The Nazi King – fool or traitor?

When does misguided and hazardous appeasement become criminal collaboration with the enemy?
The SBS documentary from Oxford TV on Edward VIII, The Nazi King, unwittingly raises the question.

It chiefly portrays recently declassified FBI files as revealing that the King of the British Empire, Edward VIII, and his lover Mrs Wallace Simpson were not only pro-Nazi, but also maintained contact with Hitler's Germany throughout the war, allegedly giving away secrets to the enemy, and wanting to return to Britain after a Nazi victory as leader.

While there is strong evidence that Edward was an admirer and appeaser of Hitler and the new Germany, as was Mrs Simpson, some of the strongest arguments in the programme come down to reports of FBI agents. Having just read Russell Howe's The Hunt For Tokyo Rose (there was no such woman, although FBI agents created one), my inclination is towards scepticism over the strongest allegations against Edward.

That Edward was a love-struck fool who acted dangerously and deeply embarrassed and troubled the British Government, there is no doubt. But a traitor? That's not conclusive and for me the jury is still out.

Edward abdicated as King on December 11, 1936, saying in a broadcast to the Empire: "... I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love."

He took the title the Duke of Windsor and stepped aside for his brother Albert, who became King George VI. British Commonwealth countries especially, with Australia at the forefront, objected to their King marrying Wallace Simpson.

After Edward's broadcast, the Catholic Prime Minister of Australia, Joe Lyons, revealed to Parliament that he had been in direct contact with the King, telling him bluntly: " ... any proposal that Mrs Simpson should become consort and not Queen and that her issue (children) should be barred from succession would not be approved by my government."

Lyons wouldn't have the American as Queen either, telling British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin that Mrs Simpson's marriage to Edward, as "a lady of American birth, twice divorced" would be inconsistent with him remaining on the Throne, and would invoke "widespread condemnation."

After his abdication, Edward and Mrs Simpson visited Hitler in 1937 at his mountain retreat at Obersalzberg and inspected a guard of the SS. But they were far from alone in sympathising with Germany, his family home. Lyons was one of a string of national leaders who consistently appeased Hitler.

From 1933 until 1939 Britain had sat staring like a mesmerised rabbit at Germany's preparation for war. Any suggestions for action on Britain's part were discouraged on the ground that it might irritate the Nazi monster and produce the very calamity that Britain desired to avert, to quote friend of King Edward, cabinet minister and diplomat, Duff Cooper in his autobiography Old Men Forget.  

The genuine fear of a repetition of the unprecedented slaughter of the First World War promoted appeasement. Neville Chamberlain was among the foremost in Britain.
When Lyons in Australia was challenged with the Nazi atrocities against the Jews as late as November 1938, he insisted that 'internal affairs' be separated from 'diplomatic concerns' and declined to protest. Leaders Robert Menzies and John Curtin joined the appeasers.

Duff Cooper says he was gently chided at a dinner once by Edward VIII for being mildly critical of Germany: "He hoped, as so many people did at the time, that we should be able to come to terms with the new regime in Germany, and he regretted my attitude towards it."

Historians of the period suggest that it all would have been so much worse without Edward's abdication. "Wallis Simpson saved the country," said John Julius Norwich, son of Duff Cooper, on The Nazi King. "I think that Mrs Simpson saved not only the monarchy but also the country. She is actually my candidate for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square."

Previous 10 | Next 10