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Republic or monarchy - which is better?
The death of Queen Elizabeth was met with a level of sorrow in Germany that took me by surprise. Among the sombre newspaper headlines, one that stuck out claimed in all seriousness that: “we will never see her like again.” The Bundestag held a minute’s silence; Chancellor Scholz said her passing was a loss for the whole world.
Only the left-wing Taz newspaper dared to puncture the public mood by declaring on its front page that Charles at 72 "is finally getting his first job."
To me at least, this was a jarring reaction in a country that threw off its own monarchical rule at the end of the First World War after Kaiser Wilhelm II had dragged them into the worst catastrophe to befall Europe since the 30 Years War.
Why the mourning over a woman who herself was descended from one of the provincial German princes who the British historian AJP Taylor so memorably described as either half-witted or mad?
But the German love of Queen Elizabeth II has deep roots.
I was asked last week to write about her state visit to West Germany in 1965. It was the first time that a British monarch had visited the country since before WWI and it was clearly a moment of huge symbolism, coinciding as it did with the 20th anniversary of the end of WWII.
The Bonn Republic had welcomed JFK (Ich bin ein Berliner) and Charles de Gaule in the preceding years, but the Queen seemed to mean that bit more. Even Der Spiegel, not a magazine that could be accused of a revanchist agenda, declared it to be the “visit of the century.”
Indeed, the West Germans pulled out all the stops. A marathon 11-day tour of the republic was set out, with the Queen travelling up the Rhine by boat before boarding a luxury train that took her from Munich to Stuttgart, Düsseldorf, Berlin, Hanover (her ancestral hometown) and Hamburg.
Of course, there was something North Korean about it all: children were given the day off school, equipped with Union Jack flags and sent out to wave furiously as she and her husband passed by. The government in Bonn was well aware that a press pack of 1,000 reporters would spread the news back across the North Sea - what better way into a Brit’s heart than telling him you love his beloved Ma’am?
The BBC duly obliged, noting that “the Germans are behaving as if she were their Queen.”
Much of the public euphoria appears to have been genuine though. I spoke to an elderly lady, who was given the honour as an 18 year old of presenting the Queen with a bottle of wine when she disembarked on the banks of the Rhine.
She recalled how people came from the whole district, lining the streets and clambering onto the train lines just to get a glimpse.
There were only a few police to control the crowds, she said, adding that: "those were different times. People then had a sense of reverence.” She also recalled her own personal impressions, saying how struck she was by the queen’s "grace and elegance... she was simply regal!” and gave the impression “she knew you.”
That all sounds quite charming, but also perhaps a tad disconcerting given that we're talking about a society that only two decades earlier fell for a certain Austrian painter’s beautiful blue eyes - a society that was just a little too ehrenfürchtig (reverential) to their leader.
Indeed, the Bonn government was afraid that the German eagerness to impress the Queen would lead to the odd embarrassing faux pas. Public information campaigns before told people how to properly address her, how to curtsey, and also reminded them not to shout 'Heil!'
I for one don’t think it is a bad thing that our societies have become a little more irreverent since then. (Although news that Brits have been arrested for holding up signs protesting the monarchy in recent days lead me to question whether our societies have regressed in recent years.)
Perhaps though, a constitutional monarchy is still better than the alternative. During Elisabeth’s 70-year reign, Germany has had 12 presidents. What exactly their purpose is beyond giving a room in Germany’s finest retirement home to a politician whose ambition outweighs his talent, I’m still to find out!
Enjoy your weekend.