The chancellor’s rigor in collating information, her honesty in stating what is not yet known, and her composure are paying off.
BERLIN—Today, we face the global outbreak of a disease that has the potential to catalyze what the historian Eva Schlotheuber terms a “pandemic of the mind.” As misinformation proliferates and lines between fact and fiction are routinely and nonchalantly crossed, world leaders must, now more than ever, illuminate a thoughtful path forward, one reliant on science and evidence-based reasoning. Indeed, many have. One leader goes further still.
Trusted by her people to navigate this outbreak’s murky waters, without inciting or succumbing to a pandemic of the mind, one politician is less a commander in chief and more a scientist in chief: Angela Merkel.
For weeks now, Germany’s leader has deployed her characteristic rationality, coupled with an uncharacteristic sentimentality, to guide the country through what has thus far been a relatively successful battle against COVID-19. The pandemic is proving to be the crowning challenge for a politician whose leadership style has consistently been described as analytical, unemotional, and cautious.
In her quest for social and economic stability during this outbreak, Merkel enjoys several advantages: a well-respected, coordinated system of scientific and medical expertise distributed across Germany; the hard-earned trust of the public; and the undeniable fact that steady and sensible leadership is suddenly back in style. With 30 years of political experience, and facing an enormous challenge that begs calm, reasoned thinking, Merkel is at peak performance modeling the humble credibility of a scientist at work. And it seems to be paying off, both politically and scientifically.
Born in West Germany in 1954, Merkel was raised in a small East German town to the north of Berlin. Her father was a Lutheran pastor and a target of surveillance by East Germany’s security service, the Stasi. A brilliant student, Merkel learned early on “not to put herself in the center of things” lest she expose herself or her family to undue scrutiny, according to Stefan Kornelius, her official biographer and the foreign editor of the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Merkel, who had by then earned a doctorate in quantum chemistry, was working as a research scientist. Soon after, she left her job to join a new political group that had formed in her neighborhood, thus quietly launching her political career. She rose in German politics and, through sheer smarts and a series of well-timed tactical maneuvers, ascended in 2005 to the chancellery, the head of Germany’s federal government. Her trajectory was dramatic and uncommon—for a woman, for an East German, and for a trained scientist with no background in law or civil service.