Buckingham Palace opened an inquiry Saturday into how film of the future Queen Elizabeth II apparently giving a Nazi salute as a 7-year-old in 1933 reached the hands of The Sun newspaper, which published images from the home movie on its front page Saturday with the headline “Their Royal Heilnesses.”
The Sun said it obtained the footage in a legitimate manner, and defended the publication. No official complaint had been made to British police as of Saturday night.
Several rival British tabloid newspapers on Sunday filled their front pages with headlines expressing outrage at the alleged invasion of privacy and ostensible misrepresenting of a bit of childhood fun as something more sinister. The Sunday People, for instance, quoted what it said was the monarch’s response to the publication: “Livid Queen demands to know who leaked Nazi salute film and says: I have been betrayed.” The Sunday Mirror headlined with “Hurt Royal Highness,” and similarly said the Queen, 89, felt “betrayed” by “deliberate mischief making,” while the determinedly monarchist Sunday Express asserted, “Queen was just waving.”
But reactions in more up-market newspapers were mixed, with columnists in the Guardian praising the scoop.
Initial investigation reportedly suggests that the 17-second clip may have been in a batch of archive material given to filmmakers from the Royal Archive for a future documentary. The royal family was reported to be examining whether any copyright had been breached, and whether any criminality was involved.
The Sun’s Saturday front page showed the queen raising her right hand in the air as her mother, the late Queen Mother, does the same. The images showing the apparent Nazi salute come from a black and white home movie which The Sun reported was shot at the royal family’s rural Balmoral estate in Scotland in 1933 or 1934 and has never been made public before.
The video shows the young future queen briefly raising her right hand in the air three times, as well as dancing around excitedly and playing with a corgi. The group, which also included the queen’s sister Princess Margaret, were apparently being encouraged by the queen’s uncle, the future king Edward VIII.
‘People will see the incident for what it was – a politically unaware child doing the bidding of her uncle and her mother’
The late Queen Mother’s official biographer, William Shawcross, said the clip merely showed “children playing with their parents. Anybody can horse around in their back garden. It means absolutely nothing.” He said he spent years reading the Queen Mother’s private correspondence “and there is not a scintilla of evidence of Nazi sympathies in her letters. She wrote of the evil of Nazism. She and the king did more than anyone apart from Churchill to keep up morale during the war.” The king in question, George VI, was apparently behind the camera of the 1933 home movie.
A former Guardian editor, Peter Preston, robustly defended the publication, however, in part because of the reminder it delivered of how differently British history might have turned out.
Edward VIII, “the then Prince of Wales, a once and briefly future king, was a charming, libidinous idiot,” wrote Preston. “He dabbled his toes in the fascist stream that ran through the 1930s. He belonged instinctively to a gullible ruling class that longed to bring ‘order’ and ‘control’ to a tumultuous decade. His roots in Saxe-Coburg-Gotha bloodlines couldn’t be buried too deep. He might, indeed, have been Hitler’s chosen figurehead for a submissive Britain a few years down the track.”
“This is the man,” Preston continued, “caught here in a few clips of ancient film, teaching his sister-in-law and two young nieces saluting techniques. For those who only know of him as a lovelorn bit player in movies about stuttering monarchs, it’s a useful reminder that things weren’t always picture perfect in the royal garden. There is absolutely no reason not to publish it.”
The Guardian newspaper’s media columnist Roy Greenslade also defended The Sun’s decision to publish: “Once the newspaper had obtained the film, what was it supposed to do?” he asked. “Suppress it? Hand it in to the palace? It was bound to publish it and, in so doing, make as much noise about it as possible. I can understand that the Queen thinks its publication ‘disappointing,’ but it hardly merits condemnation. After all, although a little embarrassing for the 89-year-old monarch, it is not going to change anyone’s view of her. People will see the incident for what it was – a politically unaware child doing the bidding of her uncle and her mother. So she will not suffer a backlash from the British public.”
The Sun’s managing editor Stig Abel called it “a historical document that really sheds some insight into the behavior of Edward VIII.” Abel added, in a radio interview, that he understood that the Royal Family “don’t like this coming out but I also feel, on a relatively purist basis, that the role of journalists and the media is to bring to light things that happened.”
The up-market Independent argued, by contrast, that “the footage of the Queen as a child in 1933 giving a Nazi salute should have stayed unseen. This newspaper would not have published it. Naturally there is huge interest in the footage, but public interest is not the same as being in the public interest, and The Sun’s attempt to defend publication fails to meet that test… Scrutiny is one thing; prurience is quite another.”
The headline on The Sun story Saturday punned: “Their Royal Heilnesses” — a reference to the “Heil Hitler” greeting used in Nazi Germany. A smaller headline elaborated: “Secret 1933 film shows Edward VIII teaching this Nazi salute to the Queen.”
The article said the “astonishing home movie” had never previously been seen. The paper also used a separate photograph of Hitler saluting to emphasize the parallel gestures.
“It is disappointing that film shot eight decades ago and apparently from HM’s (her majesty’s) personal family archive has been obtained and exploited in this manner,” a spokesman for Buckingham Palace said in a statement.
Ten years ago, it was also The Sun, a tabloid and Britain’s top-selling newspaper, which published a photograph of Prince Harry wearing a swastika armband to a friend’s fancy dress party. The fifth in line to the throne later apologized.
The precise nature of Edward’s links to the Nazis are still debated in Britain, with some historians accusing him of being sympathetic to Adolf Hitler’s regime.
He met Hitler in Germany in 1937 after having abdicated as king the previous year over his desire to marry US divorcee Wallis Simpson.
A royal source speaking on condition of anonymity said that the queen would have been “entirely innocent of attaching any meaning to these gestures” at such a young age.
“The queen and her family’s service and dedication to the welfare of this nation during the war (World War II) and the 63 years the queen has spent building relations between nations and peoples speaks for itself,” the source added.
The source also claimed that “no one at that time had any sense how it (the situation in Germany) would evolve.”
The affection in which many Britons still hold the Queen Mother, who died in 2002, is based on her and husband King George VI’s decision to stay in London during World War II and visit bomb sites caused by German aerial attacks known as The Blitz.
Hitler became German leader in 1933. By the end of World War II 12 years later, millions of people had been killed in concentration camps, six million of them Jews.
The queen paid a state visit to Germany last month during which she went to Bergen-Belsen, her first visit to a former Nazi camp, where some 52,000 people died, including teenage Jewish diarist Anne Frank.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.