Queen Elizabeth II drew much media attention in Britain when she spoke in favor of a united Europe yesterday in Berlin – a move seen by some as political, and a no-no for the supposedly apolitical monarch.
But while the British papers made much of her statement, those witnessing her visit to Germany also focused on something different – the way she and her husband, Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, were being cheered in Germany like no other time before.
“The world changes, there’s trouble in Europe, but the queen doesn’t change,” said Martina Weyreter, one of thousands of onlookers who swarmed Frankfurt's central square to catch a glimpse of Elizabeth this morning. “She represents stability, continuity, traditions, and people are yearning for that.”
The Germans’ affection for the monarch is unparalleled in Europe. In part that's because Germans don’t have royal families to look up to. But the royal couple also shares a past with Germany: both Elizabeth and her husband have strong German ancestry.
The queen's noble family is originally German, the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. The German name was brought into the royal family in 1840, when Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha married his cousin, Queen Victoria.
Victoria and Albert had dreamed of strong German-British ties. But the two World Wars shattered that bond – and prompted the house's name change to Windsor during World War I, in order to sound less like the enemy.
Those wounds were highlighted in 1946, when Queen Elizabeth married Philip, himself descended from the German-Danish house of Glücksburg – and his sisters were barred from attending the wedding because of their families' ties with the Nazi regime.
It took two more decades for the queen to take steps to welcome the former British enemy back into a community of nations. On her first state visit to Bonn, West Germany, in 1965, “people went berserk,” remembers historian Anthony Glees, who directs the University of Buckingham Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies. "They cheered 'Elizabeth, Elizabeth!'”
But today's visit, her fifth, is also important as a symbol of the now normalized relations between Germany and Britain. It could be Queen Elizabeth's last trip. So Germans feel honored, as though, free from the shackles of history, they can at long last pour out their special affection toward the queen.
“The political message is so different from the message of 1965, when her visit was part of the ‘victor-vanquished’ relationship. She came to Germany as the head of state of a country that had defeated the Third Reich and helped make West Germany a democracy,” Mr. Glees says. “And now fast forward to 2015, 50 years later, what a massive change that has been."
Now they are no longer victor and vanquished, but partners in a joint enterprise of Europe and the European Union. The latter, admittedly, could be under threat as Britain contemplates a referendum on whether to leave the EU. But the queen hinted at her opposition to such a move yesterday, saying in Berlin that "division in Europe is dangerous."
Even if Britain were to leave the EU though, there is still a bond between Germany and the British royal. In Frankfurt's square, the Rev. Stephen Alker, pastor of Frankfurt's English-speaking Catholic community and one-time honorary chaplain to the queen, navigates the crowd to distributes British flags to the sea of people assembled at the square since dawn.
Amidst the sea of flags – some German, some British, some bearing the coat of arms of the house of Windsor – he can hardly contain his excitement. “Here she comes! Look how beautiful,” he says.
Scars from history? The wars?
“It’s like any argument in a family, you get over it,” he says. “She means a lot to us. And to Germany.”