The Queen’s Childhood
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