Queen Elizabeth has every right to expect that Bad Uncle Edward, who died in 1972, would remain dead and quiet. But now his ghost blunders back into the light to disturb the golden twilight of her reign.
This wretched man, the Duke of Windsor, and before that King Edward VIII and Prince of Wales, has left a curse on the House of Windsor. There he is, grinning, as he tutors Elizabeth, aged 7 or 8, and her little sister Margaret in giving the Nazi “Heil Hitler” salute, in the film clip released (to much dismay) by Rupert Murdoch’s London tabloid, The Sun.
It should not really be a surprise. The Duke’s own right arm began to twitch early, when he was the Prince of Wales.
In 1935 the German ambassador to London, Leopold von Hoesch, reported to Berlin on conversations he had had with the Prince. The Prince had, he said, been complaining about the behavior of the British government. In talks with Hitler they were not being sympathetic enough to German interests. Hoesch wrote:
“He desired his homeland to remain strong and to command respect, and therefore understood very well that the Reich Government and the German people were inspired by a similar desire. He fully understood that Germany wished to face the other nations squarely, her head high, relying on her strength and conscious that Germany’s word counted as much in the world as that of other nations.”
In January 1936 Edward succeeded his father, George V, as King. He was on the throne for less than a year—in a scandal he chose to abdicate after being told that he would never be allowed to marry his American mistress, Wallis Simpson, because she was a divorcee.
Henceforth the couple, now known as “The Windsors,” were a very public nuisance. And, if up to this point the Duke’s right arm had been held in check only by a suppressive reflex of the kind used by Dr. Strangelove in the Kubrick film, it was no longer tethered.
In October 1937 the couple arrived in Berlin to be warmly greeted by Nazi officials. They had tea with the chief of the Luftwaffe, Field Marshal Göring, and his wife. Göring told the Duke that he believed that the abdication had been forced on him by people who wanted him off the throne because he was sympathetic to German interests. The Duke was, Göring said, “a man who understood the signs of the times and knew how to interpret them,” and added that the Nazis would like to see him back on the throne.
The culmination of the visit was a meeting with the Fuhrer on his mountaintop at Berchtesgaden. Before this the Duke had been seen responding to enthusiastic crowds with a Nazi salute and he repeated it at Berchtesgaden.
Whatever the Duke thought he was doing in Germany, the Nazis had sized him up very well. He was an empty vessel ready to be given a renewed sense of self-importance by suggestions of a new destiny.
Hitler’s own view was colored by an anachronistic belief that the Brits were in thrall to a combination of the royal family (whose roots were, after all, in German royalty) and the old landed aristocracy. An idea was gaining hold: Once the Nazis conquered mainland Europe, the British would realize the folly of a war they couldn’t win and would capitulate, whereupon the Duke could be restored to the throne as a pliant consul of Berlin. This thought, as absurd as it was, advanced to become a fully developed plot.
As France collapsed under the German onslaught in 1940, the Windsors reluctantly abandoned their mansion in Paris—their chosen place of exile after the abdication—and replete with an entourage of servants carrying many trunks of luggage went first to the south of France and then Madrid.
Winston Churchill, who had become prime minister only a month earlier and was assessing the grim prospects of facing the Nazis alone, was informed that there was a “backwash of Nazi intrigue” centered on the Duke. Churchill decided that the Windsors should be gotten out of Europe as soon as possible.
But they lingered in Madrid, where the American embassy reported to the State Department that the Duke was saying that France had fallen because, unlike Germany, it had failed to reorganize the order of its society. For good measure, the Duchess had added that France had lost “because it was internally diseased.”
The Windsor entourage then moved on to Portugal and to a villa in the resort town of Estoril, west of Lisbon, where the Duchess negotiated with Nazi officials in occupied Paris to send a maid to fetch some her wardrobe that had been left there.
There has always seemed to be a farcical element to the final act of the Nazi scheme for the Duke’s future that unfolded in Estoril. The Germans dispatched a senior intelligence officer, Walter Schellenberg, to engineer the abduction of the Windsors—they were to be taken back to Madrid and held there until Churchill surrendered and then the Duke would become the head of a new puppet monarchy in Great Britain?
In order to unnerve the Windsors the Germans suggested that the British intelligence agents who had now arrived in Estoril to protect the Windsors were, in fact, going to engineer an “accident” in which they would be disposed of because they had become an embarrassment to the British government. Only the last part of that thesis was true.
The German foreign ministry sent a long message to their ambassador in Lisbon to be forwarded through Portuguese friends to the Duke that said, in part: “Basically Germany wants peace with the English people. The Churchill clique stands in the way of this peace…It would be a good thing if the Duke were to keep himself prepared for further developments.”
In the event, the Windsors were finally persuaded to board an American ship and sailed away to the exile that Churchill had dictated for them: The Duke would be Governor of the Bahamas.
I have never really bought the idea that this was all a farce. I realized that the more comical it seems, the less likely it is to be taken seriously. In his memoirs Schellenberg made light of the Nazi operation and suggested that he never thought the Duke would consent to the role Hitler assigned to him. But that was self-serving, intended to make Schellenberg seem less dangerous than he had actually been. Schellenberg was a member of the SS and, within that instrument of terror, also a member of its inner corps, the SD. He did not play games.
As have others who have tried over the years to get to the truth of this saga I found that important parts of the official record are missing. After the end of the war Churchill gave high priority to a team called “the weeders” who were sent to mine German archives in Berlin for anything related to the Windsors, particularly the German accounts of the Duke’s conversation with Hitler in 1937 and other messages that passed between the Duke and various Nazi officials until they reached Portugal.
Churchill’s motive was very clear. The Duke’s brother who had succeeded him as King, George VI, and Queen Elizabeth (who reviled Wallis Simpson) had restored public loyalty to the monarchy by exemplary behavior during the war (nicely evoked in the movie, The King’s Speech.) This was no time to have the monarchy sullied by revelations about a proto-Nazi in the family.
The weeders did a fine job. Of any damning new evidence of treachery there was no trace. I discovered that the Weeder-in-Chief had been none other than Anthony Blunt, whom we now know had, since the outbreak of war (and long afterward), been a Communist mole at the highest levels of British intelligence.
Of course, it is the specific absence of any record of crucial conversations that underlines how important (and damning) they probably were. The smoking gun would be an explicit understanding between the Duke and the Nazis that he understood and was willing to accept two things: his role as a conciliator between a victorious Germany and a British government ready to sue for peace, and his future part as king in that arrangement. We know from the accounts of others that he always seemed to take both these ideas seriously, but neither German nor British archives have a paper trail. There are no transcripts with redactions. There are no transcripts at all, period.
The narrative I have given here is informed by clues found in the diaries of a range of politicians and diplomats that were published well after the event, as well as original research in the Spanish and Portuguese archives.
There is a postscript to this hunt for the missing details. A member of the staff of the Public Record Office in London was very apologetic to my wife, who did much of my research. He explained that any documents disclosing the Duke’s activities in Germany that had survived fell, at the request of the royal family, under what is known as the 100 Year Rule—they could not be disclosed until a hundred years had passed. (Look out, future King William!)
He did, however, offer up a morsel that, he said, had just been released. It was a letter written by the Duke to Churchill from the Bahamas in 1941. In London, Churchill was contending with the darkest months of the war, when bombs were raining down on the capital and other cities, when defeat still seemed possible.
The Duke complained that the Duchess was being prevented from making a trip to Miami and New York. She needed to go shopping to refresh her wardrobe and it was causing her distress.
Churchill refused, politely.
The Duke was not an evil man. He was a feeble-minded twit. (The British Prime Minister who handled the abdication, Stanley Baldwin, wrote, “He is an abnormal being, half child…it is as though two or three cells of his brain remained entirely undeveloped. He is not a THINKER…no serious reading: none at all.”) But if history has taught us anything it is that feeble-minded twits can do harm, sometimes lots of harm.