Full disclosure: this is not really from Germany. I left at the beginning of the month, when awareness of the coronavirus—compared to where we are today—was still in its infancy. Then it was just an extra set of questions at the airport (Had I been to China, South Korea, or Italy?); some free advice about hygiene on the plane (be sure to flush the toilet and wash your hands thoroughly); and a brief delay once we landed. Now we are in a near lockdown situation in many places in the United States, and in Germany, too, curfews and restrictions are the order of the day. Leaving Germany less than three weeks ago seems like a lifetime ago.
But having returned home, I find myself a little envious of the Germans. Last Wednesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel addressed the nation, and with exemplary brevity, calm, and compassion laid out the extraordinary challenge posed by the coronavirus, and the German government’s firm response. Justin Davidson, writing for New York Magazine, put it best: “Leader of the Free World Gives a Speech, and She Nails It.” “Without accusations, boasts, hedges, obfuscations, dubious claims, or apocalyptic metaphors,” he observed, “she did what a leader is supposed to do.”
Indeed she did.
Toward the end of her remarkably short speech (under thirteen minutes), having explained what she sees as a “historic task” unrivaled by any challenge since the Second World War, Merkel got personal, solemnly intoning “Ich appelliere an Sie” (I appeal to you).
Reflecting the address’s meticulous choreography, the camera then zoomed in to more tightly frame the chancellor as well as the historic Reichstagsgebäude (the seat of the German Parliament) just behind her. “Wir sind eine Demokratie” (we are a democracy), she reminded her listeners; “we don’t live by force,” but by shared knowledge and cooperation. This is pretty dramatic, because the burning of the Reichstaggebäude in February 1933 is iconic for the loss of Germany’s first democracy. Framed now by the simple black, red, and gold of the German flag at the Chancellor’s side and atop the Reichstagsgebäude (fairly recent appurtenances in postwar German political iconography, by the way), the message was clear: this time around it would be different.
Then came the most memorable lines.
“That we will overcome this crisis, of this I am completely confident,” she reassuringly declared. But she added this ominous caveat: “How high will the number of victims be? How many loved ones will we lose?” Looking directly into the camera, she calmly and firmly reminded her listeners that these answers depend rather directly on their (our) behavior.
It would be far too easy, and perhaps too obvious, to observe once again that Merkel is all the things Trump is not. The president’s daily sputtering and posturing at long-winded news conferences—a pathetic attempt to portray himself as a “wartime” leader—is just too easy a target. And at times like this, people can forgive a lot in a leader, including lack of poise and eloquence—which to some extent may explain the president’s higher approval numbers last week (up to 55 percent from 43 percent the previous week).
Merkel’s call to solidarity is bracingly poignant, but her urgent moral appeal to our interdependence and shared fate would frankly amount to nothing more than a nice speech were it not for other signs in Germany that democracy and standing together really do matter.