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The Windsor File

How Winston Churchill suppressed the true extent of the former King Edward VIII’s collaboration with Nazi Germany

Paul R. Sweet
December 11, 2018
Photo: Popperfoto/Getty Images
Wallis, the Duchess of Windsor, shakes hands with Adolf Hitler, watched by her husband, the Duke of Windsor, Berlin, 1937. Photo: Popperfoto/Getty Images
Photo: Popperfoto/Getty Images
Wallis, the Duchess of Windsor, shakes hands with Adolf Hitler, watched by her husband, the Duke of Windsor, Berlin, 1937. Photo: Popperfoto/Getty Images

When Nazi Germany collapsed in 1945, more than 400 tons of Foreign Ministry archives, captured in the Harz mountains, were assembled in Marburg Castle. The following year, the British, French, and American governments agreed upon a large-scale publication of these documents for the years 1918-1945 entitled Documents on German Foreign Policy. Publication was to begin with a series covering the years 1937-1943. The three governments chose distinguished historians to launch the series, and then formally and publicly guaranteed them untrammeled access to the records and complete freedom to use their professional judgment in determining what merited publication. Although in general the editors of the German archival materials were allowed the promised freedom, pressure to omit certain documents was sometimes applied. The most egregious case involved documents on the Duke of Windsor, formerly King Edward VIII of Great Britain, and his conduct regarding the Nazi regime in 1940.

An extensive literature on the Duke of Windsor already exists, and the difficulties the editors experienced in publishing what became known as the “Windsor file” have already received considerable attention. These accounts are significantly impaired, however, because the documentation available to historians has been fragmentary. Materials from the private files I kept as chief U.S. editor of the German documents series from 1952 to 1958 can help fill this gap in the official record. My former colleague, British Major K. H. M. Duke, who was associated with the German Foreign Ministry archives from 1945 until 1959, has supplied additional materials from the British Foreign Office files in the Public Record Office and from Lord Beaverbrook’s papers in the House of Lords Record Office. Thus, a more complete synthesis of the British government’s efforts to suppress publication of the Windsor file can now be offered.

Controversy about Edward, Duke of Windsor and Nazi Germany had a long history before the fall of France in June 1940. From his youth, Edward had manifested a fondness for the German language and culture. As a war veteran, he abhorred the thought of renewed conflict with Germany, and his political inclinations lay with Hitler’s Germany rather than with Stalin’s Russia. Like a large segment of contemporary Tory opinion, he hoped for an Anglo-German political settlement that would satisfy Germany’s aspirations in Central and Eastern Europe. His pro-­German feelings frequently found expression in indiscreet remarks that were not only insensitive to the brutalities of the Nazi regime but critical of “slip-shod democracy.” In July 1933, he told former Kaiser Wilhelm II’s grandson, Prince Louis Ferdinand, that it was “no business of ours to interfere in Germany’s internal affairs either re Jews or re anything else.” “Dictators are very popular these days,” Edward had added, “We might want one in England before long.”

In 1936 the Duke of Coburg, another of Edward’s German relatives and a committed Nazi, reported three conversations in which Edward, then king, resolved “to concentrate the business of government in himself” and asked for an appointment with Hitler “here or in Germany.” A year after Edward’s abdication in 1936 to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson, he and his bride made a much publicized visit to Germany. There they were entertained by Hermann Goering and received by Hitler at Berchtesgaden. On at least one occasion during this visit the duke apparently gave the Nazi salute.

The outbreak of war in 1939 only heightened tension between the British government and its former monarch. Still unwelcome in Britain, the duke and duchess had settled in France, where Edward was appointed a major-general with rather nondescript liaison duties at French army headquarters. As a former field marshal, he considered this position demeaning, and before long Count Julius von Zech, the German minister at The Hague, reported “something like the beginning of a fronde [opposition]” around the disgruntled duke. “Under favorable circumstances,” he suggested, this estrangement from the current British government might “acquire a certain significance.” These reports were reviewed by Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, and in one instance by Hitler himself.

When circumstances did become “favorable” upon the fall of France, eyes at the highest levels in Berlin turned appraisingly toward the duke. The Windsors had fled to neutral Spain, but upon reaching Madrid, they received the disappointing news that Prime Minister Winston Churchill, their strongest supporter in the abdication crisis, would not offer Edward a responsible position at home. Anxious to keep the Windsors “out of Hitler’s grasp,” however, he asked the duke to assume the governorship of the Bahamas. As Churchill delicately explained to President Franklin Roosevelt, “there are personal and family difficulties about his return to this country.” On 2 July the Windsors reached Lisbon, but instead of sailing for the new post as ordered they stayed for a month at the home of a rich Portuguese banker, Ricardo Espirito Santo e Silva, while the duke pestered the prime minister about personal matters. Eventually Churchill became so frustrated that he reminded Edward in a telegram that even major-generals could be court-martialed.

While the duke and the prime minister bickered over draft exemptions for personal servants, the German government considered the role Windsor might play in its plans. Ribbentrop told the German ambassador in Madrid on 11 July that “Germany is determined to force England to peace by every means of power and upon this happening would be prepared to accommodate any desire expressed by the Duke, especially with a view to the assumption of the English throne by the Duke and Duchess.” Germany had failed to prevent the Windsors’ move to Lisbon, but now dispatched a top agent, Walter Schellenberg, to keep him there. As German intelligence reviewed various options, including kidnapping, it passed onto Berlin a stream of antiwar, anti-Churchill, anti-royal family remarks the duke allegedly had made to acquaintances. Reports stated that the duke believed “continued severe bombing would make England ready for peace,” that he was considering a public declaration disassociating himself from Churchill’s policy of carrying on the war, and that he was tempted by a Spanish offer of asylum in Granada or Malaga.

Throughout July, as the Windsors lingered in Portugal, German agents tried to convince the duke that he had been targeted for assassination by his brother’s secret service, while London sent increasingly peremptory demands that he leave for the Bahamas. Finally, Churchill dispatched Sir Walter Monckton, Edward’s old friend and legal adviser during the abdication crisis, to get the duke on the boat, and on 1 August 1940 the Windsors finally sailed. Their departure did not end German hopes, however, as intelligence reported that the duke had left his Portuguese host a code word and promised to return to Europe if he received it. On 15 August the duke wired Silva to notify him “as soon as action might be desirable.” A year later the German minister in Lisbon reported that “the intermediary familiar to us … has received a letter from the Duke of Windsor confirming his opinion as recently stated in a published interview that Britain has virtually lost the war already and the USA would be better advised to promote peace, not war.” The British government certainly knew of many of these continued indiscretions, but made no real effort to restrain the former monarch beyond exiling him to the West Indies until victory was secure.

Nearly five years later, as Nazi Germany collapsed and its archives fell into Allied hands, the British government became concerned that certain captured documents might embarrass members of the royal family, and papers concerning the Duke of Windsor were high on this list. The British and American governments had agreed that their personnel ferreting out German documents would “consider themselves as working jointly” under control of the Anglo-American command headed by Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. The documents had been transferred to Marburg Castle, and the need to compile evidence for war crimes trials ensured that they received immediate attention. Microfilm copies were quickly made and distributed to Britain, France, and the United States as a matter of routine procedure.

British concerns quickly focused on a bound volume from the papers of State Secretary Ernst von Weizslicker, Ribbentrop’s senior assistant. As early as 17 July 1945, the historian Rohan Butler, who had been screening microfilm copies from Marburg as they arrived in England, reported to the Foreign Office that the Duke of Windsor appeared “in a somewhat curious light” in this file. King George VI reportedly was quite relaxed when he read the report, asking only that he be warned if the documents were to be published. Prime Minister Clement Attlee wrote Churchill, however, that while “little credence could be placed in the statements made” by German agents, “their publication might do the greatest possible harm.” The former prime minister agreed, and “earnestly trusted” that “all traces of these German intrigues” would be destroyed. Thus began the dissension over the Windsor File.

Early in August these concerns were discussed by the Cabinet, and on 6 August the British requested that the United States severely limit access to the microfilm copy. This was followed two weeks later by a request “for its destruction … or for it to be handed over to HM’s Government for safekeeping: William Strang, political adviser to the British military commander in Germany, then discussed the issue with his U.S. counterpart, Robert Murphy, who referred it to Eisenhower. The American commander reviewed the file personally and asked who had received microfilm copies. Apparently with British acquiescence, he then sent the original documents to the American ambassador in London, John G. Winant. Winant seems to have taken personal responsibility for them; not until 27 January 1947, on a private visit when he was no longer ambassador, did he instruct George VI’s private secretary “to return the original file to the Foreign Office.”

Meanwhile, in September the British charge in Washington told Acting Secretary of State Dean Acheson that he had understood the U.S. copy would be “transferred to the British Government for safekeeping” and did not understand the delay. Much to London’s frustration the State Department delayed its response until 11 October, when it flatly rejected the request: “[I]t would be unlawful for the Secretary of State to authorize the delivery of the documents to the British Government or the destruction of the documents in question without Congressional authorization and attendant publicity.” The United States would “take all possible precautions to prevent any publicity with respect to the documents,” but could hardly agree that papers documenting “German and Spanish maneuvers for a negotiated peace” in 1940 were not relevant to the history of World War II. After another month of exchanges the State Department did sequester its copy of the microfilm, although the correspondence establishing the exact terms of the agreement is missing from the National Archives.

In October 1945 Murphy reported that while the German records contained nothing that “might be embarrassing to the State Department,” the British were clearly becoming more sensitive about possible revelations. Yet it was a British historian, professor E.L. Woodward, who suggested the next month that the United States and British sponsor an authoritative collection of documents on German foreign policy. Ironically, the British unintentionally were about to open the way for the Windsor file’s eventual publication.

In January 1946 Woodward’s idea was discussed in the Foreign Office and the decision was made to sound out Washington. The question was referred to Francis H. Russell of the State Department’s Office of Public Affairs, who warned that such a project would certainly embarrass the Russians on such issues as the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, and might also embarrass the United States. Was the department “prepared to support a policy of complete disclosure,” which would be necessary to establish the project’s credibility? John Hickerson, assistant secretary for European affairs, wrote that “this Government should not consider publishing in any way under its name a collection of German official documents if it is not prepared to let the whole story be told honestly in accordance with the best criteria of historical research.” Undersecretary Acheson concurred. The British and American governments agreed on 19 June 1946 to go forward with the project. The memorandum of agreement specified that editing was to be “performed on the basis of the highest scholarly objectivity” by “outside scholars of highest reputation.” France and the Soviet Union were invited to participate in the project, but while France joined, the Soviets declined.

London quickly named John Wheeler-Bennett, a distinguished independent writer on modern German history, as chief British editor. The United States named professor Raymond Sontag of the University of California, and the French government later named professor Maurice Baumont of the Sorbonne. Additional staff were appointed, and the enormous project quickly got underway.

Problems developed immediately. Newsweek published an article in November 1946 reporting that the United States had already agreed not to include material concerning the Duke of Windsor and was reviewing other British requests for suppression. British Ambassador Lord Inverchapel immediately wrote a sharp “top secret and personal” letter to Acheson asserting that the Windsor leak constituted a serious violation of the State Department’s recent guarantees. Acheson responded on 18 November with “very real regret” and promised an investigation, but expressed the hope that publication of the volumes would eliminate “grounds for the misconstruction of our common intentions.” Substantial disagreement remained, however, as to exactly what the “common intentions” were. In November Sontag had discussed the Windsor file with E. J. Passant, Foreign Office librarian and chair of the British advisory committee for the project. According to Passant, Sontag asserted that if in his professional judgment the file was historically significant but he was not allowed to publish it, he would resign. “Since his resignation on this issue would in itself create such a resounding scandal that it would concentrate the limelight on the documents themselves and their content,” Passant said, “it would be well to consider what attitude we should adopt if and when the question arises.”

A few days later Wheeler-Bennett remarked to his friend Sir Robert Lockhart that the Americans would certainly want to publish the Windsor material, and resistance would make the British look foolish. He would not “accept interference unless it came direct from King George.” A week later Lockhart recorded that a senior Foreign Office official had told him that “Jack Wheeler-Bennett has not a free hand on the documents” relating to the duke. “That is a matter for HMG [His Majesty’s Government] to decide.”

The opposing positions taken during this time prefigured the pattern of the next eight years. American editors insisted that a veto on publication of the Windsor file would bring their resignation; British editors found themselves caught between their professional responsibilities and their respect for the royal family.

The British government quickly attempted to circumvent Sontag. On 13 March 1947, the new secretary of state, George Marshall, sent a top-secret, eyes-only telegram from Moscow to Acting Secretary Acheson: “[British Foreign Secretary Ernest] Bevin informs me that Department or White House has on file a microfilm copy of a paper concerning the Duke of Windsor. Bevin says only other copy was destroyed by Foreign Office, and asks that we destroy ours to avoid possibility of a leak to great embarrassment of Windsor’s brother. Please attend to this for me and reply for my eyes only.” Acheson replied by telegram two days later, but the nature of his reply remains uncertain because no copy has been found in the archives. In any case, Acheson did not destroy the microfilm, and Sontag soon had full access to it.

My own connection with the German documents project began at the State Department in September 1948. That winter, at the height of the Berlin blockade, the German Foreign Ministry archives, which had been moved to Berlin, were transferred for security reasons to Whaddon Hall in North Buckinghamshire, England. In January 1949 I went to Whaddon as part of the three-person American team, headed by professor Malcolm Carroll of Duke University. There we worked with similar French and British teams to systematically screen and microfilm the files prior to the final selection for publication by the three chief editors. Carroll was scheduled to return to Duke in a few months and I was to replace him as head.

When I arrived at Whaddon Hall, I believed that the issue of the Windsor file had long since been resolved. This view seemed confirmed on 15 June 1949, when Passant visited us to mark Carroll’s departure. In his farewell remarks, Carroll expressed the opinion that the Windsor papers should be published. Passant replied that they were available for selection, and if chosen by the editors they certainly would be published. His statement ultimately proved accurate, although many battles unforeseen at the time still remained to be fought.

During the next four years, Bernadotte Schmitt succeeded Sontag as chief U.S. editor and, with his British and French co-editors, selected the most significant Windsor documents and scheduled them for publication in Volume X of Series D. In the summer of 1952, I succeeded Schmitt in Washington as chief U.S. editor and took charge of that volume, which had been assigned to the United States by mutual agreement among the editors. Translation and technical editing were moving ahead, though publication was still several years in the future.

Then, seemingly out of the blue, on 3 July 1953, Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, undersecretary of state and former wartime chief of staff to now-president Eisenhower, called in Bernard Noble, head of the State Department Historical Section. According to my notes of what Noble reported to me the next day, Smith

… began very formally, almost like one government speaking to the representative of another: He said: “I have instructions to tell you that the British government is going to communicate a list of the documents on the Duke of Windsor which it wishes to have left out of Volume X. You are to inform the editor of the German documents that when he receives the list he will agree to the elimination of these documents.

Bernard informed Smith that by the terms of the project agreement, the editors had full authority to select the documents to be published. The general responded that the new administration did not feel bound by the agreements entered into by the former administration, and added that he understood the difference between the point of view of the historians and that of those responsible for policy in these matters. The conversation ended with the smiling observation by Smith that he was sorry to have to be the bearer of such unpalatable instructions.

After Noble briefed me on the interview, I related the status of Volume X. I told him that the documents in question had been selected years before, and that the British editor at that time, Gen. Sir James Marshall-Cornwall, had approved their selection. I also mentioned Passant’s assurances to Carroll in 1949, made in front of the entire editorial team, and told Bernard that “I didn’t need to comment on how serious this was so far as the project was concerned.” Since the volume in question would not even be delivered to the Government Printing Office for at least another year, perhaps the best strategy was “to sit tight and await developments;’ particularly the reaction of the British editorial team. I was puzzled about why the issue was being raised. As I told Noble, “‘I had often wondered if Mr. Churchill knew about these papers.” At this Mr. Noble indicated at once that I had smelled out the source; he said the word had gone from Churchill to the White House and that Smith was acting according to instructions initialed DDE [Dwight David Eisenhower]. Former Prime Minister Attlee had authorized publication, but Churchill, who had returned as prime minister in 1951, did not agree.

That night I alerted my wife that I might be leaving my job before long. I learned later that Churchill had indeed written Eisenhower on 27 June 1953, asking him to prevent publication since the “historical importance” was “negligible” while publicity would inflict “distress and injury” on the duke. A similar request was addressed to the French government. Eisenhower replied on 2 July that “I am completely astonished to learn that a microfilm record was made of the documents.” He had turned the original file over to Winant in 1945. “At this moment I do not know exactly what it is possible for me to do because I do not even know in what classification these microfilms may be kept. I shall advise you further when I am able to do so.”

Churchill had suffered a stroke on 23 June and was gravely ill when he sent the letter to Eisenhower. On 8 July John Colville, the prime minister’s private secretary, informed Lord Beaverbrook that Bedell Smith, “with the President’s authority had spoken to the American Editor-in-Chief, who evidently did not like the idea of doing what he was told about this matter!” While Colville confused Noble with myself, he clearly understood our common response to Smith’s instructions.

Churchill being ill, the list of documents the British wanted excluded did not arrive. This brief delay ended on 18 July, however, when Churchill was again able to turn his attention to the matter. He put the Windsor file on the agenda for the first Cabinet meeting after his return to work, an indication of its importance to him.

Colville recorded in his diary of 11-12 August, “[t]he P.M. still set for suppression.” In the meeting, Churchill insisted that publication would “give pain to the Duke of Windsor” and the papers were of little historical value in any case. Therefore, “Subject to the views of my colleagues, I propose … that publication be postponed for at least ten or twenty years.” Lord Salisbury objected, warning that suppression would “only give the impression that they were more damaging than they in fact were,” but Churchill’s view prevailed.

Meanwhile, Churchill waited for a response from the French. On 1 September Monckton saw Georges Bidault, the foreign minister, who “showed an obvious disposition to help, though he could not, he felt, order the historians to omit the documents.” Monckton noted that Bidault, himself trained as an historian, had stated that “historians were not to be commanded.” The French editors certainly would resign if such an attempt were made. In addition, the former German diplomat Erich Kordt had referred to the Windsor documents publicly and “defied the Allies to publish them,” whereupon an American historian reviewing Kordt’s work had promised that they would be published. Under these circumstances suppression was “impossible.” Bidault did suggest, however, “that it would be possible to postpone publication by taking the documents of a different period first.”

I, of course, knew nothing of the inner workings of the British government at the time apart from what Noble had conveyed to me. On 8 October I received a long letter from the Honourable Margaret Lambert, who had succeeded Marshall-Cornwall as chief British editor two years before. She explained that it had been “officially recommended” to her that we should omit certain papers selected by our predecessors. Her original disposition had been not to give in, particularly since Ribbentrop’s involvement gave the documents “a certain historical importance.” Indeed, the prime minister himself recorded that she had spoken of her obligation to resign if ordered to suppress the Windsor documents. But it had been “put to” her that “the appearance of these papers in an official publication in the near future would cause much pain to a certain recently bereaved lady [Queen Mother Elizabeth] who, with her late husband [George VI] is referred to in them.”

Lambert went on to explain that the prime minister had talked to her personally on 16 September, stressing the relative historical importance of the documents on the post-Locarno period. Woodward and Wheeler-Bennett had agreed that there could be no objection on historical grounds to postponing work on Series D, and Woodward and Sir Lewis Namier had emphasized how useful a new series beginning with Locarno would be. She therefore proposed suspending all work on Series D beyond those volumes already in press, while concentrating on Series B, 1927-1932, and Series C, beginning in 1933.

A week after writing this letter, Lambert received formal backing for the proposal from an advisory committee chaired by Wheeler-Bennett that included Namier, J.R.M. Butler, W.N. Medlicott, and Passant. The minutes recorded that it was not a new committee but rather a “resuscitation” of the original advisory committee. The minutes convey no hint that papers relating to the Duke of Windsor had anything whatsoever to do with the committee’s deliberations. In fact, a reader ignorant of the background would assume that the historians at Whaddon Hall had initiated the proposal. The result was a unanimous recommendation that “publication of a series of documents on the Weimar and early Hitler periods should be started as soon as possible and that Series D should be held back.” The Foreign Office records contain a notation that two sets of files relating to the “setting up of the Advisory Committee” had been transferred to the Public Record Office “safe room” and are closed until the year 2054.

Before Lambert and the British advisory committee suggested redirecting the entire project, I had submitted a memorandum to the State Department dated 28 July 1953, in response to the Noble-Bedell Smith meeting. It reviewed the terms under which the editors, past and present, had been working, and pointed out that even German historians had praised the project for its “scholarly objectivity.” It went on to state that “all the American historians who have been charged with responsibility for the publication have regarded the basic terms of reference … not merely as an inter-governmental matter … but as a personal undertaking with them as well.” Their “personal reputations” were involved, and “a public outcry with the full backing of the historical profession is to be expected if the terms of reference are changed in mid-course.”

What my superiors made of this memo, I do not know, as I received no response. When I received Lambert’s letter of 8 October I was unsure of how much backing I had from my own government, and so sought to play for time without yielding principle. I informed my co-editor that Volume X was unlikely to appear before 1955 at the earliest, so the issue was hardly urgent. Since British editorial work on Volume IX had fallen behind, the U.S. staff would be willing to take it over and see it to publication before we released Volume X. But I insisted that X must be published without sup­pressions, and stated that starting from scratch on the Series A and B Weimar volumes would be wasteful when so much work already had been done on Series C and D.

In reply, Lambert sent a copy of the advisory committee minutes and asked whether “as a historian” I agreed with its recommendation. I responded that I would be happy to see Series C move faster and to begin preliminary work on Series A and B, but not at the expense of Series D. The priorities had been established years before by the three chief editors, and should not now be changed because one of the parties involved found some of the material embarrassing. The fact was that “a political decision would seem to have been made on your side with respect to suspending publication of Series D beyond Volume VIII. It does not seem to me that I ought to be asked to give reasons, ‘as a historian’ for such a decision.”

My British colleague did not receive my reference to political grounds well; Lambert informed me that “non-historical” was a more accurate description of British motives. My failure to accept the advisory committee’s priorities had created great distress, and my drive to release Volume X “as soon as possible” hardly seemed worth “a head-on collision” between editors and their respective governments. Intending to be conciliatory, I responded on 18 November that I had offered to take editorial responsibility for Volume IX precisely in order to avoid or at least delay such a “head-on collision,” but we clearly had reached an impasse.

Noble was scheduled to leave for London shortly, and on 20 November I sent him a memo reviewing the recent exchanges. I then urged him to make two points in any “informal conversations” he might have with the British:

1) That we find it incomprehensible that we should be treated as an offending partner in this matter, and that the tone of their correspondence is deeply resented.

2) That in giving the character of an ultimatum to Miss Lambert’s proposals, they have adopted a procedure which we find intolerable, and we have no intention of continuing our participation in the Project if this is to be henceforth the spirit in which business is conducted.

I had not yet heard the results of Noble’s discussions when on 27 November Joseph Phillips, the deputy assistant secretary of state for public affairs, asked me to visit him with a copy of the Lambert correspondence. The British ambassador had raised the matter two days earlier, threatening that if it were not resolved the prime minister would raise it with the president during their upcoming Bermuda summit. My private notes record that “[t]he Prime Minister … was interesting himself very much in the matter, had been telephoning Miss Lambert late at night about it, etc.” I explained our position, and Phillips agreed that my proposal of 18 November “ought to be acceptable to the British.” After consulting Bedell Smith, Phillips sent me off to draft a telegram to Noble. When I returned with it, he indicated that he had been in touch with the British embassy, which seemed “incorrectly informed” concerning the American proposal.

Sometime in the next few days I received a letter from Noble, as well as one dated 29 November from Howard Smyth, my successor at Whaddon. I have been unable to locate a copy of Noble’s letter, nor do I remember exactly what it said. Smyth’s letter indicates that Noble had made concessions to the British position, which I did not accept as binding. On 1 December I asked Phillips if he had received a reply to our 27 November telegram, to find that it had not been sent because Phillips had not found time to present it to Bedell Smith for clearance. I told him that Noble’s letter implied that “the difficulties about the matter in question had been resolved.” As a result of whatever Noble told Margaret Lambert, Churchill did not bring up the Windsor matter with Eisenhower at Bermuda.

Over the next several months I sought to delay any confrontation over the Windsor file until the 79-year-old Churchill retired. I even went back to Whaddon in July 1954 to help speed up preparation of Series C. Meanwhile, although I did not know it at the time, the question of the Windsor file had taken on a new turn as West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer demanded return of the German Foreign Ministry archives. On 4 March 1954, Churchill directed that “All steps should be taken to extract these papers [the Windsor file] from any which are handed back to Germany; and on 31 March the Cabinet approved return of the German archives except for the Windsor file, ostensibly to allow completion of microfilming.

Yet the lid could not be kept on. Shortly thereafter Churchill learned that Series D, Volume Vlll, also an American editorial responsibility and due for immediate release, contained more documents damaging to the duke. It was dear that documents placing the Windsors in a dubious light almost certainly would appear out­ side the file on which the British government had lavished so much attention, and Churchill could do nothing to prevent it.

Meanwhile, at Whaddon the preliminary talks on editorial priorities went so well that I wrote to Noble on 14 July that “[i]t has been very encouraging to find how fully the British historians at Whaddon agree with us, and of course, Passant, too, has been most helpful. All of this leads me to think that we ought to do business quite amicably and in fairly short order.” Actually the main event was not the editorial conferences at Whaddon, but rather a meeting of the British advisory committee to which Baumont and I were invited on 28 July.

The day before the meeting, Kenneth Duke and M.F. Fisher of the British team had submitted a memorandum to Lambert supporting the Franco-American position that Series D should be completed on schedule. This was an act of rare valor, as became evident when we met at the Foreign Office. I vividly recall the long and stiff session in which Baumont and I confronted Wheeler-Bennett, Woodward, Butler, Namier, and Medlicott along with Passant and Lambert. The British historians seemed to have choreographed their arguments for abandoning Series D. Woodward was especially insistent that wartime diplomacy was distinctly different and of less historical interest than peacetime diplomacy-though he later published his own five-volume History of British Policy in the Second World War, Baumont countered that the French found the wartime documents particularly interesting, but left the burden of defending Series D to me.

The meeting reached no conclusion, and shortly thereafter Baumont and I met with Passant to discuss ways out of the impasse. I had suspected all along that Passant agreed with me privately but had loyally supported the official policy of his government before the advisory committee. He now asked me to draft a memorandum explaining why Series D should be continued. My first argument was the most basic: “Indefinite suspension of work on these volumes will endanger the Project’s reputation for integrity and will be damaging to the reputations of some of us who are responsible for its editorial policies.” The editors had worked under a guarantee, stated repeatedly in print, that historical judgment and not political expediency would be the criterion for publication. This position had been restated by Passant himself on 15 June 1949. Volume X, which seemed to be the real root of British objections, could not appear before the end of 1956 at the earliest; the immediate issue was the indefinite suspension of further work on Series D subsequent to 1940.

The editors were in an impossible position: The public and the historical com­munity “continue to suppose that the editors are as free as they ever were to select documents and to determine the priorities and timetables. Actually, at the moment, they are working under a new set of rules which have not been publicly announced and are indeed being concealed from the public.” Either it should be publicly announced that work on Series D was being suspended “because of a British governmental decision based on non-historical considerations,” or editorial freedom should be restored. British governmental interference could not be kept secret for long, given the number of people involved; word would “increasingly spread … and give rise to rumors and uninformed discussion.” Questions could be raised publicly and it would be “impossible for the editors (or at least for the American editor) to justify the indefinite suspension of work on Series D.” In taking this position, with its unsubtle hint of mass resignations and public embarrassment of the political leaders responsible, I acted on my own. Bernard Noble, however, was a good friend and I had confidence that in a pinch he would back me up.

British records indicate that my memo was referred immediately to Foreign Office Deputy Undersecretary Frank Roberts, who noted my point that since Volume X was not even due out until late 1956, a decision could be postponed until 1955. Meanwhile, Lambert bitterly told Passant that my attitude was “deplorable.” She could assume no editorial responsibility for Volume X unless “the PM and Cabinet had waived any objections.” Governmental wheels were turning, however. On 23 December, when questioned in the House of Commons about Volume VIII, which also contained documents relating to the Duke of Windsor, Churchill put the best face on the situation:

I naturally thought it proper to show them to the Duke of Windsor. … His Royal Highness did not raise any objection. He thought, and I agreed with him, that they should be treated with contempt. … They are of course quite untrue. They may rest in the peculiar domain which this formula describes as “the highest scholarly objectivity” [Renewed laughter].

On 23 December the British ambassador in Washington, Sir Roger Makins, called on State Department Counselor Douglas MacArthur III to convey a message concerning Volume X of the German documents series. It had been agreed in 1953, Makins said, that the volume would not be published. Subsequently, however, “the United States had pressed for publication. Sir Roger said he wished to inform [MacArthur) that the British would not press their objections further and agreed that the documents could come out in due course.”

Exactly what Makins meant by U.S. pressure I do not know. The only pressure that I am aware of consisted of my memo—sent without clearance from my superiors—of 29 July 1954. As for the agreement in 1953 not to publish Volume X, this must refer to a decision within the British government alone.

Volume X, with all the Windsor documents selected so long before by my editorial predecessors, finally was published in 1957. An official British notice inserted in those copies issued by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office stated:

The Duke was subjected to heavy pressure from many quarters to stay in Europe, where the Germans hoped that he would exert influence against the policy of His Majesty’s Government. His Royal Highness never waivered [sic] in his loyalty to the British cause or in his determination to take up his official post as Governor of the Bahamas on the date agreed. The German records are necessarily a much tainted source. The only firm evidence which they provide is of what the Germans were trying to do in the matter, and of how completely they failed to do it.

Fortunately, publication of the documents permits readers to decide for themselves whether the evidence supports this official interpretation.


This article first appeared in the Winter 1997 issue of The Historian. It is reprinted here with permission of John Wiley & Sons.

Paul R. Sweet is a retired Foreign Service Officer and an emeritus professor of history at Michigan State University.