The other day I was at Walsall Council House. Just to the left of the main door is the foundation stone, laid on 29th May 1902 by Prince Christian of Schleswig Holstein, a son-in-law of Queen Victoria. He died in 1917 at the ripe old age of 86 shortly after the Royal Family had changed its name to Windsor and renounced all German titles and honours, of which they had quite a lot. For the last few months of his life he was plain Prince Christian. By 1917 we were already into the era of the Germans being the eternal enemy. Two World Wars and one World Cup later they still are for many.
Yet in 1902 this anti-German mindset did not yet exist. The previous year had seen the death of Queen Victoria, the last monarch of the House of Hannover and a fluent German speaker. Following her death the Royal House adopted the name bequeathed by Price Albert and was known as Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha. Our Royal Family was German and not ashamed of the fact. Indeed two years earlier the hapless Prince Charles Edward, a grandson of Victoria, aged just sixteen, was sent to Germany to assume the government of the Duchy of Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha after the senior branch of the family had died out in the male line. He died in poverty in 1954, an outcast from his family, a largely innocent victim of Anglo-German hostility. A close blood relation of both the Queen and Prince Philip, he watched the 1953 coronation in a provincial German cinema.
Across the North Sea the Kaiser was an anglophile, a fluent English speaker and a man who actively sought an alliance with Great Britain, an alliance of the Anglo-Saxon peoples. German political émigrés had left their mark in many English cities. JB Priestley, growing up in Bradford before 1914, acquired a love of German literature through his membership of the Schillerverein in the city.
How times change. While many Germans like our country and speak our language interest in Germany among the English is in long term decline. Fewer and fewer children learn German and last year Andy Burnham the Shadow Education (sic) Secretary opined that German was no longer worth learning. Even on a narrow utilitarian view this is patent nonsense. Germany is Europe’s leading economic power and a significant export market. That there are wider cultural benefits is perhaps not something we can any longer expect politicians to grasp. Denis Healey once remarked that many modern politicians have no cultural and intellectual interests outside politics, that they have, as he put it, no hinterland. They are philistines and presumably unaware that ‘hinterland’ is one of a number of German words adopted by modern English.
Few English people ever visit Germany and the level of ignorance is astonishing. A colleague of mine some years ago was genuinely surprised to hear from me as we discussed holiday plans that Germany has a coastline and seaside resorts. Yet we are descended from settlers from what is now Germany, our languages are consequently closely related (look up the German words for parts of the body if you don’t believe me) and it was an Englishman, the Devonian Winfrith who, as Boniface, converted the Germans to Christianity. The tomb of St. Boniface is in the crypt of the fine Baroque Cathedral at Fulda.
Near Regensburg high above the Danube is Valhalla, a pseudo-Germanic temple built in the early nineteenth century to celebrate the great men (and now women) of the German speaking peoples. The interesting thing is that these great men include both Boniface and Alfred the Great. Anglo-Saxons counted as Germans. Offa was not there which disappointed me as a Mercian but still……
We have a considerable shared heritage with the Germans. Let us celebrate it, let us take an interest in their fascinating and diverse country, and let us speak a few words of their language, even if it is only to order their excellent beer. Finally let’s forget about the War and the World Cup. They’ve got two more stars on their shirts anyway.