The Queen’s Childhood

Glen Newey

Life as a royal correspondent has its longueurs. In fact, much of the time, there’s little but longueurs. At the palace tea-parties, everyone’s on their best, terrified of letting rip a Pimm’s burp or treading on a corgi. One yearns for a bit of bad behaviour – a drunken streaker, say, or a blue-blood f-bashing a dithering pap, or a party guest who’s swapped the usual frock coat and topper for a full Afrika Korps service uniform.

One waits in vain, too, for her majesty to appear in SS rig to lead the canapé-rodents in a rendering of the Horst Wessel. Still, the Sun’s ‘Their Royal Heilnesses’ scoop falls not far short of this. Grainy home-video footage shows two future queens giving it the full Nuremberg, egged on by a future king. The soon-to-be Edward VIII’s fascist proclivities are well known, as is his grooming by the Führer, who hoped to recall him to the throne from exile in the Bahamas, where the prime minister dispatched him during the war in the interests of damage-limitation. Churchill himself, after the Oxford Union ‘King and Country’ debate of 1933, had contrasted the 'callow' youth of England unfavourably with ‘the manhood of Germany’.

In the 1930s many British aristos found themselves unable to keep their right arm vertical. Like their fellow nobs in France, Prussia and Spain, they clung to fascism as an antidote to democracy and in the hope of keeping their loot. Nazism’s whackball theories of racial hierarchy chimed with toffs’ daft belief in natural aristocracy and ‘breeding’ – a belief apparently held by Prince Charles. Archibald Ramsey’s ‘Right Club’ was a secret society of lords and highrollers dedicated to bringing fascism to Britain. The 22nd Earl of Erroll’s ‘Happy Valley’ set planned a fascist statelet in British East Africa. And there was the Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, in later years the dear old ‘queen mum’, whose tastes in booze, cloche hats and ultra-rightist politics had already ossified by the early 1930s.

Buckingham Palace – as deft a purveyor of the black arts as any mega-corp or tinpot junta – moved quickly to denial and counter-spin when the Sun story broke. It was all so long ago, the palace implied, though there isn’t a statute of limitations on Nazism. Jiggery-pokery may lie behind the clip’s release, or it may be down to oversight by the royal archive’s controllers. The palace spinmeisters’ major coup is to smudge a judicious thumb across the historical record:

Most people will see these pictures in their proper context and time. This is a family playing and momentarily referencing a gesture many would have seen from contemporary news reels. No one at that time had any sense how it would evolve.

Hacks in the Mail – who bemoan the Sun’s sinking to ‘a new low’ while copying its coverage and linking to the video – play along, trotting out the palace line that nobody could have foreseen the Nazi endgame in 1933 (the film’s estimated date) when Hitler was still ‘rising to power’. He’d already done that by January 1933, when he became chancellor. Repression, the ending of Weimar democracy and murder quickly followed. These were known facts, as was the ideology propounded in Mein Kampf, whose print-run reached the millions by the early 1930s. Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer had been in full anti-Semitic voice since the early 1920s. Aristos schmoozed with fascism not despite the Jew-hating, but often because of it. Prominent among them were the Dukes of Westminster and Wellington. The ‘fundamentally nice but stupid’ Lord Brocket promoted various anti-Semitic initiatives. Ramsey said of the Right Club that it aimed to ‘expose and oppose the activities of organised Jewry’.

Another Führer groupie, the Duke of Buccleuch, Lord Steward of the Royal Household, was an intimate of George VI; Buccleuch accompanied Brocket to Hitler’s 50th birthday bash. This was the milieu in which the queen grew up. It took war to make Nazism not quite comme il faut


  • 21 July 2015 at 4:48pm
    mototom says:
    Home video?

  • 22 July 2015 at 6:54am
    cufflink says:
    I see it like this; the private tutor has asked an easy question 'Who is King of the Bahamas?' and their majesties are over-keen to give the answer. It is the primary schoolroom discipline of the time, and along with Empire Day and getting dressed up as Britannia was what we all did then. People didn't read history they learned it. The thing is - is Rupert Murdoch a monarchist? Or let us put it this way, does he want to be Magnate of England? Were Hitler still alive he would command a big fee in the Politico-Premier. He had a business plan and would surely enlist most of the Dragons Den interrogators into uniform.

  • 22 July 2015 at 8:52am
    K. Srinivasan says:
    He also tries too hard to convince us of the Queen Mother's broad cultural hinterland, perhaps in an effort to counter her famous account (as revealed to AN Wilson) of how at a palace reading she and the princesses got the giggles when "this rather lugubrious man in a suit read a poem called The Desert". "Such a gloomy man [TS Eliot], looked as though he worked in a bank."

  • 26 July 2015 at 8:36pm
    JudyS says:
    Every so often the press comes out with some scandal intent on showing that the royals have German blood and relatives. How this shocks anyone is beyond me. The establishment would rather have any Protestant from anywhere on the throne than any British Catholic, and that explains that. Can everybody move along now?

    Now, re the salute. If the Queen Mother can be given a pass then so can her brother-in -law, David. I think we are coming due for a real look into how much of the smear campaign against David was simply a deflection away from the ruling family so he became the vessel to put all things German and bad so they looked squeaky in comparison.

    I don't think any of them were Nazis - well, aside from the relatives of Philip's who actually were Nazis - and the film in itself is stupid. But it may help people to have a more nuanced perspective on all the players.

  • 29 July 2015 at 11:54am
    Dr Paul says:
    I've read Professor Griffiths' books on Britain's Hitler fan-clubs and the conclusion I reached is that those who really admired the Third Reich were relatively marginal figures and that those in powerful positions who saw Der Führer as someone to emulate were few and far between. Of course, whether the fascist solution would have been more attractive had Britain been in a more parlous situation, that is another question.

    Now I do believe that Edward VIII was enamoured with Hitler and the Third Reich, and the reason he was removed was because it was realised that having a king who was very friendly with the country with which Britain was on a collision course would be rather counter-productive.

    Not particularly well known is that when the former king was exiled to the Bahamas during the war, he was in line for the chop had a German invasion of Britain taken place. A pal of mine recalls his father and uncle, both senior army officers, talking about this: 'Of course, if the Germans had come, he would have been shot.' As there was no invasion, this proved unnecessary, and he and his equally right-wing wife were allowed to live quietly, the whole unsavoury business being swept under the carpet.

    • 29 July 2015 at 8:26pm
      MajorBarbara says: @ Dr Paul
      Recently reviewed in the LRB, and which I am now reading, "Princes at War" by Barbara Cadbury gainsays your view of Windsor.
      Although I wouldn't say 'enamoured' of Hitler, he was fixated on that dreadful wife of his, and fully absorbed in himself, and she was fully absorbed in herself as well, in addition to having a previous friendship (and possibly more) with von Ribbentrop. They were basically willing to cosy up with anyone who'd treat them as royalty, especially if, as a bonus, they could spite their family; they'd have had tea with Mephistopheles in Pandemonium if by doing so they'd have spit in George VI's eye.
      As Cadbury's book points out, Edward VIII had a firm supporter in Winston Churchill, and also there was much doubt as to whether the next brother was up to the job of King. He could have hung onto the crown easily if he'd been willing not to marry Simpson; and Simpson could not accept she could be either the mistress of the King or the wife of the ex-King. Like the bone-toting dog in Aesop's fable who saw his reflection and hoped to grab a second bone, she lost the substance by grasping at the shadow. Edward wasn't removed; he removed himself and a good thing too. He was the model of Monty Python's Upper Class Twit of the Year, married to Lady Macbeth.

    • 1 August 2015 at 7:44pm
      JudyS says: @ MajorBarbara
      Thank you for pointing me to that book. I will read the review as well as pick it up.

      I respectfully don't agree that simply not marrying his love was all that he needed to do - the establishment wanted her gone. I also think they wanted him gone for reasons I state below; he was breaking the contract in more than one way, and combined they were a deal breaker.

      I appreciate the tone and helpfulness of your reply. Cheers.

    • 1 August 2015 at 7:51pm
      JudyS says: @ JudyS
      Excuse me, I thought thread was a reply to me and see that neither of you were addressing me.

      Never mind,

  • 29 July 2015 at 5:16pm
    Interesting isn't it that Germany, England and France, all with Nazi pasts, were represented on the P5+1 talks with Iran, but Israel wasn't.

  • 29 July 2015 at 8:18pm
    MajorBarbara says:
    Oh, come off it. In 1933, as far as the rest of the world was concerned, Hitler had not yet revealed himself as 'Hitler'. In fact, he was widely admired in the West almost up until the war, for having rebuilt a demoralized and ruined nation into a world superpower. Antisemitism, at least of the outspoken and rabid kind, is now unfashionable among 'nice' gentiles, but let us not forget it was made so by the revelations following the liberation of the camps and a realization of the full enormity of the Holocaust. (As the war recedes and will soon be out of living memory, and particularly with the rise of the Internet, open anti-Semitism is making a comeback.)
    Symbols and signs have also changed. Until the 1930s, Americans performed what is now called a Nazi salute when saying the Pledge of Allegiance. The swastika, of course, was an old Indian symbol, and early editions of Kipling used it as the colophon or on the binding; when Hitler appropriated it, the author asked it be removed from all future editions.
    And the future Queen was a little kid, playing a game with her uncle.
    Seriously, I have often despaired at the state of American journalism, but when I look at the UK it cheers me right up.

    • 31 July 2015 at 12:36pm
      Glen Newey says: @ MajorBarbara
      I'll remain on it, despite the kind invitation. Anyone who bothered to inform themselves would have been aware of the antics of the SA, for example, in the 20s and early 30s, including the murder and maiming of political opponents and the botched coup attempt in Munich in 1923 for which Hitler had been banged up. The idea that most foreigners were in a position to become aware of Nazism's murderous anti-semitism only when the Holocaust came to light is frankly ludicrous. The main thing that blinded people to Nazi anti-semitism during the 30s was not a lack of information about it but the fact that they shared it.

      It is true, though, that the British establishment, in which aristocrats figured prominently, did much to sanitise Hitler's image. In 1933 a Jewish doctor submitted a play to Lord Cromer, the Lord Chamberlain – then as now a member of the Royal Household, who therefore acted not only as theatre censor but as an interpreter of the royal will. Cromer agreed that the play offered 'a strong indictment of the atrocities and excesses committed by the Nazis' which had been 'denounced by every English newspaper'. Cromer nonetheless decided to ban it. In his professional role he made regular visits to Nazi Germany's London embassy for 'consultations'. He did the same in 1934 with another anti-Nazi play which, though he thought it accurately showed 'the brutality of the Nazi regime', had to be banned to 'shield the Germans from their misdeeds'. Cromer squelched yet another anti-Nazi play in 1939 because it 'spares no pains to vilify the Nazis and exalt the Jews'.

      I didn't say that the queen then or now was a Nazi. I do maintain that the aristocratic milieu she grew up in was heavily compromised by its involvement and sympathy with Hitlerism. It became politic after the war to triangulate that under the catch-all tag of 'appeasement'.

  • 31 July 2015 at 5:12pm
    Diplodoctus says:
    Anyone who wants to see the straight-armed salute very much still in popular use needs only to drop by at the castle meadow in Vaduz on Liechtenstein's national day - coming up soon on 15 August. It's customary for a good proportion of the national population to gather there for an open-air ceremony to mark the occasion. The mass salute occurs during the second or third verse of their rendering of the national anthem which, to add piquancy, is sung to the tune of God Save The Queen (as indeed the Swiss national anthem used to be, but that's another story). The links with fascism are tenuous, however. Despite having no army and being linked closely at the time with annexed Austria, Liechtenstein managed to stay out of the Second World War after boy scouts manning the border faced down the forces of the Reich.

  • 1 August 2015 at 7:32pm
    JudyS says:
    David was not removed because of nazi sympathies, but because he was untrainable. He would not refrain from voicing opinions that embarrassed the establishment, did not read his red books and left them lying around, AND because he had a keen affection for America and one American in particular. Married British women are one thing, but...

    The current Royal family was invited to England to be the front for an infrastructure that actually ruled. As long as David had shown he would play along by keeping silent about touchy topics (read anything that was contrary to the infrastructure) and following the rules of looking like he was Victorian happy families, he would have been fine. His crazy idea that he could take the money and perks and still colour outside the agreed lines was breaking the contract and he was quite fairly booted. The idea that he had to be smeared as well was to make his replacements look better and also to use him as a dumping ground for anybody's pre war indiscretions.

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