In 1972, according to legend, Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier, was asked about the impact of the French Revolution.
He was much mocked for his supposed answer. “Too early to say,” he said.
In fact, even if the story was a myth, the line was spot on.
Who would imagine that 234 years after the French Revolution, it would echo through demonstrations in Paris and halt a state visit from King Charles III?
President Macron delayed the visit, worried that a planned dinner for the King at the old royal
Palace of Versailles would spark the demonstrators into more protests. Demonstrators
even scrawled anti-royalist graffiti on Paris buildings: “Mort au Roi” and “Charles III, do you know the guillotine?”
More than two centuries after the Revolution, protests are still stitched into the French soul – from Asterix-lookalike farmers blockading towns on their tractors to fishermen blockading the Channel.
We can’t be too smug about our own strike-ridden country, subject to endless Extinction Rebellion protests. And an Ipsos poll, out this week, has shown that the approval rating of the Royal Family has slumped by six per cent to 47 per cent since the beginning of the year, which is probably thanks to Prince Harry’s revelations in Spare. And Prince William’s ratings have dropped by 10 per cent from December – but they still remain pretty high at 59 per cent. Those are figures President Macron can only dream of. Britain is in no danger of having any large-scale republican protests any time soon, apart from a few extremists turning up at royal walkabouts.
King Charles will have a much easier time of it in Germany, where his state visit is going ahead on Wednesday. He will be the first post-war foreign head of state to receive a ceremonial welcome with full military honours at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and the first British monarch to address Germany’s federal parliament, the Bundestag.
The King and Queen will acknowledge the deepest scar in recent Anglo-German history, the Second World War, with a visit to Hamburg’s St Nikolai Memorial, a church bombed by the Allies.
But, in Hamburg in particular, the King will also see quite how Anglophile – and how keen on the British monarchy – the Germans are.
Still today, Hamburg is officially called the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg. As a leading member of the Hanseatic League, the medieval trading group of northern European cities, Hamburg has enjoyed close links with London for over 500 years. Walking around the city now – elegantly rebuilt after the terrible wartime bombing – you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a prosperous provincial town in England or in Sloane Square. Smart British clothes – particularly that key Sloane signifier, the green Husky jacket – are popular. Our memories – and our TV channels – may be dominated by the First and Second World Wars. But, before those two horrifying conflicts, we shared so much in our outlook with Germany – and nowhere more prominently than in our Royal Families.
The King doesn’t speak fluent German, unlike his father, the late Prince Philip, but he will address the Bundestag in German and English.
After the war, Prince Philip’s German relations made for an embarrassing connection. The prince had been an Allied war hero but his sisters – Princess of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, the Margravine of Baden, the Hereditary Grand Duchess of Hesse and by Rhine and Princess George of Hanover – all married German aristocrats who backed Germany in the war.
Still, Prince Philip maintained strong links with his German relations right up until his death in 2021. In doing so, he was only continuing the extremely close connection between the German and British Royal Families that has lasted for over 300 years.
George I was born in Hanover – there were great celebrations in Hanover and Britain nine years ago on the 300th anniversary of him coming to the throne in 1714. His son, George II, was also born in Hanover and spoke fluent German.
Both George I and George II had German wives, starting a fashion that continued within the Royal Family into living memory. George III, George IV, William IV, Queen Victoria and George V also married Germans. In other words, from 1714 until 1936 (with a small gap under Edward VII and Queen Alexandra of Denmark), the King or Queen of this country was a German.
What’s more, the German Emperors had close blood links with the Royal Family, not least the last one, Wilhelm II (aka Kaiser Bill), first cousin of George V and Tsar Nicholas II. They were all grandchildren of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
In fact, if we followed Salic law, like the German monarchy used to, which only allows male monarchs, our current king would be Prince Ernst August of Hanover.
No wonder our Royal Family are still so popular in Germany. Their blood remains extremely Germanic. When Charles III touches down in Berlin this week, in many ways he’ll be coming home.
Harry Mount is author of Et Tu, Brute? The Best Latin Lines Ever (Bloomsbury)