Royalty and the Reich
Eddie Ford reviews Channel 4's 'Queen Elizabeth and the spy in the palace', directed by Andy Webb
This documentary might not have revealed anything radically new, let alone provided solid or incontrovertible proof for its main contentions. But it certainly told the story with some verve and panache, helped by plenty of fascinating archive footage and photos - some of which I had never seen before. Therefore it is worth watching, especially if you are not particularly familiar with the subject matter.
The spy in question is Anthony Blunt, third cousin to the Queen Mother. He spent most of his early life in France, and his mother had been close friends with Mary of Teck, wife of King George V. In fact, Blunt’s family were dressed in her “cast-off” clothes, as we discovered during the programme. He was also director of the Courtauld Institute, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures and an acknowledged expert on the art of Nicolas Poussin. In other words, Sir Anthony Blunt KCVO spent decades at the very epicentre of the royal family and the British establishment.
However, what brought him to world attention, of course, was not his aristocratic connections or academic brilliance. Rather, the fact that he was the “fourth man” of the Cambridge Five - a group of Cambridge University-educated MI5/MI6 agents working for the Soviet Union from some time in the 1930s to at least the early 1950s. His other more famous comrades were Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess and Kim Philby - followed later by John Cairncross, officially confirmed as the “fifth man” in 1990 by Soviet double-agent Oleg Gordievsky.
As we saw in the documentary, Burgess, Maclean and Blunt were gay, at a time when homosexuality was illegal. One of the assembled experts on the show was Alastair Laing, curator emeritus of pictures and sculpture at the National Trust - who counted Anthony Blunt as a friend. He made the interesting comment that Blunt “must have felt, in some way: how loyal am I to a country that could potentially do this to me” – a country that criminalised him. It also meant, naturally, that Blunt was used to secrecy as a way of life - a handy skill for any spy or double agent. Laing also blamed the “malevolent influence” of the charismatic Guy Burgess for the path taken by Blunt, who was completely infatuated by him.
But what has to be emphasised above all is that the Cambridge Five, and others like them at the time, were motivated by a genuine anti-fascism - Stalin and the Soviet Union seemed to be the only bulwark against Hitler and the Nazis. This was a conviction reaffirmed by the tragic situation in Spain, when the imperialist bourgeois democracies allowed Franco to come to power through an active policy of non-intervention. As Blunt said in a later interview, “I was persuaded by Guy Burgess that I could best serve the cause of anti-fascism by joining him in his work for the Russians” - it was a case of “political conscience against loyalty to country”, even if he did go on to say in his posthumously published memoirs that spying for the Soviets was “the biggest mistake of my life”.
This brings us to the crux of the story. As Allied forces were rolling up the last pockets of German resistance before reaching Berlin, Anthony Blunt - serving as an MI5 officer and NKVD agent - was sent to Germany, along with Sir Owen Morshead, the keeper of the royal archives at Windsor Castle. Their destination was the Schloss Friedrichshof, an imposing 19th century castle near Frankfurt owned by the Hesse branch of the royal family. The Hesses were distant cousins of George VI - then the king and father of the current monarch, Elizabeth Windsor.1
They carried a message from the king underlining that the mission was on his behalf. The reason given for the trip was to retrieve almost 4,000 letters written by Queen Victoria to her daughter, Empress Victoria, the mother of Kaiser Wilhelm. According to the account given in the Royal Archives, the letters - as well as other documents - were “exposed to risks owing to unsettled conditions after the war”. Morshead needed Blunt because he knew German, which would make it easier to identify the desired material. When Blunt returned to London with this cache, he was almost immediately given the job of Surveyor of the King’s Pictures, retaining this position until his retirement in 1972.
Frankly, the idea that in the middle of a still active battlefield it was vital to recover letters written in the late 19th century is risible. The far more likely explanation for the mission - as has already been dramatised in Netflix’s The crown2 and mentioned in the documentary by Miranda Carter, Blunt’s biographer - was to find the communications between the Dukes of Windsor and Kent to prince Philipp of Hesse before American occupation forces got their hands on them. Philipp was a grandson of Frederick III, German emperor, and a great-grandson of Queen Victoria. His relative - a certain prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh - was actually named after him. Philipp was also one of Hitler’s most powerful aristocratic henchmen, becoming Oberpräsident (supreme representative) of the Prussian province of Hesse-Nassau - until the two had a falling out, leading to his dismissal and then arrest in 1943.
Obviously, George VI and the British establishment as a whole knew the letters could prove highly damaging in the wrong hands - especially those involving the Duke of Windsor, formerly king Edward VIII until his abdication in 1936 to “marry the woman I love”, Wallis Simpson. George was particularly concerned about any letters from the Duke of Windsor that considered the possibility of being restored to the throne if Hitler succeeded in invading Britain, or which showed that he knowingly revealed Allied secrets to the Führer - which would hardly be surprising, given his open pro-Nazi sympathies. Clive Irving, author of The last queen, told the Channel 4 show that Churchill sanctioned the mission because both he and George VI “understood the threat potentially caused by knowledge of how far back this sympathy with the Nazis ran through the royal family” - which could leave the monarchy “very, very jeopardised” if such information become public knowledge. Irving also said it was “amazing” that Blunt “knew exactly where to go” in a large castle stuffed with all manner of documents - he assigned two soldiers to go into the place and quickly locate the letters in question.
The documentary suggested, as have others, that he microfilmed the letters and sent them to Moscow in a diplomatic bag. These would have been part of the 18,000 documents that Blunt passed on to the Soviets in his spying career, allegedly including the plans for the D-day landings in Normandy - which the Allies had kept secret from their supposed wartime ally, Joseph Stalin. It is not difficult to see why the existence of such letters is political dynamite now, let alone in the immediate post-war years. The Duke of Kent, prince George, was killed in a military air crash in 1942, he and the Duke of Windsor were, of course, uncles to the current monarch. But it almost goes without saying that it was not just the Duke of Windsor, the wannabe Nazi King, who was cosying up to Hitler - as the documentary told us. In the words of historian Piers Brendon, George VI was “implicated in the appeasement business right up to his fetlocks” - which is getting very close to home, with dangerous implications for the present-day royal family. Guilt by family associations.
Gennady Sokolov, the Soviet spy, is quoted in the film as saying, “if the documents discovered by Blunt were published” it would cause a scandal, “which could even be the fall of the dynasty” - which is not an entirely ludicrous suggestion. But the programme also quotes Yuri Modin, formerly controller for the Cambridge spy ring, when asked if the Soviets could have blackmailed the British royal family, as saying - “Yes, we could have done that, but we would not”. This is hard to believe, to put it mildly. The Soviets might have decided not to blackmail the royal family for this or that expedient political reason, but the idea that they would refuse to do so as a matter of principle is absurd.
If any of the above is true - as opposed to the product of an overactive imagination, fuelled by countless spy movies and John le Carré novels - it is likely that the Kremlin still holds copies of the letters today. Perhaps that helps to explain the permanent smirk on the face of Vladimir Putin.
Anthony Blunt was interviewed 11 times by MI5 between 1951 and 1964, when the American FBI told their British colleagues they had identified him as a spy. He eventually confessed, but was granted immunity from prosecution - and actually worked in the palace for a further eight years. He was personally congratulated by the queen upon his retirement despite her knowing all about his spying past.
You can speculate endlessly about why the royal family kept the secret for as long as they did. Perhaps partly to protect the reputation of Britain’s intelligence forces, which had taken a severe battering - not helped by a constant stream of rumours that Sir Roger Hollis, the director general of MI5 from 1956 to 1965, was also a Soviet agent. But surely the paramount reason was to protect their own honour and apparent good name - the Firm was determined to keep secret from the world the Duke of Windsor’s correspondence with the Nazis (The crown also tantalisingly suggests that Blunt might have blackmailed prince Philip with a portrait of him done by the society osteopath, Stephen Ward, one of the central figures in the 1963 Profumo affair scandal3). But Blunt was publicly outed as a spy in parliament by Margaret Thatcher when she became prime minister in 1979. She was furious by what she saw as upper class cronyism and the establishment closing ranks to protect itself, describing Blunt as “repugnant and contemptible”. After the news broke, he was immediately stripped of his knighthood and lived as a virtual recluse in London until he died of a heart attack in 1983.
Blunt’s memoirs, published in 2009, revealed little that was not already known about him - although it was finally confirmed, as long suspected, that he had been ordered by the KGB in 1951 to defect with Maclean and Burgess in order to protect their most precious asset, Kim Philby. Blunt, however, could not bear to leave Britain - loving the country in his own peculiar way. After he was publicly exposed, he claims he considered suicide, but instead turned to “whisky and concentrated work”.
As Queen Elizabeth and the spy in the palace reminded us, the royal family can never entirely escape their sordid history. Six years ago The Sun somehow dug up old video footage of half the royal family in 1933 cheerfully doing Nazi Hitler salutes - the young Elizabeth included and Edward VIII too joining the fun - with the newspaper running the wonderful headline, “Their royal heilnesses”. This was not just larking about. Hitler’s coming to power was widely welcomed among sections of the British establishment, just like Mussolini before him. After all, how could it be otherwise? Martin Niemöller’s “first they came for the communists” just seemed like good advice for the ruling class - even before Hitler’s regime was thoroughly entrenched, Communist Party of Germany leaders and militants were in Dachau. Why not do the same here in Britain? The Duke of Windsor certainly knew where he stood.
But Hitler’s rise represented an unfortunate problem for the British ruling class. A war of expansion was obviously on the cards from early on - it was laid out in Mein Kampf and elsewhere. The only question was, would it damage British interests, meaning the British empire, or would Hitler’s attention be focused almost exclusively to his east and the destruction of Stalin’s regime? If so, the Nazi regime and the British ruling class had mutually beneficial shared interests.
The establishment was divided on this issue. Winston Churchill - though no-one can dispute his lunatic anti-communism or highly dodgy views on things like eugenics and the Jewish question - broke from the consensus: he was almost alone within the Tory Party in thinking that the Nazis posed a mortal threat to the British empire (India being Churchill’s obsession). Though hating him on just about everything else, Labour supported Churchill on the basis that he would conduct a serious war against Germany - the rest of the establishment would either appease Hitler or actively encourage him.
Programmes like the Channel 4 documentary can help us to challenge the official ideology that surrounds World War II. The British ruling class fought an imperialist war, not an anti-fascist war or democratic crusade to save the Jews - which is pure mythology - and then did a deal with the US, recognising that the UK was no longer the global hegemon. Hopefully there will be more royal secrets and scandals to come.