Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany is on her way out. After almost 15 years in office, the pandemic is likely to be her last great challenge. It could also be the one that seals her legacy: The virus has reconciled Germany to its chancellor.
Before the virus struck, Ms. Merkel’s final term was not going well. Though the chancellor had somewhat recovered from the unpopularity and even open hatred she faced during the migration crisis in 2015 and 2016, her party — the Christian Democratic Union — lost ground in the 2017 election and was falling in the polls.
In October 2018, after crushing defeats in regional elections, Ms. Merkel announced that she would not run again in the 2021 national election and shortly after stepped down as head of her party. Her coalition partner, the Social Democrats, were in disarray, too, hitting historic lows in the polls. The European Union was treading water, unable to find common ground on pressing issues such as migration. The chancellor appeared absent and listless.
How things have changed. Now, in early July 2020, Ms. Merkel is riding high. The country, with a notably low fatality rate and a high-functioning test and trace system, has contained the pandemic — a success many attribute to the chancellor. In a recent poll, 82 percent of Germans said that Ms. Merkel was doing her job “rather well.” And the Christian Democratic Union is once again far ahead of its challengers.
The pandemic has revitalized Ms. Merkel and burnished her reputation as one of the country’s best leaders. How did this happen?
When the virus hit, neither Ms. Merkel nor the federal government were technically in charge. Most of the decisive constitutional powers — closing schools or ordering people to stay home — lay with Germany’s 16 federal states. But the chancellor immediately assumed a leading role, coordinating regular exchanges between the heads of the federal states, pushing for equal regulations across the country and convening top scientists.
She grasped the severity of the situation very early. Helge Braun, her chief of staff, told me that when he learned in mid-January that the new virus could be transmitted by humans, Ms. Merkel immediately understood the possible implications. That was about two weeks before the first case was detected in Germany. When the number of infections rose in late February, the chancellor knew what to do. She pushed for locking down parts of public life.
Surprisingly, the 16 state governors fell into line. Partly, it was a matter of political and practical convenience. But it was also a sign of respect for Ms. Merkel and her exceptional ability to weather crises. In her time as chancellor, she has handled the financial crash, the European debt crisis, Russia’s invasion in Ukraine in 2014, the migration crisis and the international fallout from Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
“She’s crisis-proof,” Sigmar Gabriel, a leading Social Democrat who was a member of two of her cabinets, told me. “Germany is lucky to have such an experienced leader in times of corona.” The state governors clearly felt the same. “They seemed to be glad that they could hide behind her back,” said Thomas de Maizière, a former chief of staff and longtime confidant of Ms. Merkel.
The chancellor acted quickly and decisively at the European level, too. There, the pandemic opened up old resentments between north and south, as Italy in particular sought financial and medical assistance some northern countries appeared unwilling to give. It looked like the European Union could unravel. “I believe she understood that this could be Europe’s end,” Mr. Gabriel said. “She knew that if she didn’t act, member states in need would look for help outside Europe — and China was fired up and ready to step in.”
And that’s what she did. For years, the chancellor was criticized for doing too little to speed up Europe’s integration. But on May 18, Ms. Merkel and President Emmanuel Macron of France proposed an ambitious recovery fund. They suggested that the European Commission should borrow 500 billion euros, $545 billion, from the financial markets and distribute them to member states in need. “This,” said Mr. Gabriel, who served as foreign minister under Ms. Merkel, “was a paradigm shift.”
The backlash from northern nations like Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden was enormous. The negotiations drag on. But Ms. Merkel’s position is clear. “It is very much in all the member states’ own interests to maintain a strong European internal market,” she noted dryly in a recent interview, “and to stand united on the world stage.” In other words: She saw that the crisis was a great opportunity to overcome reservations about deeper European integration, both in Germany and the continent, and jumped at it.
Most surprising, however, is how Ms. Merkel has successfully managed to connect with Germany’s citizens. In previous crises, she’s had to convince her party or other world leaders. This time, it was the German people.
That could have been tricky. It’s established wisdom that Ms. Merkel struggles to relate to people: The very character traits people cherish most in her — her reliability, her diligence, her levelheadedness — also create a sense of distance. Her demeanor is soothing, but at times impermeable and impersonal. She’s the chancellor through and through. “There is only one Angela Merkel,” Mr. Braun, her chief of staff, told me. “Behind the scenes, she’s exactly what she’s like in public.”
So it came as a surprise when, on March 18, Ms. Merkel spoke directly and frankly to the German people in a televised speech. The chancellor, by general agreement not a gifted orator, only holds one televised speech a year, on New Year’s Eve. But whether it was what she said that evening — she invoked World War II — or simply the unusual format, it did the trick. For once, Angela Merkel reached the hearts and minds of Germany’s citizens.
Before the pandemic, with a healthy economy and the government boasting a surplus of €19 billion, over $21 billion, Ms. Merkel was criticized for not doing enough. She wasn’t leading her country and Europe; she was merely managing them. The criticism now seems excessive. As Germany held its breath during those terrifying weeks of lockdown, it saw Angela Merkel afresh. No longer overcautious and hesitant, she was instead the duteous and utterly capable leader who was there when her country needed her most.
Not that she seems to care much about her new popularity. “When you’re in politics,” she said last month, “you just have to adjust to new realities and situations. That’s our job.”
Anna Sauerbrey, a contributing opinion writer since 2015, has been an editor and writer at the German daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel since 2011.