A 1933 image showing Queen Elizabeth as a girl giving the Nazi salute. The photo appeared in the British tabloid The Sun.

What the queen's Nazi salute says about British high society in the 1930s (COMMENTARY)

(RNS) A London tabloid recently published a still from a 1933 black and white film taken at Scotland’s Balmoral Castle showing 7-year-old Princess Elizabeth, the future queen of England, extending her right arm upward in the notorious Nazi German salute.

Joining in the grotesque gesture were her mother and Princess Margaret, Elizabeth’s sister. Teaching the salute is Elizabeth’s uncle, the prince of Wales, an acknowledged Nazi sympathizer and anti-Semite.

The provocative headline in the tabloid, The Sun, roared: “Their Royal Heilnesses,” a play on the infamous Nazi greeting of “Heil Hitler!”

The royal family is reportedly seeking to prosecute whoever leaked the film. Using the images as “evidence” that Elizabeth is an anti-Semite is a misrepresentation of history and deflects attention from the real anti-Semite in the home movie: Elizabeth’s uncle.

Defenders of the English monarchy note that the film was shot years before the radical evils of Nazism were fully known: “master race” nationalism, lethal anti-Semitism, the instigation of World War II and the horrific mass murders of millions now known as the Holocaust.

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While the short film doesn’t make Elizabeth, who was just a child, an anti-Semite, it does remind us that in pre-World War II Britain, hatred of Jews and admiration of Nazism were rampant among many members of the nobility and aristocracy.

The girls’ uncle, who reigned in 1936 for a short for 11 months as King Edward VIII, was a foppish playboy who abdicated the throne to marry “the woman I love,” Wallis Simpson, his American-born mistress.

A 1933 image showing Queen Elizabeth as a girl giving the Nazi salute. The photo appeared in the British tabloid The Sun.

A 1933 image showing Queen Elizabeth as a girl giving the Nazi salute. The photo appeared in the British tabloid The Sun.

Elizabeth’s father, King George VI, succeeded his feckless brother. During the worst days of World War II, George, his wife and two daughters courageously remained in London. When George died in 1952, Elizabeth began her dutiful reign, which has lasted 63 years and on Sept. 10 will be the longest in English history.

But the prince of Wales was an open admirer of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, and he was not alone. In 1933, many members of Britain’s ruling elites perceived Nazism as a bulwark against communism.

England’s upper crust feared that the established aristocratic order -- think “Downton Abbey” -- would be swept away. Many among the nobility trembled in their splendid homes and majestic palaces. A well-known anti-Semite of the era was the Virginia-born Lady Nancy Astor, a Tory member of Parliament.

Edward VIII applauded Hitler for suppressing communism and maintaining “law and order” in Germany. After he abdicated, Edward and his wife had a friendly meeting with Hitler at the dictator’s Bavarian mountain retreat. While in Germany, the British press reported, he offered the Nazi salute in earnest. The New York Times wrote: “He has lent himself, perhaps unconsciously but easily, to National Socialist propaganda.”

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Anti-Semitism remained a recognizable and respectable component of “polite” British high society until the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed at the end of World War II. British troops were the first to liberate the Bergen-Belsen death camp in April 1945, just a month after Anne Frank died there of typhus.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, keenly aware of the former king’s pro-Nazi sympathies, dispatched the couple to sit out World War II to the Bahamas, where the vapid “Duke and Duchess of Windsor” could not harm Britain’s struggle against Nazism.

But members of the English ruling class were not the only ones tainted with anti-Semitism during the 1930s.

David Nasaw’s biography of Joseph P. Kennedy, “The Patriarch,” notes that as the U.S. ambassador to Britain in that era, Kennedy fell in with the aristocratic anti-Semites led by Astor. Nasaw writes that Kennedy voiced the old canard that the alleged Jewish media power would press America into a war with the Nazis.

When John Kennedy ran for president in 1960, his father’s hostile attitude toward Jews was a major obstacle JFK had to overcome in his campaign for the White House.

What’s in a home movie taken more than 80 years ago? A reminder of the anti-Jewish pathology that infected many pre-World War II political elites in both Britain and America.

(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser. His latest book, “Pillar of Fire: A Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise,” will be published by Texas Tech University Press this fall.)



  1. So we can finally dispense with the given story that King Edward VIII’s abdication had anything to do with his love life. It was clear they needed to get the pro-Nazi king off the throne once it became apparent that Germany would be Britain’s coming adversary.

    Edward VIII’s pro-nazi sympathies was such a badly kept secret that it was even made the crux of popular fiction. Len Deighton’s “SS-GB” set in a Nazi controlled post-war Britain makes it a crucial part of the plot at the end.

  2. This has little to do with anti-Semitism. The article neglects to mention that the Windsors were distrusted as German sympathizers during both WWI and WWII. This is because they are a mostly German family. Some of them spoke English badly — or not at all. Their true family name is Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, changed to Windsor during WWI for this very reason.

  3. Except for the rampant anti-semitism which was fairly common at the time. Especially among the isolationist types.The British Union of Fascists under Oswald Mosley was virulently anti-semitic and enjoyed a great deal of political support.

  4. Another silly attempt to revise history on the basis of a photograph of England’s Royalty giving the Nazi salute. Clearly, they all look like they are having fun, as opposed to making a serious point…and England fought Hitler with a vengeance during the war.
    The accusations of antisemitism are cruel and impossible to prove, for even ant-Semites were revolted by the Holocaust. The press really digs deep to create scandal where none exists.

  5. No revisionism here. The Royal Family’s association with the Nazis was pretty well known in the Early 30’s. Edward VII was one of many who admired Hitler’s reactionary politics and anti-semitism. The Bund enjoyed healthy support in the US among isolationists. Even holding a rally at Madison square garden.

    If you want a good idea how pervasive fascist ideas were back then, read “A Man Called Intrepid”. William Stephenson’s memoirs of how FDR and Churchill colluded to bring the US into the war against Hitler in 1939-1941.

  6. And tell us why the English continue to support this outdated leaches on society? Or is it all about the tourist dollar?

  7. True enough, Shawnie, about the Windsors, who I believe came from Germany several centuries ago.

    But I don’t think it’s either/or……I think their natural historical sympathy with Germany was augmented by the general sympathy with the Nazis on the part of certain elites in the 1930s.

    On that score, what the article failed to mention was that by the 1930s, elites on both sides of the Atlantic began to disparage democracy as a thing of the past……it then became a contest between Marxism and Fascism as to what they believed to be the wave of the future.

    Specifically, they believed that the supposed implications of Darwinism consigned democracy to history’s ash heap.

  8. I don’t think Queen Victoria would have liked the Nazi salute, even though she was a Windsor, so there are limits to the Windsor = German explanation. It explains a part of it, but not all of it.

    Victoria was very sympathetic to what today is called Christian Zionism, and she encouraged the explosion in such sentiment, especially in mid-late-19th-century Britain, a time of great evangelical revival there.

  9. Actually, Dominic, that’s not accurate. While the article is a shallow treatment of 1930s elite pro-Nazi sentiment on both sides of the Atlantic, its existence is well-documented.

    I contend that it emerged from a belief in one form or another of Social Darwinism, a clumsy attempt to apply Darwinian evolution to human affairs. One of the supposed implications of Darwinism was that democracy and human rights were sentimental constructs doomed to fail and to be replaced by either Fascism or Marxism, both of which were considered fashionable, modern alternatives.

  10. Non sequitur alert………………non sequitur alert

  11. “…by the 1930s, elites on both sides of the Atlantic began to disparage democracy as a thing of the past…”

    True that. The western atheist and pro-totalitarian intelligentsia denied and/or covered up the atrocities of Communist regimes as long as they could, and only after that failed did they begin the hopeless task of trying to distance themselves from it all, culminating in Hitchens & Co.’s hilarious excuses about “religious atheists” and the like. Nobody is fooled by that nonsense; it’s a large part of the reason why atheists are popularly distrusted– that and the over-the-top rudeness and arrogance of their unfortunately most vocal specimens.

  12. Make that “these leaches on society”.

  13. Agreed, Shawnie. Max’s clumsy use of Hitchens is a classic example of the blind leading the blind, the difference being that at least Hitchens could write.

  14. My father’s cousin helped get rid of Edward VIII as far more was known about his activities than was released at the time. As far as the anti-semitism argument goes it wasn’t even in the equation, so where Rudin got the idea that it is even worthy of mention in this aspect is beyond me. What was behind the removal of Edward was that the Saxe -Coburgs had almost had to abdicate during the First World War because of the German ties and it was only through the extraordinary work of George V and his immediate family that the rumblings died down.

    Discussions were held, a decision was made, and Edward was fired. – That’s it, – no semites involved on either side. (good luck with the revisionist history though!)

    The family history is probably pretty close to the truth, – my father’s cousin was Prime Minister of Britain at the time and his party was the one who let Edward go, (with full knowledge of the whys and wherefores in the hands of the opposition.

  15. non se·qui·tur

    /ˌnän ˈsekwədər/


    noun: non sequitur; plural noun: non sequiturs; noun: nonsequitur; plural noun: nonsequiturs

    a conclusion or statement that does not logically follow from the previous argument or statement.

    But what does follow logically from the following statement from the topic commentary?

    “England’s upper crust feared that the established aristocratic order — think “Downton Abbey” — would be swept away. Many among the nobility trembled in their splendid homes and majestic palaces. A well-known anti-Semite of the era was the Virginia-born Lady Nancy Astor, a Tory member of Parliament.”

    And the fear persists so again why do the English put up with these leaches?

  16. Jeez why don’t you two revisionists just get a room already.

    The excuses you guys make for Fascism (coupled with guilt by association argument equating modern atheists with Stalin) are completely nonsensical.

    The atrocities of Stalin were pretty well known by the late 30’s. The connection between him and Hitchens is just grasping at straws here. Unless you cough up quotes from Hitchens praising a cult of personality you are just besmirching him for its own sake.

    As for Fascism, it enjoyed support from both sides of the Atlantic, especially from reactionary Christians as an alleged alternative to Communism. This is why the Catholic Church underwrote Franco’s rise to power and Nazis enjoyed support from virtually all churches under its control, even in nations they brutally occupied.

    Besides, I doubt either of you have read a word of Hitchens. Let alone read enough to criticize his writings. But facts never got in the way of posts from you tow.

  17. I guess the Great Depression and historical context has completely eluded your train of thought.

    Fascism and Communism were popular in the 1930’s because by all appearances capitalism and democracy had collapsed in the minds of many after the largest economic disaster in history.

    The nations who were the quickest to recover were the autocratic ones. The Soviet Union gave the appearance of not being affected by it (Collectivization was doing far worse for their economy), Japan, Germany and Italy recovered by militarizing their society. Japan and Italy getting a head start by a little pre-war empire building.

    If you have an honest good faith interest in how pervasive fascist ideas were in the US in the 30’s, a good place to look would be the film “Gabriel Over the White House”. William Randolph Hearst’s paen to how a Fascist president would turn around American fortunes at the time.

  18. Leeches. Tourism kind of helps. The monarchy has been rendered harmless enough that they are considered a public amusement.

    As modern royalty goes, Juan Carlos I of Spain is one of the most important. The guy not only restored democracy to the nation but stared down an attempted fascist coup in 1981.

  19. “The atrocities of Stalin were pretty well known by the late 30’s.”

    Which is when the downplaying and excuse-making began:

    “Even in the opinion of the bitterest enemies of the Soviet Union and of her government, the purge trials have clearly demonstrated the existence of active conspiracies against the regime… I am convinced that this is the truth, and I am convinced that it will carry the ring of truth even in Western Europe, even for hostile readers….we cannot afford to give ourselves moral airs when our most enterprising neighbor, the Soviet Union, humanely and judiciously liquidates a handful of exploiters and speculators to make the world safe for honest men.” — George Bernard Shaw.

    “I doubt either of you have read a word of Hitchens.” ROFL! You have just demonstrated who has not read Hitchens, by suggesting that we were claiming that Hitchens “praised a cult of personality.”

    Give it up already, Lare.

  20. Thanks for the movie review, Lare, but we were not claiming that fascism and communism weren’t popular here in the ’30s, or that economic conditions didn’t contribute to its popularity.

  21. Hey Jack, can’t you just imagine Larry and his compadres bloviating in the same way–once they have the weight of pop culture behind them and need not make a politically incorrect stand, of course?

    “We can not afford to give ourselves moral airs when the government humanely and judiciously liquidates a handful (or a million handfuls) of bigots and religious fanatics to make the world safe for honest men (for Larry, we will substitute “sane men”).”

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