The Royals and the Nazis

Prince Harry was the latest of many to buy into the seductive glamour of a regime that brought hell to earth. By Allan Massie

It's almost inconceivable that anyone in the public eye - even a member of the Royal Family - could be so silly. That will be the response of most sensible people to the photograph of Prince Harry wearing a Nazi uniform to a fancy-dress party. The fact that it was a private party makes, sadly, no difference, and not only because, the world being as it is, someone was bound to alert the press. The Prince may not be the brightest of young men, but he should surely have some common sense, and should realise that dressing up as a Nazi even in fun was going to give offence.

It's almost inconceivable that anyone in the public eye - even a member of the Royal Family - could be so silly. That will be the response of most sensible people to the photograph of Prince Harry wearing a Nazi uniform to a fancy-dress party. The fact that it was a private party makes, sadly, no difference, and not only because, the world being as it is, someone was bound to alert the press. The Prince may not be the brightest of young men, but he should surely have some common sense, and should realise that dressing up as a Nazi even in fun was going to give offence.

And even if he lacks such common sense, surely someone around him should have said, simply, "it won't do".

It is, again sadly, quite possible that Prince Harry knows next to nothing about the Nazis. If you think he couldn't be that ignorant, then you might recall that, according to a recent poll, a great many schoolchildren don't know what happened at Auschwitz. "It's ancient history, man."

Sixty years have passed since Hitler shot himself in his bunker as the Red Army tanks crashed through Berlin. In the weeks and months either side of that day, the full horror and evil of the Nazi regime became undeniable. We have no excuse for not knowing what the death camps were: in George Steiner's words, "the transference of Hell from below the earth to its surface ... the camp embodies, often down to minutiae, the images and chronicles of Hell in European art and thought from the 12th to the 18th centuries." That is the reality.

Yet, despite this reality, brought home to us time and again in photographs, the testimony of survivors, and countless books, films and plays, the Nazis retain a seedy glamour. It is to that glamour, one assumes, that Prince Harry responded, even as equally silly young members of rock groups have responded. There is Nazi chic and it is loathsomely kitsch. Shops selling Nazi memorabilia do a good trade.

That however is not all. It is not just the vulgar swagger of the uniforms, and the crude operatic effects of the Nuremberg rallies, that continue to operate on the imagination of the Western world. The Nazis, a lifetime after the destructive nihilism of their ideology was exposed, continue to be news. Books on Hitler proliferate; he has become, like Mary Queen of Scots, a safe bet for publishers: books on Hitler always sell.

There was some excuse for being a Nazi, or sympathetic towards the Nazis, in the 1930s before the evil of the regime was made apparent. Prince Harry's great-great-uncle, the Duke of Windsor, visited Germany after his abdication, and expressed admiration for what he saw there. While on the throne as Edward VIII, his political sympathies were, as the historian David Cannadine puts it, "certainly pro-German and perhaps pro-Nazi". On that visit to Germany, Windsor was photographed shaking hands with Hitler and apparently giving the Nazi salute, But then Britain's First World War Prime Minister, the Liberal leader David Lloyd George, had also shaken hands with the Nazi leader, and had even spoken admiringly of his achievement.

So Windsor wasn't unique. A lot of people in 1930s Britain thought well of Hitler, the poet Philip Larkin's father, for instance, kept a bust of the Führer on his mantlepiece. It wasn't only clever-silly girls like Diana and Unity Mitford who fell for him.

There were four reasons why some approved of him. First, Hitler presented himself as a bulwark against communism; with some reason for he had destroyed the German Communist Party. Many people in Britain - not only aristocrats but middle-class folk such as Larkin senior - were afraid of a communist revolution. That fear had in 1917-18 deterred George V from offering a refuge in Britain to his cousin, Tsar Nicholas II; he thought such an offer would be provocative. The vast majority of the British people then wanted to be neither communist nor fascist, but, forced to choose between the two faiths, a sizeable minority, here as in France, would have plumped for fascism.

Secondly, it could be persuasively argued, at least until 1938, that Hitler had done a good job for Germany. The Depression of the early 1930s had been even more severe in Germany than in Britain. When Hitler became Chancellor there were six million unemployed. He had put Germany back to work and restored the self-esteem of a great nation. For those, like Sir Oswald Mosley, impatient with parliamentary politics and scornful of what they saw as hesitation and indecisiveness on the part of the National Government of MacDonald, Baldwin and Chamberlain, the Nazis offered an energetic and successful model. When, as king, Edward, visited south Wales and declared himself shocked by the condition of the unemployed, and said (feebly) "something must be done", it is not surprising that he should have looked admiringly to Germany where, very evidently, that sort of something had been done.

Third, there was the terrible memory of the 1914-18 war, the formative experience of two generations - the one that fought, and the one that was too young to fight. Hitler had been in the trenches too, decorated for bravery and also wounded. There was a comradeship of the trenches; hands across the sea. The Duke of Windsor spoke of Hitler and himself as being both "old soldiers".

Moreover that war had been so ghastly that, for years, many were ready to accept Hitler's assurance that he had no desire for war, but wished merely to rectify injustices inflicted on Germany by the Versailles Treaty.

Finally there was, at first anyway, an idealistic element in Nazism which appealed to some here. This is caught excellently in the film Cabaret in the scene where the blond boy stands in the beer garden and sings "Tomorrow Belongs to Me". That his tomorrow would be so hellish was not apparent to all at the time.

We can see now - it is impossible not to see now - that all those who felt sympathy for the Nazi movement, or expressed approval of what Hitler was doing, were deluded - though no more deluded than their counterparts on the left who loved Stalin and spoke admiringly of the achievements of the Soviet Union. Both groups were in a minority even then; the majority in Britain would have said "a plague on both your houses". The glamour of the Nazi movement appealed only to a few. Orwell was right in remarking that the goose-step could never be introduced here because the profoundly anti-militaristic British would laugh.

And of course when war came we did treat Hitler as a figure of fun; as Sam Browne, the singer with Ambrose's Orchestra put it:

Adolf, you've bitten off

Much worse than you can chew.

Come on, hold your hand out,

We're all fed up with you,

Cor blimey.

We're sick of the muscle and the mess you've made.

You've gone and stuck your fingers in the marmalade.

So now you're going to get a big surprise.

You're nothing but a basket full of lies...

Adolf, just you toddle off,

And all your Nazis too,

Or you may get something to remind you

Of the old red white and blue.

This was an inadequate summing-up of the monster, though wonderful for wartime morale. But it is at least a human response, and wholly admirable in its refusal to be impressed by the brutal swagger of the Nazis, and it may again be the response we need to Nazism now.

For years we have dwelled on the evil of the Nazis, and it was necessary that we should do so. Yet in dwelling on their cruelty and even on the hell of Auschwitz and the other camps, we make them more interesting than they were. We may even make them attractive, for only the innocently naive do not recognise the seductive charm of evil. "Why," asked General Booth, the creator of the Salvation Army, "should the Devil have all the best tunes?"

Laughter is the best response to anyone who still finds the Nazis glamorous. As Bertie Wooster put it to the would-be dictator Roderick Spode: "Just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you're someone. You hear them shouting 'Heil Spode!' and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: 'Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?"

And this is what someone needs to say to Prince Harry: "You looked a frightful prat in that Nazi outfit."

Ridicule. That's the answer. You can't beat it.

Adolf, just you toddle off,

And all your Nazis too.

We're all, as the song had it, fed up with you.

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