What is the context of the royal 'Nazi salute' film?

By Camila Ruz and Harry Low
BBC News Magazine

  • Published
Front page of the Sun reads "Their Royal Heilnesses" and shows picture of Queen as girl doing Hitler saluteImage source, AP

Grainy black and white pictures of the Queen Mother, the future Edward VIII and the future Queen Elizabeth apparently performing a Nazi salute as a child might seem astonishing. But what was the historical context?

The exact date of the 17 seconds of footage is unclear - but it is thought to have been shot in 1933 or 1934. The Nazis had come to power in January 1933.

Obviously, no criticism could have been levelled at the young Princess Elizabeth, but why would the adults have been making the gesture?

"It was very early days," says Julie Gottlieb, senior lecturer in modern history at Sheffield University and author of Guilty Women: Foreign Policy and Appeasement in Inter-War Britain. At the time, she explains, certain sections of the aristocracy wanted to give the benefit of the doubt to this new regime.

Gottlieb argues that the Nazis made a big effort to woo the British ruling classes. Carefully choreographed tours were arranged for British dignitaries and MPs. "Aristocrats were invited to the Nuremberg rallies and were always given special treatment," she says.

In 1934, the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror ran headlines supporting the British fascists of Sir Oswald Mosley. Significant parts of the British ruling elite found themselves sympathetic towards the fascist cause, explains cultural historian Christopher Cook.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Sir Oswald Mosley - leader of the British Union of Fascists ("Blackshirts")

There have always been suspicions about Edward VIII's political leanings, not least because of his contact with Hitler. But there have never been similar suggestions about the Queen Mother. It's also hard to know whether the Royal Family would have been aware of exactly what was happening in Germany in the early 1930s.

"The Queen Mother wouldn't have known much about Hitler at the time because he had only just come to power," argues royal historian Hugo Vickers. "She was one of the great figures of World War Two, dressing in civilian clothes and doing a fantastic job putting forward a representation of peace," he says. "The Queen Mother was no fan of Nazism."

The gesture from the video was much more ambiguous then than it would be now. "It's not even necessarily a Nazi salute quite honestly," says Vickers. It was similar to the Italian fascist salute and the American flag or Bellamy salute.

Image source, PA
Image caption,
The Queen Mother (then Duchess of York), 1931

But others think that Prince Edward (the future Edward VIII) and the Duchess of York (the future Queen Mother) would have been aware of what they were doing in the footage. Karina Urbach, from the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London and author of Go-Betweens for Hitler, argues that the Queen Mother would have seen Nazi salutes during her visits to Italy in 1930 and Germany in 1928.

The royals had a substantial number of German relatives and many people in authority were also receiving Foreign Office briefings around that time, explains Cook.

But even then, the murky details of the rise of the Nazi party might not have mattered when a greater threat was thought to be looming on the horizon. Many aristocrats saw the Nazi party's fascism as a solution to something they were even more afraid of, says Urbach.

"Many people in the 1930s thought this was an ideological war that they were living through. It's either communism or fascism and we have to support fascism," says Urbach. Prince Edward was "obsessed" by the murder of his Romanov cousins in Russia, she adds.

The Royal Family, along with most of the population, were also still deeply traumatised by the horror of World War One.

There was a real sense of understanding and sympathy for Germany at the time, explains Gottlieb. The bonds between the two countries were "personal and real and cultural".

Image source, PA
Image caption,
Hitler was host to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in 1937, after the duke's abdication as king

She argues that the Royal Family were pro-appeasement. "Not necessarily a pro-German policy but one that did excuse and try to sweep many of the excesses under the carpet." But it's often been pointed out that appeasement was a common belief among large numbers of politicians and the public.

The sight of the Queen Mother and King Edward VIII, then Prince Edward, performing a Nazi salute might also have a simpler explanation according to historians.

"Hitler was constantly pilloried and always in the newspapers and cartoons and he was always being made fun of and the salute was his trademark," says Gottlieb. "It wouldn't be at all surprising to ape this kind of behaviour, just for a laugh."

The debate will continue about the rights or wrongs of publishing the footage, and how it found its way to a newspaper, but some will feel that it does not add much to what is known of the attitudes within the Royal Family in the period.

"My instinct is it's ill-judged silliness that's been made sillier by the fact this is part of the closed archives of Windsor, which we don't know about," says Cook.

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Image source, Getty Images

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