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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.
Why did Merkel leave what appeared to be a promising career for the uncertainty of politics? In a New Yorker profile of her, George Packer called the decision “the central mystery of an opaque life.” Kornelius attributes the drastic change to a realization that, as a scientist from poorer and under-resourced East Germany, she would be “outpaced” by her western peers.
Merkel has never spoken publicly about why she left science, but perhaps that is because it never really left her. Scientific thinking—her deliberate probing of each new bit of information, her cautious consultation with experts—remains integral to Merkel’s daily decision-making process and her political persona. She is undoubtedly aware that her measured, modest handling of Germany’s affairs is at least partially why she has, for almost 15 years now, enjoyed the support of a country whose historical reverence for scientific achievement and great minds (think Kant, Einstein, innumerable others) is forever balanced by an acute wariness of charismatic leaders with big ideas (think Hitler).
Prior to the pandemic, Merkel’s political star had been waning. She had become known, according to Kornelius, as the chancellor “who avoided things, much less as the one who built things.” Yes, she had prevented Europe from falling apart during the financial crisis and led the continent as it grappled with the subsequent migration crisis. But of late, she had been left politically sidelined by the domestic rise of populism, the far right, the far left, and by autocratic leaders around the world.
Then came the coronavirus. Germany’s first case was confirmed on January 28, but the threat didn’t truly transform everyday life here until the middle of March. Government-mandated restrictions in Berlin were incremental but more and more disruptive. Few were bothered by the cancellation of large gatherings such as industry conferences, but when the city’s creative centers—its theaters, operas, and concert halls—closed on March 10, something essential went missing. A few days later, Berlin’s notorious and celebrated nightlife scene went dark too. Pedestrians dispersed, spooked restaurant owners closed up shop or erected plexiglass barriers. The very fabric of the capital’s social and cultural life was fraying. Residents of this once-divided city were again reminded just how quickly freedom can be lost.