In a way, the film is the perfect illustration of the innocent disregard in which Adolf Hitler was held in Britain in the early 1930s.
The jerky black and white footage shows a woman in a jacket and skirt, two young girls and a young man, moving unevenly towards the camera. The older woman is the first to raise her arm in a “Heil Hitler” salute, followed by her daughter, then the young man, then all together.
It would be an entirely unremarkable piece of footage were it not for one inconvenient fact—the people in the video are the late Queen Mother, the Queen (then a 7-year-old Princess Elizabeth), her sister Margaret (3) and their uncle David, later Edward VIII, the king who abdicated in 1936.
With broad smiles on their faces, and David egging them on remorselessly, they laugh and joke in the sunshine of Balmoral, playing up for the King who is behind the camera, emulating the curious new gesture, widely portrayed as a bizarre curiosity in newsreels of the time. They clearly do not have the least knowledge that the man they are emulating will go on to commit the worst genocide in history.
However, this has not stopped the Sun publishing a still from the movie on the front page today with the headline, “Their Royal Heilnesses.”
The publication of the picture was greeted with widespread public outrage in the U.K., especially in view of the fact that just three weeks ago, the Queen visited Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and was visibly moved by the experience.
Buckingham Palace has reacted with typical restraint and understatement, although they did issue a rare statement of reaction, with a spokesperson saying, “It is disappointing that a film, shot eight decades ago and apparently from HM’s personal family archive, has been obtained and exploited in this manner.”
However, off the record it is clear from conversations with courtiers that royal blood is boiling over this deeply unfair attempt to link the Queen with Nazism.
A royal source said: “The Queen has spent 63 years building relations between nations and people.
“Just three weeks ago she was at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and she was very moved by the reaction of the German people. It is likely the palace will pursue this. We want to identify where the footage came from, who it came from and why it has come out now.”
The use of the film, which the source said “appeared” to have come from the Queen’s personal archive, could be a matter for the police as there is possibly a violation of copyright law, the source said.
“Most people will see these pictures in their proper context and time,” a courtier said, “This is a family playing and momentarily referencing a gesture many would have seen from contemporary news reels.”
Many commentators have been quick to point out that in the early 1930s, before the murderous extent of Adolf Hitler’s ambition was known, Hitler was widely seen as an eccentric figure of fun.
Indeed, in an accompanying editorial comment, the Sun accepts that Hitler, newly installed as Germany’s Chancellor, was “a faintly comic character” at the time, but argues that the involvement of the future Edward VIII, a well known Nazi sympathiser, makes the film historically significant.
A royal source said they would “not even go there” when it came to The Sun’s attempts to justify the publication of the film by invoking Edward’s Nazi leanings.
Palace investigations will now focus on how The Sun obtained the footage, which it argued was part of a “hidden” archive of material relating to the Royal family which it said should now be released.
The pictures are undoubtedly very different to the situation ten years ago when The Sun carried pictures on its front page of Prince Harry wearing a Nazi uniform to a fancy dress party.
On that occasion Clarence House issued an apology from Prince Harry over his “poor choice of costume.
Social media users took to twitter to criticise and mock The Sun:
However, Roy Greenslade in The Guardian argued the Sun was right to publish the snippet for reasons of social history.
Karina Urbach of the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London used the incident to urge the Palace to disclose documents concerning the relationship between the royal family and the Nazi regime of the 1930s.
The Guardian reports that Urbach, author of Go-Betweens for Hitler, a new book about the relationship between the royals and the Nazis, has spent years trying to gain access to documents relating to Nazi Germany held in the royal archives.
She described seeing shelves of boxes containing material relating to the 1930s that no one is allowed to research. She suggested that much of the archives’ interwar material no longer existed.
“We know that after ’45 there was a big cleanup operation,” Urbach said. “The royals were very worried about correspondence resurfacing and so it was destroyed.”
The Sun’s managing editor, Stig Abell, told Radio 4’s Today programme that the footage is “an interesting piece of social history.”