Merkel Addresses German Public on Coronavirus: Will Her Efforts to Steel Domestic Solidarity Pave the Way for Ambitious German Actions?

Jeffrey Rathke

Jeff Rathke

President of AGI

Jeffrey Rathke is the President of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC.

Prior to joining AICGS, Jeff was a senior fellow and deputy director of the Europe Program at CSIS, where his work focused on transatlantic relations and U.S. security and defense policy. Jeff joined CSIS in 2015 from the State Department, after a 24-year career as a Foreign Service Officer, dedicated primarily to U.S. relations with Europe. He was director of the State Department Press Office from 2014 to 2015, briefing the State Department press corps and managing the Department's engagement with U.S. print and electronic media. Jeff led the political section of the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur from 2011 to 2014. Prior to that, he was deputy chief of staff to the NATO Secretary General in Brussels. He also served in Berlin as minister-counselor for political affairs (2006–2009), his second tour of duty in Germany. His Washington assignments have included deputy director of the Office of European Security and Political Affairs and duty officer in the White House Situation Room and State Department Operations Center.

Mr. Rathke was a Weinberg Fellow at Princeton University (2003–2004), winning the Master’s in Public Policy Prize. He also served at U.S. Embassies in Dublin, Moscow, and Riga, which he helped open after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Mr. Rathke has been awarded national honors by Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as several State Department awards. He holds an M.P.P. degree from Princeton University and B.A. and B.S. degrees from Cornell University. He speaks German, Russian, and Latvian.


Chancellor Merkel spoke directly to the German public in prime time on March 18, the first time she has delivered such an emergency address during her fourteen-plus years as chancellor. She used the nation’s attention to convey directly the urgency of the Covid-19 pandemic and to prepare Germany for further steps to come. Merkel called this the greatest challenge Germany has faced since the end of the Second World War. She grounded German authorities’ actions in the best advice of epidemiologists and public health experts. The country’s top priority, she stressed, is to slow the spread of Covid-19 so that Germany’s well-developed medical system can cope. She called on the public to follow the guidance on social distancing and to bear the frustrations of disruption to public life. “It will require everyone’s efforts,” she said, and warned that the worst days lie ahead: “the next weeks will be more difficult.”

The contrast between Merkel’s address and the March 16 speech of French president Emmanuel Macron could not be more stark. He said repeatedly “We are at war.” Merkel put it this way, “We are a democracy. We don’t live by compulsion, but by shared knowledge and participation.” Her desired effect is the same as Macron’s: social resilience and concerted effort at a time when unprecedented mobilization is required. But Merkel’s German audience is unlikely to respond to the martial rhetoric that may resonate in France, so her tone was urgent but personal at the same time.

Merkel’s German audience is unlikely to respond to the martial rhetoric that may resonate in France, so her tone was urgent but personal at the same time.

Her speech appeared to be in part a deliberate attempt to address one of her greatest difficulties as a leader: crisis communication. Merkel’s highest-priority audience yesterday was the German public, not a European or an international one. Her frank words on the gravity of the coronavirus pandemic are an effort to bolster her substantial reserve of public trust, probably because she recognizes how much she is going to have to ask of Germans in the days and weeks to come. There likely will come further steps that require additional sacrifice from the German public, whether economic/financial measures at EU level, or other measures. Germany and Europe will need those, and quickly. Her directness should serve to prepare the public for the tougher steps that inevitably are going to follow.

Merkel’s default style of politics, as many have noted, is incremental and cautious: she waits and weighs information carefully before setting direction. She is Delphic while in deliberation mode. It frustrates her political adversaries (and often her own CDU) that she does not stake out bold positions early and drag the German public along with her. But with the broader public that does not eat and breathe politics, this proved an excellent strategy to conquer the political center and eat her rivals’ lunch, as long as international circumstances have been reasonably calm and predictable. It is why this East German woman who lacked traditional West German advantages, and who became a politician as a second career only after the peaceful revolution of 1989/90, has risen to the CDU leadership and survived as chancellor for 14+ years.

The problem is that those instincts are poorly suited to managing a crisis that requires major public sacrifice. Merkel’s two most significant political setbacks—the eurozone crisis in the early 2010s and the migration crisis that began in 2015—illustrate this. In both cases Merkel was hailed internationally for her leadership in dealing with a complex challenge, but she failed to prepare German public opinion adequately. Her appeals to Germany’s international responsibilities earned foreign plaudits but outpaced German voters’ readiness for sacrifice.

The result was a backlash: the creation of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which was founded in 2013 in reaction to the eurozone bailout, and its march to national prominence on the anti-migrant wave that followed the 2015 migration crisis.

Many rightly criticize Merkel and her government for their slow response, nationally and at the European level. Travel restrictions should have happened earlier, especially from centers of the outbreak like China and Iran. Bans on large public gatherings (including ever-popular Carnival events) should have happened a month ago. The consensus-based approach to federal-state relations meant that social-distancing measures lagged other European countries.

It will be necessary to shape a European response that lays the groundwork for economic recovery and relies heavily on German resources.

Germany will have to make many sacrifices in the coming weeks. The economic shock, as production in key sectors like auto production grinds to a halt, will be far-reaching and require massive state action. It will be necessary to shape a European response that lays the groundwork for economic recovery and relies heavily on German resources. European structures will need to be renovated to maintain continental cohesion in an increasingly competitive international environment. Merkel has begun to lay the foundation for German international action by starting with German voters. She will have to keep it up to successfully address what she called the greatest challenge the Federal Republic has faced in its 75-year existence.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.