Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Edward VIII, the Abdication and the Nazis

by John Bainbridge

It is at first sight the very stuff of romance: the King who gave up his throne for the woman he loved. Growing up in England in the 1960s it was still a tale on the lips of the older generation, the Abdication of Edward VIII in December 1936, so that he might marry the American socialite Mrs Wallis Simpson. Had it not happened we may never have had Edward’s brother King George VI on the English throne during World War Two or the present Queen reigning to this day.

In my youth there was still a feeling of distaste amongst older people that a popular monarch had been forced from the throne by a po-faced Establishment. Although a lot of the people detested Mrs Simpson, they were equally uneasy about the role played by other members of the royal family. I suspect I could have asked at random a number of people who were alive at the time and there would still be a feeling of betrayal. The affair with Mrs Simpson was kept from the British people until the last moment. Although it was widely reported in the American press, the British press barons made a “gentlemen’s agreement” with Buckingham Palace to keep the intrigue under wraps in Britain.

That was the story as I heard it as a child. But it is a mere percentage of the whole truth. Only in recent years has more of the background to the Abdication come out and a lot more about the character of King Edward VIII, who became the Duke of Windsor after his abdication.

I have recently published an historical thriller, Balmoral Kill, which is set several months after the Abdication. In my book my characters have to deal with the very real crisis that overhung Britain in the period between the Abdication and the outbreak of World War Two in 1939.

The idea for the novel occurred to me several years ago when I saw a television interview with an elderly gentleman who had served as a British army officer in the events leading up to the fall of France in 1940 and the evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk. After arriving safely in England, he had been billeted with an aristocratic family in southern England during the period of the Battle of Britain. He had said in the interview that he had been quite shocked when he found out that a number of landowning families thought that Britain should surrender to Hitler so that they might preserve their landholdings.

I was aware, of course, that there was a great deal of sympathy for Hitler in the British Establishment during the 1930s. This was in many cases quite overt. Even mainstream British newspapers such as the Daily Mail regularly heaped paeans of praise on the Third Reich and published membership forms for Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists so that their readers might have the opportunity to join.

There was also a strong pacifist belief. Britain was still shocked by the slaughter in the trenches of the First World War. Many people thought that almost any accommodation with Nazi Germany was well worthwhile if it prevented another war. These individuals genuinely believed that Hitler would not interfere with Britain and its Empire if he was left alone. So deep was the fear of war that many chose to turn a blind eye to what Hitler was doing in Europe.

And while the majority of the British people were wise enough to have no truck with fascism and Hitlerism, there were elements of the British Establishment who thought that Hitler should be either appeased – the majority – or embraced – a very substantial minority. Indeed, appeasement was the policy of the British government, firstly under Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and then his successor Neville Chamberlain, well-meaning politicians both who simply couldn’t accept that anyone could be as evil and devious as Hitler. Former Prime Minister David Lloyd George visited Hitler in 1936 and was full of praise, considering him the “George Washington of Germany”. Newspaper barons Lord Northcliffe and Lord Rothermere, who were to be instrumental in hushing up King Edward’s affair with Wallis Simpson, were lavishly entertained by Hitler and subsequently praised him in their newspapers.

Even as late as May 1940, the British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, an arch appeaser himself, said that he had been “deluged with letters from a number of the nation’s greatest aristocrats imploring him to propose a policy of surrender and appeasement to Hitler, so that they might keep their great estates.” At the time King George VI favoured Halifax as Prime Minister instead of Churchill.

As a writer, I was interested in just how far people would go to keep Britain out of the war or to try and bring Nazism to Britain. I was fascinated with the notion that Winston Churchill, grandson of a duke and a fully paid-up member of the British Establishment, was prepared to jeopardise his own political career to put forward a contrary point of view and to warn the British people of the dangers of Hitler right from the beginning. For much of the 1930s Churchill was a voice crying in the wilderness, unheeded and even laughed at. But history was to prove that his minority voice was wiser than that of the cacophonous roaring of the appeasers and fellow-travellers of the Nazi regime. Researching further, I was surprised to find just how deep the roots of Nazism went into the very depths of the British Establishment.

Edward and the Nazis

Edward VIII, or the Duke of Windsor as he became after the Abdication, does not actually appear at all in my novel Balmoral Kill, though his shadow drifts across, and is the motivation for, much of the plot. His brother and successor George VI does make a brief appearance.

The British royal family had had an uncomfortable twentieth century in many ways. In World War One, following air raids on London, they had been obliged to change their surname from the Germanic Saxe-Coburg -Gotha to Windsor at a time when shops and businesses with German names were being attacked by mobs in the street. For two hundred years, from the accession of King George I, the family had been essentially German, considering German their first language over English. World War One had brought along the embarrassment of finding their country at war with King George V’s cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II. As the 1930s progressed a number of their other German cousins were very obviously embracing the policies of Hitler’s Third Reich, at least one of their relatives even being an officer in Heinrich Himmler’s dreaded SS.

Given the British government’s policy of appeasing Hitler in the 1930s this didn’t actually present a problem to the royal family. Before the outbreak of World War Two, Nazism was a subject open for discussion – as far as the royal family were concerned. Edward VIII’s brother, the Duke of Kent, made many visits to Germany and professed a fascination for all things Nazi. His Nazi relative in Germany, Prince Ludwig von Hessen-Damstadt noted, “Duke of Kent. Very German friendly. Clearly against France. Not especially clever, but well informed. Entirely for strengthening German-English ties. His wife is equally anti-French.” (The Duke of Kent’s opinion changed when Hitler started dropping bombs on London in 1940.)

All through the 1930s Edward VIII, both as Prince of Wales and King, entertained many Nazis on their visits to Britain, including von Mecklenburg – a notorious member of the SS - in 1933. Edward took great pains to excise any mention of the visit from the official Court Circular. He was on friendly terms with Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi ambassador to London. Wallis Simpson may well have been on even friendlier terms with Ribbentrop. The talk of London was that she was having a sexual relationship with the ambassador at the same time that she was courting King Edward. Ribbentrop sent her seventeen red roses every morning during their time together in the British capital.

Edward hated the very concept of democratic monarchy. He wanted to be a king who ruled as well as reigned. He spoke on many occasions as to his regret that Britain and its people couldn’t be “controlled” by one ruler in the way that Hitler led Nazi Germany. Even in the pro-appeasement British Establishment the alarm bells were beginning to ring.

In December 1936, King Edward VIII, who had reigned for less than a year, abdicated when the Church of England made it quite clear that no British king could marry a divorcee. It was sold in the newspapers that were sympathetic to him as a touching and very moving love story, the very essence of tragic romance. How far the church and other elements of the establishment were pressured to jettison a king who had become a political liability, using his romance as an excuse, is still open to debate.

But there were elements in British Intelligence, already contemplating the need to fight Hitler, who were thrilled to bits. His successor, his brother Albert, became King George VI. As it happened the new King also favoured a rapprochement with Germany, though not to the pro-Hitler extent that Edward had favoured. But, as far as British Intelligence was concerned, the removal of a solidly pro-Nazi king like Edward was a step in the right direction.

Winston Churchill despaired of Edward, or the Duke of Windsor, as I shall call him from now on. He had loathed the very idea of the Abdication and was personally fond of the Duke. There is little doubt that he thought that the Duke should have kept the throne and initially viewed his extreme politics and sympathy with the Third Reich as a fad that he might grow out of. In the years that followed he changed his mind.

In 1937, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor made a visit to Germany that acquired considerable notoriety. To Churchill’s dismay they sailed to the country on the German liner Bremen, giving the Nazis a propaganda coup. During their time in Germany the pair visited a Nazi training school, inspected the already murderous SS and had tea with Hermann Goering. A few days later they dined with Hitler’s propaganda chief Dr Josef Goebbels. On 22 October 1937, the Duke and Duchess had a private and reportedly very friendly meeting with Adolf Hitler. On several occasions during the tour, the Duke was to be seen making the infamous Nazi salute.

The Duke and Duchess settled to live in France and stayed there after the outbreak of World War Two. As a serving British army officer, the Duke carried out inspections of France’s defensive Maginot Line. The suggestion has been made (see Martin Allen’s book Hidden Agenda) that he sent classified information about France’s defences to the Nazis, care of his friend Charles Bedaux, an American businessman who was spying for Hitler. The truth regarding this alleged treachery may never be known. Bedaux committed suicide in 1944 after being arrested by the FBI.

The Windsors were hastily moved to Lisbon when France fell to the Nazis in 1940. But even in neutral Portugal, the Duke of Windsor was thought to be in contact with well-known Nazi officials and the Abwehr, German military intelligence. In despair, the British government decided to ship the couple off to the haven of the Bahamas, a British colony where they could be kept from German influence. At first the Duke refused to go. A despairing Churchill reminded the Duke that he was a serving British officer and that he would be court martialled if he refused to obey this direct order.

It was around this time that J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, on the direct order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, ordered surveillance on the couple, noting that the Duchess in particular, still an American citizen, “was exceedingly pro-German in her sympathies and connections.” FBI files noted a great many links between the couple and the Nazis.

My own researches suggest that there is little doubt that the Third Reich favoured the return of the Duke of Windsor to the British throne almost from the time of the Abdication and his visit to Hitler in 1937. The Duke of Windsor himself almost certainly considered such a possibility. How far he would have gone, if the circumstances had allowed it, is debatable. I doubt, for instance, that he would have tolerated the assassination of his brother and successor George VI, though had anything removed King George from the throne in any other way, there is a possibility that he might have returned either as King or Regent.

I based the plot of Balmoral Kill, and I must stress that my book is an historical thriller and not a history volume, on the possibility that certain elements of the British Establishment contemplated such a scenario. Although in reality matters never went as far as I have imagined in my pages, there is little doubt that the idea behind it was given much serious consideration amid less patriotic elements of the British elite. It was only after doing further research into the period after I had finished writing that I realised how close I had got to some sort of truth.

Joachim von Ribbentrop certainly proposed that the Duke of Windsor should become a puppet king if Britain fell to invasion in 1940 and King George VI and his family fled to Canada. Buckingham Palace was bombed no fewer than nine times during the London Blitz. At the Nuremburg Trials, Ribbentrop said that he had personally offered the Duke 50 million Swiss francs if he would make a claim on the British throne. The Duke of Windsor denied that any such sum had been offered.

Aftermath

King George VI overcame his shyness and his stammer and became a considerable figurehead for British resistance during World War Two. On his premature death in 1952 his daughter Princess Elizabeth became the present Queen. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor lived quietly in Paris, the Duke dying in 1972 and the Duchess in 1986. Their connections with Hitler’s Germany were skated over in their respective memoirs.

But at the end of the war, a military intelligence officer, Anthony Blunt, later Sir Anthony Blunt, subsequently Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, was sent to Germany by officials at Buckingham Palace with the task of seeking out and removing from the Nazi archives any documents that might incriminate members of the royal family. Any papers he found were probably secreted in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle. Many years later, Blunt was discovered to be a spy for Soviet Russia. His only real punishment for treachery was the removal of his knighthood. The British public were amazed at this mild treatment of a traitor. Suggestions were made at the time, and have been since, that he was protected because he knew too much.

If we are ever to know the absolute truth about the relationship between the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and the Nazis, then the relevant files are probably in the archives of the United States. As late as 1953, Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister for the second time, asked President Dwight D. Eisenhower to suppress any FBI documents that might suggest that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were sympathetic – or even worse complicit – in the activities of the Nazi regime.

Sometimes when you write a work of fiction based on real events, you find that the events themselves are more astonishing that anything that could possibly be imagined.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

John Bainbridge read history and literature at the University of East Anglia. Apart from Balmoral Kill he has written the Victorian thriller The Shadow of William Quest, and several books about the British countryside. He has contributed to a great many newspapers and magazines. As a writing team with his wife he writes the Inspector Abbs historical mysteries, so far A Seaside Mourning and A Christmas Malice.

Balmoral Kill is at Amazon US, Amazon UK, and Amazon CA.





14 comments:

  1. Well, that sheds a new light on matters for me. ;) I had no idea.

    Thanks for the wonderful post, John! I'm definitely curious about your book.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you Sophia. Only now are documents emerging re recent British history. It will be fascinating to see what emerges over the next few years, regards John.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Be sure to keep us updated if it emerges quietly....

      Delete
  3. John, excellent and important post! I'd heard rumors but underestimated the closeness of the ties between the Windsors and Nazis. I should not forget, however, that Wallis Simpson wasn't just a "divorcee" -- she was scandalous. Any British officer would have been required to resign his commission for marrying such a woman, which suggests to me that many people in British society heartily approved of the abdication -- even without the added, and undoubtedly more serious, risks of a monarch with too close ties to the Nazis. Again. great post.

    ReplyDelete
  4. This is fascinating - there's so much we don't know about aristocratic relations with the Nazis e.g . Hess planned to parachute into Scotland to meet secretly with the Duke of Hamilton but his plane crashed & he was arrested. What secret deal was going on there? Still a mystery! Great post!

    ReplyDelete
  5. "... then the relevant files are probably in the archives of the United States."

    I suspect you're right - I have a hard time imagining Britain of the time compiling, or at least maintaining for decades, a lot of damning documents about major members of the royal family!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hard to say what documents will have survived, though the general belief is that the royal archives do preserve everything, however critical. Problem is that it is very difficult to gain access to the archives. I don't know whether it is easier in the US? The great shock of the Abdication in Britain was because that the majority of the British public - though almost everyone else in the world! - didn't know it was happening because of censorship in the British media. People felt betrayed by their newspapers and the BBC. Interesting that in the 1950s, when Princess Margaret was courting the divorcee Peter Townshend it was very well reported in Britain.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I purchased your book on Kindle from Amazon.com; thanks for this post!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thank you Stephanie, I hope you enjoy it. Though it is a thriller, I've tried to present characters who represent the very wide political factions at the time. The good thing is the UK came through it. Had Britain stood aside and given Hitler, as some desired, a free hand in Europe, it is likely that he would have perfected rockets - including an atomic capability - that would have even reached the eastern seaboard of the States. Even as it was the Nazis were only a year or two from achieving that when the allies overran his research station in 1944-45.

    ReplyDelete
  9. My English parents always referred to Edward as The Traitor. I never met one person who lived through the war who had any sympathy or affection for him after he inherited the throne -- before, yes. Everyone loved and honored King George. Mrs Simpson was universally disliked. She was never mentioned in our house. Americans glorifying this "romance" need education ... you would not want your daughter to emulate her.

    The "nobility" were decimated in WWI and vowed never again to wipe out an entire generation of young men. Britain hadn't recovered from WWI when the Nazis came to power, and there was huge resistance to committing to another blood-letting. After all, the Nazis had revived Germany ... perhaps they could get Britain rolling again? Winston knew Britain, even with support and men from the Empire, couldn't win, and his plan was to hold the line until America would fight for freedom and democracy. Thank God America got its act together in time. The Isles were burned toast already.

    The only people I have met with ny lingering attachment to Edward were British working class ... they took the brunt of the bombing and fighting, so why they liked him, God only knows.

    And of course, Edward was money laundering for the Nazis while he was Gov. of the Bahamas ... but that's another story for you to build a novel around.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Why would the English aristocracy ever believe Hitler would not touch their land holdings?He would have had a field day looting their art works, etc. Very interesting post!

    ReplyDelete
  11. One reason the British working class fell for his charms were because of a few carefully engineered public appearances when he professed sympathy for the unemployed etc. Most people hadn't even heard of Wallis Simpson until the very eve of the abdication because of press censorship. They working class loathed her. Of course they also learned little about Edward's other activities as his visits to Hitler etc where spun in a particular way. Sally is right about Churchill believing the necessity of the US entering the war. With just the British and the Russians fighting it might have taken several years longer and led to massively more British and Russian casualties. The British were not burnt toast by 1942 though. The British army was then about to throw back Rommel in the desert and its navy was more or less keeping the German Kriegsmarine penned up. Hitler had failed to subdue the British Isles, his bombers had caused considerable damage but relatively few casualties out of a population of 40 million, and morale had held up very well. And, in the period 39-42 had kept the flag of freedom flying. It has to be added that much of that would have been a lot harder but for Roosevelt flouting his country's neutrality and providing Britain with arms, supplies and ships. The most important thing to recognise is that the allied nations dispatched a madman leader and helped liberate the German people as much as all the other conquuered nations of the world. It might have been harder if Edward and his fellow travellers had prospered.

    ReplyDelete
  12. You might be able to obtain information about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in the United States through the Freedom of Information Act. I doubt the U.S. Government could claim any national security reason for keeping it secret after all these years, http://www.foia.gov/

    ReplyDelete
  13. Thank you all. I have very much appreciated reading your comments on this. Regards, John B.

    ReplyDelete