Last July, the world’s media directed its wrath towards Angela Merkel after an 11-year-old refugee girl burst into tears at a government-sponsored event in the northern city of Rostock.
The girl, whose family had fled from Lebanon, was outlining her situation to the chancellor. Smiling nervously and in perfect command of the German language, she explained what it was like to live in constant fear of deportation. Tentatively, she told Merkel she too had dreams.
Merkel listened, nodded and promptly committed PR suicide: she told the truth.
“Politics is hard,” she said. “And you’re an incredibly likeable person.. but there are thousands more living in camps in Lebanon.. we can’t take everyone in.”
Moments later, the girl had begun to cry.
It was glorious headline fodder.
“Merkel makes refugee girl cry,”wrote the mass-circulation Bild. “Angela Merkel is ice cold,” other news outlets announced.“Merkel reduced girl to tears,” said Britain’s Daily Mail.
Merkel’s attempt to comfort the weeping refugee girl by patting her even gave way to the ironic and scathing hashtag, #Merkelstreichelt (Merkel strokes).
Oh, how things have changed.
Eight months after the encounter with 11-year-old Reem, Angela Merkel’s stance towards refugees is now widely considered the gold standard in moral leadership, setting her apart from all other world leaders. Those who support her open-door policy consider her a beacon of hope in an otherwise depraved world. Those who oppose it at least acknowledge the political sacrifice she is making in order to stick to her convictions.
The image of the ice-cold chancellor has been all but erased.
It’s worth pointing out that last July’s exchange took place against a backdrop of headlines about Germany’s tough-line approach to negotiations for a third Greek bailout.
Now even in this regard the narrative has flipped, as Merkel leads calls for more solidarity with countries like Greece that find themselves on the frontline of the refugee crisis.
Merkel’s encounter with Reem, the girl from Lebanon, was notable in two respects.
First, it was a departure from her usual careful media strategy, which is to say as little quotable as possible. The German chancellor is known to make hard work for journalists who have to sift through long sentences of little concrete substance in search of a suitable sound bite.
More than anything though, the intervening months have proven that when Angela Merkel “made a girl cry” last year, the media hung her for being artless, not heartless.