No escaping sordid history
The queen’s Nazi salute exposes the British establishment’s modern myths, writes Paul Demarty
We say it little enough in this paper, but here goes: hurrah for The Sun! For the nation’s most infamous red-top has found a little spare time, between baiting immigrants and spying on celebrities, to unearth something of genuine historical interest.
How exactly the Currant Bun came by an old video clip of half the royal family circa 1933 cheerfully mimicking the Nazi Roman salute remains unclear - current thinking in the palace is that it popped up during preparations for an exhibition of material relating to the queen’s childhood, and was leaked by some unscrupulous archivist.
But that hardly matters. The video - trailed in Saturday’s Sun under the delightful headline “Their royal heilnesses” - speaks for itself. There is the future Elizabeth II, being led by her mother and the future Edward VIII, stiff-arming it like a new recruit to the League of German Maidens. It is a beautiful little vignette of an age not nearly as distant from our own as some would like to pretend.
The reaction has been somewhat ridiculous. The official organs of the royal family have essentially taken the line that this is an invasion of privacy, which cannot but remind us of the furore over the so-called black spider memos. In that case, the representatives of the Prince of Wales - along with successive government figures - attempted to frustrate the desire of The Guardian to see the sort of thing dear Charles was lobbying ministers about. That, too, was apparently a ‘private affair’.
Needless to say, this is the monarchy attempting to have its cake and eat it. Mark Almond, a professor of history at Oxford, told The Guardian: “When they think some charming pictures of the queen’s childhood give a positive message, then they are happy. But if there is something they don’t want put out they are awkward about it.” There is a wider issue, too: we are talking about a video with two future heads of state, one of which - Edward VIII - was mired in controversy throughout and after his short reign. Those photographed in the offending pose are public figures in the strongest sense possible; you cannot be queen and expect your private life to be private. There will be those prepared to pay £30,000 for something scandalous about your past, as The Sun appears to have done; and there will be those prepared to take it.
Still more ridiculous are the apologetics for what is portrayed in the video. Some establishment types are claiming that the salutes are somehow ironic, mocking the Nazis. These poor souls are guilty of attempting to reconcile two very modern patriotic myths with the actual history of the 20th century. The results, naturally, are desperately deficient.
It is worth looking at that history first of all, which begins at the close of World War I. Three results of that war are implicated here - first of all, the arrangement of victors and vanquished. The alliance of Britain, France and ultimately the United States prevailed over the central European powers, subsequently imposing the treaty of Versailles, which left Germany in a state of apparently perpetual penury, forbidden to rebuild its armed forces and crippled by enormous reparations. Secondly, there was the small matter of the October revolution, which propelled the working class in openly communist form to power in the largest country on Earth, albeit in conditions of severe isolation from the very beginning.
The third factor has two aspects. The war itself was a decisive point in the decline of British imperialism, which would finally cede hegemony to the US 20-odd years later; between the two dates, more morbid symptoms appeared. Along with this world-historical crisis, however, came an ideological one: “the centre cannot hold,” lamented (the fascist-leaning) WB Yeats - only one of many examples from modern literature of the total tailspin among ruling circles in Britain and continental Europe. The traumatic character of the war itself - the enormous bloodshed, the catastrophic confrontation of modern military technology with the crumbling world order - exacerbated this ideological crisis.
The combination of these three factors made a further war inevitable; the world divided even more thoroughly into competing trade blocs, and the failure of the imperialist powers to fully strangle the Soviet Union in its cradle left an ominous threat to the east, and sympathising communist parties of varying degrees of influence in the west. The stage was set for the rise of reaction, taking its most dramatic form in the fascist takeovers of Italy and Germany.
The victory of the Hitler movement in Germany relied ultimately on significant elements of the state core and industrial bourgeoisie supporting the sharp, dictatorial measures it proposed to deal with the communist menace. That menace was not so sharply felt domestically in Britain; but with the empire’s global reach, and the Communist International’s unprecedented efforts to spread its influence in colonial countries, encircling and isolating the Soviet regime was of paramount importance.
The victory of Hitler, then - roughly contemporaneous, so far as anyone can tell, with The Sun’s video - was widely welcomed among sections of the British establishment. How could it be otherwise? “First they came for the communists,” wrote a repentant Martin Niemöller years later. So they did - before Hitler’s power was even thoroughly entrenched, Communist Party of Germany leaders and militants were in Dachau.
Hitler’s rise, however, had an unfortunate side from the point of view of the British ruling class. He proceeded immediately to tear up the Versailles treaty, and rapidly rearm. A war of expansion was plainly on the cards from early on. The question was, would this damage British interests, or would his attention be focused on the east and ultimately the destruction of Stalin’s regime in Russia? The establishment was divided - not on whether Hitler was a threat to the Jews, but on whether he was a threat to the empire. Winston Churchill thought so; many others did not.
It is commonly imagined nowadays that ‘appeasement’ - the misleading name under which toleration of Hitler’s expansionism goes nowadays - was merely a matter of moral cowardice, a willingness to turn a blind eye to the cancerous growth of a great evil. Thus neo-conservatives could call the French government ‘appeasers’ in the run-up to the Iraq war: they merely lacked the balls to take him out.
In fact, there is very little evidence that anyone much who mattered considered the repugnant programme of Nazism terrifically evil at all. Anti-Semitism was rife in ruling class circles. Churchill is the great example, precisely because he became the foremost establishment opponent of appeasement: his opinions on Jews were dubious, to say the least, and he promulgated the classic conspiracy theory that Bolshevism was an essentially Jewish phenomenon (though at least there were good, “national” Jews like Disraeli). He supported eugenics and the forced sterilisation of the “feeble-minded”. His anti-communism was fanatical to the point of lunacy, and his actions during the General Strike of 1926 were so hair-raising that Stanley Baldwin had to sideline him. He was not, by the standards of 2015, overburdened with political correctness.
Here we meet our two great patriotic myths. The first is about the nature and purpose of World War II - it is remembered as a war of liberation from the Nazi yoke, “our finest hour” and all that. Thus did Britain, at times practically alone, stand up for its values of liberty and tolerance against a totalitarian threat of unprecedented brutality. A cursory examination of the motives of the actual actors involved - like Churchill, above - reveals this to be entirely nonsense.
The second is the benignancy of the monarchy - this grand, timeless institution that stands above and in some sense outside the narrow interests of this government or that, representing instead the basic unity of the national character. In our own age, this is manifested in the treatment of living royals as essentially celebrities. There was not much in the way of political motivation in The Sun’s publication of this video; the queen is, among other things, a famous person, and she has been caught doing something embarrassing. A parallel may be drawn with the unfortunate incident in which her grandson, Harry, was papped in full Nazi uniform at a party in 2005 (as it happens, another Sun exclusive). Nobody imagines that he has Nazi sympathies, and nor, for that matter, Elizabeth herself, who was a small child at the time of her Nazi salute.
Her uncle, however - also in the video - is another matter entirely. His affinity with Hitler is notorious. It led to his becoming viewed as a great security risk by the intelligence and military services during the war. There were various attempts by their German counterparts to use the then former king as diplomatic leverage, and even wild schemes to kidnap him, to the point that he was shipped off to become governor general of the Bahamas, about as far away from the western front as it is possible to get.
The fatuous attempts of the palace to huff about privacy, to hunt down the miscreant who leaked the video, stem ultimately from the need to defend these two lies: the nobility both of Britain’s war aims in 1939 and of the institution of monarchy. The sordid history of the 1930s tells us otherwise, and the fact that one participant in this little film clip still sits on the throne ought to remind us that it was all not so very long ago.