In late October of 1937, Adolf Hitler welcomed a rather well-known couple to his mountain retreat for a cup of tea.
Hitler, by then, was German chancellor — a vehement anti-Semite taking an ever tightening and violent hold on the country. As a host, he couldn’t have been more pleasant.
“Before tea,” the New York Times reported, “Hitler showed his guests the house and grounds. They stood for some time on the terrace looking down into Austria, with the border town of Salzburg framed between the mountains.”
After a two-hour visit, the couple said goodbye. Hitler gave the Nazi salute. So did the man he had welcomed — the Duke of Windsor, who only months before had abdicated his royal crown to marry Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee who accompanied him for tea.
The extraordinary moment is referenced in Episode 6 of the new season of “The Crown,” the hit Netflix series that chronicles Queen Elizabeth II’s early reign. The show is factually inspired but highly dramatized, often prompting viewers to hit pause — not to get popcorn but to rifle through the Internet to answer holy-smokes-did-that-really-happen questions.
In the case of the Nazis, viewers have had plenty to Google.
The show has depicted, among other shockers, Prince Philip’s sister’s relationship with Nazis and his marching with Nazi officers at her funeral. (All true.) But it’s the issues raised in Episode 6 this season that are truly jaw-dropping. Was the duke a Nazi sympathizer? Did he plot to dethrone his brother, King George VI? Did he really suggest more German bombing of Britain might end World War II?
The allegations are raised in the episode via highly secret German army documents and telegrams discovered after the war ended. Winston Churchill tries to cover up the discovery and stop historians from publishing the damning papers. The queen, played by Claire Foy, reads the documents in her study, her face pale, her hand on her brow. The duke denies everything.
This isn’t just TV, though.
This actually happened — not totally as depicted, but darn near close.
The duke’s relationship with the Nazis, as detailed in the secret file, has been examined over the years by historians and journalists, none of whom can agree on whether the papers represented the duke’s actions or were simply Nazi propaganda, as the monarchy has long claimed.
Perhaps the most hair-raising and fascinating account is a seemingly forgotten academic paper published in 1997 titled “The Windsor File.” Written by Paul Sweet, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer and historian involved in the eventual publication of the papers, the account details the duke’s Nazi associations and the long, ultimately unsuccessful effort at suppression.
“From his youth,” Sweet wrote, “Edward had manifested a fondness for the German language and culture.” But his feelings went way beyond that, the historian says, citing diaries of former diplomats and others who knew him:
His pro-German feelings frequently found expression in indiscreet remarks that were not only insensitive to the brutalities of the Nazi regime but critical of “slip-shod democracy.” In July 1933, he told former Kaiser Wilhelm II’s grandson, Prince Louis Ferdinand, that it was “no business of ours to interfere in Germany’s internal affairs either re Jews or re anything else.” “Dictators are very popular these days,” Edward had added. “We might want one in England before long.”
The duke’s leanings were passed on through spy channels to Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, who is depicted in “The Crown” as having an affair with Simpson. (Rumors, never proved definitively. But he did send her a lot of flowers.) Hitler liked the idea of working with the duke, who had an affinity for the Germans and an ax to grind in Britain.
Churchill came to fear the duke would cause him problems with the Nazis, Sweet wrote, so he asked him to become governor of the Bahamas. The duke, who also held the title of major-general in the army, hemmed and hawed. “Eventually Churchill became so frustrated that he reminded Edward in a telegram that even major-generals could be court-martialed,” Sweet wrote.
The duke’s dalliances with the Nazis were detailed in cables, telegrams and other documents — the cache discovered after the war. There was some bizarre stuff, most notably details of a plot for the Germans to, in a friendly manner, kidnap the duke to prevent him from going to the Bahamas. The goal for Hitler: Get the duke his crown back to help end the war, so Germany could save face.
Churchill and the palace did not, understandably, want the documents published. An international fight over them dragged on for more than a decade. Documents published by the British government this year detailed Churchill’s efforts.
“The Prime Minister personally urged the French and US leaders to block publication of the captured German telegrams after the war,” the Telegraph reported, “fearing they would ‘give pain to the Duke.’ While he dismissed the documents as “ ‘German intrigues,’ he feared they might cast doubt on the Duke’s loyalty.”
No doubt. Churchill lost.
The documents were published in 1957 to the world’s astonishment. Russell Baker, who would go on to become a famous columnist, wrote the front-page story for the New York Times, describing the papers as “of dubious validity.”
“Whether the reports on the Duke of Windsor accurately reflected his thinking at the time,” Baker wrote, “or whether they were merely . . . cocktail party gossip is impossible to tell from the diplomatic reports.”
Upon the publication of the documents, Buckingham Palace issued a statement saying that “His Royal Highness never wavered in his loyalty to the British cause,” adding: “The German records are necessarily a much tainted source. The only firm evidence which they provide is of what the Germans were trying to do in the matter, and of how completely they failed to do it.”
Sweet referenced the statement at the end of his paper. He then gave an academic wink.
“Fortunately,” he wrote, “publication of the documents permits readers to decide for themselves whether the evidence supports this official interpretation.”
Readers, yes. Television viewers, too.
Read more Retropolis: