The photo of a young Queen playing Nazi is an important piece of our history
written for The Spectator, 18 July 2015
What can an image from 1933 ever really tell us? In July 1933, Der Stürmer, the Nazi newspaper, published a cover image of a gaping Jewish mouth, the picture of avarice, swallowing kings, admirals, bankers, film stars, greedy for world-control. Hitler had come to power in January of that year and immediately stepped up repression of Jews – it was well reported in the UK. By March of that year, Jews outside Germany were seriously concerned and organised a boycott of German goods – along with the Daily Express’ two million other readers, Edward VIII could have read about this under the headline ‘Judea declares war on Germany’. Headlines like this gave the Nazis an excuse to further intensify their antisemitic rhetoric. So, in that July edition of Der Stürmer, a long panegyric to the heroic Adolf Hitler ended with this passage:
World Jewry faces Adolf Hitler. World Jewry faces Germany. The Jews will fight without pity. We must also fight without pity against Pan-Jewry. The Jewish people is the people of the Devil. It is a people of criminals and murderers. The Jewish people must be exterminated from the face of the earth.
There was nothing unofficial about Der Stürmer’s links with the German government. By 1933, Hitler ordered that it be installed in glass display boxes, or ‘Stürmer-kasten’, so that his loyal subjects could read such propaganda at public gathering points (it was also virulently anti-Catholic). Meanwhile, Dachau concentration camp, primarily for political prisoners, had been set up immediately after the Nazi election victory in 1933, and its first prisoners included Hans Litten, who had made the mistake of trying to hold Hitler accountable for racist violence in 1931. This was the Germany Edward VIII loved.
Twitter is agog today with the image of seven-year-old Elizabeth Windsor, egged on to perform a Nazi salute by evil Uncle Edward (or David, to her). No one, not even the most obsessive Nazi-hunters, is holding the infant child responsible for the adults around her. And we’ve all known that Edward VIII was a bad lot. But it’s striking to see the Queen Mother in the video footage, smiling, encouraging. And it’s amazing to see the monarchy’s defenders insist today that no-one in Britain could have had reasonable qualms about Hitler at this stage.
On Twitter, the leftwing comic Emma Kennedy referred to a Nazi salute given in 1938 as “when they were becoming evil”. That’s absolute rubbish. The Nazis may not have designed the Final Solution by 1933 – if the Final Solution is our definition of ‘evil’ – but they’d been developing the intellectual apparatus to justify it since 1923. In an age when David Cameron condemns British Muslims who ‘quietly condone’ Islamist terror, we seem oddly reluctant to admit that dinner party ideas have consequences.
Katharine, Duchess of Atholl, first woman to serve in a Conservative government. While Edward VIII may have been complacent in 1933, not every educated Britain was: by this time Katharine was writing to leading figures, including Churchill, urging them to read Mein Kampf and to investigate Nazi human rights abuses in Dachau.
Over at the Telegraph, Tim Stanley argues that Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator demonstrates that everyone loved a laugh at the silly man with the strange salute in the 1930s. But Chaplin was a passionate anti-Nazi, and made clear that he created the film to puncture some of Hitler’s dignity, telling his audience ‘I made this film for the Jews of the world’. (It was also a satire on the Nazis’ own anti-Jewish propaganda films – proof that Chaplin, if not the Queen Mother, had kept up with Der Stürmer). From Edward VIII, who took Hitler very seriously indeed, the salute means something very different.
Here, at The Spectator, Fraser Nelson makes the case that Nazi sympathies weren’t particularly shocking amongst the elite in 1933. But that is precisely why we need to see photographs like this, not hide them. Fraser’s more aware than most that ‘Every country develops convenient historical amnesia, especially when it comes to prevailing national moods’. But if want to understand how fascist regimes arise – and God knows, there are some fascist regimes in the Middle East today – we need to keep reminding ourselves how easy it is to appease them, even if that’s hard. And while we might not expect moral courage from every gin-soaked debutante at shooting-party, we expect those privileged enough to wave from Royal Balconies to keep themselves abreast of basic foreign policy briefings.
Monarchy doesn’t welcome inquiry, even by historians, so Buckingham Palace isn’t pleased by today’s publication. In fact, continuous monarchy is the enemy of objective national history, just as history gets interesting when living memory and archival records start to touch each other. Voltaire called historians ‘gossips who tease the dead’ – should I respect Queen Victoria’s privacy? But if I’d discovered this footage, as a historian, and published it in a dry academic journal, could they have objected? The story of today’s scoop isn’t: ‘Queen is secret Nazi’. It’s a warning about how complacent we can all, too easily, become.