The Battle of Britain ended six decades ago but fire is still being directed at the royal family over its role in the period leading up to World War II. This has been ignited by the well-earned success (so far) of The King’s Speech – which has been nominated for 12 Academy Awards, including best picture.
Isaac Chotiner in The New Republic and Christopher Hitchens in Slate have accused the film of rewriting history with respect to the attitude of Edward VIII (who abdicated in December 1936) and George VI (formerly the Duke of York) to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime in Germany.
The criticism is that The King’s Speech underplays Edward’s flirtation with nazism both before and after the outbreak of hostilities in September 1939 and neglects to mention George’s support for the policy of appeasement pursued by Neville Chamberlain when he became prime minister after Stanley Baldwin resigned in May 1937.
Both critiques have validity but both are overstated. The most serious historical howlers in The King’s Speech are the depiction of Baldwin stepping down due to his inability to handle Hitler and the representation of Churchill as an opponent of Edward VIII.
Baldwin was persuaded to hand over the keys to 10 Downing Street by Chamberlain, who believed that it was his turn. Churchill was perhaps the strongest supporter of Edward and appeared to tolerate his determination to marry the much-divorced Wallis Simpson. As Frances Donaldson pointed out in her 1974 book Edward VIII, one of the finest royal biographies written, Churchill’s “ill-judged championship of the king did great, if only temporary, harm to his political career”.
However, the likes of Chotiner and Hitchens make their own misjudgments when assessing The King’s Speech – which, as the film acknowledges, is merely based on a true story. The abdication was not about foreign policy. Nor, indeed, any kind of policy.
As Edward said in his resignation speech, he renounced his duty as king because he “found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility … as I would wish without the help and support of the woman I love”. In short, it was all about him. Edward was prepared to abdicate in favour of his brother Bertie despite the fact that he was a shy man with a bad stutter who felt unsuitable for the job. Narcissists do not care about such matters.
Edward VIII’s allegiances were very clear. They were not to his family or his people or to Hitler. They were to him alone. If Edward had wanted to implant fascism in Britain he would have remained at Buckingham Palace. Edward and Mrs Simpson had a soft spot for nazism but this had no impact on British foreign policy.
It is true that George VI was a dedicated supporter of appeasement, as was his wife Elizabeth (later known as the Queen Mother). And critics of the royal family are correct in pointing out that the king and queen acted inappropriately in September 1938 when they stood with Mr and Mrs Chamberlain on the Buckingham Palace balcony after the prime minister returned from meeting Hitler in Munich with the (false) promise of peace in our time.
Where the Chotiner and Hitchens critiques lack balance turns on their failure to concede that appeasement enjoyed wide support in 1937, 1938 and for most of 1939. In time, Chamberlain declared war on Hitler and George VI publicly supported his prime minister. Certainly, when Chamberlain stumbled in 1940, George VI did not favour Churchill taking over the position. But as Andrew Roberts documents in Eminent Churchillians, by Christmas 1940 Churchill enjoyed the strong backing of his king.
In other words, the king became one of Churchill’s fans. Moreover, as William Shawcross points out in Queen Elizabeth: The Queen Mother, Elizabeth acknowledged towards the end of her life that the invitation for the Chamberlains to appear on the palace balcony in 1938 had been a mistake.
Hitchens has a background on the left. He knows better than most that when Britain and the Commonwealth nations went to war with Germany in 1939 the only real opposition came not from one-time conservative appeasers. Rather, opponents of the war effort at the time essentially comprised of those on the left, who were members of the Communist Party or fellow travellers with Joseph Stalin’s communist dictatorship in the Soviet Union.
World War II began following the signing of the Nazi Soviet Pact in August 1939, as a consequence of Hitler and Stalin dividing Eastern Europe between them. This made possible Germany’s invasion of Poland, with the Soviet Union’s consent. This led to a collapse of Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement and demonstrated the wisdom of Churchill’s long-standing warnings about nazism.
In September 1939, one-time appeasers such as prime minister Robert Menzies in Australia declared war. However, those who wanted to leave Hitler alone at the time included such well-known Australian communist writers as Frank Hardy and Katharine Susannah Prichard, due to their support of the Nazi Soviet Pact. They only decided that nazism had to be defeated after Germany attacked the Soviet Union in mid 1941.
The central political message of The King’s Speech is not ahistorical. The royal family, among others, initially misjudged Hitler. Yet, in the end, they played their part in defeating nazism.