The 1936 Abdication Crisis – Part 8: Family Ties & Nazi Sympathies

duke and duchess dancing in 1946

The Duke and Duchess at a benefit for disabled veterans in 1946

THE ABDICATION CRISIS – PART EIGHT – FAMILY TIES AND NAZI SYMPATHIES

One of the most persistent stories of Edward and Wallis was that they were a potential disaster for Britain because of alleged sympathies towards Nazi Germany. One of the most published photographs of the couple is of them greeting Adolf Hitler on a visit to Germany in 1937 to view innovations in medium-density housing. But it would be wrong to view this picture in isolation.

It is true that Edward and Wallis met with Hitler during a visit in 1937 – but then so had Edward’s younger brother Prince George, Duke of Kent, along with half the British cabinet! Those photo-ops have not been publicized in quite the same way. It is also arguable that Edward and Wallis’ 1937 visit should not be over-interpreted, since the only eye-witness of Hitler’s private conversation with the Duke reported Edward’s patriotism, rectitude and displeasure at the encounter.

The Windsors on Holiday

To be a Nazi-sympathizer today is generally understood as something morally indefensible. So much so that to apply the label “Nazi-sympathizer” to a person becomes a way of instantly demonizing them and shaming any support or sympathy for them. But what did it mean for a Brit to be soft towards the Nazi administration in Germany in the pre-war period of the 1930s?

On this side of WWII we can only regard Hitler in the light of the holocaust of six million Jews. That is the Nazi horror. With that knowledge it is hard to understand let alone excuse the support others lent him before that horror came to light.

When we consider the Nazi propaganda machine, the denial of employment and rights to the children and grandchildren of Jewish refugees, the dehumanizing rhetoric towards Jews and homosexuals, followed by their compulsory detention, with the advantage of hindsight the significance of these measures is all too clear to us. We readily understand that they were horrific and clear portents of what was to come. “How,” we ask, “could sympathizers have overlooked those atrocities?” But the fact is they did. Not knowing the end of the story makes a difference. I would suggest that tolerance of parallel patterns in our own countries today, illustrates that point powerfully.

In the years before the truth of the Holocaust emerged, Hitler was viewed by many among Britain’s aristocracy largely through the lens of Germany’s phenomenal economic reconstruction. People who admired Roosevelt for the regeneration of the American economy admired Hitler’s Germany for exactly the same reason.

olympiastadion-berlin

Germany’s recovery under Hitler was an economic miracle, admired worldwide.

In addition, many viewed the Nazi regime’s military strength positively as a bulwark against what they considered to be the greater threat of Soviet Communism and its power to promote and support revolutions in the West. The Nazi regime was seen as helpful to Britain and the West for that reason. A number of sources associate both Edward VIII and George VI with that view.

As the War got underway, hostilities reached Britain in the form of the Blitz. Even during this period some senior British figures – including the senior royals – still preferred the idea of an alliance with Germany over and against the idea favoured by PM Winston Churchill of an alliance with America. They felt that to become dependent on American wealth and military power would displace Britain as an imperial power. There was more confidence that an alliance with Germany would better maintain the status quo and “keep it in the family.” However, when Britain’s financial breaking point finally forced a decision PM Churchill played the American card to secure the allies victory.

My interpretation is that Churchill played the American card too late and that he simply had too little to offer to secure Britain a good deal. Seeing defeat coming their way Nazi leaders had also been making deals – both with America and with Argentina. The outcome of the German-American deal was very good for Germany. Through the Marshall Plan a massive investment of American money siphoned into Germany immediately after the war reconstructed the country to become the economic and political power-house of post-war Europe, which it remains to this day. It was good for America, too. Operation Paperclip translated the Nazi intelligence and technology communities’ lock, stock and barrel, making America the technological world leader in armaments and the race to space. Post-war, senior Nazi leaders fell into four categories; the few who suicided (or whose doubles suicided) the few who were show trialled an executed at Nuremberg, the great many who were given new lives in America, some with security clearances higher than the U.S. President, and a number who were provided sanctuary, seclusion and total anonymity in Argentina.

(Absent of a corpse, absent of eyewitnesses of the corpses, with only the Nazi press department’s statement for evidence of Herr & Frau Hitlers’ suicides, Stalin, Eisenhower and the FBI all believed that Adolf and Eva Hitler were in that third group, secreted away in Argentina along with Martin Bormann. From the 1940’s to the 1950’s British Intelligence and the FBI investigated and could not falsify eyewitness claims of their presence post-war in Argentina.)

Clearly deals were struck. Britain may have “won” the war, in the sense that Germany surrendered and Britain remained unconquered. But as the peace played out in the months, years and decades which followed, it became clear that Germany had come out of the war with a better international deals than Britain had. The German-American deal comprising Operation Paperclip and the Marshall Plan left Britain completely out in the cold. The country which supposedly won the war was left to languish, bankrupt, in economic depression and physical devastation, to recover slowly on its own. The recovery was so slow, that when I moved to London in the mid 1980’s I could look out of my window in the Barbican Centre, right next to the City of London, or look out the window of my friend’s flat in the East End and look down on the enormous piles of rubble which lay where the bombs had landed. The whole environment was peppered with left buildings derelict and unoccupied, individual houses with rubble from the Blitzkrieg either side, because in the forty years since the War the country still had not mustered the resources for a proper reconstruction. All of which goes to show that the realpolitik of that infamous war, and the peace which followed it, are far more layered than we often care to remember.

Prior to the outbreak of hostilities there would have been layers of reasons, not given the oxygen of publicity, for not presuming the support of the USA, for staying close to Germany and, if at all possible, avoiding the war. The so-called “appeasers” – including the royal appeasers – have to be understood – if at all – through that lens. More darkly, though, it is undeniable that prior to the War a significant layer of anti-Semitism desensitized many among Britain’s royalty, nobility and upper crust to the Nazi regime’s fascism, its anti-Jewish xenophobia and the terrorisation and detention of Germany’s Jewish population. 

pm chamberlain and hitler

PM Neville Chamberlain visiting with Adolf Hitler in 1938

It is also a matter of fact, both before and during the war, that many among Britain’s nobility, engaged in efforts overt and covert to avert or foreshorten war. This bias was shared by a number of significant royals, including King George V’s three surviving sons. George VI emphatically supported PM Neville Chamberlain’s efforts to forestall the war. The King wanted to do all he could to anchor the “Munich Agreement,” and to try to embarass Hitler into honoring a paper agreement with Chamberlain never to go to War with Britain. For that reason George VI took an unprecedented step by standing PM Chamberlain alongside himself and the Queen on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to wave to the cheering crowds.

The occasion of their celebration on the balcony of Buckingham Palace was Chamberlain’s return from signing the “Munich Agreement” – Britain’s peace-treaty with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. Essentially the Munich Agreement was the agreement of Italy, France and Britain not to oppose Nazi Germany’s annexation of the German-speaking portion of Czechoslovakia, on the understanding that the expansion of Germany’s borders would stop there. That is what the thronging crowd was cheering about. They believed that by allowing the Third Reich a little expansion a world war had just been averted.

Chamberlain and Hitler

Hitler and Chamberlain in Munich in 1938

In reality war had only been delayed – but long enough to enable the British Navy and Air Force to arm and expand in readiness for what was to come. In 1937 and 1938 when both Hitler and Churchill wanted to go to war, Britain was totally unprepared and Chamberlain knew it. It was why, while seeking to delay or avert the war Chamberlain was busy procuring finances to re-arm Britain’s armed forces at a rapid rate, and in particular for war in the air. The two year delay gave Britain the time to develop the Spitfire and to invent Radar. Think for a moment how the war might have played out without those tools in British hands. How would the Battle of Britain have played out without any Spitfires? It was Chamberlain who re-armed Britain for war, and the delay he bought through the Munich agreement was probably quite critical.

Later in the war Hitler blamed Chamberlain for the delay created by the Munich Conference. He believed, probably quite rightly, that in 1937 and 1938 he could have easliy overwhelmed Britain within months. Hitler clearly felt that the Munich Agreement had robbed him of an easy victory. The PM’s arrival home from Munich and his landing at Northolt Airport were marked by his famous speech – “I have in my hand a piece of paper…Peace in our time.” Many at the time hoped that this accord had avoided a second world war – not least His Majesty and the royal family.

chamberlain at buck house

King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and PM Neville Chamberlain, celebrating the Munich Agreeement on the balcony of Buckingham Palace

Again, for context, it is important to understand the John William Friso family factor. Grassroots European citizens conceive of a parochial Europe of independent nations, jostling in friendly or uneasy competition. By contrast Europe’s extended royal family must surely regard their collective territory as something of a familial empire. It’s worth remembering that By 1936 Edward had sported an English surname – Windsor – for less than half his life. He and his brothers grew up bearing their family’s German ancestral surname – Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

It was in 1714 that the British Crown first came to rest on a German head. The head in question belonged to a German Prince, Georg Ludwig, Elector of Hanover. When Georg I died, his body was returned to Germany (Hanover) for burial there. He scarcely spoke a word of English. Queen Victoria was the great, great grand-daughter of Georg Ludwig. Victoria’s mother was born in Germany. Victoria’s husband, and later Prince Consort, Albert was also born in Germany. Indeed, Albert moved to Great Britain only at the age of twenty-one in order to marry the already reigning Queen Victoria. Queen Victoria’s first language was not English. It was German. Furthermore, in order to properly anchor her family’s culture, and avoid any cultural dilution, Victoria introduced a law insisting that any “British” prince or princess must be married to another German.

(This policy was not repealed until 1917 by George V, who was himself married to the German, Mary of Teck. Edward VIII would be the first Saxe-Coburg-Ghota prince permitted to marry a non-German. Which of course he did. George V, his father’s intention was rather that British princes would be permitted to marry princesses who were British.)

Victoria’s cultural safeguard intended to maintain the German hegemony over Britain dating back to 1714, is the reason that Edward would refer to the German language, in which we was fully fluent, as being his “mother tongue”. It is why Edward could say to Lady Diana Mitford, “Every drop of blood in me is German.” Indeed, the Royal Family’s German culture was so unmistakeable that at the time of the First and Second World Wars a great proportion of the British royal family was carefully kept out of the limelight for the duration on account of their pronounced German accents.

Given the great interconnection of the European Royal Family of Friso, and especially the close bonds among the German cousins, it is perfectly understandable that the British division of the German royal family would have found it impossible to countenance the prospect of going to war with Germany once again. It would be a war against their own family.

nicholas ii and george v

Strikingly similar cousins: Tsar Nicholas II of Russia & British King George of the United Kingdom .

In the photograph above we see Nickie and Georgie (as they addressed each other) posing for a photograph together, both proudly sporting their German regimental uniforms only 14 months before the outbreak of the First World War. Alexandra of Hesse, the German wife of Tsar Nicholas was a grand-daughter of Queen Victoria. This meant that both the Tsar and Tsarina were cousins of King George.

Nicholas and George’s respective mothers were sisters. The two were often referred to within the family as “The Twins.” Indeed their physical similarity was so strong that some authorities have suggested they may secretly have shared a parent.

When Russia fell to revolution in 1917, King George V was forced to sign what was in effect the death warrant for the family of his “twin” Tsar Nicholas II.  A year later in 1918 Britain went to war against Germany, pitching King George V against the Kaiser – his own first cousin.

Given that excruciating background, it is not hard to see why those with any royal blood in their veins would have viewed with absolute horror the prospect of more murderous conflict being forced upon the family once again. It is easy to understand why, for the British branch of the German royal family, the attraction of accords with Germany would have been incredibly strong and why, behind the scenes, members of the family became directly invested in numerous efforts towards peace agreements with Germany.

The Ishiguro novel and movie “The Remains of the Day” dramatizes an example of one of these covert negotiations for peace between senior British figures and senior German figures. These negotiations took place in the strict privacy of aristocratic country homes. One aristocratic venue used repeatedly for precisely this purpose in the 1930’s was the home of Queen Mary’s brother. You can’t get much closer to the Crown than that! Do these actions cast the British Royal Family as traitors? That is certainly one view. However, the context suggests at what they must have felt – rightly or wrongly – was in their own and Britain’s best interest. Of course it would be naive to exclude the motive of self-interest. But it would also be short-sighted to miss the possibility that an accord with Germany may have prevented the international devastation of Britain over the decades that were to ensue. I do not mean an accommodation of Hitler, rather a deal with Germany. That distinction came into focus with a possible accident in 1942, more of which in a moment.

clandestine negotiations among the upper crust in the Remains of the Day

Clandestine negotiations by British upper crust in “The Remains of the Day”

As Duke of Windsor, Edward’s insistence on wanting to serve his country, post-abdication, evidences the same sense of patriotism held by his younger brother. And as for King George VI, for all his enthusiasm for the Hitler-Chamberlain peace accord, once he had reluctantly come to terms with Winston Churchill’s commitment to “Total War” and to “Victory,” the King showed his loyalty to Britain through the long, hard years of the War. Certainly, the fact that the King and Queen remained in the war-torn and bombarded capital was something gave courage to the whole nation.

Arguably, the most questionable of the three brothers was the youngest – Prince George, Duke of Kent. His fate gives us a window onto the innerworkings of the Royal Family in the murky backstage of the war. It is commonly known that during WW2 Heinrich Himmler and Rudolf Hess were among a number of key figures involved in secret negotiations with senior figures among the Allies – a cohort which may well have included members of the royal family.

It was against this background of intrigue that Prince George, Duke of Kent was killed in an air crash. He was reportedly on a trip to Iceland to encourage the troops. However, eyewitness accounts claim that the body of the Prince was found handcuffed to a suitcase filled with Swedish Krona notes. The crash site was, intriguingly, a mere three miles from a country house where eyewitnesses had placed Rudolf Hess in the aftermath of his apparent arrest the year before.

To this day, the precise details of the fatal air crash are kept from public knowledge by force of the Official Secrets Act. This enforced secrecy makes it abundantly clear that the Iceland story was no more than a cover. It makes clear that the Prince was on a clandestine mission. And evidently, the purpose of that clandestine mission is expected to be so repugnant or disturbing to the British public nearly 80 years later, that national security laws laws are still employed to keep those details under lock and key. For some reason the British public must not be allowed to know what Prince George was doing. What could that reason possibly be? The prince’s purposes of 80 years ago are kept secret for the “National Security” of twenty-first century Britain. National Security? In 2021? That is surely something to be wondered at. All the politicians of that time are dead, so who is left to be embarassed by whatever Prince George was really up to?

duke of kent crash

The crash site in Scotland 1942

The autopsy of the lonely prisoner at Spandau in 1987 raised questions over whether the solitary inmate, now deceased, was really Hess at all. It re-evoked the rumours, going back to the time of the war itself, that absent of a deal to derail Hitler, and in return for his efforts in negotiation, Hess had been offered protection and replacement. The fact that those rumours began so early and have persisted so long is testament to a general awareness of that kind of covert negotiation, lurking underneath the official narratives of WWII.

Prince George’s involvement in a covert operation unambiguously identifies him as an ambassador-negotiator. There would be no reason whatsoever to send the Prince, other than to anchor a negotiation. However the intent to broker a deal – most probably in collaboration with – and possibly in company with – Rudolf Hess should not be confused with support by the British Royal Family for the Holocaust or for Hitler. The deal was almost certainly an arrangement of means and terms by which the war could be foreshortened.

So let us consider the terms of the deal being offered? What possible role could the British Royal Family offer to play in such a deal? Constitutionally? There is really only one device the royal family could offer. Let me suggest the logic of the situation. We know that Winston Churchill’s commitment to total war and victory put him in diametric opposition to King George VI’s commitment to Chamberlain and to brokering peace with Germany from the very outset of the War. I think we can also be confident that there could never be a pact between Churchill and Adolf Hitler. Any deal to foreshorten the war and negotiate a treaty would therefore require that German powers usurp Adolf Hitler’s leadership and/or that King George VI, on the British side, would prorogue parliament, replacing Winston Churchill’s coalition War Cabinet with an Emergency Powers Committee to prosecute the war.

The action to prorogue parliament and reconstruct a War Cabinet on the legal basis of an Emergency Powers Committee would have been perfectly constitutional. And it would have been an easy sell, given the intensifying conditions of war for a capital under blitzkrieg, and given all the physical impediments the situation was bringing to the convening of parliament. It was the only card the King had to play in this game of politics. Such a royal action would neatly and constitutionally manoeuvre PM Winston Churchill to one side and clear the way for fresh peace negotiations. We now know that King George’s personal warmth to such a device was named in advice sent at the time to Adolf Hitler by his sometime Russian adviser Alfred Rosenberg. Although it is possible that alternative avenues may have been envisaged, I cannot conceive of any other legal device a member of the British Royal Family could possibly have to offer in such a negotiation.

george of kent

HRH George, Duke of Kent

The very fact that the details of the Duke of Kent’s clandestine mission remain legally suppressed to this day on the basis of “national security” tells us more than enough. Logically, information protected by British official secrecy laws can have nothing to do with making the German side of the equation look better! It can only be a story that would reflect darkly on Britain’s leadership-story. And that dark story revolves around Prince George, Duke of Kent – and by inference his brother King George VI. The royals were offering a deal which would take Britain out of war. If I am correct and the King was offering to surrender Churchill, now ask yourself if that plane crash really was an accident. Is it possible that the accident served a purpose? If so, whose interest did that accident serve? And furthermore who would have the power to authorize such an accident?

Whatever the details of that scenario, pause for a moment and contrast the level of official secrecy protecting the public image of George VI and George, Duke of Kent against the unflattering and open press handling of Edward VIII’s alleged softness towards the Nazi administration. The image of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor deferentially greeting Herr Hitler in October 1937 is one that has been shown and re-shown over decades, ad nauseam. It is an image burned into the public psyche. “How could they?” so say the critics, “go to Germany two years after the anti-Semitic Nuremberg laws of 1935??” This however is a clear double standard. The Duke and Duchess’ visit was made with the British government’s blessing and in full compliance with the government’s request that Edward give no speeches while he was on German soil.

Furthermore, the Duke was not the only royal or senior politician to visit Germany post 1935. Yet have you ever seen an equivalent photograph of Prince George Duke of Kent’s visit in 1937, or heard a question raised about what he was doing there? How many pictures have you seen of (the current Queen’s late husband) The Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip in Nazi German,y in 1937? What was he doing there and, given the roles played by other members of his family, what was his relationship to the regime? Before seeing it on this page, have you ever seen the image of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on the balcony with Chamberlain in 1938, celebrating the treaty that Britain had just made with Nazi Germany, or the embarassing photograph of the British Prime Minister looking up at Adolf Hitler and enthusiastically shaking hands with him? The contrast in the handling of those images is telling. When we isolate Edward VIII’s soft position we totally misunderstand the full extent of what was happening at the time and significantly distort the picture. This is no accident. It is a misdirection.

bahamas

bahamas2

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor in the Bahamas. Later historians suggested that the Duke of Windsor’s disloyalty to Britain and the risks he posed to the allied War effort were the reasons behind George VI’s decisions to exile the couple from Britain and station them in the Bahamas for the duration of the war.

The wartime machinations around the possible sidelining of Churchill, and the death of Prince George in that bizarre “accident” only serve to remind us of Churchill’s utter immovability with regard to opposing Hitler and Nazi Germany. Given that, and in view of Churchill’s strong support for retaining Edward on the throne, I suspect that the claims about Edward and Wallis as the “Nazi-sympathizers” have been carefully exaggerated and highlighted after the event and out of context. This decades’ long rumour has been an effective way of diminishing public goodwill towards the former King and, more importantly, diverting attention away from what might be considerably more embarrassing information closer to home.

Consider for yourself, of all people would Churchill really have wished to stick his neck out politically and, against his own political advantage, advance Edward as monarch if he had regarded Edward for one moment as vulnerable to, let alone as being a covert supporter of the Nazi powers? Not Winston Churchill. I don’t think so.

FILES & CONSPIRACIES

marburg-files

Immediately post-war, Winston Churchill  was privy to the contents of the Marburg Files – which surfaced in 1945. These included covert correspondence between senior Britons and senior Nazis through the course of the war. The files were not made public. As I have illustrated above, wartime politics are rather more layered and contradictory than makes for comfortable reading. Given how secret the diplomacy and how messy the realpolitik of war can be, it is perhaps not surprising that Churchill would decide the contents of the Marburg Files needed to be suppressed.

churchill.jpg

Churchill was also shown intercepted telegrams from the time of the War, when they surfaced in 1953. These telegrams revealed an aspiration among some Nazi conspirators to reinstall Edward as a puppet monarch in the event of Nazi victory. However Churchill regarded this telegram record as unconvincing. Such subterfuges can only raise questions. It is no more than a statement of fact to say that the secrets of our governments and our royals are kept from public knowledge by a great array of legal means. So one simply has to acknowledge that there is a great deal we can not be certain of.

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