Perhaps what’s most fascinating about the furore surrounding the Sun’s acquisition of film footage1 from the early 1930s which appears to show the future queen Elizabeth, her sister Margaret, their mother, and their uncle Edward giving Nazi salutes is not so much the ‘revelation’ that Edward was an admirer of Hitler, but that it has offended so many members of the public. And offence it certainly seems to have caused, judging by level of social media traffic denouncing the Sun and supporting Her Majesty.
Of course, there are a number of ironies here: not least that the Sun had now apparently become an important historical source relating to European politics in the inter-war period. There is also the question of media politics: the Mirror and the Mail lost no time laying into their arch enemy. Even more ironically, perhaps, the Guardian actually ran a piece defending the newspaper’s decision to run the story.2
But what’s the story? Didn’t we already know that Edward was an admirer of Hitler and National Socialism, and that these sentiments were shared by a lot of his peers and contemporaries? One of the reasons for this was that, at the time, Hitler and Nazism seemed a lesser evil than Stalin and communism, especially if you happened to be a member of the ruling classes. And even is this is news to some, does anyone honestly believe that the young Elizabeth and her sister were signed up party members?
But, of course, this is not the point. What seems to have upset a large swathe of the population is the very suggestion that there might possibly be some (very) tenuous link between the Queen and National Socialism. Furthermore, might this not be touching a raw (royal) nerve regarding the whole sorry saga of the Edward’s abdication and the fact that this nearly destroyed the royal family? In fact, one might argue that the monarchy (and the country) has been living in the shadow of the abdication ever since.
One of the things that the abdication crisis exposed was the fiction of sovereign power. In the end, Edward had to resign because of political pressure. Whether we believe the official line that it was his determination to marry Wallis Simpson (an American divorcee) that forced him to abdicate, or whether we believe the rumours that it was because they were passing secrets to the Nazis, the point is that Parliament trumped the monarchy. At the end of the day the sovereign did what what the politicians demanded. The bitter irony, perhaps (from Edward’s point of view at least) was that he was no Charles I (and, for that matter, Baldwin was no Oliver Cromwell).
But was it only the monarchy that was shaken by this recognition that they had to know their place in a parliamentary democracy? Isn’t this touching a wider, cultural nerve? This is the fact that a large proportion of the population of the UK actually appear to want a monarch and a royal family, and even when they had the opportunity to replace the monarchy in the seventeenth century they, ultimately, chose not to. Instead they opted for the constitutional fudge that we are still living with today.
So what is it about the monarchy and the royal family that resonates in the national psyche? Along with the National Health Service, the royal family is something of a national icon. Another irony, perhaps: the last vestiges of state socialism jostling with the last vestiges of monarchical power. In a way, though, this makes perfect sense. Both the NHS and the royal family represent a lost world: a world where everyone is looked after, cared for; a world where everyone knows their place; where the royal family is the Holy Family, which represents all that is good, noble and virtuous in human existence; a world where class divisions, inequality, globalisation, global terror are hidden from sight.
Going back to that (surely now most infamous) home movie: it was taken at a time when the whole of Europe (and indeed the whole world) was fracturing; where all the certainties of the past were collapsing; where advances in science and technology were accelerating rapidly; where the foundations of our world today were being laid. The significance of the photograph of the young Elizabeth is surely not the ‘salute’, but the expression of joy and innocence soon to be lost. And, of course, what was being ‘saluted’ (though little did they know it) was the harbinger of such a loss i.e. Hitler and National Socialism, who, along with Stalin and communism, probably did more to destroy the world that the royals represented, and that the country desperately wanted to hang onto, than anything else.
So perhaps we could argue that that short film encapsulates both the shadow of the past, and the complexities and contradictions of history. At the same time, though, perhaps it also encapsulates something else: the shadow of the Real; the idea of the past as trauma, the undermining of history…