After a long goodbye, Angela Merkel finally reached the end on Wednesday of her 16-year term as Germany’s first female chancellor, Europe’s most powerful leader and one of the world’s most durable crisis managers.
Mrs Merkel, 67, hands over to Olaf Scholz with high approval ratings at home and much admiration abroad for her longevity, her personal integrity and her calm, consensus-seeking style.
But critics accuse her of lacking vision, sidestepping deep-rooted problems and opening the door to a resurgent far right.
Her four election victories made her the dominant figure in European politics, withstanding crises that felled other leaders and earning her the nickname “Queen of Europe".
She helped steer the EU through troubles from the 2008 financial crash and the eurozone debt saga to the 2015 refugee crisis, the stormy years of Donald Trump’s presidency and the coronavirus pandemic.
“She did a lot to hold Europe together,” Annette Schavan, a former education minister under Mrs Merkel, told The National.
“Angela Merkel has a great ability to integrate. Her stamina and her patience led to a good result in many a complicated situation.”
Mrs Merkel took office in 2005 after a messy election result put her Christian Democrats (CDU) in a power-sharing coalition with their main rivals, the Social Democrats (SPD).
It made her Germany’s first female chancellor and the first to have grown up in the former communist East, where she worked as a physicist.
She would govern with the SPD for 12 of her 16 years in power, winning re-election with relative ease in 2009, 2013 and 2017.
At the peak of her powers, she fell just short of an absolute majority in 2013, when Germany’s strong finances helped made it the envy of debt-ridden countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain.
Mrs Merkel’s signature hand gesture, in the shape of a diamond, became a symbol of her reassuring style and the stability she offered in tumultuous times.
Once asked in a TV debate whether she was not more suited to the SPD, she was sometimes accused of lacking deep political beliefs and preferring to muddle through from day to day.
“The latter is not entirely untrue, and in light of dynamic and ever more rapidly changing political circumstances, is almost a requirement for political survival,” said Mrs Merkel’s former vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, from the SPD.
“But that doesn’t contradict the fact that Angela Merkel very much followed an inner moral compass.”
This moral compass came to the fore during the 2015 refugee crisis, Mr Gabriel said, when Mrs Merkel opened Germany’s doors to hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war in Iraq and Syria.
It was the most explosive decision of her chancellorship and spurred the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which entered parliament for the first time in 2017.
Mrs Merkel’s insistence that “we will manage it” became a punchline as integration issues mounted. But she said last month that her prediction had proved correct.
She sought consensus in foreign policy, urging dialogue with Russia despite its tensions with the EU.
Her final months in office brought out glowing tributes from the many leaders she worked with over 16 years – with former US president Barack Obama praising her for “taking the high ground for so many years”.
But her desire for consensus did not always bring results, as she acknowledged recently when she described divisions in the EU as “unfinished business” for her successor.
At other times, she read the political winds and moved accordingly, for example by U-turning on nuclear energy and moving to phase it out in Germany by 2022.
Although her moderate positions won support from untypical CDU voters, they left room to the party’s right which was exploited by the AfD, said Mr Gabriel.
A series of spectacular gains for the AfD at the CDU’s expense were the trigger for Mrs Merkel’s announcement in 2018 that she would not seek a fifth term.
At this year’s election, the CDU struggled to emerge from her shadow and slumped to its worst ever result, sending it into opposition.
Leaders of the new three-party coalition have spoken warmly of Mrs Merkel personally but complained that too little was done to modernise Germany and tackle climate change.
“She kept this country, and Europe with it, stable and on track under ever more difficult circumstances,” said Mr Gabriel.
But she “tried to protect the German people from change more than she prepared them for it”, he said.
Mrs Merkel’s three-year farewell was dominated by the coronavirus crisis, in which her cautious approach, drawing on her background as a scientist, won her many admirers.
In a rare invocation of her East German background, she assured the public that she understood the pain of restricted travel and would not be imposing this unless it was absolutely necessary.
Germany emerged from the first wave with remarkably few cases and deaths, but this success did not last into subsequent outbreaks.
She hands over power to the SPD's Olaf Scholz amid an alarming winter resurgence, complicated by the protracted transfer of power that followed September's election.
Nonetheless, an early December poll showed she was still the most popular politician in Germany, with 68 per cent approving of her work.
David McAllister, a CDU politician and MEP who was once tipped as her successor, said Mrs Merkel had become a role model for many people.
“Especially at European level, her strength was to mediate and moderate in a calm manner with the objective to reach a consensus that works for all sides,” he said.
“After 16 years, a political era will end.”