The British are still best at three things - royalty, romanticizing World War II and tabloid journalism. Saturday's front page of the greatest tabloid of all, The Sun, brought all of these elements together in a classic front page under a "WORLD EXCLUSIVE" banner showing a grainy black-and-white photograph of a young girl and her mother giving a Nazi salute while a young man is trying to get an even smaller girl to do the same. Of course this isn't just a frame from another family home video - the woman in the photograph is the late Queen Elizabeth, Britain's beloved Queen Mother who passed away thirteen years ago and the daughter, aged about seven in the 17-second clip, would one day become Britain's reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. The man in the pictures is their uncle, Prince Edward, who is trying to get the younger sister, his niece Princess Margaret to give the salute as well.
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The film was made in the grounds of Balmoral Castle in Scotland, most likely in the summer of 1933. Few families eight decades ago had the necessary equipment to make a home video, but this is no ordinary family. Two and a half years later Edward would become King Edward VIII and less than a year later would be forced to abdicate after insisting on marrying American divorcée Wallis Simpson. Elizabeth's husband would reign in his place as Britain's wartime King George VI. So what were "Their Royal Heilnesses" as the Sun put it, doing 82 years ago giving "Heil Hitlers"?
No-one packages a story better than The Sun. Obviously these are embarrassing photographs, despite the time that has since elapsed. But The Sun knows its readers. They want all the gossip on the queen and her royal relatives, while revering her at the same time. Luckily there is a convenient villain for this story. Since there is no soundtrack or any other available evidence, it is obvious (to The Sun at least) that this is all wicked Uncle Edward's doing. Over the next six pages (and rarely for The Sun's website, in freely accessible features on its website) the narrative is played out.
The playboy Prince of Wales, soon to be king and then disgraced ex-king, was a known sympathizer of Hitler, who met the Führer after his abdication and reportedly even saluted him on that occasion. He would maintain his contacts with various Nazis and fascists until his death in 1972. Obviously it was Edward who had urged his politically naive sister-in-law and ignorant nieces in fascist horseplay, they are totally innocent. And to drive home that point, The Sun regales us with the heroic tale of how the Queen Mother was Britain's "Queen of the Blitz," dodging bombs with her husband King George in Buckingham Palace and touring the devastated areas in the East End with him. Readers are told by the tabloid not to think of her daughter as the Nazi-saluting seven-year-old princess on the front page but as the 19-year-old junior officer in the Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service whose uniform she wore on the palace balcony as London celebrated VE Day. And of course, as the queen of 63 years of sterling service. But that is just a convenient narrative.
While most of the media storm kicked up by The Sun on Saturday focused on how they obtained the footage from the royal family's private archives, whether the tabloid should have published the footage and what could a little girl have possibly known about continental politics, there is a much more sinister undertone to the story. There is probably a very innocent explanation to Britain's future monarchs jokingly "Heil-Hitlering" in their backyard, but for the next few years, the family, along with much of Britain's elite would sail perilously close to the fascist wind.
It has been said that fascism was just too theatrically ridiculous to ever take root in Britain, as it did throughout much of Europe in the 1930s. The truth is that it was never truly tested as the British Union of fascists never ran in a general election before being outlawed in the early stages of World War II. In its heyday, however, it attracted tens of thousands of members and the brief support of national newspapers. And while the fascists were much too common for most of the British aristocracy, Edward was hardly unique in his sympathy for the new regime in Germany. There's a reason why the Royal Family has not released its archives from that period - not all of Britain's nobility were Hitler's fans, as he was, but it wasn't a rare trait either. Fuelled by their fear of the communists who had only two decades earlier butchered the Russian royal family, lingering anti-Semitism and a respect for the sense of law and order the Nazis had restored to Germany, where many of Britain's senior aristocrats had relations and other connections, the early years of the Third Reich seemed like quite a good thing.
Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth's husband, has admitted that during those years there was "a lot of enthusiasm for the Nazis at the time, the economy was good, we were anti-communist and who knew what was going to happen to the regime?" and that in his sphere there were "inhibitions about the Jews" and "jealousy of their success." He went on to serve as a British naval officer in some of the wars fiercest battles at sea, and while his sisters were all married to Germans and some of his Nazi in-laws fought on the other side, his mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg risked her life in Athens saving a Jewish family for which she was recognized as one of the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.
Also the narrative that The Sun presents as if once the bad king was gone, the Royal Family got behind the struggle against fascism is selective at best. George VI and his wife who were key supporters of Appeasement, along with much of the British press and public, invited Neville Chamberlain to the palace to congratulate him when he got back from meeting Hitler in Munich and allowing him to tear Czechoslovakia apart in September 1938. King George continued to support those who were in favor of an early exit from the war and was aghast at the replacement of Chamberlain by Winston Churchill in May 1940. He preferred Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax who advocated coming to an accommodation with Hitler.
None of this should be allowed to detract from Britain's unique record as the only nation to stand against Nazi Germany for the entire six years of the war and the incredible sacrifices it made during that period. Luckily it was Churchill who wrote that chapter of history and the Royal Family, along with the rest of Britain, eventually got behind his broad back. But history could have been radically different and the pictures of two young girls playing around in the royal castle’s garden with their doting mother and uncle could have looked a lot more sinister through the lens of an alternative history.