A Grimm fairytale: Anglo-Hanoverian union (1715-1837) and after

The historical links between Germany and Britain - aristocratic, political, industrial - are full of lost possibility. A retrace of their course suggests that one current should still be retrieved, says Christopher Harvie.  

Christopher Harvie
24 July 2012

The Brothers Grimm in Göttingen and Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford "broke through" in 1812 and 1814 with works, the Kinder und Hausmaerchen, and Waverley, or tis Sixty Years Since, which quickly altered the European mind. Subjects of George III, they would live under George IV and William IV, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Hanover. To facilitate this Protestant dynasty’s succession the Scottish parliament ended in 1707.

This is the "unknown" union: that baffling white horse leaping across the royal arms in London’s Crown Court kirk. It ended in 1837 when Victoria was crowned at Westminster, barred from inheriting Hanover by its version of Salic law. It has scarcely ever figured as significant in British, or for that matter German history. The 20th-century’s tragic, technology-driven confrontations have obscured the way in which peaceable cooperation and culture - the Hanover of George I was the country of Leibniz, forerunner of the Enlightenment, and Handel, orchestrator of royal Britain - moulded and civilised both states.

Anglo-American "trophy history" is these days unhelpful. Simon Schama and Niall Ferguson scarcely reinforce the Financial Times’s otherwise powerful critique of the City, and the latter’s flashy Reith lectures seem swiftly to have gone down into silence. Time for the counterfactual to wave its magic wand?

A lost future

The first two Georges were transplanted Germans, not negligible but monoglot and awkward. Initiative passed to Westminster parties and fixers like Sir Robert Walpole; London did well out of plattdeutsch banking families, from Hanse towns strung out along that low coast from the Ems to the Elbe: Hopes, Willinks, Barings, Schroeders. Hanover, linked by free trade to the UK’s empire in the 18th century, came out of the Napoleonic wars as an expanding, largely Protestant, German kingdom. Its conservative constitution vested most power in its privy council, advised by an eighty-five-member Diet. Its effective boss Count Ernst von Münster (1766-1839) figured prominently in the 1815 settlement and ruled on behalf of "our fat friend" George IV until 1830.

Hanover’s military connections were an important part of the British army; its expanded and now-united territories separated the eastern Berlin-centred Prussia from its industrial motor in Westphalia, the Rhine and Ruhr valleys. Its great university at Göttingen (founded by George II in 1737), where the Grimms taught, challenged (like Edinburgh) the privileges of Oxford and Cambridge.

What if Victoria had ruled in Hanover as well as in London? William IV in 1833 enacted a political reform modelled on the British reform act of 1832. Victoria would have kept this, but her high Tory uncle Ernest Augustus - as Duke of Cumberland and Teviotdale a well-known reactionary in the British House of Lords - used his prerogative to repeal it in 1837. His battle with the "Göttingen seven", leading liberal intellectuals, including the Brothers Grimm, whom he expelled, destabilised the German crowned heads before 1848. Though he contrived to prevent a blow-up on his own patch, constitutional wrangling marked the reign of his successor George V (1851-66) and indeed the rest of the kingdom’s life.

But a queen of Hanover backing the Whig-Peelite policies of her early British years would have meant an "Atlanticist" constitutional state west of Berlin, under a minister of the Lord John Russell sort, strengthening the same tendencies in Prussia. Setting Count Bismarck’s gas at a peep? The clever, reactionary, neurotic Junker, a law student at Gottingen, got his way as Prussian minister-president in Berlin after 1862 by (inter alia) threatening King William that he’d jump out of the windows of the Berlin Stadtschloss. Suppose the king had shrugged this off and cooperated with the western queen through steam-power and commerce?

Instead Bismarck and his Westphalian friend Alfred Krupp of Essen used "blood and iron" to sort out Germany in the wars of 1864 and 1866, founding an Anglo-German military-imperial dynasty. Victoria’s son-in-law, the liberal "three-month emperor" Frederick III, sired William II, who after 1888 - like his granny in her Tory dotage - "approached every problem with an open mouth". Old foes like Württemberg and Bavaria survived, but Hanover became a Prussian province, and its kings were exiled. Somewhere in Austria there still mopes a Duke of Cumberland and Teviotdale.

What remains

In 1900 a young Anglo-Irishman sailed his yacht off what had once been the coast of Hanover. He admired the friendliness and energy of the local Frisian people, but wrote about the possible aggression of the Bismarckian empire, planning an invasion attempt on the Norfolk coast. Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands (1903) which John Buchan regarded as the first great political thriller, in fact brought out the tragic ambiguity of both unions: Childers, a British officer in the 1914-18 war, would die in 1923 before a Free State firing squad, fighting for an Irish Republic.

These are sensitive days in Anglo-German relations, even leaving aside economic issues. The queen, popular in a way unimaginable fifteen years ago, has recently unveiled London’s largest war memorial to the 50,000 dead of Bomber Command, in a darker coda to her jubilee. The Germans remember upwards of 300,000 civilians killed in "saturation bombing". A German conservative aristocrat, Frederick Lindemann (Lord Cherwell), Churchill’s scientific adviser - "a man who would make any novelist’s fingers itch", in CP Snow’s words - godfathered the business. British clergy tried to stop it.

Gestures like the dedication of Basil Spence’s new Coventry cathedral in 1962 (1,236 had died in the air-raids there) also commemorated blitzes like Hanover’s. In 1943 George I’s Herrenhausen palace, along with 90% of the town centre, was destroyed; 6,000 citizens died. Reconciliation hatched as by-product an unusual but effective Scottish statesman, the patient Canon Kenyon Wright of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. Scotland has its new parliament in an extraordinary building, designed by Enrico Miralles, from a Catalonia which fascism tried to wipe out. The Land (political region) of Lower Saxony, under a half-Scots minister-president, David McAllister, is rebuilding Herrenhausen.

All the ingenuity of Briton and German is needed to meet the challenge of finance and climate collapse - not least by taming and directing the energy (22,000 million tons of coal equivalent annually) sloshing around the Scottish seas. So tak’ tent o’ the potential of small states to cooperate. The folk of Frisia, Scotland, or finance-ravaged Ireland have the potential to diffuse the shadows of empire. They must succeed, if we are to live happily ever after.

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