Monday, August 16, 2010

A Grand Day for Monarchism

It is official: Sweden is in love. At least with its Crown Princess and with the monarchy.

On June 19th, Crown Princess Victoria married her former gym teacher Daniel Westling, a young man of what would long ago have been called humble origins, hailing from the small town of Ockelbo a few hundred miles north of Stockholm.

The Swedish monarchy seems stronger than ever.

Things might have been quite different. In November 1917, the Crown Princess´s grandfather´s grandfather, Gustaf V, was nervously packing his suitcases and planning to leave the country, not only because the Bolsheviks were taking over next door in Saint Petersburg but also because there were hunger riots all over Sweden and plenty of domestic revolutionary talk.

The Swedish wartime prime minister, Hjalmar Hammarskjold (father of the future UN secretary general) was called "Hungerskjold", because he would not stop food exports to warring Germany in spite of desperate scarcity at home. The Swedish Queen, Victoria, Kaiser Wilhelm´s cousin, lambasted Swedish politicians who refused to join up with their Germanic brethren in WW I. The monarchy was definitely not popular and the entire situation shaky.

King Gustaf eventually unpacked his suitcases. Even though Social Democratic leader Hjalmar Branting in his heart was a republican (in the European sense of the word) and his party program demanded the abolition of the monarchy, Branting preferred a constitutional revolution extending the vote to all Swedish men and women. Establishing the republic was not a priority.

So Gustaf V settled down in his palace and reigned until his death in 1950. Even then the Social Democrats, in power for nearly two decades, were unwilling to do radical constitutional changes. Gustaf VI Adolf, at 68 already past retirement age, took over and, expiring in 1973 at the age of 92, left the throne to the present monarch, Carl XVI Gustaf, a young man of 27.

The young king, at the age of one, in 1947, had lost his father, Gustaf Adolf, in an air crash at Copenhagen airport. His uncle, Count Folke Bernadotte, in 1948 was murdered in Jerusalem by members of the Jewish terrorist Lehi gang, led by Yitzak Shamir, later on Israel´s prime minister.

Efforts have been made to democratize the Swedish monarchy, in tune with the modern world. The King, according to the Constitution, has no political power and does not even formally appoint governments – which is the task of the Speaker of the Swedish Riksdag. The monarch´s role is purely representative, mostly heading trade delegations to foreign lands. On Christmas Day every year, the King addresses Swedish nationals at home and abroad on radio and television.

Born into an equal opportunity monarchy, Victoria as the first-born will inherit the crown, even though she has a younger male sibling, Carl Philip, who would have become Crown Prince under the old order (the Constitution was changed in the late 1970s, after Victoria was born).

The present royal family are the descendants of Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, a social upstart from southern France, who, thanks to the French Revolution, became one of Napoleon´s generals and finally Marshal of France. When Swedish politicians in 1810 offered Bernadotte the Swedish crown, they hoped that with his military experience he would help Sweden regain lost territory, viz Finland, from Czarist Russia. Bernadotte, transformed into Sweden´s King Karl XIV Johan, was no fool. He clearly recalled Napoleon´s disastrous Russian campaign and initiated a long peaceful reign which would become almost emblematically Swedish for the next two hundred years.
The present king´s father-in-law, the Crown Princess´s late grandfather, Walter Sommerlath, emigrated to Brazil in the 1920s and in exile became a member of the German Nazi party on Decmber 1, 1934. (His membership card can be inspected at the German Bundesarchiv in Berlin.) Sommerlath´s daughter Silvia, born in wartime Germany in 1943 when the family had moved back, was one of the German hostesses at the Munich Olympics in 1972, where she met the future Swedish King.

Swedish republicans (not to be confused with the US phenomenon) are facing an uphill task. The Royals are undoubtedly popular. Even Carl XVI Gustaf, whose greatest public relations achievement was to marry his new-found German-Brazilian girl friend Silvia, has over the years, obtuse though he is, gathered public sympathy, particularly in his moving speech after the 2004 Asian tsunami which claimed the lives of some 600 Swedish Thailand visitors. The King said he regretted not being a fairy tale monarch who could restore everything back to normalcy.

Crown Princess Victoria is far from obtuse, in fact extremely articulate – and probably has increased her popularity by marrying her man of the people, Daniel Westling, who now becomes a Prince and a Duke and as the King´s son-in-law and the husband of the future Queen is be addressed as "Your Royal Highness". The wedding ceremony was conducted by the Archbishop of the Swedish Lutheran Church. The Bishop of Stockholm was excluded, probably because she is a Lesbian.

Some pointed questions were raised within the Lutheran Church as to how the Crown Princess should be escorted to the altar. In what almost turned into an "Altargate" crisis, critics asked if it wouldn´t be a practically feudal exercise, if the King handed over his daughter to another male person as a piece of property. Or could it be interpreted as the King in fact handing over his daughter to the People, incarnated in young Daniel Westling, the Prince-to-be?

A few days before the wedding, a very Swedish compromise was worked out: the King would walk his daughter half-way to the altar, then withdraw and follow behind the couple to the altar in the Storkyrka ("Big church") of Stockholm.

So will the monarchy go on for ever and ever? Shortly before the wedding, a young Swedish author, Jens Liljestrand, in the Malmö newspaper Sydsvenska Dagbladet offered a surprising alternative. In an interview taking place, science fiction-wise, a few years into the future, the present Crown Princess has turned into a nearly anonymous Mrs Victoria Westling.

Since her brother and her sister were equally unwilling to take over the throne, Victoria´s abdication immediately after her father´s death gave Swedish politicians the option either to offer the kingdom to another available royal family or finally turn Sweden into a republic. In Liljestrand´s alternative future, Queen Victoria carried on for a few years while the Swedish parliament worked out the transition. After that she retired into "civilian" life. Had she in fact been a closet republican all along? Not at all.

"I did love the idea of monarchy", Victoria Westling says regretfully in Liljestrand´s interview. "The monarchy was a nice concept, and it had been working quite well, at least in Sweden. But in our present type of society, with extreme intimacy and extreme lack of respect, and all the paparazzi around, the monarchy is no longer feasible. As far as I am concerned, the monarchy died with Diana in that car in Paris."