She’ll miss it by less than two weeks: Angela Merkel in all likelihood will not be the longest-serving German chancellor since Otto von Bismarck, the nation’s founding leader.
When Helmut Kohl finally gave up the keys to the chancellery in 1998, he had spent 5,870 days in the top job; if Olaf Scholz is sworn in as planned in early December, Ms. Merkel will leave office just days behind his record, the second-longest serving chancellor in postwar history.
Still, 16 years are a long time and after spending almost a quarter of her life in the highest office, many are wondering what Ms. Merkel might do next.
Her departure has been a long time coming — she announced that she wouldn’t run for re-election three years ago. Since then the rumor mills have been spinning. Some saw her accepting a guest lecturer role at an American university, while others hoped she would take on a senior role at the European Union or another international institution.
What was clear from the outset: She wanted to leave office on her own terms, in her own time. “I want at some point to find the right time to quit politics,” she told Herlinde Koelbl, a German photographer, in 1998. “I don’t want to be a half-dead wreck.”
Two years ago, when she experienced fits of uncontrolled trembling, it appeared as if she would not make it to the end of her term. Yet if Ms. Merkel has fallen short of Bismarck in longevity in office, she shared with him the moniker of “iron chancellor” and pulled through.
At 67, Ms. Merkel is still young enough to take on other challenges, but has been characteristically tight-lipped about her retirement plans. When pressed, Ms. Merkel brushed away the idea that she even had the time to think about it, insisting that only when she was out of office would she be able to begin focusing on her next step.
“I think every government day has to be taken equally seriously and always looked at with the same alert eye,” she said. “I believe in governing in the midst of life and as sensibly as possible, and to do so until the last day of my responsibility.”
With that last day drawing ever closer, she has begun to speak more freely about a need she feels to pause long enough to rest and contemplate what truly interests her. In an interview given this summer after receiving an honorary doctorate — her 18th — from Johns Hopkins University, the chancellor gave the first real insight into how she envisions her future.
“I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will fall shut because I’m tired, then I’ll sleep a little bit, and then we’ll see,” she said.
But when Parliament approved a staff of nine full-time employees for her office as former chancellor, many were quick to point out that it was a formidable number for someone with plans to lie on the couch reading books.
“I would like in this next phase of life to consider very carefully what do I want to do,” she said in September.
“Do I want to write? Do I want to speak? Do I want to wander around? Do I want to be at home? Do I want to travel the world?” Ms. Merkel said. “For that reason, I have decided that at first I will do nothing, and I will see what happens. I think that is really fascinating.”