Saturday, 31 October 2009

On this date: Princess Margaretha turns 75

Today is the 75th birthday of Princess Margaretha, Mrs Ambler, the eldest of the four sisters of the King of Sweden.
Princess Margaretha Désirée Victoria of Sweden was born at Haga Palace on 31 October 1934 as the first child of Prince Gustaf Adolf and Princess Sibylla, née Princess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, who had married two years previously. As the eldest son of the Crown Prince, Gustaf Adolf was himself heir to the Swedish throne and according to the present Act of Succession Margaretha, as the eldest child, would have followed him on the throne. However, until 1980 only men could inherit the throne and it was therefore necessary for Prince Gustaf Adolf and Princess Sibylla to beget an heir. But Margaretha was followed by three sisters – Birgitta, Désirée and Christina.
The four “Haga princesses” became the centre of an unprecedented adoration from the public and the media. They grew up under a strong media attention which is probably the reason why both Margaretha and her sister Désirée have chosen to live their adult lives far away from the limelight.
In April 1946 Princess Sibylla finally gave birth to a son, Prince Carl Gustaf, and thereby secured the succession to the throne. It turned out to be in the nick of time. Nine months later Prince Gustaf Adolf was killed in a plane accident on his way home from a hunt hosted by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands.
Aged twelve, Princess Margaretha was at a very sensitive age when her father was killed and apparently she was the one who reacted most strongly to it. Shortly thereafter she went to Denmark to live with her aunt, Queen Ingrid, for a year.
Back in Sweden, the Princess trained as a seamstress and studied childcare. At the age of 20 she fell head over heels in love with the British aristocrat and bar pianist Robin Douglas-Home. The romance took place under close media scrutiny, culminating with Douglas-Home’s arrival in Stockholm. Allegedly he proposed to the Princess, but her mother and grandfather, King Gustaf VI Adolf, vetoed the match.
Later Princess Margaretha would marry another Englishman. At a cocktail party in London she met John Ambler, a businessman ten years her senior. The wedding took place on 30 June 1964, just a few weeks after the wedding of Princess Désirée and Baron Niclas Silfverschiöld. While the latter’s wedding had been a semi-state occasion held in the Cathedral of Stockholm, Margaretha opted for a simpler and more private event in the parish church of Gärdslösa at Öland, near the summer palace Solliden (there are rumours that Princess Madeleine is considering the same church for her wedding).
Princess Margaretha, Mrs Ambler, as she was now styled, moved with her husband to England, where they settled at Chippinghurst Manor in Oxfordshire. Three children were born in rapid succession: Sybilla Louise in 1965, Charles Edward in 1966 and James Patrick in 1969. The Amblers lived a very private life and were rarely seen in public except at family events. However, the Princess used to open the Christmas bazaar held by the Swedish church in London, but she ceased doing so about a decade ago.
In the early 1990s John Ambler found himself in financial difficulties and had to sell Chippinghurst Manor. The couple separated in 1994, but never divorced. John Ambler died on 31 May last year, aged 84.
Today is also the birthday of another member of the Swedish royal family; Margaretha’s uncle, Count Carl Johan Bernadotte af Wisborg, by birth Prince of Sweden, turns 93.

A remarkable reunion in Berlin

In a week’s time the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall will be celebrated. Today the commemorations began with the reunion in Berlin of three of the most important leaders of that remarkable years, now visibly aged - Mikhail Gorbachev, George H. W. Bush walking very stiffly and Helmut Kohl in a wheelchair and having difficulties speaking. BBC has a video of this remarkable reunion:

Friday, 30 October 2009

What to see: Nikolaikirche (St Nicholas’s Church), Leipzig

Nikolaikirche (St Nicholas’s Church) in Leipzig shot to fame during the 1989 revolution, but dates back to around 1165, making it as old as the city of Leipzig itself. Originally a Romanesque church, it was enlarged and rebuilt in Gothic style in the 16th century. In 1539 it became a Protestant church, but nowadays Catholic services are also held occasionally.
In 1784-1797 the interiors were rebuilt in the neoclassical style by the architect Johann Carl Friedrich Dauthe. The most outstanding results of this renovation are the columns, which are not in the usual Doric, Ionic or Corinthian order, but are built to resemble palms.
Between 1723 and 1750 Johann Sebastian Bach was organist and master of the choir in the Nikolaikirche. Several of his works were performed for the first time in this church, among them his “Johannes Passion”, which was first heard on Good Sunday in 1724.
In the spring of 1989 Nikolaikirche started to hold “prayers for peace” every Monday at 5 p.m. Soon these events drew enormous crowds, making the church the focal point of demonstrations against the communist regime which spread to all parts of the GDR that autumn. The demonstrations led to Erich Honecker’s fall from power in October. Soon the GDR regime imploded and on 9 November 1989 the Berlin Wall fell.
“There was no head of the revolution. The head was the Nikolaikirche and the body the centre of the city. There was only one leadership: Monday, 5 p.m., the Nikolaikirche”, the entertainer Bernd-Lutz Lange later said. Prayers for peace continue to be held every Monday in the Nikolaikirche.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

New books: The Swedish monarchy and the media

Earlier this year an anthology titled Media and Monarchy in Sweden, edited by Mats Jönsson and Patrik Lundell, was published by Nordicom (Nordic Information Centre for Media and Communication Research), an institution within the Nordic Council of Ministers.
In ten essays scholars from several academic disciplines look at different topics concerning the Swedish monarchy and its relations to media. Most of the essays deal with the present dynasty, but the historian Louise Berglund writes about Queen Philippa of Denmark, Norway and Sweden and the altar she had built in Vadstena Abbey (where she was subsequently buried). The historian Magnus Rodell deals with statues of kings erected in the mid-19th century, while Kristina Widestedt, senior lecturer in journalism and media studies, takes a look at press coverage of three royal weddings (in 1888, 1932 and 1976). Patrik Lundell shows how the monarchy has been able to confer legitimacy on the press, exemplified by Oscar II’s role at the international press congress in Stockholm in 1897.
The film historian Tommy Gustafsson sees the hugely successful 1920s film “Karl XII” in relation to masculinity and national honour, while another film historian, Mats Jönsson, deals with media representation of the royal family during World War II, particularly in connection with the defence loan. The political scientist Cecilia Åse looks at the role of gender and nation in royal yearbooks, which is also the real topic of her recent misleadingly titled book Monarkins makt, while the ethnologist Matthias Frihammar analyses the transformative process in the wake of a satirical episode at a sports gala which involved King Carl Gustaf’s napkin ending up in the collections of the Royal Armoury.
In what I found the most interesting contribution to this anthology Pelle Snickars, head of research at the National Library, takes on the Swedish royal court’s unwillingness to embrace modern media such as e-mail, Facebook, blogs, Flickr and YouTube and how this has opened up the field for a large number of fake Facebook profiles, amateur YouTube clips and unauthorised websites beyond the royal court’s control. More than one contributor to this book points out that whereas the Swedish royal family traditionally has been quite progressive and more positively inclined to accepting and using new media forms (such as film and radio) than the country’s politicians, the situation has now been turned around, with the monarchy lagging behind the politicians. (I could add that the Crown Prince and Crown Princess of Norway are on Twitter).
As is always the case with anthologies, some essays are better and more interesting or breaks more new ground than others. Overall this book deals in a mostly interesting way with a varied field of media/monarchy issues, but the English translations are not flawless and the book also suffers from the contributors’ obvious unfamiliarity with “monarchical terminology” (to cite just a few of many examples one does not denounce one’s right to the throne, there has never been a “Prince Wilhelm Bernadotte”, Daniel Westling will not become a member of the court, there is no “Arch-Duchess of Luxembourg” and Haga is certainly not a castle, but a palace).

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Swedish historian suggests new Kalmar union

Today the Nordic Council began its annual session, which this year is held in Stockholm. In an article in Dagens Nyheter the Swedish historian and author Gunnar Wetterberg takes it as an opportunity to suggest a radical strengthening of Nordic cooperation; indeed he proposes that the five Nordic countries should form a federal state, a modern version of the Kalmar union which existed from 1397 to 1523 (when Sweden broke away).
Wetterberg points out that the five Nordic countries together would be the tenth largest economy in the world, “just behind Canada and Spain but well ahead of Brazil and Russia”. This, Wetterberg argues, would give such a federal state a stronger voice on the world stage and strengthen its position in the EU (however, neither Norway nor Iceland is a member of the EU). Wetterberg also sees advantages for business and industry, culture and literature, education and science.
Gunnar Wetterberg suggests that the Nordic federal state should have a bicameral system, consisting of a lower house based on proportional representation and a senate whose composition would be less influenced by the sizes of the five countries. There should be one head of state, he argues, and points to Queen Margrethe II (apparently for the simple reason that the first monarch of the Kalmar union was Queen Margareta I), alternatively a Malaysian system whereby the position of head of state would revolve between the five states.
The federal state should be in charge of foreign policy, security, finances, laws, immigration, work, education and science. Schoolchildren should have to learn another Nordic language in addition to their own and official acts should be published in two languages – Finnish and one of the Scandinavian tongues. National laws should be harmonised gradually, Wetterberg suggests.
Wetterberg concludes that he thinks his idea is “fully realistic”. However, this is certainly not on the agenda in any of the Nordic countries and is highly unlikely to become an issue. However, Gunnar Wetterberg’s argument that the Nordic countries combined would be the tenth largest economy in the world reflects the idea of a shared G20 membership recently put forward by the Norwegian Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahr Støre.
There have overall been several ideas concerning a closer Nordic cooperation put forward recently. Following the collapse of the Icelandic economy a monetary union between Norway and Iceland was mentioned as an alternative to Icelandic membership of the EU and a panel led by Norway’s former Foreign Minister Thorvald Stoltenberg recently suggested a closer military cooperation between the Nordic countries. Another interesting development in inter-Nordic relations is that Denmark in recent years apparently has lost some interest and grown less committed to such issues.

The article in its entirety may be found here:

Monday, 26 October 2009

On this date: Abdication of Oscar II

104 years ago today, Oscar II abdicated as King of Norway. Although he was deposed by the Norwegian Parliament on 7 June 1905, it was only on 26 October 1905 that he renounced his and his family’s rights to the Norwegian throne.
The unilateral dissolution of the Swedish-Norwegian union by the Norwegian Parliament led to negotiations between the two countries in Karlstad in August and September, with an agreement being reached on 23 September. The Karlstad agreement was ratified by the Norwegian Parliament on 9 October and by an extraordinary Swedish Parliament on 13 October. The photo shows Oscar II, the last crowned King of Sweden, dressed and robed for the State Opening of Parliament.
At the same time as the Norwegian Parliament dissolved the union it asked King Oscar to choose a prince of his house to become King of Norway. The Norwegians would have preferred his third son, Prince Carl, but the youngest son Prince Eugen and the King’s grandson Prince Wilhelm were also possible candidates.
Unofficially Oscar II offered the Norwegians his second son, Prince Oscar Bernadotte, but this suggestion was rejected by the Norwegian representative, Fritz Wedel Jarlsberg, for the reason that Prince Oscar Bernadotte, who had lost his succession rights by marrying a commoner, was not a member of the royal house and thus not included in the so-called “Bernadotte Proposal”.
Officially Oscar II did not reply to the Bernadotte Proposal until his abdication on 26 October. This created certain difficulties for the Norwegians, whose negotiations with another candidate, Prince Carl of Denmark, had to be conducted in strictest secrecy.
The extraordinary Swedish Parliament was dissolved on 18 October 1905 without having asked the King to accept the Bernadotte Proposal. This paved the way for Oscar II’s renunciation of the Norwegian throne.
He did so in a letter to the Speaker of the Norwegian Parliament on 26 October. In the letter he also declared that if a member of his family who was in line of succession to the Swedish throne were to become King of Norway, it would probably lead only to suspicion directed not only against him, but also against King Oscar – in other words the Norwegian King risked being suspected of putting the interests of Sweden before those of his own kingdom. This, King Oscar feared, would undermine the monarchy’s standing in both countries. “Therefore I declare that I cannot accept the Parliament’s proposal”, Oscar II concluded.
The letter was sent by mail and arrived in Oslo the next day, where the Speaker of Parliament, Johan Thorne, visibly moved, read it out in Parliament at 5 p.m. The Members of Parliament stood up while listening to this last act of the Bernadottes’ reign in Norway.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

New books: The Kennedys, by one of them

Edward M. Kennedy was alone among the Kennedy brothers in reaching old age. That also meant that he was the only of them able to write his memoirs. But only just – True Compass: A Memoir arrived at his home from the printers on in the morning of the day of his death and was published in the USA on 14 September. It is an insightful account from the inside of American politics and of the Kennedy clan.
Although “Ted” Kennedy, a Senator for 46 years, made a good career in politics he will of course be remembered not only for that, but also for his role in the legend that was the Kennedy clan. Joseph and Rose Kennedy’s four sons and five daughters fascinated and appealed to the people of the USA and abroad in a way that no other American family has done.
Senator Kennedy begins his autobiography with the illness that afflicted him in 2008 and which lead to his death this August, writing that “the dire implications” of it made him realise that “my own life has always been inseparable from that of my family” and that the term “family” “virtually defined my entire consciousness”, concluding: “My story is their story, and theirs is mine. And so it shall be in these pages”. Thus the book deals not only with his own life and career, but also with those of his parents, brothers and sisters. That alone makes it stand out among the floods of Kennedy books – this is one of the few where a central member of the family tells the story himself.
His father, Joseph P. Kennedy, is portrayed as the patriarch of the family who was a strong presence in the lives of his children until a stroke deprived him of the ability to speak in the early 1960s. Strict, but fair, well-meaning and genuinely concerned about his children seems to be the essence of his son’s view, which mostly leaves out the darker sides of Joseph P. Kennedy’s activities.
Ted Kennedy denies the oft-repeated myth that his father had “designated” all his sons for high office, with the eldest brother, Joseph Jr, to be President of the USA. “My eldest brother’s political ambitions were entirely his own”, the youngest brother writes. Those ambitions came to nothing when Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr was killed on active service during WWII. A few years after the war ended, the eldest sister, Kathleen, Marchioness of Hartington, was also killed in a flying accident. Thus “Teddy” had lost two of his siblings to violent deaths when he was only 16. But, as we know, worse was to come.
The second oldest brother, John F. Kennedy, obviously meant much to “Teddy”, who describes him as “my mentor, protector, wise counsel, and constant friend” – in fact he was also his godfather. There are many fond memories of the elder brother recalled in the pages of this book. Edward Kennedy’s first campaigning was done on the behalf of his brother and the three surviving brothers all had the chance to work together politically when “Teddy” became a Senator in 1962, while John was President and Robert Attorney-General.
After the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963 the youngest brother “was so worried about Bobby that I tried to suppress my own grief”. He pushed away his grief inside him. He was himself nearly killed in a plane accident the following year and then, in 1968, came Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, which “Teddy” was actively involved with until it was so brutally brought to an end by another assassin’s bullet. He was almost knocked to the ground by this fourth tragedy and he rejected all suggestions that he should run for president himself. In the following years he also turned down repeated offers of the vice-presidential slot on several election tickets.
His brothers “established a soaring standard for public service”, the author writes, a standard which “to a great extent has defined my life and my aims. I have always measured myself against that standard. Jack and Bobby were my heroes”. The sole survivor of the brothers continued their work in the Senate, where he sat until his death. The great causes of his political career – civil rights and health care in particular – are extensively dealt with in the book, as is natural in a politician’s memoirs.
But there are also a succession of “lesser” issues, Supreme Court nominations and other political events which he mostly manages to relate in a way which does not become boring. But it should be pointed out that there are some mistakes and inaccuracies which are really quite unnecessary in such a book (there was for example no presidential election in 1994, Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in 1981 rather than 1980 and Vladimir Putin was certainly not “Soviet President”).
Edward M. Kennedy lived almost his entire life in the public spotlight – thus the world came to share not only his joys and triumphs, but also his tragedies and his failures. When he was caught cheating at a Harvard exam, his father told him: “There are people who can mess up in life and not get caught, but you’re not one of them, Teddy”. He did mess up a few times during his life and could therefore not avoid addressing these episodes in his memoirs.
The gravest was of course the Chappaquiddick tragedy in 1969, when the Senator accidently drove his car into a lake and did not alert the police until the next day, by which time a young woman passenger who was unable to escape from the car had suffered a painful death by drowning. He once again denies rumours that he had an extramarital relationship with this young woman and acknowledges, as he has done many times before, that his “actions were inexcusable”. However, what seems to have been the worst part of it all for him was the thought that he might have “shortened my father’s life from the shock I had visited on him [...]. The pain of that burden was almost unbearable”.
This was certainly the nadir of Edward Kennedy’s life and career, but, although the accident would haunt him for the rest of his life, he managed to rise again and restore himself to a place of national importance. In fact, he probably achieved more during his nearly five decades in the Senate than his brothers ever had the chance to do in the short time they held their more powerful positions.
He came to work with many presidents, but concludes that in “my nearly fifty years of public life, we have not had a president as successful as FDR. The closest we’ve come (family relations excluded) is Lyndon Johnson. Civil rights was the issue of our time. He picked up that unfinished work and ensured the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. If he hadn’t, we certainly wouldn’t be where we are today”.
Kennedy seems to have respected the elder George Bush, while his enthusiasm for John Kerry speaks volumes of his views of George W. Bush. Ronald Reagan is portrayed as a light-weight president who mostly preferred talking about anything but the issue at hand, while Kennedy asserts that he has “remained a close friend of Nancy Reagan”. Among the presidents, the harshest judgements are reserved for Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.
In 1984 Kennedy took the dramatic decision to challenge the incumbent president for the party’s nomination, stating that he “felt almost forced into the decision by what I saw as Carter’s dragging down of the country and the party”. Kennedy lost the nomination to Carter, who then lost the presidency to Reagan, something Carter has often blamed Kennedy for. In Kennedy’s eyes Carter did not need much “help” losing the election.
The 1990s were on the whole a good decade for Edward Kennedy. Following the divorce from his first wife in 1981, he married his “soul-mate” Victoria Reggie in 1992 and became a happier man. Yet the 1990s also held their share of grief – the death of “dear Jackie [...], heartbreakingly young at sixty-four”, the passing of his 104-year-old mother, which made him feel as if “the legs had been knocked out from under me”, and the tragic plane accident which claimed the lives of John F. Kennedy, Jr, his wife and her sister. “A lot of people have wondered whether John ultimately would have sought public office”, his uncle writes. “I think he might have, and that he would have excelled”.
One of Edward M. Kennedy’s last public appearances was at the Democrat party convention in August 2008, when the mortally ill Senator declared in his speech that “this November, the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans”. He came to believe that Barack Obama “was the candidate we needed now at this time in our history” and that “history had handed us that rarest of figures, one who could truly carve out new frontiers”. But then illness cut Kennedy down. He lived to see Obama installed as President of the USA, but he did not live to see what the results may be.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

New books: The official biography of the Queen Mother

A month ago Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother: The Official Biography by William Shawcross was published by Macmillan of London. The concept of official biographies is a rather unique British practice, whereby the monarch appoints a biographer who gets unrestricted access to the Royal Archives and the papers of the subject. Mostly the biography is published quite shortly after the subject’s death – the official biography of George V appeared sixteen years after his death, that of George VI a mere six years and of Queen Mary also six years, while Edward VIII took eighteen years. Thus the public gets the possibility to read letters and other private papers of recently deceased royal which one in other monarchies mostly will have to wait generations for. This openness should be applauded, but the condition has normally been that the official biography shall be read and approved by the monarch and sometimes other senior royals. Sometimes this is known to have lead to a certain “censorship” and one may speculate if the official biographer, consciously or subconsciously, may anyhow be careful to avoid certain topics or facts he (so far only men have been official biographers) knows will be sensitive.
In 2003 Queen Elizabeth II appointed the author and journalist William Shawcross to be her mother’s official biographer. The book was originally due to be published by Penguin, but after their adventures with Princess Diana’s former butler Paul Burrell, the biography was transferred to Macmillan. The result of Shawcross’s six years of research and writing is a monumental book running to some 1,100 pages. He insists in the preface that the Queen gave him “absolute freedom to write as I wished” and that “the decision on what to publish remained mine alone”.
Luckily, Shawcross does not fall into the same trap as James Pope-Hennessy did when writing the official biography of Queen Mary, i.e. writing at length about the early years and then rushing through her years as queen at too great a speed. The various parts of the Queen Mother’s long life are well balanced against each other and, naturally, the book begins with her family background and early years. The young Elizabeth Bowes Lyon (Shawcross insists that the family preferred to spell its surname without a hyphen) comes alive as a happy, charming girl, quite liberated for her time but also with a sense of duty which, Shawcross argues, followed her throughout her life. We learn of her friendships and teenage crushes on soldiers and musical stars as well as more serious sides of the girl who helped take care of wounded soldiers when her family home Glamis Castle was turned into a convalescent home during the First World War. Her mother, Lady Strathmore, comes out as a person of great significance, while her father remains mostly in the shadows.
To those of us who have read a number of biographies of the Queen Mother there is little new and few surprises in the official biography. But what makes this biography stand out from the previous ones is that the author is able to tell much of the story through the subject’s own words. From the time she learnt to write until her death nearly a century later, the Queen Mother was a sparkling letter-writer and these letters form the core of Shawcross’s biography. There are funny, entertaining letters such as the newly engaged Elizabeth writing to her sister: “I am so tired already – I think I shall probably die LONG before I get married. How delighted the papers would be – after the ROMANCE the TRAGEDY! What ho”. Or when her good friend D’Arcy Osborne, described as a “confirmed bachelor”, asks her advice about whether he should marry an American woman named Isabel. The then Duchess of York makes a list of “against” and “for”: “Against: 1. Her name. 2. American. 3. Eight millions. 4. Indifferent features. 5. No parents. For: Sense of Humour”, concluding: “Yes, I think you ought to marry her. The sense of humour balances everything”. But there are also more heartbreaking letters, such as the one she wrote to her mother-in-law Queen Mary just after her husband had been found dead, beginning: “My darling Mama, What can I say to you – I know that you loved Bertie dearly, and he was my whole life [...]”.
Their married life lasted only 29 years – little more than ¼ of her life – yet George VI seems indeed to have been her whole life during those years. But the two of them might never have married at all. One of the revelations of this book is that the then Prince Albert in 1919 was in love with a married woman (Lady Loughborough, née Sheila Chisholm, later the wife of Prince Dimitri of Russia in her third marriage) and wanted to marry her. His father George V offered him a ducal title, financial independence and an independent establishment, “provided that he hears nothing more about Sheila & me!!!!”, Albert wrote to his elder brother. The Prince took the offer, a fact which perhaps adds something of importance to our understanding of his reaction when his brother Edward chose otherwise in 1936.
Several biographers have claimed that Elizabeth Bowes Lyon was reluctant to marry the Duke of York and that it was only his third proposal which led to her saying yes. Shawcross confirms this, dates the three proposals to 27 February 1921, 7 March 1922 and 3 January 1923, with her eventually accepting him on 14 January 1923. He backs it up with the letters they wrote to each other at the time, from which it seems that Elizabeth liked the Duke as a friend, but did not feel comfortable with the idea of marrying him. The role of her other serious suitor, the Duke’s equerry the Hon. James Stuart, who has been accorded great importance by other biographers, remains vague in Shawcross’s version. However, the letters Albert and Elizabeth wrote to each other during their marriage make it clear that the two of them were deeply devoted to each other.
Elizabeth married the Duke in April 1923 and died in March 2002, thus serving as a member of the British royal family for nearly eighty years. Perhaps her longevity and that hardly anyone these days are able to remember her as a young woman are the reasons why one often forgets how young she was when she entered the royal family. There are often references to how young Lady Diana Spencer was when she married Prince Charles; in fact Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon was only a couple of years older and apparently she too found it hard to adapt to her in-laws and their way of life. “Everybody as old as the hills!” is the 22-year-old Elizabeth’s verdict after her first visit to Queen Alexandra, her three daughters and her sister the former Dowager Empress of Russia at Sandringham. From Balmoral she reports that there are no-one younger than ninety there, later she describes her father-in-law as “a narrow-minded autocrat” and writes of her in-laws that “There is no ‘family’ feeling at all in this family. They are all very nice to me, & horrid to each other!”
Shawcross argues that Elizabeth was probably more attached to George V than to Queen Mary, but from the letters he quotes it seems to me to have been the other way round. Another fact perhaps obscured by later events is how close the young Duke and Duchess of York were to the Prince of Wales and that their lifestyle in the early years of marriage was almost as “racy” and fun-loving as his. There are letters quoted between the Duchess and the Prince which make it clear how good friends they were at the time. Only later did they start to drift into different directions before it all broke down with the events of the abdication. Yet when the Duke of Windsor died in 1972, Shawcross argues that it probably affected the Queen Mother more than most people realised.
The abdication of Edward VIII in 1936 which brought the Duke and Duchess of York to the British throne as King George VI and Queen Elizabeth is labelled “the most serious constitutional crisis affecting the British monarchy since the seventeenth century”. Many will have been looking forward to what Shawcross would be able to say about Elizabeth’s role in the abdication crisis. The answer is that he says very little about it. In fact this is symptomatic of one of the weaknesses of this biography, namely that Shawcross avoids some of the most difficult issues. Another such issue is the subsequent relationship between Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of Windsor, by many described as a “feud”. This is barely touched upon by Shawcross and when he does so, it is more or less written off by quoting Robert Fellowes saying: “She was herself very kind to the Duchess”. Fellowes, born years after the abdication, a courtier in the 1980s and 1990s and brother-in-law of Princess Diana, does not seem to be a good source for such a surprising statement. In fact Queen Elizabeth referred to the Duchess of Windsor as “the lowest of the low” and refused to meet her for thirty years, which is not exactly everyone’s idea of being “very kind” to a sister-in-law.
The extent of Queen Elizabeth’s influence is another topic which Shawcross remains vague about, stating: “She was utterly discreet and never talked, nor wrote even in letters to her family, about this aspect of her partnership with the King”. Yet he points out that she “knew far more about affairs of state than did either Queen Alexandra or Queen Mary” and that the King’s Private Secretary Alec Hardinge later said that “early in his reign the King would refuse to discuss business with him but invariably went to talk to the Queen instead, returning with a decision which Hardinge attributed to her. And as Hardinge observed, her views were further to the right than those of her husband”.
But she did not always get her way. When George VI at the time of Prince Charles’s birth decided to dispense with the practice of the Home Secretary being present at royal births, she was firmly opposed to it, writing to the then Private Secretary, Alan Lascelles, that “I feel that we should cling to our domestic traditions and ceremonies for dear life”. The question of whether her inert conservatism may sometimes have been a negative influence is left until the last but one page of this massive tome. Shawcross then acknowledges that “Queen Elizabeth’s dislike of change may have slowed down the pace of royal reform which is always necessary to retain consent. There were changes which the Queen [Elizabeth II] and her advisers might have chosen to make earlier, had there been no concern about upsetting Queen Elizabeth”.
She was not always discreet about her political opinions in her letters. In the 1930s she described herself as “anti-feminist”, declaring that “I think it a crime for women to take jobs that men can do as well”. During World War II she acknowledged the importance of women taking on the jobs of men absent at the front, but added “yet they must be ready to stand down (& by) after the war”.
In 1924 she declared herself “extremely Anti-Labour” and writing of a Conservative election victory she describes the result as “MARVELLOUS”, concluding: “One feels so much safer”. Shawcross believes that her political views matured somewhat with the years and that she was able to get along well with Labour politicians as well as Tories. He does not quote her conversation with A. N. Wilson in the 1980s when she famously stated: “The best thing is a good old Tory government with a strong Labour opposition”. He does however point out that the Queen Mother had a habit of proposing dinner table toasts with her glass held up and the words “Up with...” for people she liked or holding her glass below the table with the words “Down with...” for people she did not like. “For Mrs Thatcher, the glass was always high”, writes Shawcross. He does not address the rumour that in later years the glass would often be held low with the words: “Down with Blair!”
Queen Elizabeth’s support for appeasement is one of the very few occasions when Shawcross criticises his subject, writing that her and the King’s appearance with Chamberlain on the Palace balcony following the signing of the controversial Munich agreement but before it was to be debated in Parliament “was imprudent, if not unconstitutional”. Shawcross points out that the Queen Mother in 1991 “acknowledged the mistake”, yet she continued to have a favourable view of appeasement, believing in the myth that it “gave us a year to rearm, and build a few aeroplanes” (in fact Germany used that year to rearm and prepare itself much more than Britain did). According to Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, Queen Elizabeth in 1939 believed that Hitler probably did not want war. She was not alone in the royal family in supporting appeasement; Queen Mary hoped that the Munich agreement would mean “that at last our 2 countries will come together”.
When war did break out, the Queen, in the words of Ted Hughes, her great friend in later life, “rose to the occasion in such a way that she became the incarnation of it”. The story of the war years is told in a rather familiar way and little new of importance is added, perhaps except the fact that Queen Elizabeth used to be present for the King’s weekly lunches with Winston Churchill – naturally this gave her great knowledge and insight in what was going on.
In 1991 she would tell Theo Aronson (not quoted by Shawcross): “The King was told everything so, of course, I knew everything as well. That’s when I learned to keep things to myself. There were so many rumours going round at that time; one heard so many stories. I became very cagey. And I’ve been cagey ever since”.
Given the close relationship between the King and the Queen, the sudden death of George VI in February 1952 naturally left his widow engulfed in deep mourning. After nearly three decades dedicated to supporting and sustaining her husband in his public and private life, his death suddenly left her without a “mission” in life. Shawcross echoes earlier biographers when he writes that “without the added confidence which his wife had imparted on him, and the loyal and loving support which she and their children continued to give him, the Duke of York might never have been able to make a success of his unwanted kingship after his brother’s abrupt departure”. But Shawcross also stresses how much she had depended on him and how this left her feeling quite forlorn when he died.
The King’s death naturally also changed the conditions of her life drastically. She was no longer The Queen, but “now, in effect, the ancien regime”, writes Shawcross. And she was after all only 51 at the time – and would live for half a century more, dying fifty years and two months after her husband. Probably resenting being relegated to the second row, she was very keen on the Regency Act being amended so that she would be allowed to continue to serve as Counsellor of State.
With her status as consort she also lost her homes – Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, Sandringham and Balmoral were now her daughter’s homes where she would be a guest. The Royal Lodge at Windsor, Birkhall near Balmoral and Clarence House in London would be her homes for the rest of her life, to which she added the Castle of Mey, which she purchased shortly after George VI’s death. She found Birkhall too small and disliked Clarence House, but her wish to move to Marlborough House following Queen Mary’s death in 1953 was not granted. She also disliked her new title, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, describing it as a “horrible name”.
The story of the grieving widow is told with great empathy. Despite her great sense of loss, she managed to find her feet again, to carry on alone the work begun by her and King George and to reinvent herself in the role as the universally beloved “Queen Mum”, a role she would carry out with great charm for fifty years.
The great strength of William Shawcross’s biography of the Queen Mother is that he, with access to her papers, is able to tell large parts of the story through her own words. The book is also better written than official biographies tend to be and is thereby – mostly – a good read. Yet there are some passages which are quite tedious. King George VI’s and Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Canada and the USA in 1939 was undoubtedly quite important, both personally and politically, but the nearly forty pages of the chapter dedicated to it seem packed with a never-ending list of engagements performed, speeches made, people met and dinners had. The same goes for those parts of the book which deal with the charities, regiments and voluntary organisations the Queen Mother patronised. This was surely an important aspect of her role and it is more or less in the nature of the official biography that it should be dealt with at some length, but the author himself seems to struggle to muster much enthusiasm for it.
One of the weaknesses of the book is that the closer we come to our own days, the more discreet the author becomes. The name of Camilla Parker Bowles (incidentally, a friend of Shawcross) is for example mentioned only once, when she attends a house party with her then husband in 1973. Whereas the Queen Mother’s husband, daughters, parents, siblings, parents-in-law, siblings-in-law and other family members play a large part in the earlier stages of the book, the focus in the years of her widowhood shifts somehow away from her family and towards various friends and courtiers. Yet this seems not to implicate that her family became less important to her with the passing of the years. Towards the end of the book there seems to be fewer letters and other such sources to draw upon and instead we are again treated to what resembles a chronological list of lunches eaten, regiments visited and people charmed.
To judge by the press attention to the book many had apparently hoped that the official biography would let us know what the relationship between the Queen Mother and Princess Diana was really like and whether it was true that the Queen Mother and her good friend and lady-in-waiting Ruth Fermoy played a part in “arranging” the marriage between their respective grandchildren Charles and Diana. The latter question is not touched upon and we learn little about the first, partly because Princess Margaret in the 1990s destroyed the letters from Princess Diana to the Queen Mother. One of the few surviving letters was written by the Princess of Wales just after her wedding in 1981. “I will try my HARDEST to make your grandson happy & give him all the love & support he needs & deserves”, the Princess writes. “I still can’t get over how lucky I am & it will take me the rest of my life to recover!” It is quite poignant to read these words when one knows how it all ended.
The Queen Mother loved her eighties, we are told. Her nineties were considerably more difficult, considering all the troubles which engulfed the royal family during that decade – press intrusion, public scandals, the divorces of three of her grandchildren, the fire at Windsor Castle and the violent death of the Princess of Wales are of course remembered by most of us. Combined, these events meant that the British monarchy in the 1990s found itself in its biggest crisis since the abdication.
Again we learn little about the Queen Mother’s role and her views on all this, except that she apparently tried to stay out of it as much as possible. “There were some in the Royal Household who wished Queen Elizabeth would give him [Prince Charles] robust advice”, Shawcross writes. “But that was not her style. She never liked to acknowledge, let alone confront, disagreeableness within the family. It was a characteristic which had earned her the nickname ‘imperial ostrich’ among some members of the Household. She thought her role was not to try and change people’s courses but to be an anchor”.
We are told that she found Andrew Morton’s book on Princess Diana “deeply shocking” and that “the washing of dirty linen in public was utterly abhorrent to Queen Elizabeth. Her life was based upon obligation, discretion and restraint”. She “regretted” the Prince of Wales’s decision to talk about his marriage in Jonathan Dimbleby’s biography and TV documentary, saying: “It’s always a mistake to talk about your marriage”. But she hoped the book “would help history to judge him better”.
Throughout the storm Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother was virtually the only member of the royal family to remain almost above criticism. Her great popularity and her presence as a living reminder of a time when the British royal family had been an important inspiration to their people may perhaps in itself have helped sustain the institution through the crisis. She lived to see the crisis pass and at the time of her death on 30 March 2002 the monarchy had again entered more placid waters. A crowd of a million people turned out in London on the day of her funeral, clearly demonstrating that the royal family was still able to touch a chord with its people.
By all accounts the Queen Mother was herself not unusually talented, but she seems to have been very conscious of her own role and image. She combined great charm with an ability to get on with people from all walks of life, despite her own privileged existence. To her charm, she added a strong sense of duty, a will of iron and a great love of life.
When Princess Diana once told her how much she looked forward to her 100th birthday, the Queen Mother replied that she might be run over by a bus before then. She then added something about her own philosophy of life: “Wouldn’t it be terrible if you’d spent all your life doing everything you were supposed to do, didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t eat things, took lots of exercise, all the things you didn’t want to do, and suddenly one day you were run over by a big red bus, and as the wheels were crushing into you you’d say ‘Oh my God, I could have got so drunk last night!’ That’s the way you should live your life, as if tomorrow you’ll be run over by a big red bus”.
Perhaps she also disclosed something about herself when her daughter Princess Margaret was born and she wrote in a letter: “[...] I am glad to say that she has got large blue eyes and a will of iron, which is all the equipment that a lady needs! And as long as she can disguise her will, & use her eyes, then all will be well”.

Carl XII’s grave to be opened again

The Office of the Marshal of the Realm has approved plans for opening King Carl XII’s sarcophagus in the Riddarholmen Church in Stockholm. King Carl XII was killed by a bullet during the siege of the Norwegian fortress Frederiksten on 30 November 1718 and ever since there has been speculation about whether he was killed by a Norwegian or a Swedish bullet. This dispute scientists now hope to be able to solve by examining the King’s body.
Carl XII’s sarcophagus have been opened three times already, most recently in 1917, but since then scientific techniques have of course improved considerably. The scientists now need to submit to the Marshal of the Realm a detail plan of how they intend to do their tests and to secure funding (some 700,000-800,000 SEK) for their work before they can go ahead. The tests are expected to take about two weeks and may take place next year.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Major government reshuffle in Norway

A major government reshuffle took place in an extraordinary State Council held at the Royal Palace in Oslo at 11 a.m. today. The changes will take effect from 3 p.m. today.
The reshuffle had been expected since the government’s election victory in September. The Labour Party strengthened its position in the election and has obviously taken advantage of this to dominate the government to an even greater extent than before - Labour (Ap) now has 12 out of 20 ministers and the party controls the three most important positions - Prime Minister, Minister of Finance and Minister of Foreign Affairs - as well as several other heavy ministries. The Socialist Left Party (SV) was reduced in size by the government and is therefore down from five to four minister. The Centre Party (Sp) keeps its four ministries. There are now 10 women and 10 men in the government.
The leader of the Labour Party, Jens Stoltenberg, naturally remains in his position as Prime Minister, while the two other party leaders are moved. The leader of the Centre Party, Liv Signe Navarsete, has until now been Minister of Transport and Communications, but now becomes Minister of Local Government and Regional Development. Magnhild Meltveit Kleppa, who held that position until today, succeeds Navarsete at the Ministry of Transport and Communications. Kristin Halvorsen, leader of the Socialist Left Party, leaves the Ministry of Finance to become Minister of Education, while the current Minister of Education, Bård Vegar Solhjell, leaves the government to take up his seat in Parliament and become his party’s parliamentary leader. Tora Aasland (also SV) continues as Minister of Research and Higher Education in the Ministry of Education.
The new Finance Minister will be Sigbjørn Johnsen (Ap). He held the same position from 1990 to 1996 and is one of several veterans returning to the government. Another returning veteran is Grete Faremo (Ap), who held several cabinet positions in the government of Gro Harlem Brundtland, but was more or less fired by Thorbjørn Jagland following a scandal in 1996. Faremo will now be Minister of Defence. The current Minister of Defence, Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen (Ap), takes over the Ministry of Health and Care Services from Bjarne Håkon Hanssen (Ap), who had already made it known that he wanted to leave politics. A third veteran is Karl-Eirik Schjøtt Pedersen (Ap), a former Minister of Finance who has until now been the Prime Minister’s chief of staff. He is promoted to the rank of a Minister without portfolio at the Office of the Prime Minister.
With Bård Vegar Solhjell returning to Parliament, the Socialist Left Party’s current parliamentary leader, Audun Lysbakken, enters the government to become Minister of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion. Anniken Huitfeldt (Ap) leaves her position as Minister of Children and Equality to become Minister of Culture. The current Minister of Culture and Church Affairs, Trond Giske (Ap), becomes Minister of Trade and Industry. Church affairs are moved to the current Ministry of Government Administration and Reform, which will be renamed the Ministry of Reform and Church Affairs and be lead by Rigmor Aaserud (Ap), who was elected to Parliament for the first time this autumn and will also be Minister of Nordic cooperation. Until 21 December Aaserud will also be in charge of the Ministry of Labour, a ministry left vacant a few weeks ago when Dag Terje Andersen (Ap) resigned to become Speaker of Parliament. The social inclusion issues will be moved from that ministry to the new Ministry of Children and Social Inclusion, while immigration issues are moved to the Ministry of Justice and Police, where Knut Storberget (Ap) continues.
Other new ministers are Lisbeth Berg-Hansen (Ap), who becomes Minister of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs in succession to Helga Pedersen, who recently renounced that position to become leader of Labour’s parliamentary group, and Hanne Bjurstrøm (Ap). The latter is currently Norway’s chief negotiator on international climate issues and she is appointed a minister with the task of assisting Minister of Environment and International Development Erik Solheim (SV), who stays on as that, in the two months leading up to the Copenhagen summit in December. After that she will become Minister of Labour.
Jonas Gahr Støre (Ap) continues as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Terje Riis-Johansen (Sp) goes on as Minister of Petroleum and Energy and Lars Peder Brekk (Sp) remains in his position as Minister of Agriculture and Food. Sylvia Brustad (Ap), Minister of Trade and Industry, and Heidi Grande Røys (SV), Minister of Government Administration and Reform, leave the government.
Interestingly the official government list seems to implicate that the ministers will now again be ranked according to their seniority as ministers, as was the tradition before 2005, rather than according to their age, as has been the case for the last four years. The three party leaders and the Minister of Foreign Affairs will however continue to rank before the other ministers.

Press release (in English):

Sunday, 18 October 2009

New books: The power of the Swedish monarchy

During a visit to Malmö last week I came across a new book titled Monarkins makt – Nationell gemenskap i svensk demokrati (“The Power of the Monarchy: National Unity in Swedish Democracy”) by the political scientist Cecilia Åse, published by Ordfront Förlag. Such books discussing the monarchy, its nature and its role often appear in connection with major events such as those the Swedish monarchy is now facing, but this book falls completely through.
The beginnings are promising: the author takes a look at the political debate about the monarchy in the 1950s and 1960s, which was part of a wider constitutional discourse which resulted in a new Constitution taking effect in 1975, thereby restricting the monarch’s role significantly.
But from then on the book deteriorates. The author is concerned with how the common “we” relate to the members of the royal family, but she has little particularly original or substantial to say. Often she states the obvious, sometimes it ends up as banalities. The fact that Queen Silvia wears jewellery which has belonged to earlier generations of the dynasty represents continuity, we are told. And a newspaper’s online article on the engagement of Crown Princess Victoria has a link to an article about her parents’ betrothal. Equally startling, this also represents continuity.
It does not help that Åse shows herself to be confused by the terminology. She writes some generalities about the nature of state visits, stating that they are undertaken by the head of state embodying Sweden. The Queen (or rather the Queen’s body) is just present as some sort of adornment. Yet a few pages later, having forgotten that only the head of state pays state visits, the author refers to Crown Princess Victoria’s state visit to Brazil.
Reading the book I frequently wondered when it would arrive at its topic and having finished it I was left wondering what if any was the author’s aim or purpose with this book.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Did Crown Princess Märtha want to return to Norway in 1941?

Yesterday VG had an article based on the new book Tause menn – Scener fra den kalde krigen (“Silent Men: Scenes from the Cold War”) by the NRK journalist Frode Nielsen. The article deals with an issue relating to Crown Princess Märtha’s actions during World War II, when she and her children were in exile in the USA.
In his book Den lange reisen hjem (1990) the author Egil Ulateig published a telegram which the German chargé d’affaires in Washington, Hans Thomsen, on 1 May 1941 sent to the Foreign Ministry in Berlin, claiming that the Crown Princess “through a Quaker from New York, whom I have the greatest trust in” had let him know that she realized that King Haakon would never be able to return to Nazi-occupied Norway, but that she hoped her son Harald would one day sit on the Norwegian throne and that she therefore wished to return to Norway with the children. This telegram was also mentioned in my biography of the Crown Princess and her husband, Dronningen vi ikke fikk (2003).
In July 1945 Jens Christian Hauge, who had been leader of the resistance and became Minister of Defence after liberation, travelled to Marburg in Germany, officially to collect documents for the trial against the Nazi Minister President Vidkun Quisling. Frode Nielsen claims that Hauge’s real purpose was to secure Thomsen’s telegram from falling into the hands of the Soviets.
VG’s article is rather badly written and therefore a little confusing, but it mentions another document or, it may seem, a copy of a letter allegedly written by the Crown Princess to Crown Prince Olav on 9 May 1941, which according to Nielsen “acquits her completely for the contents of the first, infamous telegram and makes it clear that its version was absolutely wrong”. The Crown Princess supposedly writes that someone may have tried to fool her and that she had been a victim of Nazi intrigues, concluding (in Swedish): “I despair that I again find myself in this mess...”.
In a comment to VG Jens Christian Hauge’s biographer Olav Njølstad, who referred briefly to Thomsen’s telegram, says that securing the telegram was not Hauge’s purpose for going to Germany, but that he came over it by accident while there. Njølstad speculates that the telegram may have been part of German propaganda to weaken the Norwegian royal family, which is also a possibility I also mentioned in my book – there was after all other reports from German diplomats which included obviously invented stories such as King Haakon being terminally ill from cancer during the campaign in 1940 (in fact the King showed great courage and stamina during the campaign and lived for another seventeen years). Egil Ulateig, on the other hand, states that he believes Thomsen’s version. Ulateig claims that Thomsen was no Nazi and that those of Thomsen’s diplomatic reports he has read tend to be trustworthy.
The book is not yet out, but will be published by Cappelen Damm.

New books: An eyewitness account of 1989

On the heels of Victor Sebestyen’s excellent Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire comes another book on those momentous events twenty years ago. The Year that Changed the World: The Untold Story behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall is published by Simon & Schuster and written by Michael Meyer, who is currently a communication advisor to Ban Ki-moon (who may well need one) and was Newsweek’s correspondent in Germany, Central Europe and the Balkans in 1989.
As such, Meyer takes a different approach from Sebestyen, namely that of an eyewitness to many of the key events. He was there to see the border guards at Checkpoint Charlie open the gates between West and East Berlin on the night of 9 November 1989, he was one of the last foreign journalists to interview Ceausescu and he was present during much of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution.
But Michael Meyer also takes a look behind the scenes and argues against what he considers several myths about 1989. One of them is that the revolution came as a result of the long-repressed people of Eastern Europe spontaneously rising against the communist dictatorships. Meyer’s version is that this is only partly true; it happened in some countries, while the events in other countries were the results of a revolution from above.
Meyer places Hungary at the centre of the story and looks at how a few members of the Hungarian leadership “deliberately took aim at the Berlin Wall – and more than any others, it was they who brought it down”. These men played a significant role by opening the Hungarian borders, thus allowing the “Great Escape” to happen, whereby thousands upon thousands of East German citizens fled to the West through Hungary and Austria, a flight which caused a serious weakening of the GDR regime.
Meyer also points out that what happened in 1989 was in no way preordained, although it may seem so in retrospect. He also argues that chance played a significant role – most famously Gunter Schabowski’s misstatement at the 9 November press conference that East German citizens would be allowed to leave immediately.
Michael Meyer also warns against American triumphalism over the end of the Cold War and the dangers of believing that the communist regimes collapsed as a result of hard-line confrontation from the USA. Meyer, like Sebestyen, argues that Ronald Reagan softened his rhetoric and his politics and chose to work with Mikhail Gorbachev “as a reformer, a potential partner in peace”, rather than confront the Soviet Union.
“The history of the revolutions in Eastern Europe was not written in Washington”, Meyer argues. “It had little to do with American military might. It had far more to do with the rise of Gorbachev, coupled with the economic collapse of the Soviet system and the glaring contrast to the dynamism of Western Europe. The preparedness of East European leaders, with the exception of those of Romania, to accept peaceful change was critical. So was the role of sheer accident and happenstance [...]. Above all, it had everything to do with people, individually and collectively, on the ground, deciding for themselves to tear down that Wall”.
Meyer ascribes new roles to several of the participants of this story. His hero remains Gorbachev, who “deserves enormous credit. He was the geopolitical demiurge, the prime mover that set all else in motion. Without him, the history of Eastern Europe and the end of communism would have been vastly different”.
Michael Meyer’s version of 1989 is well worth reading in this autumn of anniversaries.

Upcoming exhibition on Victoria and Albert

Between 19 March and 31 October next year the Queen’s Gallery in London will show a large exhibition on Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, titled “Victoria & Albert: Art & Love”. The years between their engagement in 1839 and the Prince Consort’s death in 1861 will be at the focus of the exhibition, which will also highlight the importance art played in their relationship. The Times has more:

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Cities of the world: Copenhagen in 20 pictures

Amalienborg and the Marble Church seen from the Opera

Nyhavn, dug by Swedish prisoners of war

Winter in the King’s Garden

Diverse architecture by Frederiksholm Canal

Church of Our Lady

The City Hall

Absalon, founder of Copenhagen

Amalienborg after rain

Christmas lights at the King’s New Square

Frederik’s Church (the Marble Church)

Royal splendour at Christiansborg Palace

Dragon tails at the Stock Exchange

Christiansborg Palace Church

Rosenborg Castle

Thorvaldsen’s Museum

The Royal Life Guards

From Prince Jørgen’s Courtyard

Frederiksholm Canal

The Russian-Orthodox Church

Amalienborg Square and the Opera seen from the Marble Church

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

New books: Crown Prince Frederik and the IOC

On the final day of the 121st IOC Session and 13th Olympic Congress in Copenhagen on Friday Crown Prince Frederik was elected a member of the IOC with 77 votes against 9. The Crown Prince’s candidature to a politicized organisation with a dubious reputation has been the subject of much criticism and debate in the Danish media, culminating in an article in Information on Friday in which the author and journalist Trine Villemann called for the Crown Prince to renounce his right to the throne if elected to the IOC:
A few weeks ago the many newspaper articles were joined by an entire book on the topic, titled Frederik og flammen – Prinsen der ville lege med den olympiske ild (“Frederik and the Flame: The Prince Who Wanted to Play with the Olympic Fire”) by Lars Jørgensen, a journalist who has covered sports politics for Politiken, Ekstra Bladet and DR. The fact that the author is more familiar with the world of sports than the world of royalty can clearly be seen through a confused terminology, such as referring to ex-King Konstantinos’s wife as “Princess Anne-Marie” and describing Crown Prince Frederik throughout as “vice-regent” of Denmark.
But in fact the book deals more with the IOC than with Crown Prince Frederik. The story of his Olympic dreams is told, taking us back to 1998 when a suggestion that the Crown Prince should be a candidate for the IOC failed to gather the necessary support. We then get a detailed account of the scandals engulfing the IOC in recent years (corruption and drugs are at the centre), the reform work carried out in its wake, Juan Antonio Samaranch’s fascist background and the story of the two latest Danish IOC members.
Jørgensen also addresses the problems Crown Prince Frederik will be faced with as an IOC member who, because of his royal position, cannot get involved in political issues. All in all it seems quite clear that the author, like most other commentators, finds the whole thing a bad idea.
However, as Jørgensen points out, there are several other royal members of the IOC – in fact approximately 10 % of the IOC members are royal. With that in mind I think it would have been interesting if the author had taken a closer look at how these royals are dealing with some of those problems Crown Prince Frederik are expected to meet.
Princess Anne of Britain could be a case study and, even more relevant, Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands who as an IOC member who is also heir to the throne of a European kingdom is in the exact same position as Crown Prince Frederik now finds himself in. Lars Jørgensen mentions it, but does not really delve into it. On the other hand Politiken last Thursday had an interesting article about just that:
Crown Prince Frederik is not the first member of the Danish royal family to sit in the IOC; Prince Axel did so between 1931 and 1958 (and was succeeded by his niece’s husband, Ivar Vind). Lars Jørgensen mentions Prince Axel’s opposition to boycotting the art competition held with the Olympics in Berlin in 1936 as an example of a royal member of the IOC becoming entangled in political issues, but again a closer look at Prince Axel’s IOC career might have added some interesting points to this book.

Monday, 12 October 2009

A premature Nobel Peace Prize

As everyone will know by now the Norwegian Nobel Committee on Friday announced that the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize will be awarded to Barack Obama for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”, with a “special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons”. The Nobel Committee also said: “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future”.
The choice of the American President came as a surprise to most people and the reactions have been mixed. It has been applauded by President Medvedev and Fidel Castro, but not by Mairead Maguire (Corrigan), who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize herself, together with Betty Williams, in 1976. In today’s Klassekampen Maguire says that she is deeply disappointed, that Obama “in reality continues to promote a militaristic policy and occupies Afghanistan rather than enter into dialogue” and that giving the prize to him “by many people around the world will be seen as a reward for the USA’s aggression and dominance”.
Many have pointed out that it seems premature to give the Nobel Peace Prize, arguably the most prestigious award in the world, to Obama less than nine months into his presidency and before he has had the chance to achieve much. He has indeed inspired hope for a world where diplomacy rather than violence will be the means to solving conflicts, but he is faced with a real challenge when it comes to rebuilding international trust and alliances which were destroyed by his predecessor and only time will show if he will succeed in making the USA a force for peace.
His speech on nuclear disarmament delivered in Prague earlier this year will be a true landmark if it is followed by actions leading to results. He has reached out to the Muslim world, scrapped the plans for a missile defence shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, attempts to talk to countries such as Burma and Iran rather than to isolate them and on Saturday he announced that homosexuals will no longer be banned from the armed forces. All this may seem promising, but I agree with Claes Arvidsson who in Svenska Dagbladet on Saturday commented that it now seems possible to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in advance. It would have been better to wait and see if Obama achieves and, not least, if he continues along the lines now expected.
If not it will be rather an embarrassment if the USA lead by a Nobel Peace Prize laureate enters into yet another war during his presidency. And it is probably in this connection that the award of the prize to President Obama should be seen. The Nobel Committee has earlier attempted to use it in a pro-active way, most successfully when the Peace Prize was given to Carlos Belo and José Ramos-Horta, a choice which is held to have helped speed up the process of East Timor’s independence. Now it may seem the Committee tries to bind Obama to the mast and use the Peace Prize to put pressure on him to continue his more peaceful approach to world politics.
But it is not certain that this will succeed and indeed it is not even certain that the Peace Prize will be an asset for Obama as President of the USA. As David Ignatius of the Washington Post pointed out on BBC on Friday, the more Norwegians like an American president, the more trouble he will have at home. In 2011 or 2012 we will be more able to know what Obama achieves. Now the Nobel Peace Prize seems to have been awarded in recognition of a hope that a promising beginning will lead to results.
The Nobel Peace Prize is presented at a ceremony in Oslo’s City Hall on 10 December, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death. This is just before the climate conference in Copenhagen, which it is expected that President Obama will not have the time to attend because the US Congress will vote on his health reform plan around this time. However, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize is such a great honour that it would be strange if the President did not take the time to come to Oslo to receive it. The Nobel lecture will of course also be an excellent opportunity to give a great speech on peace and conflict solution, which Obama the orator can be expected to do better than most other people.
Traditionally the laureate spends at least two days in Oslo (an audience with the King and Queen, the award ceremony, a torchlight procession and a banquet on 10 December and the Nobel Peace Prize Concert on the 11th), followed by a visit to Stockholm, but it seems dubious if the President will have time for all this. If he does come, he will be only the second American President to visit Norway, following Bill Clinton’s state visit in 1999.
He is the third US President, after the arch-rivals Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize during his presidency. Jimmy Carter received it only in 2002, more than two decades after he left office.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

On this date: Countess Ruth of Rosenborg is 85

Today is the 85th birthday of a truly veteran royal lady – Countess Ruth of Rosenborg, who, since she became engaged to the then Prince Flemming of Denmark in 1948 has probably taken part in more royal events than any other living Scandinavian royal.
She was born Ruth Nielsen into a very wealthy Danish family and trained as a translator. She met Prince Flemming when still a young girl, became engaged to him in 1948 and married him in May 1949. King Frederik IX did not give his consent to this marriage between a prince and a commoner and Flemming therefore lost his royal title and succession rights, which he said meant nothing to him compared to Ruth. He asked King Frederik to be created Count of Kronborg, but like other Danish ex-princes he received the title Count of Rosenborg.
Flemming was the son of Prince Axel of Denmark and Princess Margaretha of Sweden, who was the sister of Crown Princess Märtha of Norway and Queen Astrid of the Belgians. This meant that the family had close links to the royal families of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Belgium and Luxembourg. As long as Count Flemming lived they celebrated Christmas with the Norwegian royal family and they were frequent guests at all sorts of royal gatherings throughout Northern Europe.
Countess Ruth has met most of the royals of post-war Europe. She was particularly close to her husband’s grandmother, the fabulous Princess Ingeborg of Sweden. She has clear memories of long-dead monarchs such as George VI and Haakon VII, will never forget the kindness shown her by Crown Princess Märtha and is still able to tell of the day Queen Mary kissed her, pointing to her right cheek saying “I can still feel it”.
Having married into the royal family, Countess Ruth is able to look at it all with a somewhat humorous distance. For her the wedding in a way meant that she married down; Flemming was royal but had no money, whereas her family was very rich. She has said it was quite a shock when she had to run her home and family on what she had been used to spend on clothes in a month. Four children were born of the marriage – Axel, Birger, Carl Johan and Désirée.
Count Flemming and Countess Ruth shared an easy-going informality and a great sense of humour. For many years they lived in Britain or France, but after the Count’s sudden death in June 2002 his widow returned to live in Denmark. She now lives just outside Copenhagen, but some health problems in recent years means that she is no longer seen in public as often as before.

New books: A critical biography of Frederik VI

In the last few years Danish historians have finally begun to write proper biographies of the nation’s former monarchs. A biography of King Frederik VI has long been at the top of my wish list and this autumn my wish came true when Politikens Forlag on 15 September published Den standhaftige tinsoldat – En biografi om Frederik 6. by Jens Engberg, a retired professor of history at the University of Aarhus. Having read it, I have mixed feelings about it.
It cannot be denied that Frederik VI was not exactly the best monarch Denmark has had. It was his misfortune to reign in an age marked by the Napoleonic Wars. His close alliance with France, entered into after the British terror bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807, meant that Denmark in 1814 lost Norway, which it had been united with for 434 years.
There are two schools about Frederik VI. Some historians are very critical of him, others less so. The historian Michael Bregnsbo has argued that Danish historians of today tend to judge Frederik VI based on what Denmark is today (i.e. a small country of no great importance on the world stage) and forget that the Danish realm 200 years ago was what Bregnsbo calls an “empire”, consisting not only of Jutland and the Danish isles like today, but also of Norway, the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein as well as of Iceland, Greenland, the Faeroes and other possessions beyond the seas.
Bregnsbo, and to a lesser extent Ole Feldbæk, has argued that in this perspective an alliance with France made more sense, as no-one but Napoléon could guarantee the possession of Norway and that a rupture with France would most likely have lead to an invasion of the Duchies, which would have caused famine in Denmark and Norway. Jens Engberg does not share this view. By having written this biography Engberg establishes himself as the leading critic of Frederik VI.
Frederik VI did not have an easy start in life. His father, Christian VII, was insane and his mother, Queen Caroline Mathilde, carried on a relationship with the royal physician Johann Friedrich Struensee, who thereby became the actual ruler of the Danish realm. Struensee also made sure that the Crown Prince was brought up according to Rousseau’s ideals, something which apparently did permanent harm to the child’s character. When Frederik was four years old Struensee was toppled by a coup lead by the insane King’s stepmother, Dowager Queen Juliane Marie, and his half-brother, Hereditary Prince Frederik. Struensee was brutally executed and Caroline Mathilde exiled to Hanover, where she died three years later.
This left Frederik in reality without neither father nor mother. Juliane Marie and her supporters not only ruled Denmark, but also took care of the upbringing of the Crown Prince, who they probably would have been happy to be rid of as that would have opened the way to the throne for Juliane Marie’s son. The early years of Frederik’s life is well dealt with in this biography.
The first great watershed came in 1784, when Frederik, supported by the leading opponents of the Queen Dowager’s rule, carried out a coup d’etat by making his insane father sign a document saying that in future all documents signed by the absolute monarch would be invalid unless counter-signed by the Crown Prince. This made Frederik the actual ruler of Denmark at the age of only 16. The death of Christian VII occurred only in 1808, but changed nothing but Frederik’s title. As Crown Prince and King he was the absolute ruler of Denmark from 1784 to his own death in 1839 – Engberg prefers to call him “dictator” and does not abstain from comparing him to “his colleague as dictator, Adolf Hitler”. The latter is of course way off the mark.
For the first years of his 55-year rule, Frederik was wisely guided by Foreign Minister Andreas Peter Bernstorff. Things changed when Bernstorff died in 1797 and Frederik decided to gather all the reins of state in his own hands, something he was obviously not very capable for. Denmark was an absolute monarchy and Frederik would not tolerate opposition, something which is remembered by a catch-phrase summing up a royal resolution of his later years: “Only we know” – “we” of course being the Royal We.
While Bernstorff had manoeuvred Denmark through troubled waters as a neutral state, Frederik chose a foreign policy which Engberg describes as offensive and activist and which led to disasters en masse. Three disasters in particular clouded the years of Frederik’s rule: the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, the second British attack on Copenhagen in 1807 and the loss of Norway in 1814.
During these critical years Frederik put himself at the helm of the armed forces, another task he was clearly not competent for. When things went wrong he blamed others rather than himself and Engberg scolds him for fleeing Copenhagen just before the British attack in 1807. In the critical years between 1808 and 1813 the King suspended the Council of State altogether and when he did rely on others he tended to choose incompetent people such as his friend and later father-in-law, Prince Carl of Hesse, who was useless as a military commander, yet held the position of commanding general in Norway for years.
Some historians have suggested that Napoléon’s disastrous retreat from Moscow in 1812 might have been an advantageous occasion for Frederik VI to switch sides in the Napoleonic Wars without risking a French invasion. His cousin and heir, Prince Christian Frederik, was among those who begged him to do so, but the King refused to budge.
When Crown Prince Carl Johan of Sweden invaded Holstein in 1813 he placed the knife against Denmark’s throat and by the Treaty of Kiel of 14 January 1814, Frederik VI ceded Norway to the King of Sweden. It could have been interesting if the biographer had spent some time considering the attempts made by Frederik VI at stimulating the Norwegian people’s loyalty to the King and helping them by sending grain to the starving population. The late Knut Mykland, the doyen of Norwegian historians of 1814, saw these shipments in relation to what he thought may have been the King’s secret support for Prince Christian Frederik’s rebellion, but Engberg does not address this exact question.
But he does reach the conclusion that it is reasonable to believe that the King indeed did support his heir’s rebellion, although he could not make it clear and had to distance himself from it publicly in order not to bring further disasters upon Denmark. The rebellion lead by Christian Frederik brought him to the throne of Norway in May 1814, opening up a possibility for a future reunification of Denmark and Norway. But a few months later Christian Frederik had to abdicate and Norway entered a personal union with Sweden under King Carl XIII. Jens Engberg launches a new theory that Frederik VI and Christian Frederik, who both dreamt of a unification of all Scandinavia, had intended that this should be achieved by Christian Frederik abdicating on the condition that the old, childless Carl XIII should adopt him as his heir, despatching the adopted Crown Prince Carl Johan to another European throne.
After his return from the Congress of Vienna the remaining years of Frederik VI’s life and reign until his death in 1839 were less eventful. His decision in 1831 to establish consultative general estates for the Kingdom and the Duchies was a small step in a democratic direction, yet it gave the suffrage to a mere 3 % of the population. Engberg also downplays the importance of other reforms carried out under Frederik VI’s rule.
Engberg writes that he King’s most important duty in life was “to retain Denmark-Norway as the absolute monarchy he had inherited from his ancestors. When he died he should pass the realm to the next king of the Oldenburg dynasty, who would be his son”. If so, Frederik VI failed dismally. Not only did he lose Norway, but he also failed to sire an heir, something Engberg explains by degeneration caused by too much intermarriage. Absolutism survived him by only ten years.
Of Frederik VI’s eight children with Queen Marie, two daughters were alone in reaching adulthood. This meant that the throne of Denmark on his death passed to his cousin Prince Christian Frederik (Christian VIII), who Frederik well knew was in fact fathered by not by Hereditary Prince Frederik, but by the courtier Frederik Blücher. Frederik VI tried to ensure his own descendants a future on the Danish throne by marrying his youngest daughter to Christian Frederik’s son (the future Frederik VII) and his eldest daughter to Christian Frederik’s brother. One of the marriages was a disaster, both of them were childless.
Frederik’s private life with both a wife and a publicly recognised mistress is dealt with quite extensively in this biography. Yet we learn more about the mistress than about his relationship with the Queen, who, Engberg seems to think, was superior to the King in many respects. If so, she could well have been given a more prominent place in the book.
What makes the narrative somewhat difficult to follow at times is the fact that the author cannot really agree with himself about whether he should take a chronological or a thematic approach to the story. This means that there are some rather confusing jumps back and forth in time, but also that he will suddenly break the story of for example the dramatic events of 1814 to write a detailed account of the King’s meeting a man with whom he would later make some financial transactions which seem quite unimportant in that context.
The author throughout adopts a somewhat ironic distance to his subject which eventually turns into a rather sarcastic condescension towards the King, who he ridicules both for his failures but also for his looks and character traits. Engberg’s Frederik VI is a useless, incompetent, self-congratulating, ruthless, dim-witted dictator. It has apparently been very hard for the biographer to say anything positive about Frederik VI, and on the rare occasions he manages it, it seems to be through clenched teeth, such as the statement: “Despite his miserable childhood Frederik developed into being in some respects a somewhat decent person”. Jens Engberg’s conclusion is that Frederik VI “was a terrible king who became Denmark’s misfortune”.