Berlin Letter: Don’t mention the relatives as Queen Elizabeth visits

British monarch’s family tree means many Germans view her as one of their own

German President Joachim Gauck and his partner Daniela Schadt take Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh on a boat trip on Berlin's Spree river where royal fans turned out to greet her. Video: Reuters

For decades, British visitors to Germany followed Basil Fawlty's example and used every opportunity to not mention the war – by mentioning the war.

When Queen Elizabeth arrived last night in Berlin for her fifth – and, at 89, presumably final – official visit to Germany, delighted locals took the chance to get their own back by mentioning the great unmentionable on the other side: her German relatives.

And with more German than British relatives in her family tree, many here view Elizabeth II as their homecoming queen.

“Great Britain has been governed by Germans for 300 years,” trumpeted the Bild tabloid last week. Just don’t expect the British monarch – or her subjects – to admit it.


Three centuries ago, when the Stuart dynasty ran out of heirs, Georg von Hannover ascended the throne in 1714. His house of Hanover heirs favoured German partners: Queen Victoria married Albert Sachsen-Coburg, and their son, later King Edward VII, married Prussian Princess Alexandra von Schleswig-Holstein- Sonderburg-Glücksburg. Their son, later King George V, married Maria von Teck, born in London of German origin.

Queen Victoria's eldest daughter, Victoria, married Kaiser Friedrich III. Her third child, Alice, married Ludwig IV von Hessen, and their daughter Victoria, in turn, married Ludwig von Battenberg. Victoria and Ludwig's daughter Alice married Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark, better known as Prinz Andreas, from the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg.

Mountbatten name

Their son Prince Philip, today’s Duke of Edinburgh, carried the anglicised Battenberg name, Mountbatten, adopted by his Uncle Louis, while Philip’s four sisters all married Germans. The royal family also changed their name in 1917, in the shadow of the first World War, from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to the more patriotic Windsor.

The last time the royal couple were in Berlin was to open the new British embassy, back on its pre-war site beside the Adlon Hotel. The new building is bright and cheery inside, though outside it looks as if some giant liquorice allsorts have been jammed into the facade.

At the embassy opening, Prince Philip, eyeing the facade, demonstrated his trademark – supremely German – bluntness by reportedly asking the architect: “Have you been paid for this yet?”

In the subsequent decade, the baggage left by the second World War – and Fawlty Towers – appears to be retreating over the historic and cultural horizon.

One World Cup and one euro crisis later, Berlin and Germany are now a top destination for British tourists and politicians. From a Berlin perspective, it has been interesting to watch Britain rediscover Germany, whether it is in the growing number of British media correspondents, in television programmes such as Make Me A German or in the successful radio series and book Germany: Memories of a Nation.

The author of the latter, the British Museum director Neil MacGregor, is now a regular face in Berlin, having joined the curator committee behind the new Humboldt Forum, to be housed in the rebuilt Prussian palace rising once again in the German capital. Entrusting a British man with this project, on this site, speaks for itself, given Kaiser Wilhelm’s complexes about being the poor relation whenever he visited London and his granny, Queen Victoria.

MacGregor’s isn’t the only British voice you hear in Germany these days. Switch on the radio and you can hear a stable of British journalists, economists and politicians all speaking remarkably good German, so good that it seems they’ve been keeping it to themselves since their university days in Britain.

Fawlty put out to pasture

So, if

Basil Fawlty

has finally been put out to pasture to allow a more relaxed bilateral relationship, can we expect the royal couple to have their German coming out?

Alexander Graf von Schönburg, royal correspondent with the Bild newspaper, doesn't think so. The British royal family is like the country itself, he points out, a cultural and linguistic mishmash of Germans, French, Vikings and other influences. Rather than look back towards ancestry, he sees the relevance of the visit in looming political terms: the Brexit debate.

There are parallels, he suggests, to the 1965 royal visit, two years after French president Charles de Gaulle had vetoed British membership of the common market. German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, however, saw the value of having a British ally in the club, as Angela Merkel does now.

"On this visit I expect a charm offensive," says Graf von Schönburg, "to try and remind Germany that a Europe without Britain would be much poorer off."

Britain knows that the Germans' love for all things British is inexhaustible (and that Merkel's favourite television programme is Midsomer Murders). The task for prime minister David Cameron is to channel that cultural sympathy into political sympathy.

Cameron will take the unusual step of accompanying Queen Elizabeth to Berlin, hoping the monarch’s visit will open a window of opportunity to win over Chancellor Merkel to his thinking on the EU.