.
The chancellor strode right past them and proceeded to give a speech in which she defended her decision at the height of the 2015 European refugee crisis to open the country’s doors. The country, she argued, has coped well with the results, even as she insisted that such an influx would not be repeated.
In an appearance free of theatrics, her biggest applause line came when, without mentioning Trump by name, she repudiated his bombastic rhetoric and vowed to keep the focus on diplomacy, however messy.
“In Europe we talk to each other. We’re not spreading prejudice about each other,” she said. “Europe has been peaceful for decades, and I will do everything I can to preserve that.”
It’s no longer a given. Once taken for granted, European tranquility has been rocked in recent years by a series of crises that have consumed much of Merkel’s attention – war in Ukraine, Greek debt, terrorist attacks and Brexit, to name but a few.
“One by one, she’s managed these crises quite well,” said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund. “But her legacy is that of a crisis manager.”
In her fourth and final term, he said, Merkel will be trying to fix what has made Europe so prone to crisis to begin with, including the “fair-weather construction” of the euro currency, the absence of a common European security strategy and the growing chasm between European Union members over the bloc’s basic mission.
“What is her vision? There’s a vision of an institutionally sound and stable Europe,” said Kleine-Brockhoff, who until recently was a top adviser to the German president. “If, through her incrementalism, she can be seen as someone who made sturdy and stable the European ship, that would certainly be a worthy legacy.”
She now has a partner in that project, with French President Emmanuel Macron. Assuming Merkel wins on Sunday, both will have received fresh mandates from their voters this year – and both have expressed a desire to reform Europe.
Yet while Macron has advanced aggressive plans for an E.U. overhaul, Merkel has been far more cautious.
And that’s how she’ll continue to be, calling on her training as a scientist to move step by step while taking care to avoid the pitfalls that come with the pursuit of grand plans, Kornelius said.
“Merkel is not the big vision type. She’s not thinking in terms of legacy,” he said. “She once told me, ‘Historians will judge me by what I have avoided, not what I have done.’ “