The visit is a great honor for the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg. Mayor Peter Tschentscher said on the occasion of the announcement that King Charles III. will visit Hamburg on March 31st. The most British city on the continent: how many times have I heard that term? How many times have I thought: Why?
Almost five times as many Britons live in Berlin as in Hamburg. A number of British bank branches have moved to Frankfurt am Main since Brexit, including Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland and Natwest. Munich is known for its English Garden. Nevertheless, it is said again and again that Hamburg is the most Anglophile city in Germany. Or: If it rains in London, then you would open an umbrella in Hamburg.
And in fact you only have to look up to see what connects the two cities: the new construction of the Nikolaikirche, which was destroyed in the fire in 1842, goes back to the plans of the architect George Gilbert Scotts. The traces of the British can also be felt in other ways: the engineer William Lindley created a sewage network for Hamburg, parts of which are still in operation. After the Second World War, the British occupying powers licensed the first newspapers and laid the foundation for Hamburg's status as Germany's media city.
The British history of Hamburg can also be told through trade relations: In the 15th century, merchants of the Hanseatic League settled in an area on the Thames, the "Stalhof". The English merchants' guild "Merchant Adventurers" represented in Hamburg received the first permission after the Reformation to hold services of their non-Lutheran denomination in English.
One consequence of this decision can be seen today in an elegant building on the Zeughausmarkt: the Anglican church. My favorite park, Jenisch Park, may feel so familiar because Scottish landscaper James Godfrey Booth helped design it.
However, nothing seems to have shaped the British image of the Hanseatic city as much as the "British Flair" that has been taking place in Klein Flottbek for more than 30 years, a mixture of trade fair and festival, at which so much supposed Britishness can be experienced, that as a visitor without a Barbour jacket (and accompanying Labrador) I felt underdressed.
In fact, the Hanseatic image of being British seems to be limited to a lifestyle that the former Queen embodied like no other, the British Heritage Style. I've encountered this a few times in my neighborhood, mostly in the form of middle-aged fathers who seem to have a penchant for flat tweed hats.
Yes, but how British are the hamburgers really? They are considered reserved and distinguished; In my view, however, the Hanseatic League is less proficient in some British character traits that can still be experienced today, and patience is one of them. In London everyone waits their turn when boarding a bus, while here a crowd tries to force their way through the door at the same time.
As for politeness, back home, if I accidentally step on someone's foot, both of them often apologize. In Hamburg, I tended to get scolding from my counterpart. And I'll never get used to the directness in this country: if a neighbor asks me whether my toddler would sleep so badly given the way I look? Yes, even North German humor is dry. In my experience, however, the British laugh more at themselves than at others.
Not only England, but every Englishman is an island, the philosopher Novalis once wrote. An insular way of thinking that doesn't seem unfamiliar to me here either, and which a friend summed up with the words: "We are Hamburgers and we don't need anyone else". An attitude that becomes noticeable for me when I am in Wedel for my work as a funeral speaker, for example, which is located on one of the most important S-Bahn lines in the city, but not a few Hamburgers are more likely to be in a different country than in one locate another state.
But there is also another level of relationship: As a funeral speaker, I often heard stories from Hamburgers, including their British ones; I often think of my former neighbor Claus, who was taken prisoner by the British in northern England and from then on dedicated his life to improving Anglo-German relations.
Or the woman who told me how her mother was walking through a burning city in 1943 with a baby in her arms in a hail of bombs. I didn't experience any bitterness from her either when she learned I was British, or when talking to others about that time. That always touches me deeply.
In fact, I'm more likely to see a sparkle in the eyes of people I tell I'm from London. This often seems to be due to memories from their youth. Many people in this city were drawn to Great Britain when they were young, whether after the war, like my mother, or in later years for a school exchange. As is so often the case, the music plays the soundtrack to these memories: there are records by bands in the closet or on their playlists that have made British history.
Then Great Britain separated from the EU, which was also a big issue in Hamburg. The consequences? Serious ones for the economy, but none for cultural exchange. At the recent concert by the London jazz band “Ezra Collective” at the Uebel Club
I myself have been invited to a concert on behalf of the British king in Hamburg next Friday. However, I will not be able to take part in it; I will give a reading in Bonn on the day of his visit. Incidentally, the former federal capital has been closely linked to Oxford in England for 70 years. Hamburg is twinned with Chicago and Prague, but not with any city in Great Britain.
Perhaps the visit of King Charles III. Yes, a good opportunity for Hamburg's mayor to address the subject. A little more genuine connection never hurts.
King Charles will sign the city's Golden Book with Queen Consort Camilla next Friday, visit the Nikolaikirche memorial and the harbor and take part in a celebratory concert.