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.
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.
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.”
When Britain’s financial breaking point finally forced a decision PM Churchill played the American card to secure the allies victory. Ironically in US Operation Paperclip, America gave sanctuary and above top secret security clearances to the senior technicians and scientists of the Nazi regime – absent of those condemned at Nuremeberg. Simultaneously, America’s Marshall Plan for the economic reconstruction of Germany post-war, left Great Britain to languish, bankrupt, in economic depression and physical devastation, to recover slowly on its own. Indeed when I moved to London in the 1980’s there were still areas of rubble from the Blitzkrieg where prime real estate used to stand in central London. More than four decades after the end of the war, the country was still recovering from its physical aftermath.
Seen against the American-financed high-tech recovery of Germany, it seems clear in retrospect that if Britain had played its American card to escape obliteration by the war, Germany certainly had, and done so shrewdly enough to make it the economic and political power-house of post-war Europe, and to make America the technological world leader in armaments and the race to space. All this goes to show that the realpolitik of that infamous war 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 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 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 policy of appeasement. Wanting to do all he could to anchor a treaty with Hitler, George VI took an unprecedented step by standing PM Chamberlain alongside the King and 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. That is what the thronging crowd was cheering about. 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” – a speech in which the PM championed the “great news” of Britain’s accord with Adolf Hitler.
King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and PM Neville Chamberlain, celebrating Britain’s infamous peace accord with Nazi Germany, waving together from Buckingham Palace
Again, for context, we must factor in the John William Friso family connection. Grassroots European citizens would 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. Edward once told Lady Diana Mitford, “Every drop of blood in me is German.“
The Royal Family’s German culture was so obvious that there were members of the British royal family who were carefully kept out of the limelight on account of their pronounced German accents. Indeed German culture was so prominent in the life of the royal family that Edward often referred to the German language, in which we was fully fluent, as his “mother tongue”.
So it is perfectly understandable that the royals could only have hoped against hope that their family empire would not go to war with itself once again.
Strikingly similar cousins: Russian Tsar Nicholas II & British King George V, both proudly sporting their German regimental uniforms . Here they pose together only 14 months before the outbreak of WWI. (Their physical similarity was so strong that a few authorities have suggested they may have shared a parent.)
Only twenty years previously, when Russia fell to revolution in 1917, King George V had been forced to sign what was in effect the death warrants for the family of his doppelganger cousin Tsar Nicholas II. A year later in 1918 Britain went to war against Germany, pitching King George V against the Kaiser – who was George V’s first cousin. So 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 royals, the attraction of accords with Germany would have been so strong and why, behind the scenes, members of the family became directly invested in efforts towards peace agreements.
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 for precisely this purpose in the 1930’s was the home of Queen Mary’s brother. Some writers, scandalized by these conversations, have sought to present the British Royal Family as traitors. However, to shine a light on the royals’ bias towards peace, treaties and accords does not necessarily negate the royal family’s patriotism towards Britain. The context speaks to what they may have felt – rightly or wrongly – was in their own and Britain’s best interest.
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 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 come to terms with Winston Churchill’s commitment to total war and to “victory,” the King proved his loyalty to Britain through the long, hard years of the War. I don’t think that anyone could deny that the King and Queen’s remaining in the war-torn and bombarded capital gave courage to the whole nation.
Perhaps the most questionable of the three brothers was the youngest – Prince George, Duke of Kent. 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.
Against this background of intrigue 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.
The precise details of the fatal air crash to this day 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. 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 75 years later that state powers are still employed to keep those details under lock and key. Apparently the British public must not know what Prince George was doing. His purposes of 75 years ago are kept secret for the “national security” of twenty-first century Britain. Now that is something to be wondered at.
The crash site in Scotland 1942
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 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 what was the deal being offered? What possible role could the royal family offer to play in such a deal? Constitutionally?
We know that Winston Churchill’s commitment to total war and victory set him at odds with King George VI’s commitment to Chamberlain and to peace with Germany from the very outset of the War. And I think we can 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 either that German powers usurp Adolf Hitler’s leadership or that King George VI, on the British side, would prorogue parliament, and replace Winston Churchill’s 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 an easy sell, given the intensifying conditions of war for a capital under blitzkrieg, and with all the physical impediments the situation was bringing to the convening of parliament. 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 to Adolf Hitler by his sometime Russian adviser Alfred Rosenberg.
It is possible that alternative avenues may have been envisaged. However it is difficult to conceive of what other credible device a member of the British royal family could possibly have to offer in such a negotiation.
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 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.
Whatever the true details of that scenario, just contrast the level of official secrecy protecting the public image of George VI and George, Duke of Kent with 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 1937 is one that has been shown and re-shown over decades, to make it familiar to the public. But have you ever seen an equivalent picture of Prince George Duke of Kent’s visit in 1937? How many pictures have you seen of (the current Queen’s husband) The Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip in Nazi Germany in 1937? Or, 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 Britain’s peace-treaty with Nazi Germany?
The contrast in the handling of those images is telling.
So, to isolate Edward VIII’s soft position is really to misunderstand the full extent of what was happening at the time and significantly distorts the picture. These machinations around the possible sidelining of Churchill only remind us of Churchill’s immovability with regard to opposing Hitler and Nazi Germany. Given that implacability, and in view of Winston 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 studiedly exaggerated after the event, and highlighted out of context, as a way of diminishing public goodwill towards the former King, thus diverting attention away from what might be considerably more embarrassing truths 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? I don’t think so.
FILES & CONSPIRACIES
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 far more layered and contradictory than makes for comfortable reading. Suffice it to say that, given how secret the diplomacy and how messy the realpolitik of war can be, it is not in the least surprising that Churchill would decide the contents of the Marburg Files needed to be suppressed.
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.