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Angela Merkel’s parting message to Germany: Trust one another

  • >> Katrin Bennhold, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-12-03 16:32:11 BdST

Acting German Chancellor Angela Merkel receives a bouquet from acting German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz prior to the weekly cabinet meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Nov 24, 2021. Markus Schreiber/Pool via REUTERS

In a ceremonial military send-off to mark the end of her 16 years as chancellor, Angela Merkel left Germans with a final message Thursday: Trust one another.

Less than a week before Merkel will officially hand over power to her successor, Olaf Scholz, she received her country’s highest military honours, featuring a traditional parade of torch-bearing soldiers and a marching band.

In a short address, just hours after she had presided over her last pandemic emergency meeting and announced a partial lockdown for those who refuse to get vaccinated, Merkel warned that trust was one of the most important ingredients in democracy.

“The last two years of this pandemic have shown how important the trust in politics, science and societal discourse is — but also how fragile it can be,” she told a small audience of masked and socially distanced guests. Democracy, she said, “depends on solidarity and trust, including the trust in facts.”

Merkel counselled vigilance.

“Wherever scientific insight is denied and conspiracy theories and hatred are spread, we need to resist,” she said. “Our democracy also depends on the fact that where hatred and violence are seen as a legitimate means to force through certain interests, our tolerance as democrats must find its limits.”

Merkel remarked on the symbolic location of the ceremony: The courtyard of the Bendlerblock, a building that is now part of the defence ministry but was once the headquarters of a resistance group of officers who had carried out the plot against Adolf Hitler in 1944 and were executed.

The ceremony, broadcast live on television and hosted by the defence minister, lasted about an hour, rich in military choreography and ritual. Known as the Grosser Zapfenstreich, or Grand Tattoo, it dates to the 16th century and is the highest honour the military can bestow on civilians. It has been performed as the official farewell to departing chancellors since German reunification.

The highlight was the military marching band playing three songs picked by the chancellor. Her predecessors, Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schröder, asked for Beethoven and Frank Sinatra, among other conventional fare. But one of Merkel’s choices intrigued many.

There was a Christian hymn — little surprise, for the daughter of a Protestant pastor — and a conventional enough cabaret song by German actress and singer Hildegard Knef.

It was Merkel’s third choice that set the German Twittersphere alight. The chancellor picked “Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen,” or “You Forgot the Color Film,” a 1970s hit from the Communist East by Nina Hagen, who later emigrated to the West and became Germany’s punk rock idol of the 1980s.

Until recently, Merkel had rarely spoken about her East German background. But she was more forthcoming Thursday when asked about the song, which tells the tale of a couple going on holiday on an island in the Baltic Sea.

“The song was a highlight of my youth, which as everyone knows took place in the GDR,” Merkel said, referring to the German Democratic Republic, the official name of Communist East Germany. “The song came from the GDR, and as it happens, it also takes place in a region that was in my former constituency. And so it all fits together.”

Compared to her predecessors, Merkel invited relatively few guests, owing to the pandemic. Scholz was in the crowd, as were many of the 52 ministers who served in her governments over four terms.

At times, there was a hint of emotion in the usually stoic chancellor’s face.

“If I stand before you today, I feel above all gratefulness and humility,” Merkel said. “The 16 years as chancellor were eventful and often challenging years. They challenged me politically and personally, and at the same time they always fulfilled me.”

Right at the end of her speech, the chancellor turned to her successor, Scholz, a Social Democrat, who had served as her finance minister for the past four years.

“Now it is up to the next government to find answers to the challenges that lie ahead and shape our future,” Merkel said. “For that I wish you, dear Olaf Scholz and the government you will lead, all the best and a lucky hand and much success.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company