Why King Charles will heal the rifts with Germany his mother never could
It should be no surprise that King Charles and Queen Camilla’s trip to Germany – the first state visit of the reign, the shambolic conditions in France having caused the cancellation of the events there – has gone so well. The King is an old Germany hand, having visited it more than 40 times. He speaks the language. Indeed, he speaks it well enough to crack jokes in it.
Charles has rapidly grown into his role as sovereign and is at ease not just with his own people, but with those of other nations, something for which over half a century of touring the world on behalf of his country has prepared him. He is lucky to have a Queen Consort who is natural, outgoing, charming and brilliant with people. But he would also have been aware from the moment the trip was arranged that he would, in a sense, be going home.
He is, by descent, mostly German: both his parents were great-great grandchildren of Queen Victoria, whose dynasty was the House of Hanover before she married into the equally German House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. The late Duke of Edinburgh’s mother was Princess Alice of Battenberg – the family who in Britain anglicised their name to Mountbatten during the First World War, just as George V was anglicising his to Windsor – and her mother was Princess Victoria of Hesse, daughter of Queen Victoria’s daughter Alice.
That, though, only begins to describe the heritage of what we could, with much legitimacy, describe as our German Royal family. On the late Queen’s side the German links go back over 300 years. When the legitimate Stuart line ran out in 1714 on the death of Queen Anne, none of whose 16 children reached adulthood, the throne passed to the Elector of Hanover, Georg Ludwig, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, who became King George I of England. He inherited through his mother, the Electress Sophia, the closest Protestant relative of Queen Anne as granddaughter of King James I of England.
The Germanification of the British Royal family was the result of the 1688 Glorious Revolution, in which James II lost the throne because of his Roman Catholic practices, and which led to the Act of Settlement of 1701 that barred Roman Catholics from succeeding. When Queen Anne died there were, otherwise, 56 Roman Catholics with a claim to the throne superior to the Elector of Hanover’s. Queen Victoria was George I’s great-great-great-granddaughter.
Inheritance law might have done even stranger things to our Royal family. Before the birth of the Prince and Princess of Wales’s first child the Act of Succession was changed to allow a first-born daughter to take precedence over a younger brother, who by his gender would have jumped ahead of her. Had Princess Charlotte been born first, she and not Prince George would be our next monarch but one. Had this been so when Queen Victoria – who had no brother – succeeded William IV in 1837, her eldest child, Princess Victoria, would have succeeded her as British Queen and Empress of India in January 1901. Princess Victoria had by then become the Dowager Kaiserin of Germany; and would have reigned only six months, to have been succeeded by her son, Kaiser Wilhelm II. Had that happened, the two world wars might not have come about; and our present sovereign might be the current head of the Hohenzollern dynasty, George Frederick, Prince of Prussia.
The King therefore carried a huge weight of personal, family and constitutional history with him when he went, for the first time as head of state, to the land of so many of his forebears and cousins. He visited the country six months after succeeding to the throne. His late mother waited 13 years before her first state visit to what was then West Germany in May 1965. That visit was viewed as the result of a process of reconciliation between the two countries that had lasted since the end of the Second World War.
Because of the nature of the British Royal family that reconciliation was not just about nations, but about kinship. In 1919, two dukes with the right to sit in the House of Lords – Albany, a grandson of Queen Victoria, and Cumberland, a descendant of George III – had their peerages removed for having backed the Germans in the Great War. In 1947 many of the Duke of Edinburgh’s family were not asked to his wedding because they had either been Nazis or had had close connections to the party.
In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, with much of Germany in ruins and with a high European death toll, “forgive and forget” was impossible, and forgetting Nazi atrocities would have been highly dangerous. Germany accepted its guilt: Britain, like the other Western victors, accepted the sincerity of the gesture and that Europe should do all it could to heal divisions. Germany needed to be accepted back into the family of civilised nations not simply because it had put its Nazi past behind it and atoned, but because its superhuman rebuilding effort since 1945 had made it an economic powerhouse.
The late Queen recognised this and preached reconciliation on her visit; the West Germans were thrilled and captivated, as the acceptance of their country not just by the head of state of a former enemy but by an individual of the unequivocal moral force of Queen Elizabeth II, seemed to confirm their return to the world’s top table. She also made state visits in 1978, 1992 (when she placed flowers on the tomb of Kaiserin Victoria), 2004 and 2015 – the last of those, at the age of 89, being the last state visit she ever undertook. The King, however, was able to connect with the Germans in an informal way that his late mother was not. That was not because she was stuffy, but simply because the late Queen had a different perception of Germany because of her having been part of the Blitz generation.
The Second World War was a formative experience for the late Queen. Not only did the Germans bomb Buckingham Palace, but in 1944 at the age of 18, she joined the ATS to perform war service. The Queen was Britain’s beacon of reconciliation after the war: but she also understood the feelings of many of her compatriots, and especially of her own generation, after the war, and there remained something sombre about her relationship with Germany. However, the late Queen did much for Anglo-German relations, though rather like an iceberg much of this work remained out of sight. That was her way of doing things, dictated by history and circumstance. She did it exceptionally well and to the benefit of both countries.
The King can afford to be more public and expansive about the relationship. The history he carried with him to Germany this week is of a more mellow sort. Highly conscious of his heritage, he will have thought in the past few days about his Hanoverian, Saxe-Coburg and Hesse ancestors rather than what the Germans of his mother’s youth did to the world. As an aesthete he will be acutely aware of all that Germany gave to civilisation – Holbein, Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Wagner, Goethe – rather than what they removed. But above all, as someone schooled in diplomacy and the conduct of international relations, he’ll understand exactly where Britain and Germany are in the world, both in relation to each other, and what they can achieve together at a time of turbulence. That was the great value of his state visit. Germans also like the King from what they know of his private views on numerous issues expressed while he had the freedom to do so as the Prince of Wales – notably on the environment and on his sense of pan-Europeanism.
There was ill-feeling in Germany towards Britain because of Brexit. The Germans also felt Boris Johnson had gone out of his way to goad Germany after Brexit, rather than to seek to find ways to co-operate. I was told by someone close to the King, shortly after the 2021 G7 summit, that the Royal family were conscious of the casual attitude Mr Johnson took at that summit towards other heads of government, notably Angela Merkel, and that the late Queen, the King and the Prince of Wales worked hard to smooth ruffled feathers. The King’s longstanding goodwill towards Germany, and our change of prime minister, assisted his visit immeasurably.
There is ample scope for the two countries to co-operate outside the EU, both in terms of trade and cultural exchanges, but all such things can be best conducted on a platform of mutual respect and shared values. That, above all, is what the King and Queen have ensured is in place following this enormously successful visit. Had the late Queen been younger and in better health she might, after Brexit, have started to repair the rupture it inevitably caused, and established a new basis for understanding. The King has taken the earliest opportunity to make up for what his mother was unable to do, and he has done it superbly.
But the visit was not just about securing the sort of economic and social co-operation taken for granted when Britain was in the EU. The war in Ukraine places a burden on Germany. Other European powers have accused it of not pulling its weight in the battle to repel Putin. The King’s affirmation that our country and Germany stand united in the face of Putin’s threat was crucially important, and resonated with many Germans at a time when the country is divided over the issue. Indeed, that endorsement of Germany by a man of the King’s unimpeachable values is of huge use to Olaf Scholz, the somewhat beleaguered Chancellor whose domestic political difficulties prevented his attending the state banquet on Wednesday. Our monarch presented himself to the German people almost as one of them, with a natural fit to their mindset, way of life and culture. So much did the Germans identify with the late Queen that they called her “die Königin” – “the Queen” – as if she had been theirs. Perhaps soon King Charles will be “der König”. We should be happy to share him.