Adolf Hitler came to power in a tumultuous Germany in the early 1930s. Many outside the country – including members of the British royal family – welcomed the change, hoping that he would stabilize things. While hindsight is 20/20, upsetting footage of Queen Elizabeth as a child of 6 or 7, as well as the Queen Mum, giving the Nazi salute during the period should be viewed on two levels: historical fact and an invasion of privacy.
The Sun, the best-selling newspaper in England, published a still photo from 80-year-old home movie footage showing then-Princess Elizabeth and her sister playing on the grounds of Balmoral Castle. The photo shows a laughing Elizabeth and her mother (the Queen Mum) giving Nazi salutes, with Prince Edward (who later became King Edward VIII) egging them and her 3-year-old sister Princess Margaret on.
The Sun published the still and more of the brief film online under the headline “Their Royal Heilnesses.” The paper indicated that there was no indication the the Queen or her mother were ever Nazi sympathizers, whereas Edward clearly was pro-Hitler and anti-Semitic, both facts are well known and extensively documented. Edward met with Hitler in Germany a few years later, after he gave up the throne and Elizabeth’s father became King George VI.
From a historical perspective, the family is probably imitating something they saw on newsreels and believed to be innocent. Clearly they did not become Hitler supporters as time went on and saw his true colors when their country was under attack. The footage does, as the newspaper points out, “provide a fascinating insight into the warped prejudices of Edward VIII and his friends in that bleak, paranoid, tumultuous decade.”
Sun managing editor, Stig Abell, indicated the publication believed “it is an important and interesting issue, the extent to which the British aristocracy – notably Edward VIII, in this case – in the 1930s, were sympathetic towards fascism.” His paper expressed concern that the palace is withholding damaging material showing links between then-leading royals and the Third Reich, as if widely-circulated photos of Edward and Hitler were not evidence enough.
Edward, however, only reigned less than a year. The paper even indicates that he remained a Hitler fan after the Holocaust atrocities became obvious. Does that mean the rest of the family felt that way? History seems to have shown otherwise.
The problem – and the other perspective – is that the film was the Queen’s private property. It was reportedly kept in her personal family archives. The palace issued a statement: “It is disappointing that film, shot eight decades ago and apparently from Her Majesty’s personal family archive, has been obtained and exploited in this manner.”
The paper did not reveal how it acquired the family films. Legal ramifications against the publication are unlikely given recent cases in which reporters accused of paying public officials for information went free.
While many have called for the Queen to make the royal archives and any letters between family members and Nazis available to the public, they are personal family documents. Just because someone is in the public eye – by profession, birth or a family connection (such as President Obama’s daughters) – they are entitled to privacy and ability to maintain somewhat personal lives and possessions, even if they are embarrassing decades later. They are not official documents
The publication of the film has to have been embarrassing, and infuriating, to the 89-year-old Queen. But it should be taken in context given the time. It was more damning for Prince Harry to dress as Hitler several years back unless he was acting in the Springtime for Hitler segment in the musical The Producers, i.e. doing a parody of the Fuhrer.
While footage of two members of the Royal Family giving the Nazi salute may seem upsetting now, the levels of Nazi support that may have been given by her uncle should be balanced against the fact that Queen Elizabeth – now or as a small child – is entitled to some privacy. There were certainly others in far more prominent seats of elected power whose stance on Hitler was far more questionable.
Opinion by Dyanne Weiss
The Sun: Their Royal Heilnesses
The Mirror: Queen Elizabeth’s Nazi salute MUST be taken in historical context, warns World War Two expert
CNN: UK newspaper publishes footage of Queen giving Nazi salute as child
Reuters: UPDATE 1-Palace scolds Sun for publishing Queen’s childhood ‘Nazi salute’ image
Washington Post: British tabloid publishes private images of young Elizabeth II performing Nazi salute