Political insiders here say Merkel’s shift comes in part because the level of the threat to the euro, and thus to Germany’s own economic ascent, crystallized with the worsening of the crisis in Italy and Spain early in the summer. But if Merkel has given an inch, her supporters insist, she has gotten a mile, with European leaders moving toward a grander economic and political union that could see Germany — a country that has ridden to the height of its post-World War II power over the course of the debt crisis — become even more dominant.
It has thrust in Merkel’s hands the unenviable task of proving to the German public and the rest of Europe that a continent burdened by past conflict has nothing to fear, and everything to gain, from Germany’s rise. In a nation where even the word for leader — “fuehrer” — still conjures dark history, observers cite the new, more magnanimous Merkel as evidence that she is trying to manage those concerns.
Perhaps not surprising, given Germany’s postwar aversion to military intervention, Merkel also has seemed reluctant to push Berlin’s clout beyond economic affairs. She has, for instance, largely left the ongoing conflict in Syria to London and Paris, Europe’s security capitals, much as she did last year during the upheaval in Libya.
But Merkel is taking tentative steps toward flexing Germany’s atrophied muscles, offering tantalizing clues of what Europe would look like under a stronger, more assertive Berlin. The picture taking shape — including that of a nation boldly pursuing what many here are calling a “special relationship” with China — is providing the political establishment in the United States with some mildly indigestible food for thought.
“She didn’t find it helpful what the Americans had to tell the Europeans” on the debt crisis, said Tanja Boerzel, a political scientist at the Free University Berlin. “She will be the one guiding the European response.”
Merkel’s greatest challenges are yet to come. A key ruling by Germany’s Constitutional Court is expected Wednesday, with judges set to decide whether German politicians exceeded the bounds of the national constitution by approving a bailout fund for troubled European countries. In coming weeks, Merkel is also likely to face a do-or-die moment on whether to effectively cut distraught Greece out of the euro zone. Her choices will come to define both her chancellorship and what many here are calling a turning point in German history.