Pardon this outburst from an unreconstructed German monarchist: Scanning the Internet for news about the impending royal wedding has rendered me envious, morose and frustrated. Never mind the uncomprehending sniggers by Bill O’Reilly about this display of allegedly antiquated glamour. O’Reilly might have many merits but he does not grasp the need for glamour in this era of vulgarity and triviality every one of his T.V. shows so aptly portrays night after night.
Being German, I am keenly aware of the dearth of glamour that has marked my country for almost a century. In church we have surly preachers in black robes opining from the pulpit about separating garbage instead of chanting the rich Lutheran liturgy and joyfully proclaiming the Gospel. In academia, colorful commencement proceedings have been abolished; graduates are told to pick up their diplomas in the Admin Building, room 312/A, between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. In affairs of state, we are represented not by Kaisers or kings with spiked helmets but grey-clad presidents; some of these have been impressive, I admit, but glamorous they were not. Recently, one of our heads of state just walked off the job like a peeved bookkeeper; compare that with the iron self discipline of Queen Elizabeth II who has just turned 85 and never missed a single workday in the 58 years of her reign.
What galls me most is that royal ceremonies in neighboring countries, in Britain, Luxembourg, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Monaco or Spain, are all implicitly German affairs because the blue blood in the veins of at least one of the players is our blue blood – quality German blood. The German yellow press reports every minutiae of these events while missing the central point: A little more of this kind of style in our own country would insert a modicum of elegance into our political and societal discourse, which is even more annoying than its American equivalent because we tend to systematize everything, including imported bad taste.
At this point, though, I must report some good news blessing our bland republican reality with a ray of potential glitter. In my home state of Saxony a baron by the name of Hildebrand von Thumbshirn is waging a campaign to place Prince Harry on the throne of Dresden. I confess that I know little about Herr von Thumbshirn, other than that his family hails from Schloss Ponitz, a fine Renaissance castle in the duchy of Altenburg.
According Thumbshill, there is only one problem with his proposal. He lacks the €250,000 ($360,000) required to start a “Saxon Windsor Party.” There is another problem, too: why Windsor? Why this name that is as spurious as “liberty cabbage,” the American neologism cooked up in World War I to camouflage the German origin of sauerkraut; as specious as the British misnomer, Alsatian, for German Shepherd dogs, and as daft as the term “freedom fries” latter-day American know-nothings invented for French Fries ten years ago when France and Germany opposed the second Iraq war?
So I wonder: Is it not a little petty of the royal family to cling to the fake name it adopted after their own relative, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Queen Victoria’s first grandson, had become their adversary in Europe’s fratricidal World War I? Why not acknowledge what they are – a blend of German clans, the Hanoverians plus the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, whose name they bore until they traded it in for the name of a small town in the County of Surrey? Here you might interject: What about that Greek in the equation? Indeed there is one; Prince Philip of Greece married Elizabeth née Windsor and became the Duke of Edinburgh, but what, do you suppose, is the Greek royal family’s real name? Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg.
You see, if you look carefully, you can’t escape us. Schleswig-Holstein is the northernmost of Germany’s 16 states. It has a discrete but still wealthy and influential ducal family by this very name; its branches reign in Denmark and Norway and once upon a time lorded over Greece; via its Greek line it is related by marriage to the royal families of Spain and Britain. In addition to Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg a second German dynasty with an Anglicized name contributed to the noble genealogy of the Queen’s consort. They call themselves Mountbatten but used to be known as Battenberg; Philip’s mother is one of those.
Germany’s top aristocracy has held thrones almost everywhere in Europe – in Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, Belgium, Scandinavia and Luxembourg. They even left their mark across the Atlantic, in Brazil and Mexico, but also in Hollywood where Prince Frederic von Anhalt shares the glamour of his name with Zsa Zsa Gabor, although he acquired it by adoption; at birth he was called Hans Lichtenberg. Real Anhalt blood has survived in the Romanov family; Catherine the Great was a Princess of Anhalt before becoming a tsarina. And perhaps the noblest Anhalt was Joachim Ernst, the last reigning duke. He resisted the Nazis, was sent to Dachau concentration camp, then liberated by the Americans only to die 1947 at Communist hands in Buchenwald concentration camp.
He was a stellar example of German royals opposing Hitler, a phenomenon rarely acknowledged by Germans or their former adversaries, but this is a story for another day.
Before I proceed with my and Baron von Thumbshill’s monarchist reveries, I may be permitted a historical reminder. Preceding the invention of the automobile by Carl Benz 125 years ago, princes and princesses were Germany’s most precious export items. Our nation with its countless dukes, margraves and landgraves was an amazingly rich source of bluebloods. The British in particular couldn’t get enough of them. They loved King George III, even though the United Kingdom lost much of North America during his reign. They loved this Hanoverian eccentric, especially when he stepped into the sea at Weymouth stark naked, while a band hidden in a nearby bathing machine struck up “God Save the King;” bathing machines, an English invention, were large-wheeled carts that were rolled off the beaches into the water to afford bathers privacy; sometimes they had pianos and even sizable musical ensembles on board.
Or think how much leverage the British allowed George’s daughter-in-law, Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, even though she often neglected to wash, wore dirty clothes, consequently emitted unpleasant smells, and then eventually absconded to Italy with her manservant, Bartolomeo Pergami, leaving her husband, the debauched George IV, in the arms of Maria Fitzherbert whom he had secretly married before even meeting Caroline. The British loathed him and loved her.
Far be it from me to try to wrestle away from our British cousins the scions of our finest families. By all means, hold onto them, you are welcome! But it would be nice if they sent us back just one of them and stopped the false labeling. Please, they are not Windsors but Saxe-Coburg-Gothas! Now I know from personal experience that hyphenated names can be cumbersome, and names with two hyphens must be especially awkward, which is why the Bulgarians quite sensibly called their royal family Sakskoburggotski, though the Belgians, who were twice invaded by the Germans in the 20th century, seem to have no problem to have a king sporting two German hyphens.
To get back to Baron Thumpshirn’s proposal, and to propose to the British a way out of their Windsor bagatelle, how about reverting to the elaborate family’s real name, which is Wettin. The Wettin dynasty has been around and much beloved by its subjects in assorted principalities of central Germany since the 10th century, 100 years before William the Conqueror invaded England. A Wettin prince-elector, Frederick the Wise, was Luther’s protector. Another Wettin, Augustus the Strong, built baroque Dresden and with one of his numerous mistresses, Countess Maria Aurora von Königsmarck, sired Maurice de Saxe (1696-1750), who became one of France’s most celebrated field marshals; one of his grand children gained literary fame calling herself George Sand.
So let’s take up Thumbshirn’s suggestion and make Harry von Wettin King of Saxony. That he is a brave military officer with a great sense of humor won’t hurt. A wholesome display of manliness and humor from the throne will do us Saxons, actually all Germans, a lot of good.
Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, has been an international journalist for 54 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto currently directs the League of Faithful Masks and Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Irvine, California.