Philip and Sadruddin: Two extraordinary visionaries

For many in Switzerland concerned with sustainable development, the environment and the conservation of wildlife, two particular individuals are often mentioned: Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. Both are no longer with us, and yet each has left a legacy that has affected – and will continue to affect – past and future generations across the planet. Diana Miserez explores the exceptional influences of these two unusual men, both of whom emphasized the importance of working with young people as the key to the future.

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The late Prince Philip chatting with young people engaged with the Duke of Edinburgh Awards. (Photo: Royal UK)

PERSONAL VIEW

BUCKINGHAM PALACE, 27th January, 2017

Dear Ms.Willday,

The Duke of Edinburgh has asked me to write and thank you for sending a copy of the book, ‘Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan’.

His Royal Highness much appreciated your thought in sending the book, which will be a welcome addition to his library. This letter comes with Prince Philips’s best wishes.

Yours sincerely,

George Hewson 

Assistant Private Secretary to H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh

Sadruddin Aga Khan knew me from the 1960s as Diana Willday, though how Buckingham Palace got hold of my maiden name is a mystery. The letter is indicative of the grace that both Philip had and Sadruddin had in full measure. The two princes who we should look upon as visionaries shared not only the ethics of responding rapidly to mail: they shared a passionate interest in nature, throwing considerable energy into environmental issues, and in people.

Prince Philip was a co-founder and first President of WWF-UK, serving for 20 years from its foundation in 1961, then becoming President of WWF-International for years, sometimes visiting its headquarters, first in Morges but later Gland close to the shores of Lake Geneva. Sadruddin Aga Khan was a long-standing trustee and Vice-President of WWF International, creating his own foundation to address environmental issues. (See Global Geneva review of Diana Miserez’s 2017 book on Sadruddin Aga Khan)

Both men were still young when in major speeches they expounded the vital importance of the natural world in all its diversity. They were by far the first people of note to state that the well-being of humanity depended to a large extent on the well-being of all the planet’s wildlife, warning that if we did not acknowledge the vital importance of the world’s complex life support system and bring about substantial changes in our use of earth’s resources, mankind’s future inevitably had limits.   

These two distinguished individuals, while born twelve years apart, had much in common.  Each became a refugee early on in life. Prince Philip’s father, Prince Andrew of Greece, placed under a sudden banishment order, escaped with his family on a British warship, embarking baby Philip in the kind of crate normally used for oranges.  The young prince henceforth had a childhood that was anything but normal. His family broke up by the time he was nine, virtually forcing him to live the life of a homeless orphan – in France, Germany and England.

Eventually, however, he settled down happily at Gordonstoun School in the north of Scotland, where he excelled at every challenge and became captain of hockey and cricket, and head boy. Prince Sadruddin, at school near Paris, suddenly found himself at the age of seven whisked away to the Swiss alps. His father, Aga Khan III, knowing he was blacklisted by the Nazis and deeply shocked by the lightning German invasion of France, escaped with his wife and little boy to Gstaad.

There in the Bernese Oberland, young Sadruddin had to face schooling in an initially incomprehensible language, notably Schwyzerdütsch or Swiss German. By this time, while he was ten years short of the age at which he would enter Harvard University, Prince Philip had already undergone officer training at the Britannia Royal Navel College in Dartmouth, where in 1939 he met 13-year-old Princess Elizabeth, taken to visit the college with her parents and sister.

In 1940, with Germany’s invincibility becoming increasingly apparent, Prince Philip was at sea in the battleship HMS Ramillies that was in the Indian Ocean carrying troops from Australia to Egypt. At the end of 1940, as young Sadruddin grappled with his particular challenges, Philip was appointed to the battleship HMS Valiant in the Mediterranean, that soon saw action off North Africa and victory over the Italian Fleet at Cape Matapan. The prince was mentioned in dispatches.

Alp Action, Prince Sadruddin’s environmental foundation to help preserve the culture, environment and wildlife of mountain regions.

Philip and Sadruddin: recognising the importance of caring for the planet

It is certainly not fanciful to align Prince Philip’s impressive approach to questions of supreme importance for the world with that of the late Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan. While intensely serious about the need for human beings to realize the vital importance of caring for all other life on the planet, each looked to the younger generations to make the world a better place.

The brilliant programme designed by Prince Philip that would transform millions of young lives, known worldwide as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, was launched sixty-five years ago in 1956. There are three possible awards: Bronze, Silver and Gold.  Based on the principles evoked at Gordonstoun School by its founder, educationalist Kurt Hahn, a refugee from Nazi Germany, it has from the beginning been open to young people of all backgrounds, culture and abilities, raising their aspirations while providing character training, personal growth and self-discovery through an extraordinarily wide miscellany of possible activities. 

Its website states: “Generations of young people have had the opportunity to take on the life-changing challenge of a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. Thank you, Your Royal Highness, for the incredible legacy you leave through D of E, empowering young people across the world with the skills, confidence and resilience to make the most of life and make a difference to those around them.”  At least 140 countries have joined in running the “D of E Award” scheme, in some cases giving it a different name while maintaining the same ethos and methodology. 

In the UK, over six million young people have so far participated in the Award. A cousin of mine was a leader for ten years and attended several of the award ceremonies at Buckingham Palace or St. James’s Palace, where Prince Philip presented year by year the individual Gold Award certificates, speaking to the young award winners. My daughter Claudia while briefly at school in England was involved in Bronze Medal activities that included striking camp in wintry conditions in Snowdonia.

For both Prince Philip and Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan engaging with young people is crucial for the future well-being of our planet. (Photo: Independent Youth Hostels)

In between the many years that Prince Sadruddin devoted to United Nations humanitarian work at the highest level (almost 20 to the refugee cause, especially as UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and many intricate missions related to the Middle East and Afghanistan) in speech after speech he gave the priority to the importance in today’s world of young people, their ideas and activities, and their potential to make the world a better place. He was on the board of United World Colleges, and worked a great deal with young people in Geneva’s international schools, frequently inviting some of the students to his home.

These outstanding men had even more in common than their princely births, their outstanding good looks, and their ease in relating to people from all walks of life.  They were both great sportsmen (keen yachtsmen and proficient in countless other outdoor activities), and both had considerable gifts of humour, capable of making everyone around them double up with laughter. They died 13 years apart, each of them leaving an important legacy, but each to be greatly missed. As a member of the public remarked just after Prince Philip died in early April this year, ‘They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.’

Diana Miserez is the author of several books, including Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan: Humanist and Visionary. Her latest book is: Trauma and Uprooting about the psychological damage people have suffered after living through traumatic experiences.

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