LONDON — If, as has been reported, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II is a fan of “The Crown” — the Netflix series chronicling her 60-year reign which has been garnering rave reviews and high ratings in both the United Kingdom and America — it must nonetheless make for somewhat uncomfortable royal viewing at times.
In the recently released second season, her husband, Prince Phillip, is portrayed as a petulant, loutish womanizer. Her sister, Princess Margaret, is shown as a hung-over, chain-smoking rebel. And her mother, the Queen Mother, is seen as a manipulative schemer. The monarch herself doesn’t entirely escape scot-free: dignified, hard-working and dutiful, she’s also depicted as having a cold, ruthless streak.
However, it is the Queen’s uncle, the Duke of Windsor, who probably fares worst from the blockbuster, which is due to run for six seasons.
The Duke was no minor member of the royal family: The eldest son of King George V, he became king upon the death of his father in January 1936. However, as Edward VIII, he reigned for less than a year, abdicating in December 1936 when the government blocked his marriage to the twice-divorced American, Wallis Simpson. Once the uncrowned monarch had given up the throne, his younger brother — the present queen’s father — took his place as George VI.
While season one of “The Crown” showed Edward to be vain, money-grabbing and self-obsessed, the latest offering twists the knife even further. In its telling, the Duke, as he became on his abdication, is nothing short of a treacherous Nazi sympathizer, whose loathing for his former kingdom extended so far as to encourage the Germans to bomb it into suing for peace.
Some historians have questioned this narrative. “The Duke of Windsor,” wrote the royal biographer, Hugo Vickers, in his comprehensive fact-check of the series, “may have been a fool, but he was no traitor.”
Entitled “Vergangenheit,” the episode of “The Crown” which tackles the Duke’s relationship with the Nazis is focused on the so-called Marburg Files. While “The Crown” occasionally plays fast and lose with the facts, and private conversations between members of the Royal Family are necessarily dramatized and imagined, the essence of its retelling of the Marburg Files story is correct.
The papers, 400 tonnes (440 tons) of German Foreign Ministry files discovered by the Allies in the Herz mountains as the Reich collapsed, were assembled in Marburg Castle.
The British, French and US governments decided that the documents should be released, and, publicly promising them total access and freedom, charged a group of eminent historians with deciding which were worthy of publication.
However, as Paul Sweet, a former US Foreign Service officer and historian later detailed, while the three governments largely kept that promise, pressure not to publish some documents was exerted. The “most egregious example,” he wrote, concerned the Windsor File, a series of papers relating to the Duke’s relationship with the Nazis in 1940.
Following his abdication, the Duke moved to France where he married Simpson. When the Germans invaded in 1940, the couple scuttled south, first to Biarritz, and then on to neutral Spain. By July 1940, they were in Portugal, another neutral state, but, unlike General Franco’s regime, one whose sympathies were with the British.
The new prime minister, Winston Churchill, was initially keen to get the Windsors back to Britain as soon as possible. Shunned by the Royal Family, the Duke, however, was determined to use his apparent leverage to try to extract a pledge that he would be given a post that befitted his rank and that his wife would receive “simple courtesies” — code for some acknowledgement of her royal status by the king and his wife, who thus far had steadfastly refused to meet their sister-in-law.
The Germans meanwhile were hatching plans to ensure the Duke and his wife remained within easy reach.
“Is it possible to detain the Duke and Duchess in Spain for a couple of weeks to begin with before they are granted an exit visa?” the German foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, cabled his ambassador in Madrid.
Both Madrid and Lisbon were crawling with British and German spies and, as the Windsor File documented, the Duke’s openly defeatist talk soon made its way back to Berlin.
From the Spanish capital — where the Duke mixed with pro-Franco Spanish aristocrats — came reports that “Windsor spoke strongly against Churchill and against this war,” while telegrams from Lisbon seemingly revealed that the Duke was “convinced that had he remained on the throne war would have been avoided and describes himself as a firm supporter of peaceful compromise with Germany.”
Most damning of all, the telegram continued, the “Duke believes with certainty that continued heavy bombing will make England ready for peace.”
Churchill later claimed that his primary concern throughout this time was the Duke’s safety and getting him “beyond the reach of the enemy.” In reality, he was fully aware of the potential dangers the Windsors posed.
As a member of his Cabinet, Viscount Caldecote, warned him: “[The Duke] is well-known to be pro-Nazi and he may become a center of intrigue.”
In both Portugal and Spain, watch was kept on the Duke to ensure he did not speak against the Allies to the press.
The ‘Duke believes with certainty that continued heavy bombing will make England ready for peace’
The prime minister knew too just what the Duke had allegedly been saying in Lisbon, warning him against “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.”
Indeed, so frustrated had Churchill become by the Duke’s delaying tactics that he also bluntly told him that anyone serving in the army — Edward was an honorary field marshal and, on the outbreak of war, had been made a major-general attached to the British Military Mission on France — could be court-martialed.
Churchill’s ultimate solution was to get the Duke as far away from Europe as possible by appointing him Governor of The Bahamas. The former king, however, considered the posting to the “third-class British colony” an insult and was in no hurry to take it up, even considering an offer from the Spanish to sit the war out as Franco’s guest.
If the British correctly sensed danger, the Nazis spied an opportunity.
While the couple dawdled in Lisbon, von Ribbentrop told his ambassador in Madrid: “Germany is determined to force England to peace by every means of power and upon this happening would be prepared to accommodate any desire expressed by the Duke, especially with a view to the assumption of the English throne by the Duke and Duchess.”
When this potential prize was dangled before them, the couple did not dismiss it outright. Instead, the German telegrams claim that the Duke and Duchess reacted with surprise when it was suggested to them.
“Both seem to be completely bound up in formalistic ways of thought since they replied that according to British constitution this was not possible after abdication,” one telegram says. “When [an] agent then remarked the course of war may produce changes even in the British constitution the Duchess in particular became very thoughtful.”
A more direct offer from the Nazis — communicated via the Windsors’ Lisbon host, Dr. Ricardo Espirito Santo Silva, a banker who was close to the German ambassador — that “Germany would be prepared to cooperate most closely with the Duke and to clear the way for any desire expressed by the Duke and Duchess,” did not elicit a flat-out rejection, either.
With much of Europe already under the Nazis’ sway and Hitler readying the invasion of Britain, it was not hard to discern the meaning of this message.
As Andrew Morton, author of “17 Carnations: The Windsors, the Nazis and the Cover-up,” has argued: “From von Ribbentrop’s point of view, here was a heaven-sent opportunity to have a pro-German head of state waiting in the wings once Britain had capitulated.”
The Germans did not, however, intend to rely on the carrot of the British throne alone. Instead, they launched a plan — codenamed Operation Willi — designed to ensure the Duke bent to their will.
“The duke should return to Spain under all circumstances,” Ribbentrop wrote to his ambassador in Madrid, adding that they should then be “persuaded or forced” to stay there.
While the Spanish were to front the effort, the Nazis decided to leave nothing to chance, dispatching Walter Schellenberg to Lisbon to oversee the plan. Once there, the legendary head of counterintelligence launched an audacious bid to scare the Windsors into the Nazis’ comforting arms.
He concocted a tale of a British plot to murder the Windsors, and the pro-Franco politician Miguel Primo de Rivera — who relayed the alarming tale to the Duke and Duchess — urged them to seek Spain’s protection.
The Duke and his wife had already secured the bemused Germans’ agreement to protect his two properties in occupied France — a “deplorable indiscretion” which fed the Nazis’ belief that the couple might be willing to assist them in more important ways, according to generally sympathetic historian Philip Ziegler.
The couple eventually set sail for the Bahamas on August 1, 1940. However, the Duke’s lack of trust in his own government was such that he departed only after the arrival of a Scotland Yard detective, sent from London to travel with the couple on their voyage and guard them against the alleged murderous intentions of his former subjects.
Soon after the end of the war, the Windsor File was viewed by a junior historian. With typical British understatement, he cautioned the Foreign Office that it presented the Duke in a “somewhat curious light.”
“The Crown” depicts George VI’s reaction to the discovery of the file: “What is written here would bring the greatest shame upon our family. Our people would rightly never forgive us.”
“These papers must never see the light of day — ever,” chimes his wife, Elizabeth. Later, the present Queen, pale-faced, is seen reading the documents. “This was always going to come back to haunt us,” her mother remarks. “I hope you have a strong stomach.”
As the program goes on to relate, the British government led a decade-long, ultimately unsuccessful, cover-up, desperate to avoid any sullying of the Royal Family’s reputation, albeit by a now all-but detached member of it.
Last year, the Cabinet Office released correspondence between Churchill – now embarking on his second stint as prime minister after his return to power in 1951 — and US president Dwight Eisenhower.
The British had initially wanted, in Churchill’s words, to “destroy all traces” of the Nazi plot to put Edward back on the throne, claiming that the German telegrams were “tendentious and unreliable.”
But with the documents now in the hands of historians in the US, France and Britain, this effort proved fruitless. Instead, Churchill wrote to Eisenhower, publication of the Windsor File should be delayed for “at least 10 or 20 years.”
Eisenhower agreed. The papers, he replied to the prime minister, were “obviously concocted with some idea of promoting German propaganda and weakening Western resistance.”
Ultimately, however, the historians who had been charged with publishing the Nazis’ documentary treasure trove would have none of it. Amid threats of resignation an unhappy compromise was reached. Release of the Windsor File was slowed but not halted.
On August 1, 1957 — 17 years to the day after the Duke and Duchess left Lisbon for the Bahamas — the volume of German Foreign Office documents which included the period of their sojourn on the Iberian peninsula was published.
As Morton relates, the British government successfully managed to dampen Fleet Street’s interest, briefing journalists that the papers showed the Duke to be “an innocent party caught in a web of Nazi intrigue, a royal dupe rather than a traitor king.”
Both the government and the Duke issued statements driving home the message. The former king, the Foreign Office insisted, “never wavered in his loyalty to the British cause,” adding that “The German records are necessarily a much tainted source. The only firm evidence which they provide is of what the Germans were trying to do in the matter, and of how completely they failed to do it.”
The Duke suggested that the reports by the Nazi ambassadors in Madrid and Lisbon were “part complete fabrications, and in part gross distortions of the truth.”
So were the Nazis simply engaged in a royal flight of fancy, misinterpreting the former king’s undoubted rift with his own family — and perhaps genuine horror at the prospect of another European conflagration — as a sign that he was a potential collaborator?
In his authorized biography of the Duke, Ziegler admits that Edward may have been “defeatist, silly, irresponsible [and] indiscreet,” but he “never hoped for the downfall of his fellow countrymen and would never have agreed to be imposed upon them by German arms.”
However, it is not necessary to believe all of the wilder claims that have been made about the Windsors — that the couple passed details of France’s defenses to the Germans shortly before they invaded in 1940 and that the Duchess had a relationship with von Ribbentrop during his time as Hitler’s ambassador to London — to recognize that the Nazis were not entirely wrong to see them as possible fellow travelers.
In the early summer of 1933, for instance, Edward confided in the Kaiser’s grandson that it was “no business of ours to interfere in Germany’s internal affairs either re: the Jews or re anything else.”
Prince of Wales at that time, Edward was also believed to be sympathetic towards Britain’s fascist leader, Sir Oswald Mosley — who, in turn, proved a strong supporter during the abdication crisis.
On becoming king in 1936, Edward proved far more keen than his father to push the limits of Britain’s constitutional monarchy and involve himself in matters of state. While overestimating his influence, the Nazis were, for instance, aware that Edward had privately urged his government to hold its fire when, in his first breach of the Versailles Treaty, Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland.
Hitler was understandably disappointed when Edward abdicated less than a year into his reign.
“I am certain through him permanent friendly relations could have been achieved… His abdication was a severe loss,” his architect and armaments minister, Albert Speer, recalled Hitler as saying.
Ten months after he abandoned the throne, the mutual regard between the Nazis and the Windsors was graphically displayed when the couple paid an unofficial 12-day royal visit to the Reich.
Ostensibly, the former king was visiting to learn more about the regime’s employment and housing policies. In truth, the Duke was consumed by the need for his new wife — whom his brother refused to accord the title of Her Royal Highness and recognize as a member of the Royal Family — to be treated with the dignity and deference which be believed her status warranted.
The Nazis were only to happy to oblige and rolled out the red carpet. The couple visited Göring at his country estate; were feted at a dinner hosted by von Ribbentrop and attended by Hess, Himmler and Goebbels (“a great man,” recorded the propaganda minister in his diary); and traveled to Berchtesgaden where they spent two hours with the Fuhrer. Like he had on other occasions — as, for instance, when he inspected an SS honor guard — the Duke delivered a Nazi salute.
Historian Carolyn Harris has denied that the visit was intended to provide a royal imprimatur of approval to Nazism: “The Duke of Windsor was familiar with Germany — he had numerous relatives there — and seems to have envisioned a diplomatic role for himself as a mediator between Britain and Germany.”
It is certainly true that in doggedly supporting appeasement throughout the 1930s the Duke was no different from many other members of Britain’s ruling class, including his brother and prime ministers Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain.
Moreover, even his belief in attempting to reach a negotiated peace with the Nazis after the outbreak of war was not unique: as the new film “Darkest Hour” relates, the foreign secretary, Viscount Halifax, argued for just such a course after France had fallen in 1940.
Explaining his actions to his niece, the Queen, in “The Crown,” Edward pleads: “People forget — there was no indication of who Hitler would become.”
But even this not particularly strong explanation does not hold much water given the fact that the Duke found kind words for Hitler both during and after the war.
In late 1940, for instance, he gave an interview to an American magazine in which he dismissed the notion of the Fuhrer being overthrown by his own people: “There will be no revolution in Germany and it would be a tragic thing for the world if Hitler were to be overthrown. Hitler is the right and logical leader of the German people… Hitler is a very great man.”
The interview provoked a furious response from Churchill, who privately warned the Duke against “defeatist and pro-Nazi” talk, and blocked a planned visit by him to the United States. The British government had no desire to see the Duke feed isolationist sentiment in the US.
The FBI’s own concerns about the former king ensured that, when he later paid a private trip to the US, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered the agency to keep tabs on the Windsors’ movements.
Even after the full horror of the Holocaust was exposed, the Duke did not temper his views. In the 1950s he reportedly blamed anti-appeasement politicians in Britain, “Roosevelt and the Jews” for a war that he continued to believe the UK should have sat out.
“I thought the rest of us could be fence sitters while the Nazis and the Reds slogged it out,” he suggested in a US newspaper in 1966.
Privately, he expressed even more unpalatable views. “I never thought Hitler was such a bad chap,” he allegedly told a friend in the 1960s.