Flirting with Fascism: the dark side of British history

History can conjure up painful ghosts. The controversy over the decision of the Sun newspaper to publish footage of a very young Princess Elizabeth performing a Nazi salute along with her mother and uncle, and calls by a historian for the royal archives to be made fully available to public viewing, serves to remind us once again of the darker side of British history in the 1930s.

As a scholar who has specialised in the history of British fascism and its relationship to the Italian fascist and German Nazi regimes in the interwar period, I find myself fully in sympathy with the eloquent case made by Dr. Karina Urbach, of the Institute of Historical Research in London, for the royal archives to be fully opened up.

As Dr. Urbach points out, in contrast to the National Archives at Kew, the royal archives are not compelled to release material to historians on a regular basis. In particular, there are severe restrictions on any political material dating after 1918. Only ‘official’ biographers, carefully vetted by Buckingham Palace and with their work heavily censored, have been allowed access to any of this material. Any historian working on the royals and fascism, or royal attitudes to appeasement, will currently find that the royal archives are ‘off limits’, even though there is tantalising evidence that the archives contain a considerable amount of correspondence between members of the royal family (plus other key aristocrats) with some of the leading Nazi politicians of the 1930s.

Quite frankly, this non-access policy is a bizarre state of affairs in a liberal democracy in the 21st century, and one can see why this field of study has been ripe for the outpourings of conspiracy-minded non-academic historians.

In my experience, this traditional British hyper-sensitivity over anything connected with the royals and fascism can also have other frustrating consequences for the historian working in archives. There have been a number of occasions when I have been conducting research on fascist-related topics in Home Office (HO) files in the National Archives, for example, and I have encountered a sub-file which is still withheld from public access due to its contents having some kind of ‘royal’ theme or aspect.

In my view, this ‘blockage’ on anything that might connect the royals in some way with fascism is not healthy. It is the duty of the professional historian to help us face up to aspects of our past that the British ‘establishment’ still prefers, even today, to bury or censor. Sympathy for, or mere flirtation with, fascism and Nazism in the 1920s and 1930s was arguably more widespread among our rulers than we perhaps like to acknowledge. A fair number of British aristocrats felt sympathy for the anti-Communist ideas espoused by Mussolini and Hitler, or were attracted to the dictators for their apparent restoration of ‘order’ and stability.

Furthermore, as the historian Richard Griffiths has shown, a number of aristocrats and politicians also became firm ‘fellow travellers’, and were prepared to entertain the idea of an alliance or even full collaboration with Hitler. There is certainly good evidence that King Edward, who was forced to abdicate in 1936 over his desire to marry the divorcee Wallace Simpson, held pro-Nazi sympathies.

These attitudes were not just confined to the ‘establishment’, however. In my own research, I have come across numerous examples at local and provincial level of sympathy for Nazism on the part of ‘respectable’ middle-class businessmen, doctors or other professionals in the 1930s. Such sympathy, of course, could vary greatly in strength and nature, and people often selected certain aspects of fascism they admired, and discarded other aspects, not necessarily embracing the whole ideological package (so to speak). Nevertheless, even with the benefit of hindsight, some of this can still appear quite shocking, especially when it concerns attitudes to ‘race’.

Here is just one example I came across when researching some local history. In September, 1936, a speaker at the Chiswick and Brentford Rotary Club presented what was politely called by a local newspaper ‘an unusual view of the present position of affairs in Germany and the aims and aspirations of Herr Hitler’. While the speaker was careful to impress upon his Rotary Club listeners that his views were ‘perfectly personal opinions’, he clearly shared the Nazi analysis of the Jews, speaking in his address of a time when ‘the Jews ruled’ Germany. In his estimation, there had been the problem of Communism and a ‘weak government’, and he was impressed with the way Hitler had ended Communism ‘in about ten days’, reduced unemployment, made roads, and given a marriage bonus to young women ‘who gave up their jobs that could be filled by men’.

He also thought that anybody who had visited Germany from England had ‘had their eyes opened and were very pleased to go again’. In thanking the speaker, the President of the local Rotary Club said he agreed with all that the speaker had said.

Inevitably, there was some angry correspondence in the local newspaper about this talk at the Rotary Club, with one letter complaining that the speaker had fallen ‘a prey to skilful Nazi propaganda’. However, perhaps tellingly, the row quickly blew over.

Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University

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