King Charles is in Germany for three days, his first overseas state visit as monarch after the planned trip to France was postponed. Many people in Britain will not take much notice of this news for a variety of reasons from believing the monarchy should be fundamentally abolished to thinking the whole trip is one big photo-opportunity. But media coverage of his and Camilla, the Queen Consort’s time in Berlin, Hamburg and beyond will show it is far more important in Germany than most of us here might understand.
There are times I have felt saddened by Germany’s slightly unrequited friendship with Britain. A lot of Brits have wonderful personal or business relationships with our neighbours across the sea, but at Remembrance ceremonies, for example, I have lamented the stiff coolness of the British establishment towards their German counterparts that stands in stark contrast to the genuine warmth displayed by equivalent representatives of France or even Israel. This visit feels different. More relaxed and real. The Royals, at their best, have an uncanny ability to transcend all differences to reach parts other people, above all politicians, can’t, and with far more authentic and lasting resonance than mere symbolic gestures.
“Ah the Queen Mother… I love the Queen Mother!” Those were the unlikely words to come out of a scantily clad, barefoot, elderly Aboriginal man’s mouth on discovering I was English. It was 1986 and I had just wandered, equally scantily clad, into a spit-and-sawdust pub in the baking outback of Australia causing the intimidating head-turns and awkward silence seen in movies. Ever since this display of unreserved enthusiasm for a Royal broke the ice – most definitely the wrong idiom to use in a place where 40˚C temperatures would have melted ice within minutes – followed by the dear man’s insistence on buying me a cold beer, I have valued the role the Monarchy plays in the world.
In some ways King Charles brings an even more special affinity than his revered mother because it is coupled with inspiration for Germans whose long-standing environmental awareness and action match his… apart from the rather glaring contradictions in their love of fast cars and belching factories. Like them, he has been advocating greener, more sustainable ways of working with the earth for decades, ideas for which he has been ridiculed here until mainstream politics recently and reluctantly began to acknowledge their common sense. It’s a happy sight to see our King throwing royal reserve aside to inspect potatoes at Berlin’s 150-year-old weekly farmers’ market, water a tree dedicated to the late Queen, play table football in a refugee centre or spend time at an organic farm (bizarrely owned by friends of a friend of mine) sharing their genuine passion for all that he too believes is good and right.
The intended role of our Royals, rather than the all too frequent ones that are mired in controversy, excess, wrongdoing etc. could be compared to that of the German President – currently Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who I always find carries out his brief superbly. Beyond the divisive party politics and in-fighting that brought us Brexit and what was experienced by many Europeans as a hurtful rejection, King Charles’s visit offers a heartfelt olive branch and reassurance that our countries are still indeed friends with both a shared history that extends way before the horrors of the two World Wars, and a deeply connected future.
Politicians rarely feel able to give credit or compliments to the achievement of others for fear of exposing their own failings. Charles (is that being over-familiar?) on the other hand, can. With no trace of defensiveness or inadequacy of his own country’s policies, he paid tribute to Germany’s “extraordinary hospitality” in hosting over one million Ukrainian refugees. “This,” he said, “seems to me, so powerfully demonstrates the generosity of spirit of the German people.”
Imagine a politician saying that! But if we want to break the insufferable ping-pong slagging matches that fill the House of Commons, this recognition and appreciation of good policies, ideas or actions surely has to be encouraged on all sides? Batting words to and fro, patting own backs and roaring unruly ‘Ayes’ or ‘Noes’ to drown out opponents’ voices is no way to get anything done. And when you look at the decline of so many of our services, institutions and already neglected areas of British society, it is clear that, for far too long, almost nothing has been done.
I am currently reading a fascinating book lent to me by a delightful 92-year-old friend who, after reading my book, treated me to some of her own stories from the Second World War. Her family lost their home to the bombs dropped on Bristol. And yet, in 1948 on hearing of the extreme hunger of the Germans, she and her church youth group, knocked on doors in their parish to collect donations to send to the very people that most around them (understandably) still regarded as the enemy. She remembers the quarter of a pound of tea she collected.
The book she lent me, ‘Darkness Over Germany’ was written by a remarkable British woman, E. Amy Buller, who visited Germany many times in the 1930s with a mission to understand the ideas that radicalised so many people, particularly the youth, in order to learn how to work with them in peacetime and prevent such things happening again. She saw how Nazism was a false answer to a real need and how foolhardy it is to fight a war without considering how to engage with the enemy once they were defeated.
I can’t help feeling we could learn a great deal from these enlightened elders who operate with the kindness and innate wisdom of their hearts. And it is in that respect that I completely support visits such as the one happening as I write. With clearly genuine warmth, humour and interest, King Charles is re-building bridges, offering friendship and warming the hearts of a great many German people.
Uh-oh, I feel a little ‘God Save the King!’ coming on… I’ll stop here.
Just a few of a whole load of links recording his visit:
King Charles celebrates UK-Germany ties in historic address – BBC
For Hamburg, devastated by allied bombing, King Charles’s visit is so much more than a photo-op | Helene von Bismarck | The Guardian
From Meeting Scholz To Visiting Farmers Market; A Peek Into King Charles’ Germany Visit
King Charles III arrives in Germany for first overseas visit as monarch
King Charles to lay wreath to German victims of wartime air raids. Planned visit to St Nikolai memorial in Hamburg contrasts with approach taken by his mother by Philip Oltermann
King Charles avoids mention of Brexit in speech to German parliament