The British monarch spoke about the affinities between the two nations, from culture to the environment, from Shakespeare to the new German lampposts in England
Britain's King Charles III, 2nd right, talks with soldiers during his visit at the 130th German-British Pioneer Bridge Battalion military unit in Finowfurt, eastern Germany, on Thursday, March 30, 2023.
King Charles III is treating the world to an object lesson in how it can be wielded. He recently visited Hamburg and a memorial to the victims of the terrifying bombing campaign known to the Allies as ‘Operation Gomorrah’.
But first he made his way to a building designed by a British architect to symbolise the transparency of Germany’s present-day democracy.
The Reichstag is topped by a glass dome devised by Norman Foster to allow the citizens a view of their representatives deliberating below. Some of their more left-wing colleagues are so attached to the idea of democracy, that they openly opposed the presence of an unelected monarch in parliament, but the vast majority of the politicians gathered there gave him a very warm reception.
King Charles delivered a speech partly in German during a white tie banquet on the first day of his state visit to Germany, saying he was "deeply touched" by the warm welcome he had received.
He was so relaxed that he was telling jokes at a banquet the previous night. When he arrived with Camilla the Queen Consort, he looked as if he was still enjoying the afterglow.
Then he gave his speech. It provided a headache for the interpreters, as Charles alternated between German and English, favouring the latter. His family, after all, are German, though they once adopted the name Windsor to avoid the association.
His family, after all, are German, though they once adopted the name Windsor to avoid the association.
He told more jokes. He even mentioned the Beatles, who got their mop tops from Germany (they were inspired by a German friend called Astrid Kirchherr) and first got their mojo in, of all places, Hamburg.
He spoke about the affinities between the two nations, from culture to the environment, from Shakespeare to the new lampposts in England designed by a German firm to provide charging points for cars, and a fleet of electric London taxis in Berlin.
He referenced World War II, but also the conflict being fought in Ukraine, praising Germany for its difficult decision to help Ukrainians defend themselves. It was a consummate speech, funny and moving by turns, the very essence of soft power, and the Bundestag loved it.
Aborted France visit
Of course, this kind of diplomatic success comes after an aborted state visit to France. With the streets of Paris in uproar over President Macron's proposed changes to the retirement age, it was decided that images of the royal guests dining in Versailles might be a little too much for the French public to stomach.
Who knows, the royal couple might even have dreaded a repeat of London in 2010. Back in the days of David Cameron's coalition government, they had been on their way to a charity concert when their limousine was surrounded by a 'mob' protesting against a tripling of university tuition fees.
The car was attacked and someone shouted, "Off with their heads!" This was no doubt said in jest, but when you're a future monarch, especially one called Charles, it is not a threat you can afford to take lightly.
We will never know how well or badly the Paris visit would have gone down with the French, but whereas the execution of a king is largely forgotten in Britain, in France the memory is still fresh.
French commentator Agnès Poirierstopped short of speculating that regicide was part of the nation's DNA. She did, however, admit that President Macron was up against a long tradition, she said: "The revolution of 1789 changed the way we see ourselves and relate to power."
"Compromise is an art reserved for others… Confrontation is what we seem to be born for, what we secretly seek, what makes us tick."
Particular historical moments loom large in the collective memory of every country. Anyone who has friends in Germany knows how fresh the shame of the Nazi era remains.
Before Charles spoke, the president of the Bundestag, Bärbel Bas, referred to the Kindertransport and the rescue of thousands of Jewish children from the looming Holocaust. The trauma and criminality of that period are still issues. German critics were not as keen on the film version of 'All Quiet in the Western Front' as the judges of the Oscars.
They felt it had distorted the original story. One even complained that the hero's death was a sly reference to the 'stab in the back' theory for why Germany had lost the war — a theory later used by the Nazis to blame the communists and the Jews. Allusions such as that still register.
One unique aspect of the state visit was the trip to Hamburg. This was just one of the cities which the Allies reduced to ashes, killing thousands in a nightmarish firestorm. Other cities across the country suffered a similar fate: Cologne, Dresden, Nuremberg.
The morality of the bombing campaign was questioned at the time by Lord Salisbury and the Bishop of Chichester. It has been questioned since.
With the continent overwhelmed by the Nazis' slave empire, it was rationalised as a way of intervening in the war when the enemy's power and reach were at their height, to destroy morale, in particular that of Germany's industrial workers, and to make the British public feel less impotent.
The antihero of this operation, known to this day as Sir Arthur 'Bomber' Harris, favoured the wholesale annihilation of the enemy's 'dwellings, history and natural environment.' Some 34,000 people were annihilated too.
Coming to terms with the calamity
One of Germany's greatest modern writers was W.G. Sebald. His life story symbolised the kind of cultural bonds King Charles was invoking in his speech. Born near the end of the war, he had no personal experience of its horrors, but he was haunted by them, nonetheless.
He first heard about the concentration camps — in German they were known as 'destruction camps' — while he was at school but was unable to get his father to discuss what had happened.
Later, Sebald moved to England, eventually taking up residence in Norfolk, a part of England from which the bombers had once flown. To this day one can visit some of the disused airfields there. In The Natural History of Destruction, Sebald sought to correct the failure, as he saw it, of the 'literature of the ruins' to come to terms with the destruction.
Like his father, the German literati were charged with passing over the events in silence, or else taking refuge in stereotypical phrases like 'all hell was let loose' or 'we were staring into the inferno,' which served to neutralise their experiences.
Sebald claimed there was even a kind of guilty voyeurism associated with the calamity — photos of the corpses would be "brought out from under the counter of a Hamburg second-hand bookshop, to be fingered and examined in a way usually reserved for pornography."
For the novelist, all of this was another way of looking askance at the events. He describes how, in the autumn of 1946, a Swede called Stig Dagerman travelled for half an hour through the ruins of Hamburg in a train.
Not a living soul stirred in the 'lunar' landscape. The train was crammed with passengers, but Dagerman was instantly identified as a foreigner because he was the only one looking out of the window.
Was this, I wonder, really the result of the 'quasi-natural reflex' which (Sebald claims) was brought on by feelings of shame and a wish to defy the victors? Personally, I have trouble with so stern a judgement. It seems more psychologically persuasive to attribute it to exhaustion, or even boredom.
Words for the unspeakable
The fact is that, for all the vivid reporting of corpses under rubble, victims burned in cellars, huge rats and flies, swarms of them, so thick they had to be burned away with flame-throwers to reach the dying, it will always be impossible to re-experience the horror of what people went through.
The fact is that, for all the vivid reporting of corpses under rubble and victims burned in cellars, it will always be impossible to re-experience the horror of what people went through. In the end, Sebald also gave up trying to find words for the unspeakable.
In the end, Sebald also gave up trying to find words for the unspeakable. In Austerlitz, his finest book, the eponymous character is one of the 'lucky' ones who made it out, through the Kindertransport, yet the effect is to obliterate his memory of life before.
The book describes the painful manner in which this amnesia is cured, yet there is no happy ending. Austerlitz finds he has forgotten an entire language — the Czech he once spoke with a friend of the family in Prague.
As the language returns, he begins to realise how much more he has wiped from his mind. He thinks he sees his mother in a film shot in Theresienstadt, one of the Nazi camps, yet he can only ever refer to her as 'Agáta'. It's a reminder that the celebrated Kindertransport was also a means by which children were forever separated from their parents.
Sebald may have accepted that remembrance didn't always involve speech or a written record.
In the end it is, perhaps, more honest to recall such horrors in respectful silence, just as is done on Remembrance Sunday and as the monarch commemorated in Hamburg.