The great times they could have had

Paul Foot

  • Wallis: Secret Lives of the Duchess of Windsor by Charles Higham
    Sidgwick, 419 pp, £17.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 283 99627 7
  • The Secret File of the Duke of Windsor by Michael Bloch
    Bantam, 326 pp, £14.95, August 1988, ISBN 0 593 01667 X

A great many books and articles have been published recently about the possibility that a former head of MI5 was the agent of a foreign power. Could there be anything more horrible, more unthinkable? Well, yes, according to Charles Higham’s extraordinary biography, there could. He suggests that not long ago the most dangerous agent of a foreign power was the King; and the second most dangerous was the King’s lover. Both were sympathetic to, and possibly active agents for, Mussolini and Hitler at a time when the British Government was about to declare war on Italy and Germany.

Mr Higham’s book has been greeted with a tremendous shout of fury. ‘Universally slated’ was how Sidgwick and Jackson described its reception to me. It has been passed over for serialisation. Film rights, once assured, are now in jeopardy. Writing in the Spectator, Frances Donaldson, modestly omitting to refer to her own worthy, if rather pedestrian biography of Edward VIII, could not contain her indignation. ‘Nor am I alone in thinking it rather shocking,’ she boomed, ‘that Mr Higham was able to find a reputable British publisher for his book.’

Lady Donaldson doesn’t believe for a moment that either the Duke or Duchess of Windsor were even pro-Nazi. She follows in a long line of biographers, historians and journalists who concede, since it is plainly on the record, that the Duke and Duchess were both opposed to war with Germany, but who dismiss the idea that they were sympathetic to Fascism as a ‘mistaken notion’ (Brian Inglis’s conclusion in his 1966 account, Abdication). Lady Donaldson denounces Charles Higham for retailing tittle-tattle, and concludes that if you leave out the gossip and the speculation there is nothing left in his biography which we didn’t know before.

What is the picture so gaudily painted by Mr Higham? Wallis Warfield was born (out of wedlock) into a rich and comfortable middle-class family in Baltimore. She went to high-society schools, where she read Kipling to her boyfriends. She married a young Air Force officer, and became, in her twenties, an important personality in Washington society. Her main male friend outside her collapsing marriage was the Ambassador in Washington of the new Fascist regime in Italy, Prince Gelasio Caetani, an attractive and powerful propagandist for Mussolini. While still friendly with Caetani, Wallis forged even closer bonds with Felipe Espil, First Secretary at the Argentinian Embassy in Washington, an ardent Fascist and a representative of the savage Irigoyen dictatorship in Buenos Aires.

Mr Higham, who has certainly done his homework in the American state files, produces clear evidence that Wallis Spencer, as she then was, was hired as an agent for Naval Intelligence. The purpose of her visit to China in the mid-Twenties, where she accompanied her husband, who also worked for Intelligence, was to carry secret papers between the American Government and the warlords they supported against the Communists. In Peking her consort for a time was Alberto de Zara, Naval Attaché at the Italian Embassy, whose enthusiasm for Mussolini was often expressed in verse. When she moved to Shanghai, she made another close friend in another dashing young Fascist, Count Galeazzo Ciano, later Mussolini’s Foreign Secretary. Wallis’s enthusiasm for the Italian dictatorship was, by this time, the only thing she had in common with her husband, Winfield Spencer. In 1936, ten years after the couple were divorced, Spencer was awarded the Order of the Crown of Italy, one of the highest decorations of the Mussolini regime.

Ernest Simpson, the dull partner in a shipping firm whom Wallis married in 1928, had close business ties with Fascist Italy. But her feeling for Fascism cannot be attributed only to her men friends. On the contrary, the ‘new social order’ brayed around the world by the Italian dictator and his representatives fitted precisely with Wallis’s own upbringing, character and disposition. She was all her life an intensely greedy woman, obsessed with her own property and how she could make more of it. She was a racist through and through: anti-semitic, except when she hoped to benefit from rich Jewish friends; and anti-black (‘Government House with only a coloured staff would put me in my grave,’ she moaned when, many years later, her husband was the Governor of the Bahamas). She was offensive to her servants, and hated the class they came from.

Her Fascist sympathies stayed with her all her life. When she needed a lawyer to start a libel action in 1937, she chose the Parisian Nazi Armand Grégoire. Even when the war was on, she fraternised with the pro-Nazi French businessman, Charles Bedaux. Perhaps her most consistent British confidante and friend was Diana Mosley, Sir Oswald’s wife. As the Windsors and the Mosleys grew old in exile, they took regular solace together, meeting and dining twice a week and musing about the great times they could have had if only the British had seen sense and sided with Hitler and Mussolini against the Reds.

Of all the bonds which united this dreadful woman to the glamorous Prince of Wales in the late-Twenties, none was so strong as their shared politics. Charles Higham’s biography sets out the facts about the Prince’s Fascist leanings and sympathy with the Nazi cause and the corporate state in Italy. The Prince was proud of his German origins, spoke German fluently, and felt an emotional, racial and intellectual solidarity with the Nazi leaders. As early as July 1933, with Hitler only just ensconced as German Chancellor, Robert Bruce-Lockhart records conversations between the Prince and the grandson of the former Kaiser, Prince Louis-Ferdinand: ‘The Prince of Wales was quite pro-Hitler and said it was no business of ours to interfere in Germany’s internal affairs either re Jews or anything else, and added that the dictators are very popular these days, and that we might want one in England before long.’ Not long afterwards the Prince confided in a former Austrian ambassador, Count Mensdorff, who wrote: ‘It is remarkable how he expressed his sympathies for the Nazis ...’

Such sympathies were of course common, at least for a while, in London society, but when others began to waver, the Prince of Wales remained steadfast. He asked the Germans to fix up a special dinner for him at the German Embassy, as a special mark of his solidarity with their government. The Germans, on instructions from Berlin, invited Mrs Simpson, who was then his paramour. The company he kept in London burgeoned with keen young supporters of the Nazi ‘experiment’. Edward (‘Fruity’) Metcalfe, one of his closest friends, and the best man at his wedding to Wallis, appeared in the Tatler dressed up in Fascist regalia at a ‘Blackshirt’ dinner. When the Foreign Secretary Samuel Hoare fixed up a deal with Pierre Laval, the French Foreign Secretary and a Nazi fellow-traveller, to legitimise Mussolini’s conquest of Abyssinia, the Duke also travelled to France. Whatever part he played in the Hoare-Laval Pact, he enthusiastically supported it when it was completed.

In all the innumerable versions of the ‘Greatest Love Story of the Century’ it is assumed that the British Establishment, led by Stanley Baldwin and the Archbishop of Canterbury, could not stomach the idea of a monarch marrying a twice-divorced woman. The objections, it is said, were moral and religious. The truth is, however, that throughout the centuries archbishops and prime ministers have miraculously overcome their moral objections to royal idiosyncrasies in the bedchamber. The real objection to the liaison between the King and Mrs Simpson was that both were Nazi sympathisers at a time when the more far-sighted civil servants, politicians and businessmen were beginning, sometimes reluctantly, to realise that British interests and German interests were on a collision course. As the biographers of Baldwin, Keith Middlemas and John Barnes, observed, ‘the government had awakened to a danger that had nothing to do with any question of marriage.’

Charles Higham quotes an FBI file in Washington: ‘Certain would-be state secrets were passed on to Edward, and when it was found that Ribbentrop’ – the German Ambassador in London – ‘actually received the same information, immediately Baldwin was forced to accept that the leakage had been located.’ Higham then asserts (without quoting the relevant passage): ‘The same report categorically states that Wallis was responsible for this breach of security.’ Of Sir Robert Vansittart, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office and head of British Intelligence, Higham writes (and here he does provide the evidence): he ‘was Wallis’s implacable enemy from the day he was convinced she was a Nazi collaborator’.

It is this, far more than any moral consideration, which explains the determination and the ruthlessness with which Baldwin and his administration dealt with the King before his abdication. They were prepared to put up with him, as long as he was acting on his own. They bypassed him. By midsummer 1936, Higham writes, ‘all confidential documents were withheld from the King.’ The prospect of a Nazi King backed up by an infinitely more able and resourceful Wallis Simpson was intolerable. If the King wanted Mrs Simpson, he would have to get out. If he wanted to stay as King, she would have to be banished. The King’s choice (the ‘woman I love’, and exile) came as a great relief to the Government. Yet Edward remained a menace as he continued, in his exile, to offer the Nazis solidarity. When war broke out, he was summoned back to England and sent to France on military duty with the rank of Major-General. His lack of interest and enthusiasm for the job, which he showed by coolly abandoning his duties to attend some parties in the South of France with Wallis, would, in normal circumstances, have led to a court-martial. The Duke of Windsor was not court-martialled. He was made Governor of the Bahamas.

Wherever he went, people noted his Nazi sympathies, which were fanned to fury by the Duchess. As early as 1937, Sir Ronald Lindsay, British Ambassador to Washington, wrote to his wife that the Duke of Windsor was ‘trying to stage a comeback, and his friends and advisers were semi-Nazis.’ A month or two later, Lindsay wrote, officially: ‘The active supporters of the Duke of Windsor within England are those elements known to have inclinations towards Fascist dictatorships, and the recent tour of Germany by the Duke of Windsor and his ostentatious reception by Hitler and his regime can only be construed as a willingness on the part of the Duke of Windsor to lend himself to these tendencies.’ On that tour, the Duke seemed to take special pleasure in greeting the enthusiastic crowds with the Nazi salute. Years afterwards, he would proudly show his guests the pictures of him and Wallis being greeted by the Führer. David Eccles, then a young civil servant, met the Duke and Duchess in Spain and reported ‘The Duke is pretty fifth column.’ In Portugal, the Geman Ambassador Oswald Baron von Hoyningen-Heune, relayed to his superiors in Berlin the Duke’s conviction that ‘had he remained on the throne, war could have been avoided.’ ‘He describes himself,’ von Hoyningen-Heune continued, ‘as a firm supporter of a compromise peace with Germany. The Duke believes with certainty that continued heavy bombing will make England ready for peace.’

Many opponents of the view that the Duke and Duchess were active supporters of the Nazis throughout these times point to his interest in workers’ conditions and to his visit to South Wales in 1936, when he made the famous (and fatuous) statement that ‘something should be done’ about unemployment. Yet the provision of good facilities for hardworking people was crucial to the Nazi idea of a ‘new social order’ and a key to its popularity.

Once they were exiled to the Bahamas, and closely watched by both British and American Intelligence, the royal couple’s Nazi sympathies were kept in check. Even there, however, they associated with Fascist businessmen, in particular the corrupt Harold Christie, with whom the Duke, with the help of the Bahamian taxpayer, went into partnership. As the war swung towards the Allies, the couple’s enthusiasm for the Nazis began to lose its fervour, and in their autobiographies, written much later, both Duke and Duchess would take refuge in the familiar excuse that they had underestimated the horror of the Fascist regimes.

Their former adversaries in the British Government and Civil Service were among the many people who assisted them in their rewriting of their past. The Duke’s brother, George VI, made every effort to ensure that the fact that the King of England had been a Hitler supporter before the war was kept under wraps. Armand Grégoire, the Duchess’s Nazi lawyer, was tried for collusion with the enemy and sent to prison for life, without being asked for (or volunteering) information about his role as intermediary between the royal couple and his Nazi masters. Charles Bedaux, who might have been persuaded to trade some such information in exchange for lenient treatment, committed suicide while under arrest for treason. Coco Chanel, an intimate friend of the Duchess, was arrested and charged with treason against the French state. The evidence against her was prodigious. She had worked directly for Nazi Intelligence against her own government. After a 24-hour interrogation by American Intelligence, however, she was released. ‘Had she been forced to stand trial, with the threat of execution as an employee of an enemy government,’ Higham writes, ‘she could easily have exposed as Nazi collaborators the Windsors and dozens of others highly placed in society. Despite the hatred of the Windsors at Buckingham Palace, the royal family would not willingly tolerate an exposé of a member of the family.’

This sense of solidarity prompted the King to send the Keeper of the Royal Pictures on a secret mission to Germany soon after the war to collect from the Schloss Kronberg, family home of the Princes of Hesse, a bundle of documents which exposed the connection between the Windsors and the Nazis. The Keeper of the Royal Pictures and an associate went to great lengths to retrieve these papers, which have never been seen since. The Keeper of the Royal Pictures was Anthony Blunt, who for nearly ten years had been an active agent of the Russian Government. By 1945 Blunt’s loyalty to his king had superseded his loyalty to Communism, and he kept quiet about his secret mission. In 1964, when he finally confessed to his KGB past, his interrogator was a middle-ranking MI5 man called Peter Wright. Wright was summoned to the Palace. On the one hand, he was told by Michael Adeane, the Queen’s private secretary, that the Palace would do all they could to help, and, on the other, warned that Blunt might mention his trip to Germany after the war, and ordered abruptly not to pursue this particular matter. In the event, despite hundreds of hours’ interrogation, Blunt never told Wright (or anyone else) about what he found in Germany. Possibly, like Coco Chanel, he knew that a promise to keep quiet about the papers would ensure his own immunity from prosecution.

Whether intended or not, the refusal to accept that the Windsors were Fascists has gone on and on. The ‘Great Love Story’ has appeared on television, and in numerous books. Experts argue about the psychology of the King, the ambition of Wallis Warfield, the hypocrisy of the British Establishment, the size of Edward’s penis, and whether or not he was a foot-fetishist. All these matters are marvellous for serialisation in the Daily Mail, which itself enthusiastically supported the Fascists in the Thirties. Michael Bloch’s Secret File of the Duke of Windsor, the latest in this genre (inevitably serialised in the Daily Mail), has but four references to Hitler and continues in the traditional view that the Duke was naive. He thought, Bloch suggests, that the Nazis were ‘rough but reasonable men’, and underestimated their barbarism. Charles Higham has an answer to this: ‘The repeated absurdity of journalists that the couple’s commitment to Fascism and a negotiated peace in World War Two was based upon a transcendent foolishness stood exposed the moment one entered a conversation with the Windsors. Whatever one might think of their views, those views were not entered into lightly or from a position of blind ignorance.’

Wallis did not want to be the Duchess of Windsor. In personal terms, she preferred her tedious and undemanding husband Ernest Simpson to the ever-whining, introspective and hypochondriacal Duke. She wanted to be mistress to the King, not the wife of an exiled duke. She begged the King to stand by his throne, seeing herself as a modern Mrs Fitzherbert, in charge of the court but not of the court, enjoying all the pomp and influence of a queen without being the Queen. This desire was not inspired by straightforward social ambition: it came from her anxiety to influence the course of political events. The story, in short, is not just soppy sexist trash, as portrayed in the Daily Mail. It is a political melodrama of the highest consequence.

One of the weaknesses of modern republican theory is that it tends to concentrate on the personal weaknesses of the Royals. How could anyone, it is asked, support a system which raises on a pedestal people like Edward VIII or George IV or Andy and Fergie? Are they not absurd, ridiculous figures, unfit for anything but a jewellery auction or a hunt ball? This argument always falls flat. The influence of a monarchy which has long ago been stripped of real political power lies precisely in its absorption of people’s aspirations, griefs, ambitions and endeavours. Weaknesses, therefore, are as adorable as strengths. Princess Diana has no O levels – so what? Nor have most other people. Fergie is a mindless Sloane with nothing but a cheerful grin – so what?

A cheerful grin is no bad thing when most people aren’t feeling at all cheerful. Royal idiocies, divorces, selfishnesses, as detailed in the popular press, are not destructive of modern monarchy. On the contrary, they provide a vital link between the monarchs and their subjects.

So it was with the Windsors. The King of England fell for a divorced woman and beastly old Baldwin wouldn’t let him have her. How rotten of him! How many others have fallen for unsuitable partners, but have not had their jobs taken away from them because of it? So it was that the people maintained their sympathy for the ‘gallant young Prince’. The one quality of the Duke of Windsor which might have broken the spell of the British monarchy – his Fascist leanings – was discreetly buried.

Charles Higham’s is an important book. But there is a great deal wrong with it. He has provided his critics with plenty of hostages. Again and again, he quotes the most scurrilous and unlikely gossip, without proving it. It is no good quoting one contemporary hazarding a guess that Wallis was the lover of Count Ciano, and that she even had an abortion as a result. There is not the slightest proof of this, and anyway it is beside the point. It is no good inventing (or guessing at) Wallis’s sexual education in the brothels of Shanghai or for that matter entering the royal bedchamber to speculate about what exactly went on there. There are times – far too many of them – when bald assertions are not backed by the evidence they need; the notes and the index are a disgrace; and Higham’s biographical method, piling incident on incident and referring only to the day and the month, continually loses the thread of the narrative.

But these are really niggles. Gossip is a dangerous commodity, but no biography worth its salt could survive without it. The plain fact is that for all its weaknesses the book is enthralling from first to last and for one central reason. It exposes both its main subject and her royal catch, not as the dim-witted, self-obsessed lovers who have been pickled for posterity, but as nasty, determined Fascists who wanted to preside over a ‘new social order’ which would do away for ever with all pretence at democracy and consign all opposition to the holocaust.