The king, his mistress and their links to the Führer...
Andrew Morton's biography uncovers the seedy story of the Windsors' Nazi friendships
Twenty-three years ago, Andrew Morton's first bestseller, Diana: Her True Story, turned biography into an incendiary device.
17 Carnations: The Windsors, the Nazis and the Cover-Up by Andrew Morton. Michael O'Mara Books, 384p, hbk, £20
It is good to be reminded that books can have impact - in this case, bringing to an end the Prince of Wales's marriage - and Morton has continued to meet our demand for regular literary explosions. After Diana he spilt the secrets of Madonna, Tom Cruise, Posh and Becks and Angelina Jolie in salacious biographies they all complained about. It's a wonder, given his radar for a seedy story, that it took him so long to get round to the business of the Windsors and their Nazi friends.
The marriage between Wallis Simpson and the former King Edward VIII took place in the French château of the Nazi sympathiser Charles Bedaux, and their Austrian honeymoon in 1937 included cosying up with Hitler in his Berchtesgaden retreat. According to Morton, the Führer kept his eye on the nervy English monarch "like a cat idly watching a mouse at play and wondering when to pounce". The Duke, famous for brandishing his opinions about like a boy with a loaded gun, thought the Führer "a very great man".
"It would be a tragic thing for the world," he informed a stunned American journalist, "if Hitler were to be overthrown." Counter-historians must have a field day with the German response to the Windsors: the Duchess, Hitler regretted, "would have made a good queen". "What a shame he is no longer king!" said Goebbels of her husband. "With him an alliance would have been possible."
When Hitler won the war, the German diplomats predicted, the Duke would be "the logical director of England's destiny" - in other words, he would be reinstated as a puppet king.
It was assumed within the corridors of Westminster that Mrs Simpson was a blackmailer, spy and Nazi-lover. She evidently cared little for her husband's country. "After what they did to me, I can't feel sorry for them," was her response to the bombing of the English coastal towns.
It was rumoured that before marrying Edward, she had been mistress of Ribbentrop, Hitler's special commissioner in London, who commemorated their nights together with daily deliveries of 17 carnations. The Ribbentrop allegations have never been confirmed but nor have they been refuted, and the carnations, Morton concedes, might in fact have been roses.
We can be more certain of the surreal scheme known as Operation Willi, whereby the SS hoped to kidnap Edward during the war and entice him into negotiating peace with England rather than becoming Governor of the Bahamas.
What distinguishes Morton as a biographer is his lack of interest in character. He investigates institutions - the monarchy, Hollywood, Scientology - rather than individuals. He has much to say about the House of Windsor, but no thoughts about its human components. At one point, he suggests Edward may have suffered from anorexia. If this is the case - and it seems likely - then the man who gave up the throne for the woman he loved was locked inside a fear of losing control. But nothing more is heard about it; the observation is left where Morton dropped it, on page eight.
The publicity material for 17 Carnations promises the revelation of previously unseen material, and while Morton includes interviews, photographs and documents which have not appeared in other books, these do little to alter what we already know. He is less interested in uncovering the Windsors' involvement with the Nazi regime than in exploring the cover-up itself.
The final section of the book contains a detailed account of the discovery, in the grounds of a country estate in the vicinity of Mühlhausen, of the "Windsor File", in which the incriminating evidence was found. It is at this point that the book shifts into first gear. Rather than release the file to a post-war world desperate to make sense of its own past, there were consistent attempts by the crown and government to suppress the full story of the Duke's disloyalty. Thus Morton draws a vigorous conclusion: the same family who broke links with the Duke over "that woman" now closed ranks and protected its own. To expose Edward in all "his faults, his frailties, and his petty indulgences" would "have exposed the monarchy, that national crucible of duty, honour, and stability, to possible shame and contumely". And the illusion of monarchy must be maintained at all costs, even when the "democratic principles of the country" are in danger of being "compromised".
When the Windsor File was published in the 1950s, a bomb went off but, says Morton, "the sky did not fall in, the world continued on its axis, Queen Elizabeth's reign remained untroubled". He might be talking about the aftermath of his own book on Diana.
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