The UK press—at least, the sector I pay attention to anyway, which is more about the wardrobe mishaps of movie stars and pictures of royal babies than things like the Greek default crisis, the Millibands, etc—has been up in arms this week, over the contents of a flickering 82-year-old piece of film that the perpetually tacky tabloid The Sun released over the weekend. The film, which is 17 seconds long, appears to show the future Queen Elizabeth (II), aged 7, accompanied by her dog and her toddler sister Princess Margaret, performing a Nazi salute in emulation of her uncle, the future Duke of Windsor, and (perhaps most surprisingly) the perpetually twinkly maternal Duchess of York, better known to the world as the periwinkle-clad and benignly toothless Queen Mother. I mean, we all expect that sort of thing from the famously pro-Nazi Edward VIII—who, after his abdication in 1936, gave Hitler the full heil—treatment on camera, in Germany, the following year. But the Queen Mum? Seriously?
Naturally, opinions have been flying from all corners of the British political spectrum. The conservative Daily Mail has been hyperventilating in pious umbrage at how anyone could do such a thing to the beloved monarch, particularly a rival tabloid (while conveniently embedding the video link in every outraged article it posts.) The liberal Guardian, whose view of the monarchy has softened during the halcyon Wills-and-Kate-and-adorable-babies years, argues that while clearly taken out of context, the film has historical import as an artifact of its time and should be seen. The palace, naturally, is not pleased, reasonably pointing out that the Queen, as a tiny child, could not have possibly understood what she was doing, and that they intend to make serious inquiries as to how the bloody hell The Sun got hold of the film in the first place.
This is not the first 21st century royal Nazi scandal—that honor, of course, goes to Prince Harry and the swastika armband. But much like that unfortunate choice of costume, the truth of this small, seemingly careless gesture is so much less—and yet more—than it might seem. As is evident to anyone with a brain, the little Princess Elizabeth was playing in the yard with her family and her dog, and was hardly displaying a precocious allegiance to the murderous policies of the Third Reich. At the time the film was shot, 1933, Hitler was in power, but to a certain kind of person he was still seen as a vaguely comical buffoon—a sort of ridiculous, Donald Trump-like figure, complete with the very silly hair.
And yet, “to a certain kind of person” is the operative phrase here. It’s hard to imagine a different kind of people making such a gesture even in jest: a family of German Jews, or even the Jews of London, living in a perpetual state of unease from the periodic marches of the British Union of Fascists—led by the ever-so-chic Sir Oswald Mosley—through the streets of the East End over which Queen Elizabeth the Elder would soon benignly preside during the hardship of the Blitz, To some people, the Nazis were never funny. Some people were too worried they might be serious.
Which isn’t to say that the Windsors—or at least the feckless Edward VIII, a man of whom Gore Vidal once said “had something of riveting stupidity to say on every subject”— didn’t think Hitler meant every word he said. The genteel (and in many cases not-so-genteel) anti-Semitism of the British upper classes is well documented; many a scion of a great family had a lot of shamefaced excuses to make when the Luftwaffe started bombing London to smithereens in 1940. Seen through this lens, this bit of flickering film is less interesting as an artifact of what was, than an eerie glimpse of what might have been: an England in which the man gleefully raising his arm in salute didn’t abdicate, in which his bemused adherence to a poisonous philosophy seeped into the culture—and a Fascist Britain allied with Germany—made short work of the rest of Europe.
It’s a terrifying—and fascinating—rabbit hole of alternate history to go down, which is why it’s important to remember what actually happened, and who that little girl in the film grew up to be: a poised, correct, and thoroughly modern Sovereign (despite her never-changing hair) who ushered a new inclusiveness into the monarchy and was visibly moved during a visit to Bergen-Belsen just last month. That’s the real story, and the real history. And against a backdrop like that, a little girl raising an arm in a piece of old film doesn’t matter at all.
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