Viewing the past through the prism of the present is slowly becoming accepted practice. At one end of the scale, we have the conspiracy industry that has now turned its attention away from the JFK assassination and UFOs onto the baby-eating, Satanic-abusing, kiddie-fiddling secret societies of which every 1970s BBC children’s TV presenter, politician and second division pop star was a member; at the other end of the scale we have last week’s BBC2 documentary, ‘Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners’, a programme that lifted the lid on the British slave trade of the eighteenth century. Of course the practice seems barbaric to us today and did to some at the time, but the programme failed to convey the cruel context in which slavery existed. Native Britons may have been ‘free’, yet the poorest were often treated with similar brutality by their masters. Hardly likely (considering its age), but if you ever come across a 1925 book called ‘London Life in The Eighteenth Century’ by Dorothy George, just read some of the accounts of apprenticeship cases from the Middlesex Sessions to see how home-grown ‘savages’ suffered.
Yes, it’s the tabloid silly season, but yesterday’s Sun front cover of the Queen and Princess Margaret as little girls goaded into jokingly attempting the Nazi salute by their uncle, the future Edward VIII, was another tiresome example of an archaic image being used as a weapon to aim at modern sensibilities. Context and perspective are everything in such a case, but nobody would expect the Sun to point this out. What it implies is that the Royal closet is stuffed with sinister skeletons in Swastikas. That the last German-born monarch of this country was George II (who died in 1760) or that Her Majesty and her heirs are distant descendents of the House of Hanover (even though no British sovereign ruled that tiny German Kingdom after William IV in 1837) is immaterial. What matters is seeing little Brenda imitating Hitler, even though we were not at war with the Fuehrer’s country at the time and everything we now know about Adolf was not known then.
Hitler certainly didn’t view Britain as a threat to his ambitions; he initially saw a potential ally. He was an admirer of the British Empire and found empathy with the British colonial mindset. The Fatherland’s ties with Britain stretched back years, way before the 1871 unification of Germany. Waterloo was so decisive because the Prussians played a vital role in it, and the Kaiser may have grown up resentful of Britain’s world dominance, but he was still the first to secure a spot at the deathbed of his beloved grandmother Queen Victoria in 1901. It was only the Entente Cordiale with France that formally ended centuries of traditional antipathy between the cousins divided by the Channel and joined heads in viewing Germany and Austria-Hungary as the new enemy. Yet, even after the Great War, the bonds that had predated the historic agreement of 1904 remained remarkably strong.
We now recognise Churchill’s fanatical mistrust of the Nazis as logical, yet throughout most of the 1930s he was largely written off as a maverick crackpot has-been ranting in the wilderness, a cross between Enoch Powell and David Icke. We see photos of Edward and Mrs Simpson shaking hands with Hitler and instantly come to the conclusion that the future Duke of Windsor was an honorary member of the Third Reich; yet, Edward’s actions were hardly unique for an heir apparent going through the official rigmarole of meeting world leaders. Lest we forget, the England football team were forced to give the Nazi salute before the kick-off when they played the German national side in Berlin in 1938; and Unity Mitford, a British aristocrat so British that she could trace her ancestry all the way back to the Norman Conquest, famously fell under Hitler’s spell, so it was not as if Edward’s meeting with the Fuehrer was conducted in isolation and marks him out as a special case.
Despite all the centenary coverage of the past twelve months, it’s easy for us to forget the impact of the First World War on the generation that lived through it; the fear of another global conflict breaking out less than twenty years after the end of the last one led the British into the arms of appeasement. It’s equally easy for us to dismiss Neville Chamberlain as a weak PM whose only role in history was to play a namby-pamby prelude to Churchillian glory and to reluctantly declare war on Germany. The 1938 signing of the Munich Accord was widely celebrated as a positive move to secure peace in Europe and to prevent the outbreak of a Second World War; what Chamberlain and his government may or may have not known with regards to what Adolf was up to is academic in the context of the times. After all, David Cameron is prepared to overlook Saudi human rights abuses in 2015 because the nation is seen as a vital and much-needed Middle East ally. What’s the difference?
We all accept today that Edward VIII giving up the throne may have thrown the spotlight onto his ill-equipped and deferential brother George VI, yet also served to spare Britain from the kind of spineless leadership the eldest son of George V could well have provided. Or that’s the common consensus. The ex-King was dispatched to the Bahamas during the War to keep him safely out-of-the-way, but who’s to say he wouldn’t have adapted to the wartime role demanded of him had that American woman not turned his head? To take a still from a pre-war home movie and use that as some kind of official authentication that the House of Windsor harbours untold Nazi secrets is a ludicrous distortion of the truth.
We have been here before, of course. The young Prince Harry photographed wearing a Swastika armband at a fancy-dress party was similarly seized upon a decade or so ago, yet it’s not that long since the ultimate anti-Semitic insignia was once viewed as little more than an upmarket skull-and-crossbones. When Sid Vicious paraded through Paris wearing a T-shirt bearing the symbol in 1978, it didn’t necessarily mean he was a Nazi-sympathiser. The Sex Pistols bassist had, like many followers of this here blog, been raised on a post-war diet of British war movies and comics in which the Swastika was freely used as simple shorthand for ‘The Bad Guys’ rather than an indication of pro-fascist beliefs. A simple soul such as Sid, and indeed the entire punk movement, revelled in upsetting the establishment, so their initial adoption of the Swastika was merely another provocative gesture designed to offend.
An earlier 70s bass-player, Steve Priest of The Sweet, dressed as an SS stormtrooper-in-drag when his band performed ‘Blockbuster’ on the 1973 Christmas Day ‘Top of the Pops’; David Bowie aimed what was perceived as a ‘Nazi salute’ to fans at Victoria Station in 1976; and Marvel Comics even had a villain called the Red Skull, whose costume featured the Swastika on his chest. As a consequence of my reading material and the wider culture, a Swastika would occasionally work its way onto my defaced school exercise books. Does that make me a closet Nazi? Nein. Having said that, if any of those exercise books emerge at some not-too future date, I may have to go on an extended holiday to Argentina…