Dr Karina Urbach’s comments in The Sun newspaper about the 17-second home movie showing the Queen performing a Nazi salute in the 1930s, which she says, ‘should have been in the public domain 50 years ago,’ was picked up by an unprecedented number and range of media outlets worldwide (see below). Here she explains how she came to be in the media spotlight.
It started with an email. On 8 July a journalist from the Sun was looking for me ‘urgently.’ I was sitting at home in Cambridge trying to pack for our move to America and had no idea what he could want. Perhaps it had something to do with my recent publications on the Duke of Windsor, but the newspapers had already covered that the previous month. I emailed back and the journalist asked whether I could look at a document. He did not want to tell me what the document was about and he insisted he could not email it to me, I had to see it in person. It all sounded very clandestine and much more exciting than packing boxes. Two hours later he sat at my dining table and I signed a confidentiality agreement. For the next ten days I stopped packing boxes.
I had expected him to show me some Russian or German documents connected to the Duke of Windsor but instead he took out his phone and played the Nazi salute film. I saw the Duchess of York, the Prince of Wales and Elizabeth and her sister doing Nazi salutes on a lawn. Two thoughts came into my mind – the first one was ‘this is going to cause major trouble, the second one was, ‘this is the trigger to open up the royal archives.’
For a long time I had been trying to interest people in the fact that the royal archives were hindering serious historical research on the 20th century. People listened politely but nothing ever happened. Since 2008 I had tried everything to get at least a catalogue of the German material in the archives. With my colleagues Franz Bosbach and John Davis, I had finally been allowed to list some of the Anglo-German correspondence up to 1918. Our project had cost the German taxpayer 500,000 Euros, but we were never sure whether we had seen all the pre-1918 material. The head archivist never gave us access to her secret internal catalogue and there was no hope that we could ever look at any of the decisive interwar material. Every time I asked for correspondence from the 1930s I had been rebuked. I knew that a lot of my British and American colleagues had suffered a similar fate and were deeply frustrated. The royal archives were a secure building and if you weren’t an official biographer there was no back door into it.
And now there was this film in front of me that gave a glimpse behind the façade. It was too good to be true. And that is why I was so suspicious. How did the Sun get it? There was no way one could ever smuggle something out of the Round Tower at Windsor Castle where the Archives are situated. It was a fortress.
The journalist assured me the film was obtained in a legal way. It seems to have been released by mistake, because somebody did not check the material properly before handing it over for a documentary on E II. It made sense to me because something similar had once happened to me. A royal archivist had given me letters from the 1920s, which must have looked innocent to her because she was not a properly trained historian. Ironically the royal archivists do not know much German history and they do not read German, even though lots of the material at their archive is in German. In the letters I was given accidentally the Duke of Coburg explained to his sister, a minor royal, that he was a member of a particularly lethal Freikorps. The archivists probably did not know that this Freikorps was involved in several murders. Historians live off such mistakes.
Unintentionally releasing the Nazi salute film, however, was a much more exciting mistake. It was an amazing chance that could really bring us forward in opening up the archives and I told the journalist I would do anything to help to put the film into its historical context. There was another historian involved in this process but he did not want to be named and later publicly condemned the publication of the film (which I found rather odd). Behind the scenes there must also have been lawyers involved, because up to the last moment it wasn’t at all certain whether the story would be published. On 16 July the Palace was given the chance to comment on the film. To my surprise they did not say anything about its content but just called its imminent release “disappointing.’ It reminded me of what I tell my eight-year-old son when I am in a Victorian state of mind.
The story finally broke on Saturday the 18 July. The next week was tumultuous, because I had to explain myself on several fronts. Some people thought that as a German I would not understand that Nazi salutes were meant humorously (well, they were after the Charlie Chaplin film in 1940, but certainly not in 1933/34 when it was a political gesture. A gesture the Queen Mother had already seen during a visit to Mussolini’s Italy and understood with all its political implications. That the later Duke of Windsor supported it was evident anyway).
Other defenders argued that the royals could not understand German politics anyway and were therefore political innocents. This was even less convincing, since the royals were briefed by the FO regularly as well as informed by their enthusiastic German relatives. They also would have read the Times, which already in July 1933 reported on Jews being lynched in the streets. In the following days I also had a few debates with defenders of appeasement, who thought whatever the royals did in the 1930s regarding Germany was absolutely understandable, including the unconstitutional step of George VI to celebrate the Munich agreement with Chamberlain on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. Since I had written in my book Go-Betweens for Hitler on back channels George VI ran to Nazi Germany I could not agree with seeing him as a political innocent.
I am now back at packing boxes. But thanks to many supportive journalists and fellow historians the crusade to open up the royal archives is now unstoppable. And I have a feeling we will see more releases from other archives soon.
Dr Karina Urbach is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Historical Research specialising in German and British cultural and political relations in the 19th and 20th century; history of international relations and Jewish family history. Her latest publication, Go-Betweens for Hitler, tells how Hitler’s secret diplomatic links with some of Germany’s top aristocrats provided a direct line to their influential contacts and relations across Europe – especially in Britain, where they included the press baron and Daily Mail owner Lord Rothermere and the future King Edward VIII. From 2015–18 she will be a long-term visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.
Publications in which stories have appeared include The Times [behind a paywall], The Guardian, The Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Mirror, Russia Today, CNN, The Washington Post, the International Business Times, The Observer, CBC News, Herald Scotland, BBC, The Inquisitr, WDSU, Christian Science Monitor, The Times of Israel, New Zealand Herald and US News.