This past weekend—probably deemed a slow mid-summer news day- The Sun newspaper hoped to shine glaring light on the British royal family’s past political sympathies with the publication of a grainy home movie showing the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret with their mother and uncle, then Prince of Wales, raising their arms in (mock?) heil Hitler salutes. The very open secret of Edward’s Nazi leanings tends to get an airing on a semi-regular basis, and usually just in time to promote the latest documentary rehash of these royal mischief makers.
Whether what we have been made privy to here is Edward trying in earnest to indoctrinate his nieces or rather a moment of politically-uncouth silliness cannot be deciphered from this source alone. Nonetheless, in the past couple of days many have leapt to the defence of both Elizabeths, mother and daughter, presenting evidence of their patriotic ardour, their embodiment of constitutional monarchy, and their humanity when it really counted, when Britain was at war with Germany. Iconic images of the stoic Queen Elizabeth and King George VI in a bombed out Buckingham Palace, or the teenage Princess Elizabeth donning the ATS uniform and doing her bit in the ‘People’s War’, seem to be all the counter-evidence needed to deflect allegations of Nazi sympathies in Britain’s House of Windsor (was Saxe-Coburg and Gotha).
Generally speaking, their wartime anti-Nazi credentials are not to be questioned. While there were many aristocratic fellow travellers of the Far Right between the wars and even into World War II, it would be a real bombshell if evidence of overt Nazi sympathies among “we four” (how the King referred to his nuclear family) came to light. But looking only for the most shocking and sensational, for evidence of duplicity and even treachery, can obscure some other still uncomfortable and inconvenient truths.
Queen Elizabeth and George VI were almost certainly not closet Nazis. But they certainly were appeasers, and they made their views on this very public.
During the Munich Crisis of the autumn and into the winter of 1938, Queen Mary, the queen mother, and Queen Elizabeth and King George VI went out of their way to be identified with the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the ‘Man of Peace’, and his appeasement policy. Just how publically they identified themselves with the Chamberlains is striking enough, and it was quite unprecedented too.
At the beginning of September, 1938, the PM had spent a few days of his holiday with the King and Queen at Balmoral, shooting. Following Chamberlain’s first of what would become three visits to Germany, Sunday 18 September– as suggested by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Lang, and approved by the King– was observed as a national day of prayer and intercession for peace. “From the King at Windsor and the Queen at Balmoral to their most humble subjects, the people of Great Britain filled their churches,” and this included 3,000 at Westminster Abbey where Mrs Neville Chamberlain was among the congregation.
In the dramatic and emotionally-charged parliamentary scenes of 28 September, which led to Chamberlain’s accepting an invitation to the Four Powers Conference in Munich, Queen Mary, the Duchess of Kent and Mrs Chamberlain listened from the Speaker’s Gallery. This was the first occasion on which the new technology of a microphone was placed upon the table before the Premier. The effect was deeply affecting, and “Queen Mary was moved to tears by the pathos of the Premier’s bid for peace.”
What was truly unprecedented was the way in which the King and Queen reinvented (or broke with) royal protocol in their welcome to the Chamberlains after the Munich conference. The King and Queen grasped this opportunity to be so closely associated with the PM’s triumph and apparent achievement of ‘peace in our time.’ Half an hour “after her had arrived at Heston the Prime Minister appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with the King and Queen and Mrs Chamberlain. The great crowd cheered repeatedly and the party waved to the people. The crowd joined in singing the National Anthem.”
As the scene was described: “Ritual followed its customary course. The footmen spread a carpet, and a bright floodlight illuminated the dark Palace front. Then four remote little figures appeared. It was quite characteristic of the King and Queen that they should stand on either hand and allow Mr and Mrs Chamberlain to take the central places, traditionally reserved for members of the Royal Family, if not, indeed, for the reigning Monarch and Consort.”
Press Baron, arch-appeaser and fellow traveller Lord Rothermere’s Daily Mail, predictably, summed it up like this: “The Ruler of Britain and the head of the British Government, made an historic appearance together before a joyful multitude from whose hearts a terrible oppression had been lifted.”
The ‘film of the crisis’ by Movietone news, which was shown in cinemas from 4 October, reached its climax with the appearance of the Chamberlains with the King and Queen on the balcony of the Palace.
However, this type of ‘cross promotion’ also stimulated much dissention and disquiet from the growing anti-appeasement camp. The feminist weekly Time and Tide, under the editorship of the anti-appeaser Lady Rhondda, pointed out: “’Keep the Crown out of politics’ is a wide axiom of British public life….More disturbing was the letter in enthusiastic praise of the Agreement issued under the King’s name.” Even more perturbing to the anti-Chamberlainites was that the photograph of the King and Queen with Mr Chamberlain and his wife were made into Christmas cards, bearing the motto ‘Peace on earth and goodwill to men ’ on sale at the Times’s shop in Queen Victoria Street.
The ‘merchandising of Munich’ and the ‘accessorization of appeasement’ took many forms that season, material and metaphoric. In Paris, two figures, and both British, defined glamour. These were the Queen and Neville Chamberlain, whose connection was also being played out in fashion world. “It is the Queen of Britain who has set the fashion for all the crinolines by the lovely frocks she wore when in Paris in the summer. It is in the detail of dress that you see the Chamberlain influence. Neat little day frocks will have pockets shaped like umbrellas. There are Chamberlain hats, too, to say nothing of actual umbrellas.” Thanks to a ‘Chamberlain effect’, umbrellas were all the rage, becoming the emblem of choice for jewellery, lapel pins, brooches, and key holders.
A month later, in February 1939, Queen Mary visited the British Industries Fair at Olympia, London. She was drawn to items that had been produced and that cashed in on the two great celebrities of the moment: Disney’s Snow White and Neville Chamberlain. She bought a child’s Snow White pewter table set, and one of the Chamberlain clocks (with umbrella figuring and hands in the shape of umbrellas) and she ordered three dozen combs made in the shape of Mr Chamberlain’s umbrella and called ‘Mein Gampf’.
These ‘Mein Gampf’ combs bring us back to where we started. They are a good reminder that political symbols and gestures can be used both and even simultaneously to self-identify and to subvert. Despite her own appeasement credentials and the role she played as hostess of the pro-German Cliveden Set, Lady Nancy Astor reckoned that “British people could not stand fascism—it was too farcical, if ever it came we should all die laughing.” We should not underestimate the force of farce to fend off fascism—whether in the form of a novelty comb or a possibly mocking gesture by a seven-year-old princess.
 See Julie V. Gottlieb, Feminine Fascism (London, 2000); Richard Griffiths, Fellow Travellers of the Right (London: 1981) and Patriotism Perverted (London, 1998); and Martin Pugh,’ Hurray for the Blackshirts’(London: 2006)
 “All Britain Prays for Peace,” Daily Mail, 19 September, 1938
 “‘He Paused, his Voice Broke—and Then He Smiled,” Daily Mail, 29 September, 1938
 “The King’s Gesture,” Yorkshire Post and Intelligencer, 1 October, 1938.
 “With Honour,” Daily Mail, 1 October, 1938.
 “Time-Tide Diary,” Time and Tide, Nov. 5, 1938.
 “What Smart Women are Wearing,” Aberdeen Journal, 11 February, 1939.
 “Queen Mary at Olympia,” Manchester Guardian, 22 Feb., 1939.
 Quoted in Brian Harrison, Prudent Revolutionaries(London: 1987), p. 97.
Julie V. Gottlieb is a senior lecturer in history at the University of Sheffield. You can read her interview with BBC Magazine on the controversy here. You can also read other History Matters posts by Julie here and the Rethinking Right Wing Women Series here. Her new book Guilty Women, Foreign Policy and Appeasement in Inter-war Britain (Palgrave) is due out in September.
Image: King George VI and Queen Elizabeth with Neville and Anne Chamberlain, 1938 via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/bjacques/4726795675/in/photostream/