The Windsors' Chic Uniforms Cloak an Ugly Past
Updated: May 29
This photograph of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, looking glamorously martial in the uniforms of a British Army Major-General and a member of the French Section Sanitaire Autombile voluntary aid unit respectively, was taken at a photo-call during the Phony War probably in late 1939. Long afterwards it featured prominently in the last book that the Duke inspired during his lifetime with the goal of restoring his reputation. He had begun the campaign soon after his abdication and the very partial rehabilitation he enjoyed on the outbreak of the Second World War fell far short of what he wanted. The image of the couple engaged in the war effort also served to help live down their embarassing past of close and sympathetic contacts with the Nazi regime.
As Prince of Wales and then King, Edward had frequently told the German ambassador in London how much he supported Germany's attempts to rebuild its international position, including Hitler's illegal reintroduction of conscription in defiance of the Versailles Treaty. Edward told the Germans that he intended to rule and not just reign, clawing real political power back from elected politicians. They expected him to swing British foreign policy in favour of Germany.
Less than a year after the abdication the Duke and Duchess had visited Germany as the guests of the Nazi regime, meeting Hitler at his mountain retreat. Hitler thought the Duchess would have been a very good queen. The Duke believed that if he had gone to Germany as King he would have been able to prevent war breaking out. He broadcast an appeal for peace in 1939 which made no mention of Hitler's aggressive policies, which had included the conquest of Czechoslovakia a few weeks before.
The first book on which the Duke collaborated after the abdication was The Hundredth Year by the then famous historian Philip Guedalla. It defended Mrs. Simpson against widespread accusations that she had been too close to Joachim von Ribbentrop, Nazi envoy to Britain and later foreign minister. As Prince of Wales, Edward had attracted unfavourable attention when he had taken her to dinner at the German embassy.
The picture of Mrs Simpson as a German tool went beyond scoial tittle-tattle. British intelligence operations during the abdication crisis had revealed to the government her own contacts to the Nazis, together with her "limitless ambition." She was reported as wanting to interfere in politics, holding firm ideas on dictatorship. Her Nazi links motivated the MI5 investigation into the King and his allies.
Ribbentrop had used Mrs Simpson and her social circle as an avenue to cultivate contact with Edward. Ribbentrop shared his predecessor's belief that Edward was a valuable friend to Nazi Germany, who he believed could steer British policy into a pro-German direction. Ribbentrop recognised Edward's yearning to translate his public popularity into solid political power and saw the abdication as a major setback, ranting against a supposed conspiracy of the government to thwart "the Fuehrer-will of the young King."
As the story of Edward and the Nazis emerged in detail, the Duke dodged two bullets. The order in which the secret German documents were published after the war drew attention away from his highly compromising contacts as Prince of Wales and King. The first set to appear covered his more ambiguous wartime indirect contacts, so by the time the next set detailing his far more damning pre-war relationship appeared, the public had rather lost interest. Next, firm evidence that he knew that people to whom he was talking indiscreetly in wartime were German intermediaries was suppressed in a top level British political manoeuvre.
Read the full story in The First Royal Media War