Andrew Morton’s new book sheds light on the relationship between Edward VIII and the Nazis and the attempts to keep it out of the news. Chris Bond spoke to the author.
MOST conspiracy theories turn out to be just that. Theories.
They might be born out of genuine despair and disbelief, as with the Kennedy assassinations, or rooted in more fanciful ideas, such as the view that the Moon landings were just an elaborate hoax.
More often than not, though, they turn out to be wrong. But sometimes public suspicions do at least have a whiff of credibility.
In his latest book, 17 Carnations - The Windsors, The Nazis and The Cover-Up, Dewsbury-born writer Andrew Morton turns his attention to King Edward VIII.
The story of Edward giving up the throne for Wallis Simpson, the woman he loved, is famous, but what is less well known is his association with the Nazi regime before, and even during, the Second World War.
It’s well documented that in October 1937, Edward and his wife - by now the Duke and Duchess of Windsor - visited Nazi Germany.
They met Adolf Hitler, dined with his deputy, Rudolf Hess, and even visited a concentration camp. The camp’s guard towers were reportedly explained away as meat stores for the inmates.
But in 17 Carnations, Morton highlights the extent to which Edward and Wallis corresponded with the German leadership during the 1930s, chronicling the couple’s bizarre entanglement with the Nazi elite.
He also reveals that Joachim von Ribbentrop, who became Hitler’s foreign minister, apparently had an affair with Simpson and sent her 17 carnations - said to represent the number of nights they spent together.
“For once conspiracy theorists have got something to beef about. It’s not like Diana, or JFK, which were hokum, this was a conspiracy,” he says, speaking down the line from New York.
He says the relationship between the duke and Hitler was an interesting one. “Hitler tried to marry him off to a German princess and Edward visited the country after his abdication. He felt that Hitler had done a good job in restoring peace and order internally in Germany after all the upheaval. He also felt he was a bulwark against the Bolsheviks, who he hated because they had killed his godfather Tsar Nicholas.”
At the same time, Morton says the duke wanted to avoid another war. “Edward wasn’t isolated in his thinking, many people in Britain in the upper classes turned a blind eye to what was going on in Germany.”
Morton draws on FBI documents, material from the German and British Royal Archives, as well as the personal letters of Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and the Windsors themselves, to paint a somewhat tarnished tale that played out during one of the darkest chapters in human history.
According to Morton, at the end of the Second World War, Anthony Blunt - later exposed as a Soviet spy - was sent on a secret mission to a German castle to recover important royal letters.
“I thought that this was the big story, that he was working for the king to stop any correspondence that had been sent by the duke to Hitler from getting into the public domain,” says Morton.
“What I discovered was that actually the documents relating to the duke were buried in a canister. George VI tasked courtiers to travel to Germany and to get hold of any incriminating letters. What you have is the Royal family moving into top gear to find all the skeletons so they can put them in the deepest cupboard in Windsor Castle.”
But one thing they didn’t have control over, he says, was this battered metal canister buried on a country estate by Hitler’s deputy translator.
“This contained details about some of the most important conversations between Hitler and Ribbentrop and Mussolini and Franco. This was the juice of the still beating heart of the Third Reich and these documents were on microfilm and had obviously been hastily buried.”
When the canister was unearthed the Allies thought they had struck gold. “They thought they could use these documents to help show people that our cause was a just one and had been worth the cost in blood.”
However, amid the telling details relating to Hitler and other political leaders was correspondence between Hitler and the duke. “The British realised this was deeply embarrassing to the Royal Family. This was the summer of 1945 and the full horrors of the Third Reich were being made clear on a daily basis.
“To have documents about the Duke of Windsor saying that Britain was being brought to its knees by heavy bombing and calling his brother ‘stupid,’ was damaging,” he says. “To put it at its mildest the duke doesn’t come out of it smelling of roses, while some historians have said he could have been accused of treason.”
Morton claims the British establishment wanted to keep a lid on the story. “It would have ruined his [Edward’s] reputation and there would have been a big backlash against the monarchy.
“Here was a man, the Duke of Windsor, who had no position and who the government didn’t want back in the country.”
He says it required considerable effort to keep this information out of the Press while he was still alive. “Attlee, Bevan and subsequently Churchill invested a lot of political and diplomatic capital into preventing its publication.
“Why would they have gone to such lengths unless it was due to a fear of what it might mean for the monarchy? If it had come out at the time it would have been a permanent and considerable stain on the reputation of the British monarchy.”
Morton also has a few things to say about Wallis Simpson, who he feels history hasn’t treated kindly. “She’s seen as the lightning rod for blame by the Royal family and courtiers. She was called a ‘witch’ by George VI’s private secretary. She gets a bad rap from the British establishment which I feel is harsh.
“She once said that being one half of the 20th century’s great love story was ‘hard work’. She was an American who was parachuted into British high society and she didn’t understand the nuances of the establishment.”
During the Second World War Edward was appointed governor of the Bahamas where he remained until the conflict ended, at which point he and the duchess returned to France.
In the remaining years of his life, the duke paid only short visits to England to attend the funerals of family members, and there continued to be much bitterness between the duke and his family.
He died of throat cancer in Paris, in May 1972, while Wallis outlived him by 14 years before she, too, died at the age of 89.
In the years since Edward’s death stories and comments he reportedly made about Hitler have leaked out. How much of it is true is perhaps difficult to say. But when it comes to conspiracy theories, Morton believes there are important lessons that still need to be learned by those in power who try to suppress potentially damaging news.
“The fact that governments have information they keep from the public means this is still highly relevant,” he says. “Transparency is the best policy because rumours and hearsay can be just as toxic as the truth.”
* 17 Carnations - The Windsors, The Nazis and The Cover-Up, published by Michael O’Mara Books, is out now priced £20.