Anyone who learns history courtesy of the modern media could well get the impression that, without the king in Buckingham Palace and the pope in the Vatican, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany would not have been able to start World War II. Such hopeless history has the effect, intended or unintended, of getting Joseph Stalin’s totalitarian regime in the Soviet Union and the Communist Party in the West off the hook.
The latest revelation in this genre occurred with the recent release of footage, probably taken in 1933, of members of the royal family giving the “Heil Hitler” salute at the Balmoral royal estate.
The pictures, released by The Sun in Britain, feature the duchess of York (later Queen Elizabeth and later still the Queen Mother), Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) and the prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII and later still the duke of Windsor) in the act. At the time, the Queen was about six years old.
Not surprisingly the images aroused outrage, especially on Twitter. It all fitted in with the line that members of the royal family were, and remained for some time, supporters of Nazism in general and Hitler in particular. This is total myth.
When the footage was taken circa 1933, Hitler had only just come to power in Germany. Few, if any, commentators in 1933 realised what Hitler and the Nazis would become a few years later.
As historian Andrew Roberts (who criticised the support of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth for appeasement in 1939) pointed out last weekend in Britain’s The Sunday Times, the Nazi salute was widely ridiculed in Britain in the early 1930s. He added that the Balmoral footage amounted to “joking mimicry of a weird foreign craze” and that “to mistake it for any kind of ideological support for Nazism would be utterly ludicrous”. Quite so.
It is true the duke and duchess of Windsor (aka Wallis Simpson) flirted with Nazism and Hitler in the late 30s and into the early 40s. But Edward had abdicated as king in December 1936.
It is also true that, in an unwise and perhaps unconstitutional gesture, George VI and Queen Elizabeth invited Neville Chamberlain on to the balcony at Buckingham Palace when he returned from Munich with the infamous “peace in our time” agreement in September 1938.
But the facts are incontrovertible. When the duke of Windsor was spruiking for Hitler’s Germany he was effectively exiled from Britain.
And when, under Chamberlain’s leadership, Britain went to war with Germany, he enjoyed the full support of his king and queen. So, later, did Winston Churchill.
As William Shawcross documents in his official biography Queen Elizabeth: The Queen Mother, the Queen Mother subsequently acknowledged it had been a mistake for her and George VI to appear with Chamberlain on the Buckingham Palace balcony. However, it remains a fact there was widespread support for appeasement at the time throughout what became the Commonwealth of Nations — including in Australia.
As Shawcross has pointed out, there is “not a scintilla of any pro-German, pro-Nazi sympathy” in the Queen Mother’s extensive correspondence.
Indeed, she became almost obsessed with hatred for Hitler’s Germany — which explains her long-time support for Bomber Command’s attacks on German cities in the latter part of World War II.
In late 1939, the king was head of state of a nation at war. His constitutional duties entailed that he supported the policies of the elected British government or abdicated. In Rome, in late 1939, Pius XII was head of government and head of state of the Vatican. His immediate responsibilities were to the citizens and residents of Vatican City.
Moreover, he had a spiritual responsibility for members of the Catholic Church who happened to be in Allied, Axis and neutral countries alike.
It has been fashionable in intellectual circles for a half century to present the Italian-born Pius XII as pro-German and/or as “Hitler’s pope”. This remains the case even though John Cornwell, the creator of the “Hitler’s pope” label, has withdrawn the allegation.
As Michael Burleigh demonstrates in his book Sacred Causes, the decision to smear the reputation of Pius XII as soft on the Nazi regime and complicit in the Holocaust was made initially by the Soviet Union’s propaganda machine. It found expression in the West with publication of leftist playwright Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy in 1963.
As the head of a neutral nation during World War II, Pius XII had a difficult task. Yet there is no evidence he was an admirer of Hitler or a supporter of Nazism.
Indeed, in Germany the secular Nazi movement and the Catholic Church were in competition for members. That’s one reason, in 1937, Pope Pius XI condemned Nazism in his encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge. This fact is little known today.
Flashback to September 1939. The king in London was head of state of a nation at war with Germany.
And the pope in Rome had inherited the policy of his predecessor, which condemned both Nazism and communism.
So who, if anyone, was supporting Hitler, subjectively or objectively, in the West? Answer: members and fellow travellers of the Communist Party.
It was the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in August 1939 that effectively started World War II as Hitler and Stalin divided eastern Europe between themselves.
Stalin in Moscow provided support for the German war machine.
Meanwhile in the West, including Australia, Communist Party members attempted to undermine the war effort.
This situation applied until Hitler unilaterally broke the pact when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.
The contemporary Left, which is happy to bang on about the (alleged) softness on Nazism by the royal family and the Vatican, seldom speaks about the Nazi-Soviet pact.
For example, in his The Oxford History of Australia 1901-1942, the left-wing historian Stuart Macintyre wrote an entire chapter on the early years of World War II without mentioning the Hitler-Stalin pact.
A somewhat more serious event than the act of a six-year-old in 1933 in giving a Hitler salute.