KASSEL, Germany — The Allied bombers roared over Kassel just before 9 p.m. on an October evening. Within minutes, 70 percent of homes were destroyed. Ten thousand people were dead. And the medieval heart of this central German city — once home to the Brothers Grimm, later an engine of the Nazi war machine — lay in ruins.
Seventy-five years later, to the day, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in a rebuilt Kassel to make her case as the antidote to a world turned newly perilous.
At a time when President Trump is pulling the United States out of nuclear disarmament treaties and politics worldwide is becoming ever more polarized, she told her party’s faithful ahead of state elections here Sunday that Germany cannot afford to add to the turmoil. Instead, she pleaded in a less-than-packed hotel ballroom, voters need to “stay the course of stable, good governance.”
Stability has been at the core of Merkel’s political brand during her 13-year run as chancellor. Yet stability is no longer clearly something she can offer. Amid dysfunction in her government and surging support for opposition parties, momentum is growing for a change at the top as the only way to calm Germany’s roiling political waters.
The push for Merkel to step aside is still in its formative phase, with no definitive plan for how to dethrone her or who would succeed her. But it could accelerate sharply after Sunday’s vote, which is shaping up as just the latest humiliation for a chancellor who, until recently, had been as politically dominant as any democratically elected leader could hope to be.
Merkel’s name will be nowhere on the ballot when voters in the 6 million-strong state of Hesse — home of Frankfurt, Germany’s financial hub — select a new Parliament. Yet the election is being read as a verdict on her performance a year after Germans nationwide gave her the chance to govern for a record-tying fourth straight term.
“It’s a referendum on the central government,” said Wolfgang Schroeder, who teaches politics at the University of Kassel. “And voters are not happy with what’s happening in Berlin.”
Both governing parties at the national level — Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) — are careening toward double-digit losses of support in Hesse, polls show. The CDU’s performance could be dismal enough to cost it control in a state it has governed for nearly two decades.
If that happens, Merkel could face an internal revolt when the party convenes for its annual conference in December and chooses whether to extend her run as CDU chairwoman. A loss there would be politically crippling.
So far, the party appears to be holding firm behind its leader — at least in public. But discontent is brewing.
Merkel has already been defeated in one key intraparty battle in recent weeks, when longtime ally Volker Kauder was unexpectedly ousted as the conservatives’ floor leader in the German Parliament, the Bundestag. The vote was seen as a palace coup — a rare moment when the CDU’s elected officials dared to defy Merkel’s will.
The loss came exactly a year after the party posted disappointing results in national elections. A historically long negotiation to form a government followed, with Merkel reluctantly settling for another “grand coalition” between her party and the SPD.
Then came months of bickering over immigration policy between Merkel and her interior minister, Horst Seehofer, who also leads the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).
The CSU recorded its second-worst result ever in Bavarian elections this month. Merkel allies blamed the poor showing on the CSU’s rightward lurch. But polls in Hesse suggest that the CDU, too, has been weakened by fighting within the center-right bloc.
With Merkel’s own party on the ballot, the Hesse results could be even more damaging to her prospects.
“If she doesn’t have a CDU-led government in Hesse after this week, that will make it much more difficult for her to govern,” Schroeder said.
Beyond having to worry about insurrection in her own party, Merkel also could be confronted with the collapse of her coalition if the SPD pulls out. The party’s support has plummeted during the Merkel era, amid successive grand coalitions. An agonized intraparty debate over whether to continue in the current government is likely to be reopened after Sunday.
“We have to look in the eyes of the CDU/CSU members and ask, ‘Do we have enough trust to continue for the next three years?’ ” said Timon Gremmels, an SPD member who represents Kassel in the Bundestag.
Out on the campaign trail, Gremmels said, it was clear that dissatisfaction with Merkel was driving down SPD support.
“Voters say they’re sick of her. She should leave,” he said. “We hear that often.”
As in Bavaria, the two greatest beneficiaries in Hesse of falling support for Germany’s centrist parties are on either ideological flank: the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the progressively minded Greens.
The latter is vying with the SPD for second place in Hesse, with support in polls roughly double what the party received the last time the state chose a Parliament, in 2013.
The surge, said Hesse Greens co-leader Priska Hinz, reflects growing voter concern over the party’s signature issue: combating climate change.
“We’ve never had such a long, hot and dry summer in Germany, and everyone noticed,” Hinz said.
Disenchantment with the national government plays a big part, too.
“The grand coalition isn’t solving problems,” she said. “They’re only occupied with themselves.”
Manfred Mathis, the AfD’s local candidate in Kassel, was even more blunt: “They’ve been catastrophic.”
Mathis, a former CDU supporter, said his new party’s climb from sixth place in Hesse five years ago to fourth place in the polls today was attributable in large part to disenchantment with Merkel, particularly over her handling of immigration. Germany accepted more than a million asylum seekers in 2015-2016, and the question of whether that was the right choice continues to reverberate above all other issues.
“Because of Merkel,” he said, “German society has split.”
But so far, at least, the CDU hasn’t.
At the party’s rally in Kassel this week, some 600 supporters gave Merkel a standing ovation as she entered to a cover band’s rendition of the theme song from “Rocky IV.” It’s a movie, one of her hosts announced, about a fighter who is “not quite so young anymore” but still burns with desire “to enter the boxing ring.”
The 64-year-old chancellor’s speech seemed to build on the theme, as the normally subdued leader delivered a passionate case for moderation at a time of rising extremism.
“The politics of Hesse are the politics of the center,” Merkel said.
She praised the CDU-led state government for a booming economy that has employers scrambling to find qualified workers to fill vacant jobs, and she warned against both the “hate” of the far right and the “experiments” of the left.
She also cited the destruction of Kassel — once a key supplier of Nazi battle tanks, now a thriving industrial center — as a warning. “We in Europe are living in a peaceful era, yes,” she said, “but this project requires work every single day.”
As Merkel’s speech was winding down, a solemn remembrance ceremony was getting underway across town to mark the anniversary of the 1943 bombing. Beneath the reconstructed spires of St. Martin’s Church — one of the few major buildings in Kassel to survive — residents listened to their mayor, Christian Geselle, plead for tolerance amid rising “racism, exclusion, anti-Semitism and hate.”
They also heard from survivors — children or teenagers then, seniors now.
One of them, 90-year-old Werner Sommer, held back tears in an interview as he recalled the night of the bombing, and the atrocities carried out by his own government that preceded and followed the raid. But his blue eyes brightened at the mention of Merkel.
“She stands strong. But she also works with other countries and treats them with respect,” said Sommer, a retired salesman. “She’s got my vote.”