How British High Society Fell in Love With the Nazis
Controversy followed the publication of footage of a young queen giving a Nazi salute. But in those days, British high society’s worship of Hitler was in full bloom.
Buckingham Palace has attempted to brush off the film of a young Queen giving a Nazi salute as ‘horseplay’ and insisted that the family were simply ‘messing around’ for the camera when the film was taken—apparently around 1933 when the Queen was 7 or 8.
And while there is little doubt that the Queen is absolutely not a Nazi sympathizer, it is equally true that there was widespread sympathy for Nazis and Nazism in the early and mid-1930s in the very heart of the British establishment.
As Frank McDonough, an international expert on the Third Reich whose book, The Gestapo: The Myth and Reality of Hitler's Secret Police will be published later this year, told The Royalist, “The British 'Establishment', including key figures in the aristocracy, the press were keen supporters of Hitler up until the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Few were supporters of Nazism, but they admired Hitler and felt he offered the best means of preventing the spread of communism. They tended to turn a blind eye to anti-Semitism and the attacks Hitler made on communists, socialists, and other internal opponents.”
While many were disgusted by Hitler’s naked anti-Semtism and his abolishment of democracy, right up until the outbreak of war in 1939, upper-class British girls were still doing ‘the season’ in Germany, attending balls, learning about art and hunting for husbands.
Intermarriage at the upper echelons of society was seen by many as a way of attempting to preserve the peace.
I myself distinctly remember hearing German being spoken by two distinguished elderly British ladies (who wished to speak without me understanding) at a British stately home in the mid-1980s.
British high society had a ’30s love affair with Nazism and Hitler which was in many cases just as profound as that which the German people experienced at the same time.
When they looked at Hitler, many who had an affection for Germany liked what they saw. Intermarriage between British and German high society goes all the way to the top; the Royal Family themselves were called the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas until they changed their name to Windsor at the outbreak of World War I in 1914.
Germany seemed to be thriving under the man who had abolished democracy and declared himself dictator in 1933.
And although few could claim to have been unaware of the official German policy of anti-Semitism after the 1936 Olympics in which Jewish athletes were banned from the German team, many were prepared to turn a blind eye in the face of the country’s extraordinary economic and psychic revival from the crushed and humiliated shell of a nation state it had been for all of the 1920s.
By 1938, unemployment was virtually nil—it had been 30% when Hitler took power.
Many of the British upper classes—not, it must be said, universally famed for their racial tolerance at the best of times—were impressed.
The cultural exchange between the two countries was facilitated in large part through the medium of peers’ daughters.
For much of the 1930s, the pretty young ladies of the great houses of England were sent off to Germany for ‘finishing’—a combination of art, music, balls, and husband hunting, in reverse order.
Even as late as 1939, the tours were still taking place—Lady Elizabeth Montagu Douglas Scott, the daughter of the Duke of Buccleuch, who later married the Duke of Northumberland, spent two months right before World War II in Munich.
Her time was spent learning German and getting ready to be presented in time for society’s shooting season in Scotland and hunt balls at Christmas.
Lady Elizabeth told Rachel Johnson, sister of London Mayor Boris Johnson, “I’m afraid I didn’t give a thought to what was going on outside. I was sleeping, eating, chatting, dining, dancing. That was all.”
The Nazis had many friends in powerful places, but perhaps none were more influential than Harold Harmsworth, aka Lord Rothermere, the owner of the Daily Mail in the 1930s.
In January 1934 Rothermere wrote a Daily Mail editorial entitled “Hurrah for the Blackshirts”, praising Oswald Mosley for his “sound, commonsense, Conservative doctrine.”
An editor at the Spectator responded by writing, “the Blackshirts, like the Daily Mail, appeal to people unaccustomed to thinking. The average Daily Mail reader is a potential Blackshirt ready made.”
Rothermere congratulated Hitler on his invasion of the Sudetenland, and secret papers declassified and released in 2005 showed that he also wrote to Hitler in 1939 congratulating him for the annexation of Czechoslovakia, praising his “great and superhuman work in regenerating your country,” and encouraging him to invade Romania.
As Clive Irving has detailed on this site, King Edward VIII—who abdicated in 1936 and is the young man featured in the newly published video—was also a Nazi sympathizer, as was his lover, Wallis Simpson. They visited Germany in 1937 and were entertained by and photographed with Hitler and other senior Nazis.
Their Nazi leanings are often thought by conspiracy theorists to be the ‘real’ reason Edward was ‘made’ to abdicate.
A year after war broke out, the FBI sent a memo to President Roosevelt outlining the agency’s worries about the couple.
It stated: “It has been ascertained that for some time, the British government has known that the Duchess of Windsor was exceedingly pro-German in her sympathies and connections and there is strong reason to believe that this is the reason why she was considered so obnoxious to the British government that they refused to permit Edward to marry her and maintain the throne.”
The most famous young girl to come under the Third Reich’s spell was of course Unity Mitford.
Unity Mitford was the second-youngest Mitford girl. Her elder sister Diana in 1932 left her husband to pursue an affair with Oswald Mosley, who had just founded the British Union of Fascists.
Unity and Diana Mitford travelled to Germany as part of the British delegation from the BUF for the 1933 Nuremberg Rally, seeing Hitler for the first time.
Mitford said, “The first time I saw him I knew there was no one I would rather meet.”
She returned to Germany in the summer of 1934, and set her heart on getting close to Hitler.
This was not a particularly difficult thing for a well-bred, well-connected British girl to achieve, and after meeting him she wrote to her father: “It was the most wonderful and beautiful [day] of my life. I am so happy that I wouldn’t mind a bit, dying. I’d suppose I am the luckiest girl in the world. For me he is the greatest man of all time”.
Hitler and Mitford became close, with Hitler apparently using Mitford to provoke the jealousy of his new girlfriend, Eva Braun.
Mitford became a virulent and public anti-Semite, writing in a German paper: “The English have no notion of the Jewish danger. Our worst Jews work only behind the scenes. We think with joy of the day when we will be able to say England for the English! Out with the Jews! Heil Hitler! P.S. please publish my name in full, I want everyone to know I am a Jew hater.”
When Hitler announced the Anschluss in 1938, she appeared with him on the balcony in Vienna, confirmation that she was now truly part of Hitler’s inner circle.
After Britain’s declaration of war on Germany in September 1939, Unity shot herself in the head with a pearl-handled pistol given to her by Hitler for protection. She survived the suicide attempt, was flown back to the UK, and died in Scotland in 1948.
Unity’s desperate act is entirely symbolic of the shame many of the British upper classes felt at their support for Hitler and the Nazis when the war finally began.
They suddenly realized they had been engaged in something pretty close to treason.
When the extent of his murderous, genocidal regime became clear, it can only be imagined how deeply those who may once have argued for Hitler in drawing rooms and even offered him a jocular salute in their walled gardens for the camera must have regretted their earlier flirtation with the Fuhrer.
The mystery is not that such footage of the Queen and her family was taken in the 1930s. The mystery is why on earth, sometime after 1939, it was not destroyed.
Correction 7/21 0130: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Royal Family was known by the surname Battenberg until King George V replaced the German-sounding title with that of Windsor. They were actually known as the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha family. Prince Philip was a Battenberg, but was obliged to take his wife’s surname, Windsor.