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The British star historian Niall Ferguson is presenting his book on the greatest catastrophes in world history in the press – and time and again it is about the Merkel catastrophe. How will history judge her?
Ferguson takes us through all the major catastrophes through which mankind has passed – epidemics, the Battle of the Somme (1916 – 1.1 million dead), influenza, crashes, Chernobyl, derailed trains and derailed states. Each case is meticulously analyzed and dissected with a precision that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end; almost with relish, Ferguson wallows in casualty figures and hair-raising reasons for failures, bankruptcies, misfortunes, and mishaps that brought down even great empires.
It is a monumental work: not a history of acute epidemics, and not a history of pandemics in general. It is a history of catastrophes – of every conceivable doom, be they geological or geopolitical, biological or technological. How else should we properly understand our current catastrophe – or any other?
In talking to editors in Germany, Austria and Switzerland about his new book, recently published in German, Ferguson keeps landing on Angela Merkel – just as if she were one of the great catastrophes.
“Her mistakes will be avenged,” he warns on t-online. He lists her mistakes in great detail and emphasizes that the crisis chancellor did not manage any crises – but only created them, e.g. the refugee crisis, which after 2015 now threatens to repeat itself at the end of her term in office: “A huge influx of refugees will come to Europe.” Merkel, he said, is completely wrongly seen as a strong leader. “This is an invention of the media. What is supposed to have been her great achievement?”
Most of the crises, such as the Greek currency crisis, had, after all, passed Germany by. If anything, she created the ground for new ones – for example, through her energy policy. While others regret Merkel’s departure, he adds: “Merkel is Putin’s best agent. By building the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, Germany has agreed to become completely dependent on Russia for its energy supply.”
Her successor also finds no mercy in his eyes: “Olaf Scholz is a male version of Angela Merkel. I don’t see any desire for change in German society either. Germany wants stagnation – and will pay dearly for it.”
And in the Vienna Profil, he mocks Merkel and EU leaders, saying, “I wonder why so few in Europe ask themselves what they have in common with the fledging Afghan government, whose system collapsed when U.S. troops left. The answer is that without NATO support, the Europeans would be in no stronger position than the Afghan government.”
And while Merkel allows herself to be styled as a strong leader through the pandemic, Ferguson responds in Die Welt, “Covid-19 is historically a rather minor disaster.” He himself came through the crisis well – unlike Germany, he reveals to the FAZ: “I do the kind of work that can easily be done at home. I live in a place that wasn’t particularly hard hit. And I even benefited from the pandemic, because it forced me to stop traveling, so I saw my kids and wife much more often.” Most, however, are not as well off as an outgoing chancellor who can eat her lavish pension despite her failures, which were exacerbated by actions initiated too late and then exacerbated by actions that were too hectic, over-bureaucratized, and mostly blind – completely oblivious to the devastating consequences.
“The economic consequences resemble those of a world war,” Ferguson tells Handelsblatt. For the health consequences are one thing – the administrative handling of catastrophes is another – in many cases they only become really dangerous when the wrong actions are taken, and politics becomes an amplifier rather than a savior. The greatest failure in the fight against the pandemic, however, was not to push testing and contact tracing at the very beginning, when only a few people had been infected.
His voluminous work makes exciting reading. Even the left-wing Frankfurter Rundschau states: “The author is the ‘right-wing’ economic historian Niall Ferguson, a man who can write in a not uninteresting way. The book has 713 pages. The notes begin on page 542, and they too are a source of pleasure. One watches the author with what delight he plunges into even the most remote literature, comics, art, and essays in journals of various disciplines.”
Again and again he is asked about Merkel’s assessment; but he refuses the favor of finding her as great as the German media. He admits she would have been re-elected if only she had run. But that, he says, is entirely due to the German electorate’s refusal to look the truth in the face, because, “Germany is not as good at any discipline as it is at self-deception.”
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