In Brenners, Germany’s grandest grand hotel, in Baden-Baden, Germany’s smartest spa town, there’s a corner of a foreign drawing room that is forever England. Above the fireplace hangs a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds of the Honourable Mrs Beresford – a quintessential English Rose in a quintessential German Kaminhalle. At first sight it seems incongruous but in fact it’s rather fitting, for this hotel and this spa town epitomises the close relationship between the British and German upper classes, a relationship only slightly sullied by the awkward happenstance of two world wars.
Brenners has always been a home from home for the British aristocracy: its guest book boasts the signatures of Edward VII, Edward VIII and the late lamented Duke of Edinburgh. The hotel was founded in 1872, a year after Germany became a nation. One hundred and fifty years later, it still feels like a strange hybrid of Germanic Schloss and English Stately Home. Yet this hotel also sums up the contradiction at the heart of that relationship. Britons and Germans have a lot in common – too much in common to be easy bedfellows – and the history of Brenners, and Baden-Baden, bears this out.
The thing that made Baden-Baden so popular with posh Brits was its thermal springs, a big draw for foreign visitors ever since Roman times. Whether this hot smelly mineral water actually does you any good is debatable, but in Victorian times it was touted as a cure-all for virtually every ailment, and so loads of Britons came here to drink the stuff and bathe in it.
Queen Victoria was far too puritanical for these guilty pleasures - she preferred to spend her holidays in strait-laced Coburg, where her beloved German husband, Prince Albert, was born and raised. However her fun-loving son, the Prince of Wales, adored Baden-Baden – the waters didn’t do much to trim his substantial waistline, but the casino helped to lighten his substantial wallet. Where royalty leads the middle classes are bound to follow, and so Baden-Baden became a go-to destination for the more affluent members of the British bourgeoisie. A good many of them ended up living here, and by the time Brenners opened, in 1872, Baden-Baden had a thriving Anglophone community, with its own newspaper and three Anglican churches.
The man who personified this friendly invasion was the Reverend Thomas Archibald Starnes White, vicar of All Saints Church in Baden-Baden from 1871 to 1911. Educated at St Paul’s and Christ Church College, Oxford, he married a German noblewoman who bore him four children, but his biggest contribution to Anglo-German relations was introducing British sports to Germany. During his forty-year ministry in Baden-Baden, Reverend White and his British parishioners schooled local Germans in the delights of rugby, cricket, tennis and football. Rugby and cricket didn’t take off, but tennis and football flourished. This athletic cleric became the founding president of the Southwest German Football Union, and Baden-Baden’s inaugural lawn tennis club. Who knows? If it hadn’t been for him, we might never have heard of Steffi Graf or Boris Becker, and England might have ended up winning four World Cups to Germany’s one, rather than the other way around.
Thankfully, Reverend White didn’t live to see the outbreak of the First World War, which would have surely left him heartbroken. He died here in Baden-Baden in 1911, at the age of 68 (he’s buried in the local cemetery – members of the local tennis club still tend his grave). The ensuing carnage of the trenches transformed the Anglo-German relationship forever, and those romantic tales of sporty Britons teaching earnest Germans the rudiments of association football now read like relics of a lost age. Between the wars some British tourists returned to Baden-Baden, but it could never be the same. Britain had been victorious, Germany had been vanquished, and too much blood had been spilt, on both sides, to simply forget the past.
Baden-Baden is situated in a leafy valley on the edge of the Black Forest, and so during the Third Reich it became a popular location for the hale and hearty outdoor pursuits of the Nazi leisure organisation, Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy) and the Hitler Youth. Naturally, these jolly hikes and camping trips concealed an altogether darker purpose. Scattered around Baden-Baden today are some 200 Stolpersteine or Stumbling Stones - little brass plaques the size of cobblestones, embedded in the pavements outside the homes of local 'untermenschen' (predominantly Jews, but also various political undesirables, even Social Democrats) who were sent to concentration camps.
Unlike the vast majority of German conurbations, Baden-Baden came through the Second World War virtually unscathed. After the war it became the headquarters of the French occupying forces, who’d been granted jurisdiction over south-west Germany. Britain occupied the industrial north-west and the Americans occupied the more rural, scenic south-east – as the old saying went, the Americans got the scenery, the French got the vineyards, and the British got the ruins. By 1949, when West Germany was reconstituted as an independent country, the French had supplanted the Brits as Baden-Baden’s natural neighbours. Geography trumped sentiment, as it always does eventually – the French border is only a few miles away.
This seismic shift was encapsulated in 1962, when Charles de Gaulle came to Baden-Baden to meet Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s first Chancellor, at Brenners. ‘President De Gaulle and Dr Adenauer urge speed-up of European Union,’ reported Britain’s Pathé News. De Gaulle and Adenauer also formed a close personal friendship. Was this the moment when the Franco-German relationship eclipsed the Anglo-German one, establishing a conception of European Union which Britain could never feel fully part of? Certainly, from then on, the British were always playing catch-up with the Franco-German juggernaut, and as recent history has confirmed, we never quite caught up again.
I first came to Baden-Baden 20 years ago, following in the footsteps of my German father, who’d come here as a child. My father’s visits in the 1950s with his German mother and his British stepfather, represented a different chapter in Baden-Baden’s long Anglo-German history. My father had been born in Dresden during the war, while his father, my grandfather, was away fighting for the Wehrmacht.
On my first visit to Baden-Baden, in 2002, the town still looked just as beautiful as it did in my grandmother’s old sepia snapshots, and I fell in love with Brenners, a timeless enclave where the vicissitudes of the last century feel like nothing more than the vague memories of a bad dream. Staying here, in secluded splendour, shielded from the realities of the outside world, you can almost wish away the worst of Germany’s self-inflicted calamities – almost, but not quite. The long shadows of German history are omnipotent, even here, and that’s just how it ought to be. The modern Bundesrepublik owes its moral authority to its constant remembrance of the past.
Since that first visit, I’ve been back here half a dozen times, and while the rest of Germany is now very different – brasher, busier, more cosmopolitan, less Teutonic – this sedate spa-town has hardly changed. I reckon Reverend White and his Victorian parishioners would still feel quite at home here. Even though his Anglican church is now Lutheran, his tennis club lives on. In 2006, Brenners hosted the latest incarnation of the British aristocracy, when the so-called Wags (wives and girlfriends) of the England football team stayed here, amid much tabloid kerfuffle, while Germany hosted the World Cup. Recent additions to Brenners’ guest list include Simon Rattle, Cliff Richard and Glenda Jackson (who described her stay here as ‘the best holiday I’ve ever had’).
Today Anglo-German relations are no longer hobbled by crude recollections of the Second World War, and even the clumsy stereotypes about Germans hogging sunloungers have largely abated. Growing up in Britain as a closet Kraut in the 1970s, it was routine to hear Britons dismiss all Germans as arrogant and humourless without fear of contradiction. If such prejudices survive, they’re a faint echo of what they once were. And yet it’s surely wishful thinking to believe that relations can ever return to the halcyon days of the 19th century, when British and German aristocrats regarded each other as virtual kinsmen (my German ancestors travelled to Britain to buy English thoroughbreds and returned home with English brides).
By 1888, the British and German royal families seemed inexorably intertwined. Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter was married to Kaiser Friedrich III of Germany, their son Wilhelm was the heir apparent. Of all the what-ifs of Anglo-German history, it’s Kaiser Friedrich’s premature death that I always think about whenever I return to Baden-Baden, and the ornate bathhouse that bears his name. A liberal, enlightened monarch, who planned to reform the German parliament along British lines, he was already mortally ill with throat cancer when he ascended to the throne in 1888, and ruled for just 99 days before he died, aged just 56 - to be succeeded by his volatile son Wilhelm II, Queen Victoria’s grandson, who led Germany down the road to ruin.
Friedrich’s father, Kaiser Wilhelm I, had lived to the grand old age of 90. If Friedrich had lived as long, he would have reigned until 1921 – and if he hadn’t been a heavy smoker, he might well have done. Just think: if Queen Victoria’s son-in-law had never smoked, Britain and Germany might never have gone to war. Sitting here in Brenners, beneath Reynolds’ portrait of Mrs Beresford, tucking into a big slice of Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (Black Forest gateau to you and me), it’s sobering to think that the course of Anglo-German history may have turned on such a random twist of fate.