Reassuringly, not even anti-monarchists are making mischief out of today’s pictures of an eight-year-old Queen being shown by her uncle how to make a Nazi salute. It’s a striking picture, but as everyone knows, it simply did not mean then what it means now. It was taken in 1933, when the full horrors of Nazism had not begun. It’s possible that the eight-year-old Queen was not following the rapidly-changing events in Germany very carefully. Hitlerism – with its uniforms, goose-stepping and other weird gestures – was seen by most Brits as a strange phase that Germany would soon grow out of. Hitler’s antics were looked upon with fascination and horror, but with mockery, too.
The Hitler salute was certainly in the news in 1933; that year, all German schoolchildren were required by law to use it to greet teachers (even priests). So I very much doubt that the Queen was the only eight-year-old British girl to have messed about in this way. If Russia suddenly required all of its school kids to greet teachers with the ‘live long and prosper’ Star Trek Spock salute – no less ridiculous – I suspect the gesture would be commonplace in British classrooms now.
Germany in the 1920s was the perhaps most advanced, learned, culturally sophisticated nation on the planet. To see Hitler leading them goose stepping down the streets in fancy dress was pretty amusing, as Charlie Chaplin captured in his film The Great Dictator. Generations of children have been taking the mickey out of all this ever since.
Of course, the the wider point of today’s picture is that some of the Queen’s adult relatives did have dodgy views about Hitler and his new creed of National Socialism. But here’s the thing: so did a disturbing number of Brits. They were seen as the lesser evil to the communists (who had just won five million votes in an election). As Goebbels said back then, socialism was more important to Hitler than nationalism. Even in pages of The Spectator, this point was seen to offer a glimmer of hope.
Hitler salutes were also given verbally, through the pages of newspaper columns. The Daily Mail, which puts the picture on its front page today, famously flirted with fascism (below).Less famously, the Daily Mirror did too. Even when Hitler’s atrocities were underway Britain’s best-read newspaper, the Daily Express, constantly urged the British government let him do what he wanted.
“We should stand aside. There is no need whatever, no British need, to take part. No interest of ours will be challenged.”
I mention this because the papers will have reflected strong strands of public opinion: America, at the time, had also chosen isolation using precisely the same logic of the Daily Express. The list of people who did not find Hitlerism repugnant is long and distinguished. The Conservative Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, had declared Hitler to be “very sincere” and Goering to be “frankly attractive.” The Cabinet decided to fight (rather than cut a deal with) Hitler only by a small margin. Now, we like to think that Britain never considered surrender. We did; the US Ambassador to Britain had told his bosses that we probably would.
Memories of the last war were so strong that people wanted to believe, to the point of self-deception, that the rise of National Socialism in Germany would not lead to a new war. And that Hitler’s mannerisms, the goose stepping and these salutes, would be funny rather than horrific. When it became clear that he was preparing for war, people still hoped against hope that there would be no war. When Chamberlain set off for Munich in September 1938, even The Spectator declared that
“The jury which awards the next Nobel Peace Prize will hardly need to meet”
Every country developes convenient historical amnesia, especially when it comes to prevailing national moods. We like to think, now, that absolutely everyone reviled Hitler back in 1933; it just wasn’t true. The national memory plays us false, and not just over ancient history. Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech is remembered as the strange rant of a flinty-hearted man – we don’t like to think that in 1968, most Brits agreed with him. Which they did.
As a teenager, the queen endlessly petitioned her father to let her do more during the war than the occasional broadcast and ceremonial duties. The most he let her do was join the Auxiliary Territorial Service – which did, at last, allow her to serve in uniform during the war. That, and her stunningly successful reign, was remarkable. What she did in a back garden as an eight-year-old is not.