Matthew Norman: Harry the Nazi, or Harry the fool?

The real but unspoken problem for the Prince is that his family has so much previous on this issue

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Even for a country that justly takes pride in being the world's leading manufacturer of synthesised moral disgust, what a week it's been. One minute a phalanx of devout Christians are burning their TV licences outside the BBC in protest at a satirical portrayal of the Prince of Heaven. The next, an earthly Prince is pictured wearing a misappropriated Hindu symbol at a fancy dress party in Wiltshire.

Even for a country that justly takes pride in being the world's leading manufacturer of synthesised moral disgust, what a week it's been. One minute a phalanx of devout Christians are burning their TV licences outside the BBC in protest at a satirical portrayal of the Prince of Heaven. The next, an earthly Prince is pictured wearing a misappropriated Hindu symbol at a fancy dress party in Wiltshire.

At time of writing, there are no reports of either Jewish people or veterans of Monty's North African campaign (Harry also wore the outfit of a Rommel officer) gathering outside Buckingham Palace to incinerate their passports, but it's early days.

One way of seeking perspective on the matter of the Prince and the Swastika might be to decide which of two captions would better fit the bill were he to appear as a character in an updated version of Jerry Springer - The Opera. "Prince Harry: Grandson of British Queen is Huge Fan of Adolf Hitler"? Or: "Prince Harry: Not Especially Bright Child of Ignorant Times"?

In any "You, The Jury" phone poll held by The Sun, which broke the story beneath the front page headline: "Harry The Nazi", my vote would be for the latter, while, judging by his appearance on the Today programme, the Leader of the Opposition would plump for the former. Michael Howard, who melodramatically abandoned his lectern at last autumn's Tory conference to whisper of relatives lost in concentration camps, permitted himself to be scandalised. He even called on Harry to recite a public apologia.

Even Conservative leaders are entitled to their opinion, of course, but listening to this nonsense I found myself wondering how a mutual friend would have reacted. A year ago almost to the day, Stewart Steven, a newspaper editor of immense talent and a most glorious man, died in his sleep. As Mr Howard movingly reminded us at the memorial service, Stewart was born to a Jewish father in Hitler's Germany, the family fleeing to England when he was a small boy.

Adducing the dead as witnesses is slightly dodgy, but I'm fairly sure that Stewart, a voracious student of the Holocaust and a passionate friend of Israel, would have smiled wryly at the fuss. Undoubtedly, he would by now have been to see Nathan Lane in The Producers, and unleashed his basso profundo chuckle at the dance number in which the cast of Springtime For Hitler form themselves into a giant swastika.

Whether or not Mr Howard has been to that show, my guess is that he has seen the movie many times without feeling obliged to demand an official recantation from Mel Brooks. You might point out that, as a Jew himself, Mr Brooks's use of the swastika as a comedic tool is inoffensive ... in much the way the 'n' word used as a greeting between black men has a clear tonal difference than when coming from the mouth of an Alabama traffic cop whose idea of a leisure pursuit is carrying a flaming cross across a field while wearing a white hood.

The reason Bernard Manning is seldom vilified for his Jewish jokes ("I'm very sad today, I've just found out my grandfather died in Belsen ... He fell out of a machine gun tower") as for his repellent racist ones is the widely known fact that he had a Jewish grandfather.

There may well be something in this argument, but, even so, I can find no record of Mr Howard, when Home Secretary, demanding contrition from the non-Jews who wrote 'Allo, 'Allo for teasing such mirth from Herr Flick of the Gestapo and his Aryan helpmeet, Helga. Nor did he ever attack Freddie Starr, another goy, over the impersonation of Hitler that graced ITV's Who Do You Do? through so much of the 1970s.

Given this, we must presume that it is not the swastika itself that upsets Mr Howard and others who affect outrage, nor the mining of Hitler and his regime as a rich source of merriment. Some may believe the Nazis can simply never be a subject for levity. More will accept, even if reluctantly, the old formula which holds: comedy equals tragedy plus time.

For some years after his death, no doubt Roman noblemen avoided cracking gags about how Caligula tarred senators and used them as makeshift torches to light imperial dinner parties, but soon enough Suetonius was recounting the detail in much the same ironic tone Peter Ustinov reserved for the unending anecdotes he told on Parkinson.

Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, the Spanish Inquisitors and myriad other monsters from history eventually took their place as short cuts to an easy laugh. People roared at the homicidal dementia of Idi Amin and the Emperor Bokassa even in the midst of it, as they giggle unashamedly today at the names of Saddam and Osama.

Whether or not the Nazi regime committed a unique act of wickedness (and personally I find the numbers game that attempts to equate Hitler with Stalin faintly repellent), the inherent amorality of comedy guarantees a place for its symbols and its figureheads as objects of mirth.

The real but unspoken problem for Prince Harry, it seems to me, is that his family has so much previous on this issue. His grandfather remains European royalty's closest answer to Bernard Manning, while such was his great great uncle David's admiration for the Führer that the offending swastika may well have come from a dressing-up box left behind by the erstwhile Edward VIII in the rush to get to France.

According to a Christopher Hitchens profile in Vanity Fair, and other sources, the dear old Queen Mum was casually anti-Semitic, while another late relative of Prince Harry was overhead emerging from Schindler's List, so it's been claimed, drawling: "Oh, those fucking Jews, always moaning!" (Princess Michael of Kent's father wore the swastika for real, of course, but is excused from the roster as a mere relative by marriage.)

Yet, however much form the House of Windsor may have, it is not for any of us to visit the sins of the kinfolk on a boy guilty of nothing more or less than belonging to a generation which takes a keener interest in the Nike swooshtika than the Nazi swastika.

If Harry were in the Big Brother house, as one day he surely will be, Professor Greer and that equally impressive didact John McCririck might have taught him a little about Hitler and the resonance of the interlocking lines he wore so blithely on his left arm ... enough at least from him to make an informed decision about whether to wear that outfit.

As things are, one has to assume that the industrialisation of genocide and its most chilling symbol remain virgin territory to an over-indulged young chump who had no idea how he was playing into the hands of that half of Britain which lives to take offence where plainly none was intended.

Whether that minor error of judgement says more about the quality of royal advisers than the standard of history teaching at Eton, or the sheer, boneheaded naivete of this feckless young Prince, I'm not at all sure. What does seem clear is that, next time he is invited to a fancy-dress do, Harry should hold true to the tastes and traditions of his class, and go as a woman. Although probably not Eva Braun.

m.norman@independent.co.uk

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