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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

A Scientist Takes the Helm: The Story of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In 1989, Angela Merkel was a quantum chemist with a respectable reputation for applying statistical mathematics to chemical analysis. In 1991, she was a minister in the government of a newly united Germany. Fourteen years later, she became the first woman Chancellor of that nation, a post she held through financial and refugee crises that toppled lesser politicians, and continued to hold until 2021, when she stepped down after steering her country through the hills and valleys of Covid-19 on the basis of the radical notion that scientists should be listened to and heeded in matters pertaining to science.

Merkel's political ascension was unprecedented in a system that favored experienced veterans and a party infamous for its doughy maleness, and could perhaps have only happened in the context of such an unprecedented event as the collapse of Communism and the need to reinvent governance as two nations separated by a half century of individual development and deep chasms of culture and ideology attempted to feel a new way forward together. She was not flashy or charismatic by the standards of the time, but she was deeply competent and reliable, clearly brilliant, and in all things cautious and accurate.

She was, in other words, a scientist, whose life up to 1989 was based on routine and careful calculation. The daughter of a Lutheran pastor who had voluntarily moved to East Germany in order to train pastors there, Angela Kasner was from an early age under official suspicion that could only be overcome by conspicuous achievement. She joined the Pioneers and the FDJ (both Communist youth groups), to maintain appearances and to participate in the wide spectrum of social activities those groups organized. Her grades in mathematics were exemplary, and her mastery of the Russian language, as demonstrated in the Russian Language Olympics, won her a state-sponsored trip to Moscow.

Gifted with a rigorous, mathematical mind in a state that at least theoretically honored scientific achievement, a career in the sciences seemed an easy choice for somebody of an ideologically questionable background who wanted to avoid the cold attention of the Stasi. But all sciences were not equally safe in the Communist world. The life sciences in particular, as we saw in the case of Anna Bek, were habitually prone to political meddling that declared some theories patriotic and others dangerously bourgeois, where even if you espoused the "right" theory today, a wind of change in the administration might land you in the gulag tomorrow.

Physics, however, with its rigid mathematical backbone, seemed safer from official tampering, and so it was to physics that Kasner, and a number of promising young Eastern minds who wished nothing more than to be left alone, gravitated. In 1973 she began attending the Karl Marx University in Leipzig, formerly Leipzig University, an institution that was founded in 1409 and whose alumni roll includes such titans of German culture as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Wilhelm Leibniz, Friedrich Nietzsche, Tycho Brahe, and Richard Wagner, to name just a few. Kasner, the daughter of a pastor whose belief system was officially reviled by the reigning ideology, had by virtue of her studies earned herself a spot at perhaps the most prestigious university behind the Iron Curtain, and after graduating in 1978 she moved on to the Central Institute for Physical Chemistry at Berlin's Academy of Sciences, which was the successor to a scientific society founded by Wilhelm Leibniz in 1700.

She had originally wanted an engineering position in Ilmenau, but that job came with an expectation that she would work as an informant for the Stasi, and she artfully extricated herself from the situation by claiming she was terrible at keeping secrets and so wouldn't be any good as an informant. So, Kasner, who became Angela Merkel upon marrying fellow scientist Ulrich Merkel in 1977, turned to Berlin, where she would remain until her sudden rise to politics in 1990. Her specialty was quantum chemistry, where she employed her mathematical skills in performing the complicated computations necessary to describe basic chemical reactions from a quantum perspective.

For atoms just sitting innocently by themselves, computing the wave equations that predict the three dimensional shapes where electrons of different energies are likely to be found is one of the first tests of a budding undergraduate chemist's mathematical chops. When you start bringing in other atoms, calculating the molecular wave equations adds another layer of complexity, and when you start trying to calculate aspects of chemical reactions over time for those molecules, as Merkel did in her 1986 thesis "Examination of the Mechanism of Decays with Singular Bond Breaking and Calculation of their Coefficient of Reaction Rate on the Basis of Quantum Mechanical and Statistical Methods," you're in a new world entirely.

Merkel put out solid work during her decade of strictly scientific investigation, including a paper on the vibrational properties of surface hydroxyls (which are OH groups that gather on surfaces and can play important roles in catalyzing reactions) published in 1988 in the journal Chemical Physics. And yet, in spite of its prestigious founder, the Academy of Sciences was a shadow of what it ought to have been, underfunded and isolated. She and her husband drifted slowly apart and separated in 1981, and Merkel divided her time between her work and the sure routines which formed the backbone of her existence, including long lone bike rides, watching football matches, and enjoying a beer-and-sauna experience every Tuesday.

She had gone about as far as she could go in the limited scientific environment of the late Communist world, and regarded without enthusiasm the prospect of this life extending indefinitely into the gray future. That was when the world changed forever, the Berlin Wall came down, the two Germanys united, and she saw her status as a minor figure in the local conservative party become a deputy position in the new East German government become a ministerial position in the government of a unified Germany within the space of two years.

Her rise was a composition of several factors - her ability to keep a cool head in changing times and to sift through omnipresent hyperbole in search of concrete realities was valued by everybody she came in contact with, which sent her name up the chain of command from her local political party to its much larger associate, the Eastern wing of the CDU (or Christian Democratic Union, one of Germany's habitually dominant political parties) , and from there to CDU central command and the figure of chancellor Helmut Kohl, who was eager to find an East German woman of talent who could join his cabinet and combat the CDU's all-male all-the-time image.

You know the story from there. How Merkel expertly rode a bribery scandal in the CDU to emerge as one of its leading figures while her superiors resigned in shame. How she built a reputation as somebody who acted only after gathering all relevant facts, but who, once set in motion, acted decisively to form effective compromises where she could, and to tactically (some have said ruthlessly) isolate and remove political obstacles where she couldn't. In this fashion she coordinated Europe's response to the perennial problem of Greek's financial crises, opened Germany's doors to a flood of Syrian refugees that the rest of Europe was content to leave to their dismal fate, and contained the scope of Putin's ambition in Ukraine, rendering the would be conqueror a somewhat pathetic figure strutting as well as he could on the worthless hill that represented the least fraction of his ambitions, watching impotently as his every move was countered by his German nemesis.

Into a political culture that valued the strut and screech of peacocking strongmen, Merkel infused a new approach based on hard data, a consideration of all relevant variables, and a focus on compromise over domination when at all possible. She brought the virtues of a scientist to an arena unaccustomed to their employment, and ran Europe's most powerful nation for a decade and a half on the basis of those principles, which proved their worth most dramatically in Germany's response to the Covid outbreak. By actively seeking and listening to the advice of health experts and the scientific community, Merkel's Germany had a set of testing and tracing guidelines in place by January 16, had banned mass gatherings by late February, and enacted its contact ban by March 22, with the result that, by April 15, the number of new cases per day, which had hit a high of 6000 in mid-March, was cut to 2000 per day, and by July at something on the order of 500, with daily deaths numbering in the single digits.

We might not agree with every domestic and foreign policy decision taken by Merkel. We might be uncomfortable with her willingness to abandon former allies in the name of political expediency (though this is the very stuff of the successful party politician, and something we rarely criticize male politicians for). But what I think we can and must appreciate is the example she has set for how political decisions are arrived at, and how they are implemented. Data and compromise over ideology and intimidation, these are what Merkel at her best represents, and by demonstrating how effective they can be even in the face of overbearing strongmen and global disaster, she proved their worth time and again, and thereby showed us a political path forward to a more collaborative and inter-connected future, away from the dark political past that always seeks to draw us back into isolationist oblivion.


There are a few books in English devoted to the career of Merkel. Matthew Qvortrup's Angela Merkel: Europe's Most Influential Leader is a good choice that doesn't shy away from detailing her more mercenary political moments while giving full credit to the astonishing breadth of character that allowed her to effectively deal with a plethora of crises. By contrast, Stefan Kornelius's Angela Merkel: The Chancellor and Her World is an authorized biography, and as such has a number of the sharper corners steadfastly sanded down. Neither is great about discussing Merkel's scientific work in detail, however.

This piece was originally published as the 174th column in the Women in Science series, in 2020.


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