The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, last week described the coronavirus pandemic as the greatest world crisis since the Second World War. Only one head of state can make that comparison as a matter of life experience. In an address to Britain and the Commonwealth on April 5, Queen Elizabeth reminded her listeners that she made her first broadcast in 1940, as a 14-year-old princess, when Britain stood alone against the Nazis.
In the spirit of Plutarch’s parallel lives, one might contrast the British sovereign to another maternal figure at the head of an important country, namely Germany’s Angela Merkel. No two women could be more different; Dr. Merkel is a highly qualified biophysicist and a no-nonsense practical leader. But the women from countries that fought each other in two world wars during the past century have played parallel roles in uniting their countries.
Now 94, the Queen gently exhorted the British people to act in a way that they could look back on with pride. In a global atmosphere charged by fear and recriminations, her message stood out as an example of leadership. News that Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson had been taken to hospital after showing symptoms of the coronavirus came out after the Queen’s address.
Today’s speech, filmed in solitude, orchestrated by one cameraman wearing protective equipment at Windsor Castle, stands in stark contrast of the Monarchy, often surrounded by family, pageantry or in front of representatives from all areas of public interest.
“Together we are tackling this disease, and I want to reassure you that if we remain united and resolute, then we will overcome it. I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge, and those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any, that the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet, good-humored resolve, and of fellow feeling still characterize this country. The pride in who we are is not a part of our past, it defines our present and our future.”
Her comparison of the present crisis to what then Prime Minister Winston Churchill called Britain’s finest hour was a quiet summons to courage. It carried more weight coming from a woman who as a child already was a national symbol, but spoke to the children of today with the affection of a national matriarch.
Britain’s thousand-year-old monarchy embodies the continuity of its national character, but Elizabeth is far more than a figurehead. Her long life embodied the challenges her people have had to face, from her wartime evacuation with her sister, the early death of her beloved father George VI, her youth responsibilities as monarch, the tragic death of her daughter-in-law Diana and her responsibility for her young grandsons, to the many small and large crises which the Royal Family has had to face. Not only her status but a deep empathy for the difficulties of her people made her message of national unity so evocative.
With Prince Charles, the Queen’s firstborn son and future heir, in coronavirus recovery and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, since fighting to restore his health in a UK hospital unit, it was a deeply personal message that will hold people together, throughout the world, through difficult days ahead.
She concluded her address with a message for the children of Britain, who are “making sacrifices and painting rainbows.” Coming from a child of wartime, her words to today’s children offered hope that Britain will emerge from the crisis “as strong as any before.”
Elizabeth appealed to Britons’ better natures, in marked contrast to the political partisanship that surrounds public health policy in the United States. The major media is overwhelmingly hostile to President Trump, who in turn has sought to cast blame on state governors who have criticized him. Meanwhile, the federal and state governments are engaged in a lifeboat brawl over an inadequate provision of critical supplies and equipment.
Remarkably, the political leader whose standing in the present crisis most resembles that of the Queen is Germany’s Angela Merkel, now in her sixteenth year as Federal Chancellor. Nicknamed “Mutti” (or “Mommy”), Merkel took a very different tone with the German public, warning bluntly that more than half of Germans might contract the virus. Building on an excellent public health system with an ample hospital space and equipment, Merkel’s medical team has kept the fatality rate from coronavirus to the lowest in the world.
Largely in response to her handling of the medical emergency, voters’ support for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union has risen to the highest level in three years, with 43% of voters saying that they believe the Union is best qualified to deal with Germany’s problems. Only months ago the Union’s popularity had sunk briefly below that of the Green Party; now Merkel’s party is far ahead, with pollsters reporting that the Green’s support has shrunk to a narrow base of college students.
The Queen established the tone of her reign at her Coronation Oath in 1953, “The things which I have here before promised, I will perform and keep. So help me God.” As head of the Church of England, the Queen re-establishes the British Monarchy, not as pageantry or celebrity, but as a legacy of service and the Monarch’s sanctimonious contract with the people, humanity and God.
Dr. Merkel has no such tradition to draw upon. German nationalism became a dodgy business during the Second World War, and Merkel has ruled out any cooperation with Germany’s avowedly nationalist minority party, the Alternative fūr Deutschland. Instead of appealing to historical memory, Merkel offered a robust public health system, a brilliant team of German doctors, and a dogged commitment to finding whatever means were necessary to save lives.
Thanks to Elizabeth and Angela Merkel, the wartime enemies of the 20th century have become models of national unity under stress, albeit in very different ways. And in a fractured and contentious world that is an encouraging sign.