Duke of Windsor saw peace with Hitler War papers confirm leanings toward Nazis

December 04, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- It was 1940, Britain's dark hour in World War II. While his countrymen stood alone against the Nazis, the Duke of Windsor -- the former king who abdicated to marry a Baltimore divorcee -- made some startling predictions to a young Spanish count.

The Duke of Windsor said Britain's wartime government would collapse, a new Labor government would negotiate with Germany, his brother, King George VI, would abdicate, and a virtual revolution would bring the duke himself back to the throne in an England at peace with the Nazis.

This declaration that Count Nava de Tujo reported and passed on to British officials is among the historical nuggets contained in thousands of British government documents released yesterday.

The documents appear to confirm long-held suspicions that the duke -- who met Adolf Hitler in 1937 -- harbored pro-Nazi sympathies. While many of the documents were used by historian Philip Ziegler to compile a biography of the duke authorized by the royal family, they provide startling, sometimes unintentionally entertaining reading, as in the case of a Foreign Office official who wrote on a file: "The Duke has a genius for embarrassment."

The tale of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor continues to fascinate and, at times, embarrass a nation, 60 years after the couple fled into exile. It was in 1936 that the duke, then Edward VIII, renounced his crown to marry Wallis Warfield Simpson. But even in exile at the outbreak of the war, the duke and duchess confounded the British government, which feared they would become pawns of the Germans as the couple hopscotched from France to Spain to Portugal. At least one German plot to kidnap the duke failed.

A July 7, 1940, intelligence report from Prague, Czechoslovakia, claimed that the Germans planned to invite the duke to become a puppet ruler in Britain and that they were negotiating with his wife, who "desired at any price to be Queen."

The Independent newspaper in London today cited that disclosure in a banner headline: "Britain's Would-Be Nazi Queen."

Even as he commanded a nation in its struggle to beat the Nazis, Prime Minister Winston Churchill found himself imploring the duke to leave the European continent and to take up a job as governor of the Bahamas.

On June 24, 1940, the same month as the British troop evacuation of Dunkirk and the fall of Paris, the duke cabled Churchill, seeking a job to "serve the Empire."

"My visits to England since the war have proved my presence there is an embarrassment to all concerned, myself included, and I cannot see how any post offered me there, even at this time, can alter this situation," the duke wrote.

On July 1, 1940, Churchill cabled the duke: "Your Royal Highness has taken active military rank and refusal to obey direct orders of competent military authority would create a serious situation. I hope it will not be necessary for such orders to be sent. I most strongly urge immediate compliance with the wishes of the Government."

Churchill also cabled the prime ministers of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, saying that the duke had caused the government "great embarrassment," even though his loyalties were "unimpeachable."

"There is always the backlash of Nazi intrigue which seeks to make trouble about him," Churchill wrote.

The duke's appointment as governor of the Bahamas evoked a mean-spirited response from Lord Halifax, the British ambassador in Washington. "I dare say it is quite a good plan that they should go to the Bahamas, but I am sorry for the Bahamas," Lord Halifax wrote.

Even after the duke took up the post in the Bahamas, the British government feared the high-profile trips he and his wife made to the United States. A bid by the couple to visit the duchess' relatives in Baltimore set off a furious round of cables.

Behind the scenes, British officials were also infuriated when the duke gave a magazine interview in which he argued against U.S. involvement in the war. A senior official in the Foreign Office wrote Britain's assistant under-secretary of state that "the Duke of Windsor is notoriously pro-Nazi. He is also a heavy drinker and what few wits he had have wilted."

The official demanded that the duke clear all his interviews and that the ban be publicized. "There is no reason why an insubordinate and wrong-headed governor should escape reproof merely because he once misconducted himself in another capacity," he wrote.

"It may also help to correct the gaffe of sending him to this post. It -- or any post near the USA -- should have been the last chosen."

Pub Date: 12/04/96

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