Silvia Sommerlath (1943—)

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Silvia Sommerlath (1943—)

Queen of Sweden. Name variations: Queen Silvia. Born Silvia Renate Sommerlath on December 23, 1943, in Heidelberg, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany; daughter of Alice Soares de Toledo and Walter Sommerlath; graduated from the Munich School of Interpreting, 1969; married Carl XVI Gustavus, also known as Charles XVI Gustavus (1946–1973), king of Sweden (r. 1973—), on June 19, 1976, at Storkyrkan Cathedral, Stockholm; children: Victoria (b. 1977); Carl Philip (b. 1979); Madeleine (b. 1982).

Silvia Renate Sommerlath was born the only daughter of Alice Soares de Toledo and Walter Sommerlath, a German industrialist, at the height of World War II on December 23, 1943. Her Brazilian mother had fled to Heidelberg, Germany, to escape Allied bombings in Berlin, and the family stayed there until the end of the war. With Germany in ruins, Walter realized that his best hope for prosperity lay in Brazil, where a job awaited him as branch manager for a Swedish firm. Two years passed before Allied authorities granted him permission to leave Germany. When they did, the Sommerlaths moved into a large pink and white villa in Brazil. Rather than becoming swept up in the splendor of their surroundings, however, the Sommerlaths raised their children modestly. Four-year-old Silvia attended a strict private school supplemented by home-based instruction in languages and sewing. Her father demanded absolute obedience and forbade her to play with boys. She also seldom saw her female friends.

Silvia's restricted lifestyle continued with the Sommerlath family's return to Heidelberg in 1957. She struggled with the German language, although she was fluent in Portuguese, Spanish, and English. Her new, exclusive private school was attended only by children of the upper class and was surrounded by walls that were 13 feet high. Silvia remained there for eight months until the family moved again, this time to Düsseldorf, where she attended Luisenschule, another extremely conservative school. Her harsh upbringing, in comparison to those of her classmates, began to make her feel like an outcast. Her mother would not allow her to venture out socially unless one of her brothers chaperoned.

After she passed her final exams at Luisenschule, Silvia enrolled in an interpreters' school founded by Professor Paul Schmit, the man who had translated the words of German dictator Adolf Hitler into several languages. Silvia studied under Schmit for four years and then found a

$300-a-month position with the Argentinean Embassy. This was followed by a position as an interpreter for a Spanish firm at international conventions. In 1972, she was chosen as chief hostess of the Munich Olympics, surpassing 1,500 other candidates for the honor. It was there, on March 16, 1972, that she met His Royal Highness Prince Carl Gustav of Sweden (Carl XVI Gustavus).

The young prince had lost his invitation to a reception hosted by the president of the German Olympic Committee. Upon hearing that the prince had been denied admission by the head usher, the president of the committee asked Silvia to serve as Carl Gustav's official escort for the evening. Although Silvia was romantically involved with a 36-year-old financial consultant at the time, a second meeting between the couple occurred a year later at a party, and their courtship began. Silvia was 32 when her engagement to Carl Gustav, now king, was officially announced in March 1976. The couple married on June 19, 1976, at the Storkyrkan Cathedral—making Silvia the 25th queen of Sweden. It was the first royal wedding in Sweden since Gustavus IV Adolphus' marriage to Frederica Dorothea of Baden in 1797. The wedding was widely attended, although the union was slighted by Elizabeth II of England, who sent only the duke and duchess of Gloucester as her representatives. More than five million people watched the nuptials on television.

Silvia proved to be a capable manager, increasing efficiency and working behind the scenes to prepare the royal residence for state events. Despite the king's vast personal fortune and an annual stipend of approximately $2 million, the couple chose not to live as opulently as other European royalty. Silvia introduced new economy measures to the castle to ensure that nothing would be wasted, and likewise disposed of excess ceremony attached to her station, such as curtsying at court.

The new casual style of the Swedish monarchy perfectly suited Silvia, who still enjoyed department store sales and was frequently seen cycling with her children, wearing sweatpants and sporting a ponytail. While keeping up with world events, Silvia filled her days with visits to hospitals and foster homes, and with delegations of her constituents. A believer in gender equality, she encouraged her husband to support legislation to change the laws of monarchical succession from the first son to the first child, making her daughter, Princess Victoria , heir to the Swedish throne. Parliament adopted the measure in 1979.

Silvia used her position as representative of Sweden to advocate on behalf of children. The challenges facing disabled and disadvantaged youngsters became her special cause, and she devoted much energy to supporting research on children and handicaps through the Royal Wedding Fund and Queen Silvia's Jubilee Fund. Her efforts garnered her the "Deutsche Kulturpreis" in 1990. At the international level, Silvia took part in the First World Congress against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, held in Stockholm in 1996. As the 20th century came to a close, she established the World Childhood Foundation, dedicated to improving the quality of life of the world's children. Other causes that benefited from her dedication included the Mentor Foundation, active in the fight against drug abuse, and the Silvia Home in Drottningholm, instrumental in the training of personnel in the treatment of the insane. During the 1990s, she received honorary degrees from Åbo University in Finland, the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, the University of Linköping and Göteborg University, as well as the Chancellor's Medal from the University of Massachusetts.


Boulay, Laure, and Françoise Jaudel. There are Still Kings: The Ten Royal Families of Europe. NY: Clarkson Potter, 1981.

Howard Gofstein , freelance writer, Detroit, Michigan

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Silvia Sommerlath (1943—)

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