Surrounded by a gaggle of Canadians and several members of the media, it was perhaps an ill-advised moment for Prince Charles to conduct a “private conversation.” Wearing a gray suit and grayer hair, the Prince of Wales fell into conversation with a 78-year-old Jewish woman who had fled Poland for Canada when she was 13.
As the pair ambled through a museum’s exhibits, Charles laid out some private thoughts in a very public setting. “I had finished showing him the exhibit and talked with him about my own family background and how I came to Canada,” the woman told the Daily Mail. “The prince then said, ‘And now Putin is doing just about the same as Hitler.'”
For a man who by tradition is meant to stay out of the nasty fray of international disputes — such as Ukraine — this was not the most politic thing to say. And within hours, the British news machine was humming. Reporters peppered Prime Minister David Cameron with questions: “I am not going to comment someone’s private conversation,” he said. “Least of all Prince Charles.”
On Wednesday, it appeared the Russians wouldn’t either. There was barely a trace of a response on Russian television, and Putin was quiet. Only prominent Russian daily Moskovskij Komsomolets offered this assessment: “Prince Charles risks triggering an international scandal” and complicating “clouded relations between Great Britain and Russia.”
But on Thursday, things got cloudier and the kerfuffle morphed into a full-fledged “international scandal.”
“If such comments were genuinely made, they do not reflect well on the future King of England,” a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said in a statement, calling the remarks “outrageous and low… As one of the members of the UK’s Labour Party said, ‘Royals should be seen and not heard.'”
The Russian embassy in London was also itching for a fight. They wanted a meeting. They wanted “clarification.” “It’s not clear if it is an official position,” one Russian diplomat told the Telegraph. “The response from Clarence House [Charles’ official residence in London] is it was a private talk. We hope there is nothing behind it. But it is unclear to us: what does it mean? He is the future king, after all. … It is very serious. Every family in our country lost someone in that war.”
This isn’t the first time this year someone has compared Hitler to Putin, who annexed Crimea in March under the auspices of protecting ethnic Russians. Hillary Clinton did it. So did the German finance minister. A prominent Russian thinker mulled the same. There’s even a popular name for Putin in Ukraine: “Putler.”
But this is the first time that the comparison has ballooned into something larger. Why? For one, it fits into a larger pattern of gaffes uttered by British royalty, which really isn’t supposed to say much about anything political. Charles’s father, Prince Philip, notched so many ill-received remarks that some British papers began calling him “Prince Fool-lip.”
Charles appears to be outdoing his father. One of Charles’s more famous blunders occurred in 1997. It was on plane ride back from China after he had presided at the handover of the British colony of Hong Kong to China. He wrote down 3,000 words in a handwritten manifesto he called “The Great Chinese Takeaway,” in which, among other things, he called the Chinese “appalling old waxworks.” He described China as a “ridiculous rigamarole” and bemoaned the “awful Soviet-style display.”
Then he described the indignity of sitting in coach while other dignitaries “were ensconced in First Class … It puzzled me as to why the seat was so uncomfortable. Such is the end of the Empire.”
Then there’s the matter that a few members of the British monarchy had some pre-World War II sympathy for Nazi Germany, and comparing Putin and Hitler may strike some as off-color. Wallis Simpson, whom former king Edward VIII abdicated to marry, once entertained private talks with Nazis to ensure she would be appointed Queen of England “at any price.” Her husband, meanwhile, also expressed some pro-Nazi sympathies, visiting Hitler’s moutainside retreat and doling out a few Nazi salutes.
The final reason is Putin himself. More than 20 million Russians died in World War II, which they call the Great Patriotic War. Nearly every Russian was touched in some way by the battles against the Nazis, and their eventual victory over Germany is still seen as a defining national triumph.
Putin’s own brother, who was an infant and born 10 years before Putin, died during the siege of Leningrad. “Putin’s brother died in an inhumane hunger blockade of Leningrad ordered by Hitler,” former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder told the New York Times. “And now Putin must hear that he is a disguised Nazi. That just isn’t right.”
Still, despite the flap, Prince Charles doesn’t seem to bothered. During his visit this week to a Canadian aircraft hangar in Winnipeg, he was all smiles, aiming paper airplanes at reporters.