This weekend the Sun newspaper published an image of a still taken from a home movie from before WWII of the Windsor family. The future Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and the future Queen Elizabeth II join the future King Edward VIII in a Nazi salute. I won’t link to the image both because I would never link to the Sun and because I understand that the family do not want the image, which was from their family archive, circulated.
Before I go further, however, I should say that I am a republican. I don’t believe that a constitutional monarchy is suitable for Britain and would prefer an elected head of state. So I don’t venerate this family. Further, I think that their constitutional role means that aspects of their private life are a matter of political and historical concern. So there is value in discussing the image, though not so much value that it needs reproducing here.
It is already widely known that Edward VIII was a Nazi sympathiser. It was not, of course, the trigger for his abdication, that was for the much more serious concern stemming from his marrying a divorced woman (who was also a Nazi sympathiser). So we knew already rules of succession saved us from our head of state siding with Hitler.
What the image shows us is that while his brother, George the VI, had never been known to support Hitler, and was a symbol of British resistance to the Nazis through the war, his wife and his daughters and so, perhaps, he himself, had been comfortable enough to, at the least, play along before the war.
Does this mean they were all closet Nazis? That they secretly supported Hitler? That Queen Elizabeth II is suspect? No. It reminds us of something much more important. That before the war many people did sympathise with the Nazis. Nazi sympathisers were not seen as ‘crackpots’. That the right wing has long been powerful in Britain and this is not benign.
The Windsors were far from the only family with this kind of past. The longer we tell the story that Britain always and only stood against the Nazis the easier it is for us to ignore what the right wing in Britain did and still does.
So, I wish that the Queen would put her concern for privacy to one side. That she would put her embarrassment to one side. That she would step up and be a leader of her people. That she would discuss her family past with us. Perhaps there are lessons we could learn about how that sympathy turned to disgust. Lessons about how they dealt with that past, if they have. So that the rest of us can have the same discussions and we can build on a stronger understanding of ourselves.
The Royal family are often considered to be a cornerstone of our heritage.(see my post on Kensington Palace here) But that contribution goes beyond pomp and majesty; pretty clothes and fine palaces. Heritage is not a popularity contest; it is the use of the past in the present. We can’t use a past that we are trying to deny.