The only British institution to have had a good year in 2016 is the monarchy. After the Brexit vote to leave Europe everything else fell apart. Her majesty’s subjects are deeply divided between small-minded Little Englanders and dismayed Europhiles. But the queen, having celebrated her 90th birthday and overtaken Queen Victoria as the longest reigning British monarch, remains beloved and serenely above all the rancor and hate-mongering.
And her world-wide fan club has been boosted by the first season of the Netflix bio-drama The Crown. The royal family has been given the full Downton Abbey treatment (gob-smacking wardrobes and sets) with the added frisson that this was no fictional brood of Granthams but a real and even more fevered clan called the Windsors.
It was gripping to see how a young and largely unprepared woman rose above the insidious, scheming courtiers, a political class paralyzed by the whims of the living but infirm legend Winston Churchill and grim post-war austerity to become the credible figurehead of a national revival.
Of course, this is history as soap opera, albeit very superior soap opera. The creator of the series and its writer, Peter Morgan, is a skilled romancer of events and characters. But in this impeccably staged pageant of the life and testing times of the House of Windsor there was one piece of air-brushing that needs more attention than it has received.
It concerns the role of the family’s lurking albatross, the former Prince of Wales, King Edward VIII and subsequent Duke of Windsor. In The Crown he appears as a cross between a tailor’s dummy and a drawling, embittered old toff that the family called David. Morgan uses him as a kind of “noises off” tribune who, at key dramatic points, delivers soliloquies of commentary to the audience—sometimes with touches of editorializing by Morgan, like rather ungraciously pointing out that the queen was not exactly a towering intellect.
But we see nothing in the flashbacks of David’s darkest self, his flat-out infatuation with Adolf Hitler or, indeed, of the plot that the Nazis hatched to kidnap him (they assumed he wouldn’t offer any resistance) and hold him in reserve until such time as the kingdom was subjugated under German occupation and he would return to the throne as a puppet kaiser. This would, they thought, be in keeping with the German roots of the royal family once called Saxe-Coburg and Gotha until they adopted the name of Windsor in World War I.
If that scheme sounds harebrained it’s as well to remember that war introduces many harebrained schemes and that this one was, in fact, deadly serious and very nearly executed.
The Prince of Wales became King Edward VIII on the death of his father, George V, at the end of 1935. He ruled for less than a year. At the end of 1936 he abdicated after being told that under the constitution he could not marry his American mistress, Wallis Simpson, because she was divorced. It was at this point that he took the title of the Duke of Windsor and she became the duchess.
The duke had always been close to his German cousins. Influenced by them he had been an early admirer of Hitler—as were many members of the British aristocracy that he moved among. As Prince of Wales he had proclaimed his sympathies for the working classes (somewhat unconvincingly, given his personal taste for luxury) and he was easily gulled into thinking that German National Socialism was a progressive solution to social inequities.
Given this past, and now free to roam the continent with Wallis Simpson, whom he married in France in 1937, he turned out to be a perfect useful idiot for Nazi propaganda to manipulate. The duchess was more of an accomplice in this process than anybody knew at the time.
During Edward VIII’s short reign Simpson had been the focus of an investigation by the British security services. She was a close friend of the German ambassador in London, Joachim von Ribbentrop. Ribbentrop frequently visited her lavish London apartment—it was rumored but never proved that they had a long-running affair.
From their own spies in Berlin British intelligence knew that secret assessments of the Nazi regime sent to London by the British ambassador in Berlin were being fed back, through Ribbentrop, to the Nazi leadership. The king received the same Berlin messages in his red box, as part of the daily briefings given to the monarch by the government.
Agents in the royal household discovered that the king was careless with these papers, leaving them openly on his desk where Wallis Simpson could read them. Once this breach was confirmed official dispatches from Berlin were removed from the papers sent to the king.
While king, the duke had toured poorer districts of London in a motorcade and some of these streets were lined with members of the black-shirted British fascist movement who gave him the fascist salute. Then, in October 1937, when the duke and duchess arrived in Berlin for a state visit, he was greeted with the real thing—this time the crowds were screaming “Heil Windsor!” and “Heil Edward!”
The duke was now ready to give as well as receive; his own right arm had apparently been twitching for some time, and finally got its release when the pair arrived to see the graduates of a military academy that prepared an elite group of thugs for their future, the Death’s Head Division of the SS. Before inspecting their ranks the duke gave them an all-in Hitler salute.
The climax of this visit was staged as a classic Nazi tableau: The Windsors were driven up a mountain road to be greeted in person by Hitler at his Bavarian eyrie, the Berghof. They spent nearly two hours together, but in a slightly farcical situation. The duke spoke fluent German but Hitler insisted on having him speak in English through his own interpreter. The duke frequently complained that the version of what he said being relayed to Hitler was incorrect. We’ll never know actually what was said because, like so much of the record of the duke’s conversations with the Nazi leadership, no transcriptions have survived.
In fact, seeking the truth of the duke’s fascist flirtations and what followed in the summer of 1940 is frustrating for historians. The official reports on the duke and duchess and their involvement with the Nazis were disappeared at the end of World War II in both Britain and Germany. The German archives in Berlin were “weeded” by a team that included Anthony Blunt, who led a double life as both an art historian working for the royal family and a Soviet spy, before being unmasked in 1979 as the long-sought Fourth Man in a cell of traitors who compromised British security for decades.
To this day, the few historians who have been granted permission to work in the royal archives at Windsor Castle persistently complain that they have been denied access to anything political dating from 1918 onward.
The efficiency of this censorship and purge suggests that there was more to the duke’s behavior in Germany than is indicated by the picture of him that is usually presented, as a vainglorious dupe. (In The Crown Peter Morgan conveys the vainglorious behavior and also someone with a shrewd grasp of palace politics, but nothing darker.)
What we do know is that the plot to kidnap the duke and duchess was hatched by Simpson’s old confidante, Joachim von Ribbentrop who, in 1940, was Hitler’s foreign minister. The Germans knew that the duke was involved in back channel negotiations for a peace deal between Britain and Germany using as a conduit Mussolini’s foreign minister, Count Ciano, who also happened to be one of the duchess’s many former lovers.
After Winston Churchill became prime minister these negotiations came to nothing.
When the Germans invaded northern France that summer, the duke and duchess were at their mansion in Paris. Without waiting for instructions from London the pair with their entourage took flight to the French Riviera, on roads packed with fleeing refugees. From there British diplomats arranged for them to travel on to Madrid.
Technically Spain was neutral in the war but the country was under the brutal fascist fist of Generalissimo Francisco Franco and the capital was a nest of international intrigue. In London Churchill, furious that the duke had bolted from Paris, wanted to get him and the duchess out of Spain to Portugal, where a boat would be sent to get them and take them into exile.
Ribbentrop hoped that they would remain in Spain. He needed time to move agents into place and to explore how, with Spanish help, the duke and duchess could be lured into a place where they could be persuaded to defect.
Certainly, the duke didn’t seem to be in any hurry, and the foreign diplomatic corps in Madrid were soon aware of his views. The American ambassador to Spain, for example, reported that the duke complained that the war was a disaster for Britain and that the nation was on the brink of a catastrophic defeat.
“The most important thing to be done now is to end the war before thousands more are killed or maimed to save the faces of a few politicians,” he was reported saying.
Finally the duke acceded to the pressure from London and the pair arrived in Lisbon on July 3. But Lisbon was just as thick with foreign agents as Madrid and within a few days the German minister there told Ribbentrop: “The Duke is convinced that if he had remained on the throne the war would have been avoided, and he characterizes himself as a firm supporter of a peaceful arrangement with Germany.”
A fog of deception and counter-deception now descends on the story. By now Ribbentrop had signed off on a plot that involved Spanish friends of the duke arranging a hunting trip near the border of Portugal and Spain, where they could be abducted out of reach of the British agents who usually escorted them and taken to Spain to await a move to Germany.
Once more, the duke and duchess lingered. The duchess had gained the assent of the Nazis to send her maid back to their Paris mansion to collect silver, china, and linen that she wanted brought to Portugal and she would not leave without it.
Churchill, more exasperated than ever, sent one of his most skilled lawyers and fixers to end the dallying, with an admonitory letter to the duke that read, in part: “Many sharp and unfriendly ears will be picked up to catch any suggestion that Your Royal Highness takes a view about the war, or about the Germans, or about Hitlerism, which is different from that adopted by the British nation and Parliament.”
In fact, the British nation and Parliament, facing their darkest hour, wanted no part any more of the duke and duchess of Windsor. Nor, for that matter, did the royal family. The queen (the present queen’s mother) was particularly vitriolic toward the duchess and remained so for the rest of her long life.
Churchill appointed the duke as the governor of the Bahamas, and on Aug. 1, 1940 the pair sailed from Lisbon aboard an American ship, The Excalibur. Ten cabins and a suite were taken by them, their staff, and their minders, displacing a number of other people anxious to escape from Europe to the United States.
In the Bahamas the Duke and Duchess mingled with a decadent group of aristocratic British expats who managed to inhabit a bubble of luxury undisturbed by the horrors of world war. It was not, however, luxurious enough for the Duchess. The Duke, as ever pliant to her demands, sat down and personally typed a letter to Churchill, complaining that the colonial authorities in London had forbidden her from taking a trip to New York to do some personal shopping.
Churchill, with surprising forbearance, given that at that time he was unsure that Britain could even survive, patiently explained that the moment was not right for the trip.