Her governing style eventually led to criticism at home for putting the nation into a "deep sleep" by refraining from clashing with her opponents, but she was still hailed as the "leader of the free world" abroad as the Obama era neared its end in 2016. At the time, Britain was beset by upheaval over plans to leave the European Union and France faced its own break-the-mold populist surge.
Yet one year later, another nation has become trapped in a political stalemate: Germany.
As coalition talks and negotiations here have dragged on for five months now, forcing Merkel to confront one of the worst crises of her 12-year tenure, hopes for Germany to fill the power vacuum left by the United States have faded. Yet Germany may have never wanted that role in the first place, and some even believe that the country's retreat from the spotlight may benefit the country overall - by making it less powerful.
It may be a strange worldview for most people in Washington, a city that has long prided itself for being the world's most influential place, but it's far from being a minority perception here in history-burdened Berlin.
Only a minority of Germans believes that their country should assume a more influential role in world affairs, and 52 percent said in a recent survey conducted by the Koerber Foundation that more restraint was beneficial. That's one reason why the country's military remains so chronically underfunded that it is virtually "not deployable for collective defense," according to an independent commissioner.
"It's good for Germany's reputation abroad that it won't have to assume the role of Europe's primary leader," said Thorsten Benner, the director of the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute, referring to Merkel's weakened role in comparison with another European leader. "It's great to see that France has taken on more responsibilities and that President Macron has had a chance to shine, too."
In France, Macron quickly established himself as a force on the world stage, taking part in geopolitical discussions and negotiations. With Germany mired in internal divisions - and a Britain overwhelmed by Brexit - the French president emerged as one of Europe's strongest public faces. Some now argue that the ex-investment banker could even become the de facto leader of the free world.
Merkel's earlier rise to global political superstar, and nickname "leader of the Western world," disgruntled many other governments in Europe who felt suffocated by Germany's influence. And while a Gallup survey recently concluded that the country has replaced the United States "as the top-rated global power in the world," it remains deeply unpopular across much of Europe.
"Countries whose perception of Germany affects us directly - such as Poland and Greece - are much more wary of Berlin than international surveys that include many countries much further away may indicate," said Benner.
As Germany's influence in Europe was on the rise, the Law and Justice party in neighboring Poland stirred anti-German sentiments, which were mainly rooted in history and the country's suffering under the Nazis. In Greece, the austerity largely implemented by Merkel's government was seen as a more contemporary version of a German takeover.
The country's controversial role in Europe has also shown Berlin its limits. "Germany's greatest constraint is that more than most other powers, it depends on the multilateral order," The Economist already observed last summer, prior to the September election.
In a broader context, the European Union's cohesion has long suffered under what smaller nations perceive to be an unfair distribution of powers. Even though Germany and other larger countries shoulder the bloc's biggest financial burden, especially eastern and central European governments frequently complain that Berlin has forced them to accept its stance on issues such as immigration or the eurozone crisis. Merkel's decisions, they argue, have triggered a surge in populist movements in those places.
A less dominant Germany may now help a divided European Union overcome some of its divisions, some hope.
• 09/06/17 German court throwing out case against Nazi guard, as time runs short for Auschwitz trials
• 07/19/17 13,000 girls in Germany at risk of genital mutilation following refugee influx, report warns
• 07/25/16 Germany has some of the world's strictest gun laws, yet illegal weapons remain a threat
• 07/11/16 Leaked document says 2,000 'Middle East' men allegedly assaulted 1,200 German women on New Year's Eve