This is my third and final article about the British royal family during the Second World War. My pieces about King George VI and Princess Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II) showed two individuals with a keen sense of duty who, despite their privileged position, tried to understand what it was like for the ordinary British citizen – staying in London during the Blitz, living on the same rations as everyone else, serving in the ATS etc. – but for the Duke of Windsor, formerly King Edward VIII, the role he played before and during the conflict is a more controversial issue altogether.
Prince Edward had trained in the Royal Navy from the age of 13, but at the outbreak of the First World War he was commissioned and served as a staff officer in the Grenadier Guards. After the war he toured many parts of the British Empire and took an interest in national affairs; his support for the unemployed made him incredibly popular with the working classes. But as the years progressed Edward appeared to develop a dislike for the official world he was forced to live in and began to cultivate friends from ‘high society’ rather than the aristocracy. 1930 proved to be a pivotal year for the future king as that is when he met and fell in love with Wallis Simpson, a married American. When George V died in 1936 and Edward became king his affair with Simpson was the subject of much speculation in the foreign press, but pressure was put on British newspapers to keep it quiet as Edward VIII was Head of the Church of England and, as such, would not be able to marry a divorcee. Under pressure to choose between the throne or the woman he loved Edward chose Wallis and abdicated saying ‘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.’ After his abdication Edward moved to France and the couple were married when Wallis was finally divorced in 1937. The new king, George VI, created his brother Duke of Windsor but refused to allow the new Duchess the rank of ‘Royal Highness’, something which the Duke and his new wife both resented. There were also conflicts within the royal family as to the financial worth of Edward who had hidden some of his wealth from his brother when the abdication settlement was worked out, relations were therefore frosty between the former king and his family. And so the scene was set for the role that Edward and Wallis would play during the war.
(You can listen to the Abdication Speech here)
During 1937 and 1938 the Duke and Duchess lived in France although they spent a lot of time traveling around Europe, including a visit to Germany where they met with Hitler, a visit which was well publicised in the German media. The Duchess, who always felt slighted by the British royal family and government, was treated like royalty during the visit with German aristocrats bowing and curtsying to her; Edward was inordinately pleased that the Germans treated her with the status and dignity which he felt she was due as his wife and yet was withheld from her by his own people.
According to Albert Speer Hitler believed that Edward was friendly towards Germany so the fact that he was no longer king had a negative effect on the Fuhrer’s plans for Europe, as Hitler is reported to have said – ‘I am certain through him permanent friendly relations could have been achieved. If he had stayed, everything would have been different. His abdication was a severe loss for us.’ The Windsor’s visit to Germany went against the advice of the British government who felt that their opposition was vindicated when the Duke was seen to give a full Nazi salute on a number of occasions whilst in Germany.
Some historians have defended Edward’s links with Hitler by saying that he saw fascist Germany as a barrier between western democracy and communism and that having seen the horrors of the battlefields of the Great War he was willing to appease Hitler to prevent such wholesale slaughter happening again. In May 1939 Edward gave a radio broadcast for NBC in which he appealed for peace. The recording took place on the First World War battlefields of Verdun where he said ‘I am deeply conscious of the presence of the great company of the dead, and I am convinced that could they make their voices heard they would be with me in what I am about to say. I speak simply as a soldier of the Last War whose most earnest prayer it is that such cruel and destructive madness shall never again overtake mankind. There is no land whose people want war.’ The speech was broadcast around the world but although many British newspapers published the transcript in full the BBC refused to air it as it seemed to be supporting appeasement.
It is difficult to assess just how much the Duke supported fascism and Nazi Germany although many believe that his words in 1940 were quite revealing when he said that ‘In the past 10 years Germany has totally reorganized the order of its society… Countries which were unwilling to accept such a reorganization of society and its concomitant sacrifices should direct their policies accordingly.’
When war broke out Edward hoped to be reconciled with his brother but George VI was still angry that his brother had abdicated. Rather than being given a royal role to play Edward was given a position as liaison with the French. Years later, in February 1949 Count von Zech-Burkersoda, who was the German Minister in the Hague at the outbreak of the war, said that the Duke had passed the Allied plans for the defence of Belgium to Germany which had helped the swift invasion of France and, consequently, led to the disaster at Dunkirk. After the fall of France the Windsors travelled to Madrid where the Duke appears to have been introduced to a plan for the Nazis to put him back on the throne with Wallis at his side, a not very subtle plan to use the former king against the established government in Britain. Edward travelled from Madrid to Lisbon where he is said to have received a number of telegrams with details of the plan to reinstate him on the throne in return for his support for Hitler. Copies of the telegrams (which were found in Germany at the end of the war) say that Edward had initially believed that he could never be king again after abdicating but that when he was told that it was possible that the British constitution could change after a Nazi victory ‘the Duchess in particular became very thoughtful.’ One telegram even suggested that the ‘Germans expect assistance from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the latter desiring at any price to become queen.’
The British were not aware of the telegrams at the time, but Edward’s reluctance to return to England forced Winston Churchill to threaten to court martial him if he did not immediately travel to London; then the Prime Minister offered him the position of Governor of the Bahamas as there were ‘fears for his safety’. The Windsors travelled to the Caribbean in 1940 and remained in post until the end of the war. In December 1940 the Duke gave an interview to Liberty magazine in which he was reported to have said that ‘Hitler was the right and logical leader of the German people,’ he went on to say that the time was coming for the American President to mediate a peace agreement between Germany and Britain. The former king said that he had been misquoted and misrepresented in the article, but the Allies were sufficiently worried that President Roosevelt ordered the Duke and Duchess to be placed under surveillance when they visited Florida in 1941. The Allies concerns were further enhanced when they received information (which may or may not have been true) that Wallis had slept with Ribbentrop (the German Ambassador) in 1936, was still in contact with him and passed secrets to him.
After the war ended the Windsors returned to France to live, and the Duke never held another professional position after his Governorship of the Bahamas.
Just after the war ended the Americans found 400 tons of German diplomatic papers near Marburg Castle; included in the haul were around 60 letters, telegrams and other papers about the Duke of Windsor and his links to the Nazis. Amongst the documents were details of ‘Operation Willi’ which was the codename for the plan to conquer Britain, overthrow George VI and put Edward back on the throne. It appears that there was a concerted effort to manipulate Edward into helping the Nazi plan, including telling him that his brother, the king, planned to have him assassinated. Copies of the documents were sent to America, and Churchill appealed to the Americans and French to refrain from publication for at least 10 to 20 years, saying that the documents were ‘tendentious and unreliable’ and likely to leave the misleading impression that the Duke ‘was in close touch with German agents and was listening to suggestions that were disloyal.’ Eisenhower replied, saying that the telegrams were “obviously concocted with some idea of promoting German propaganda and weakening western resistance” and were “totally unfair” to the Duke. The telegrams were suppressed but not for as long as Churchill had hoped. They were eventually published in 1957. Included in the documents were statements attributed to the Duke saying that he was convinced that war could have been avoided if he had not abdicated as he was a firm supporter of compromise with Germany. Another telegram said that the ‘Duke believes with certainty that continued heavy bombing will make England ready for peace’ (some historians believe that his comment could have been the reason that Hitler shifted the focus of Luftwaffe actions in 1940 from the Battle of Britain to bombing cities). American naval intelligence also published a report from a German conference held in 1941 that said that the Duke was ‘no enemy to Germany’ and the only English representative with whom Hitler was willing to negotiate peace terms, saying that Edward was ‘the logical director of England’s destiny after the war.’ When he found out about them the Duke of Windsor said that the telegrams and documents were ‘complete fabrications…and gross distortions of truth’. Edward admitted in his memoirs that he admired the Germans but had never been pro-Nazi and that Hitler struck him as a ‘somewhat ridiculous figure, with his theatrical posturing and his bombastic pretensions.’
Some historians don’t believe that the Duke of Windsor knew about the plan to put him on the throne and that his contacts with Germany were more about working for peace and finding a place for himself and Wallis in government circles after his abdication, as well as making the Duchess feel important and a part of state affairs (something which the royal family never did). On the other hand Andrew Morton, the royal biographer, suggests that Edward was a Nazi sympathiser saying that he ‘was certainly sympathetic…even after the war he thought Hitler was a good fellow and that he’d done a good job in Germany, and he was also anti-Semitic, before, during and after the war’.
The Duke of Windsor’s attitude to Germany and conduct during the war is in stark contrast to that of his brother, King George VI, and his niece, Princess Elizabeth. There will always be controversy about just how much of a Nazi sympathiser he was and how deep his admiration and support for Hitler went but, if the historical documents are to be believed, then many people feel that he should never have been allowed to return to live in France after the war ended and that he certainly should not have received any further funds from Britain. True, he was socially ostracized and had very little contact with his family for the rest of his life, but many people felt that was far too lenient and he should have been tried for treason.
Whatever your view of the monarchy one could argue that the Windsors were a fair reflection of British society during the Second World War, from an appeaser and probable Nazi sympathiser to a prince who died for the Allied cause (Prince George), a princess who enrolled in the armed forces, and a king and queen who worked tirelessly to build morale and support the British people in their hour of need.
(The Marburg files appeared in a recent episode of The Crown, you can find out more about how the files were discovered here )
Block, Michael. The Secret File of the Duke of Windsor. L
Donaldson, Frances Lonsdale. Edward VIII.
Roberts, Andrew, and Antonia Fraser. The House of Windsor. A Royal history of England.
Windsor, Edward, (Duke of). A King’s Story The Memoirs of H.R.H. the Duke of Windsor K.G.
Ziegler, Philip. King Edward VIII The Official Biography.