"My whole life, should it be short or long," promised the later Queen Elizabeth II on her 21st birthday that she wanted to dedicate it to her subjects. The British Queen died on Thursday at the age of 96 at her Scottish country estate, Balmoral Castle.
Her death marks the end of an era in which Great Britain's role in the world has changed massively. But the Queen ruled - although she only had symbolic power - like a rock in the surf.
When she became queen in 1952, she was at the head of an empire with more than 70 colonies. When she dies, little is left of it. She takes over the scepter in the Cold War, which lasts for decades and ends long before her death. She sits on the throne when her country becomes part of the EU - and when Britain leaves.
A queen who never falls out of character
Despite all the upheavals, the Queen always remains true to herself. Elizabeth II never steps out of character and never gets involved in politics. Even when her husband, Prince Philip, dies in April 2021 after more than 73 years of marriage, she is only taking a short break from her duties. Elizabeth II will be succeeded by her son Charles - it is uncertain whether he will be able to fill in his mother's footsteps.
For the German historian and Britain expert Franz-Josef Brüggemeier, the Queen was the perfect representative of a consistency that permeates the whole country. "Britain is one of the few countries in Europe where the essential institutions have been the same for more than 100 years." Parliament, the parties, the courts, the police authorities. "The whole country is permeated with these elements of continuity," said Brüggemeier.
The Brits not only love the Queen's consistency, but also her confidence and wit. As a former bodyguard recalls, she once encountered tourists while out walking near her Scottish castle, Balmoral. The Americans ask her if she lives in the area and knows the queen. The Queen then points to the bodyguard and replies, "No, but him." The two tourists insist on taking a picture with the man - and ask the queen to press the shutter button. She plays along without batting an eyelid.
Ten-year-old Elizabeth becomes heir to the throne
When Elizabeth was born in London on April 21, 1926, there was no telling that one day she would become Britain's longest-serving monarch. She is third in line to the throne after her uncle Edward VIII and father George VI. But when Elizabeth is ten years old, Edward surprisingly abdicates. Her father becomes king and she heir to the throne. From then on, her life is dedicated to being the head of state.
During the Second World War, Elizabeth is still training to be a truck driver and mechanic in the army. Even then, she was brimming with a sense of duty. She allows herself a brief moment of exuberance when Nazi Germany capitulates: people dance on the streets of London, Elizabeth mingles unrecognized with the revelers. "We were carried away by a wave of joy and relief," she recalls.
At the age of 13 she fell in love with the dashing Philip. The Greek prince from Danish-German nobility is not her parents' first choice. But Elizabeth doesn't give up. After the two get married, he never leaves her side. Elizabeth is the boss on the outside and he's supposedly the boss at home. She later emphasizes that he has been her strength and her support over the years. "I owe him more than he would ever admit."
73 years of marriage to Prince Philip
Even her accession to the throne was preceded by the loss of a loved one: she is jokingly referred to as the only princess who climbed a tree and came down as queen. The news of her father's death reached Elizabeth and her husband Philip in a tree house hotel on a trip to Kenya in 1952. Elizabeth returns to London as Queen. She was just 25 years old at the time. The following year, millions watched the coronation ceremony on television.
Elizabeth is an attractive queen. Though fashion conscious, she is not extravagant. Never stages himself, only the office. Her fashion credo: wear eye-catching colors as often as possible so that she is better recognized in the crowd. "I have to be seen to be believed in."
Family life with ups and downs
Everything is subordinate to duty. Even family life, which is subject to ups and downs. It was later said that the four children, Charles, Anne, Andrew and Edward, did not have much in common with their mother, who attended official meetings almost every day into old age. Charles complains that, even as a young child, he only saw his mother on scheduled appointments. Later, in the early 1990s, her mother's children again caused her grief: one marriage after the other fell apart.
She herself calls it annus horribilis, the year of horror: In 1992 Princess Anne divorced her husband Mark Phillips, Prince Charles and Diana separated and Prince Andrew and his wife Sarah Ferguson also separated. Windsor Castle caught fire in November. Elizabeth is said to have been deeply affected. But she keeps her composure: a "stiff upper lip", as they say in Great Britain. That gives her a lot of recognition.
It is different when her ex-daughter-in-law Diana dies in a car accident in Paris in 1997, together with her lover. The Queen is silent as the nation sinks into mourning. She is accused of being cold. Only days later does she give in to the pressure.
In a speech, she paid tribute to Diana and praised her ability to "encourage others with her warmth and kindness." Contrary to protocol, the Union Jack flies at half mast over Buckingham Palace. The funeral service is equivalent to a state funeral. But the death of the "Queen of Hearts" marks a low point in the relationship between Elizabeth II and her people.
Gradually, she regains the respect of her subjects. The Queen smiles more than she used to and is more approachable. When Prince William, Diana's eldest son, married his childhood friend Katherine Middleton in 2011, the British had long been reconciled with their queen. Even Charles, who cheated on Diana with his childhood sweetheart Camilla, has been rehabilitated. But the peace doesn't last long. Abuse allegations against son Andrew and the withdrawal of grandson Harry and his wife Meghan from royal duties weigh on the Queen.
Her carefree side shows in her love for animals
But the Queen also has a carefree side. This is particularly evident in her love for animals. She has been riding horses since she was four years old and is still climbing when she is already a great-grandmother of five. "The Queen likes - in that order - dogs, horses, men and women," writes her biographer Graham Turner. For the London 2012 Olympics, she made a video with James Bond actor Daniel Craig in which she appeared to parachute from the helicopter to the opening ceremony.
In early summer 2022, the Queen will celebrate her 70th jubilee with a multi-day party in London. But at this point he is already increasingly withdrawing from royal duties. The heir to the throne, Charles, opened Parliament, and she is no longer present at the commemoration of those who died in World War II. When she appears on the balcony of Buckingham Palace during the celebrations for the jubilee, it already seems like a farewell.
Not only many Brits will certainly remember Elizabeth as the actress Helen Mirren once described her. "She's got her feet on the ground, her hat on her head, her purse on her arm, and she's been through many, many storms. I salute her courage and perseverance." Mirren played the monarch in The Queen.
Men will take the throne for the foreseeable future: after son Charles comes grandson William and then great-grandson George. They will have to reinvent the office while also taking inspiration from Elizabeth II. The Queen leaves behind a heavy legacy.