Royal Video from 1933 Shows How Lucky Britain Was to Lose Edward VIII. Opening Royal Archives from 1930s and 1940s Won't Damage the Queen's Reputation.
By Mark Almond
“Long to reign over us” sings the national anthem. And its prayers have been answered. Queen Elizabeth II has reigned successfully over this country since 1952 with every indication of many more years to come.
But longevity has its price.
Skeletons can fall out of long-forgotten family cupboards. Yet the irony of the current fuss about the 1933 holiday video showing the royals larking around doing fascist salutes seems to me that its 20 seconds encapsulate how lucky we are to have our current royal family.
What makes the video controversial is the behaviour of the future Edward VIII not his niece. Our Queen and her parents had no truck with the Nazis but her uncle did.
The man who became merely Duke of Windsor in December, 1936, after a brief reign was the black sheep of the royal family. It was his paying court to Hitler in 1937 and keeping in contact with pro-Nazi German royals even after the outbreak of war which casts a shadow over his reputation.
Let’s be fair to Edward VIII. The mass murder of the Holocaust was in the future then. The mass killing on people’s minds was the blood-drenched trenches of World War One. The future Edward VIII was painfully aware of the human cost of that war.
Responding to the plight of unemployed ex-servicemen during the Great Depression, the then Prince of Wales shocked British politicians by declaring, “Something must be done.” He wanted to rescue the ragged veterans from the dole queue. The problem was that the most seductive answer to mass unemployment was offered by Adolf Hitler.
The Nazi leader knew how to play up to foreign leaders who had seen the horror of war, 1914-18. Wasn’t he a frontline veteran, too? Hitler’s success in conquering mass unemployment owed a lot to his massive rearmament. Naïve souls like the ex-Edward VIII were gulled into thinking he wanted peace and prosperity not war and plunder.
The ex-King had several close German relatives who had been toppled from their thrones in 1918 when Germany became a republic. They shared is resentment against democratic politicians and hoped Hitler would reinstate them. But Hitler used ex-royals like Philip of Hesse and the Duke of Coburg to butter up their English cousin.
In 1937, now an ex-king himself, Edward visited Hitler at Berchtesgaden. He had been taken on a tour of the new Germany’s developments. He saw and travelled on the autobahn network and apparently even met some of the forced labour being reformed in concentration camps. The Duke of Windsor wasn’t alone in taking the political equivalent of a guided tour. Another ex-insider now in the political wilderness, Lloyd George, had a similar experience and uttered the same sort of compliments on the Nazis’ ability to put people back to work. But most of all, men like the Duke of Windsor and Lloyd George came away convinced that the Hitler, who knew trench warfare first hand, was as anxious to avoid a re-run of the horrors of war as they were. Probably each hoped that Britain would recognise that they still had great services to offer, particularly when compared with the pedestrian establishment in power in London by then.
Effectively exiled from Britain, the Duke of Windsor was prey to the world of snobs and spivs hoping to cash in on his celebrity and loneliness, but he was also the target of German agents of influence like Hesse anxious to use him as a potential ally inside Britain as appeasement gave way to a resolve to defy Hitler by early 1939. Even after the war broke out, Edward met Hesse in Lisbon in 1940. He was there to sound out the ex-King on what would happen if Britain surrendered.
This was foolish behaviour even if Hesse was a close relative. Even though there is no evidence Edward committed treason, doubts about what he might have let slip to his German cousins lingered as the Allies brought the war to a victorious close. He was known to have expressed strongly anti-Communist views, let slip a few anti-Jewish slurs and so on after his abdication. In 1945 the royal family sent a trusted courtier to Germany to retrieve correspondence from the Hesse family archive. Ironically, it was the Soviet spy, Anthony Blunt, who was a wartime MI5 officer, who was sent on this delicate mission.
The royal household wanted to protect the secrets of the ex-King as fiercely as the Crown Jewels. But whatever Blunt found was no secret from the Kremlin during the Cold War. If there was dynamite in the Hesse papers, surely Blunt’s Soviet masters would have ignited it in an anti-Western propaganda campaign at the height of the Cold War.
In any case, the ex-king’s naïve and irresponsible behaviour was in stark contrast with his brother’s. Whatever the self-centred faults of the Duke of Windsor, George VI and the Queen Mother rose to the challenge of the Blitz magnificently. By rallying the nation they completed the process of creating a genuinely British royal family. The German dynasty which inherited Britain in 1714 finally became thoroughly British. Unlike previous queens, the wife of the future George VI, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyons, wasn’t a foreign princess. The future Queen Mother was apparently more closely related to Macbeth than any German princeling! Prince Philip had been naturalised by his service in the Royal Navy during the war whatever his Greek-German relatives got up to. Nowadays, marrying subjects for the royal family is so normal that it would be a surprise if a future King or Queen married “out”.
It was Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha which had given the royal family an awkward long-winded German surname. In fact, Albert himself was a model liberal reformer who used his influence behind the scenes, for instance, to oppose any blimpish support by Whitehall for the Confederacy during the American Civil War. But with the outbreak of war against cousin Kaiser’s Germany in 1914 put George V on the spot. The adoption of Windsor as the official name of the dynasty in 1917 was part of distancing itself from the legacy of Queen Victoria’s litter of foreign reigning and now deposed grandchildren – and certainly from the ill-omened and executed cousin Nicky of Russia, murdered along with his wife Alexandra of Hesse and their children by Lenin’s Communists.
It was George V’s very wooden public persona which made him such a suitable figurehead for a modern democracy with the Labour Party increasingly challenging for power. He pioneered many of the public relations activities which royals still engage in. Their frequent lack of natural vim when meeting the public ironically fits their role very well: they are royal celebrities but by birth rather than as natural entertainers or skilled sportsmen. Fitting in to their role rather than dominating it requires a dedicated ordinariness in modern democracy. Edward VIII was not willing to subject himself to the demands of the new royal role.
It was one of Winston Churchill’s glaring inconsistencies in the 1930s that he chose to champion keeping Edward VIII on the throne in December, 1936, even though the King was a potential political liability in the looming atmosphere of political crisis abroad. Churchill’s decried political appeasers of Hitler but romanticised the royal one. Churchill’s anachronistic view that hereditary right trumped other considerations when it came to who was Britain’s head of state ignored the role of his great ancestor, the founder of the Churchill dynasty, in pushing James II out because he was politically and religiously unacceptable in 1688 and helping the Hanoverians in in 1714 because the Stuarts with a better claim to the throne by birth couldn’t satisfy the political elite here that they would stick to the newly-entrenched system of Parliamentary government.
Nothing of those sort of machinations is likely to be revealed by any papers or videos from the 1930s. Opening the archives hardly seems likely to damage their standing with the public. Elizabeth II’s long life is a living thread uniting the nation’s history and it has been lived in the limelight. Remember even before her uncle abdicated as King Edward VIII in 1936, she was his heir because the future Duke of Windsor had no children – and never did.
In many ways it was the disappearance of Edward VIII into a sad twilight which paved the way for making the monarchy a truly British institution. From wartime in the 1940s through the end of empire and the birth of the welfare state, the royal family’s standing has prospered despite their courtiers’ obsession with keeping the people at arms’ length.
In recent years even tragedy in the royal family has been treated with more openness. Buckingham Palace learned from the death of Princess Diana and quickly reached out to the British people. The marriage of William and Katherine and the births of their children have strengthened its popularity. Traditionalists cluck about taking the brand down-market, but so far it has worked and dampened the fears for the monarchy’s future which were so evident in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death.
Unlike fly-by-night presidents, the Queen’s long life means that she straddles history and the present. The archives of her personal story are inextricably bound up with national history. Maybe there are fears of the monarch getting drawn into party politics. The recent fuss about Prince Charles’s letters to ministers over issues of his particular concern to him which was brought into the public domain by the Freedom of Information Act requiring their publication even though they were written to the last Labour government. Such recent interventions were inherently controversial and, in my view salutary, because the monarch should be cautious about treading into divisive areas where inherently significant groups of British people will disagree.
But opening up aspects of the Queen’s early years is not going to damage public respect for the monarchy now. It is admittedly awkward to mix the personal and the public, but a hereditary royal family embodies that uncomfortable chemistry. In the end the public role of the monarch takes priority as the Queen herself has suggested by making clear that her coronation oath was a lifelong commitment.
The grainy cine film from summer, 1933, comes from very early in that long life of service. It was a time of looming crisis which could have shattered British society and toppled more than the monarchy. Far from discrediting our Queen, the video from 1933 should reminds us of how many challenges this country has overcome over the last eight decades under the Windsors.
Having performed her role as a constitutional monarch impeccably for longer than most can remember, opening the archives can only reinforce the Queen’s standing. What the horse-play in summer 1933 reveals is how lucky Britain was in those years of crisis that Elizabeth II’s parents, and not her uncle, were in Buckingham Palace during the Blitz.
This is an edited version of an article by CRIOx Director, Mark Almond, from The Sun on Sunday (19th July, 2015).