I’ve yet to go to the cinema to watch ‘Kings Speech’, which is currently the talk of Hollywood. Those who have come back enthused, including some of those who are not usually over impressed with movies built around the idiosyncrasies of the British Monarchy and the cloying class system that pervades them.
In recent days however there has been an extremely interesting development that takes us well away from all of the usual discourse about class, Monarchy, deference and how foreigners perceive Britain. It has been the campaign mounted to prevent ‘Kings Speech’ from receiving any award at all, because those behind the campaign say that King George VI does not deserve to be remembered in a positive way, and that the film deftly ignores what they claim was his role in appeasing Hitler. They say that the British King communicated the British intent to prevent Jewish refugees leaving Central Europe to settle in Palestine prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, to Hitler. As such, say the campaigners, the King was complicit in the persecution of the Jews and should be remembered accordingly.
It is absolutely right that campaigners have brought this particularly dark period into the light, and it is particularly important that King George VI's role in British Government policy towards European Jewry is reprised. For the uncomfortable truth is that a whole strata of the British Establishment sympathised with the pre War Nazis, and those who didn’t believed that avoiding war was so important that Hitler must be appeased at every corner. And so it was that the British Government would have known that Jews were beginning to suffer under the Nazis, but for reasons of not wanting to offend the new German leadership, on occasions stopped Jewish refugees from reaching Palestine. But the British did this for another reason too. Palestine then, was under the British Mandate, and oil in other parts of Arabia was just beginning to become important. Since the Arabs didn’t want Jewish refugees either, the British Government had to take account of this as well. During this same period however, the ‘kinder transport’ of Jewish children from Germany and Central Europe led to many refugees coming to Britain.
King George VI was most likely expostulating British policy as it stood at the time – a policy of appeasing Hitler and the Arabs. His actions are most certainly worthy of recollection, but not to be used to weaken the case for the film ‘King’s Speech’. For as the campaigners must surely know, it was George’s predecessor, Edward the VIII, who was the real Nazi sympathiser, and who was forced to abdicate from the throne – ostensibly for wanting to marry an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson.
The truth is more revealing. Edwards VIII was found out quite early on as an idle individual who wasn’t up to the job. Coupled to that were his Nazi sympathies and connections, so powerful that Hitler planned to reinstate him after the abdication crisis, had the Germans conquered Britain.
In the end the British Establishment decided that the safest course of action, once war had broken out, was to despatch the now abdicated Edwards VIII to the Bahamas as Governor General.
Now that makes for a far more interesting story – and film.