Monday, July 20, 2015

The Queen's Nazi salute: what it tells us about the establishment

The leaking of private royal footage from the early 1930s has shown the then seven-year-old Elizabeth Windsor prompted to give a Nazi salute with her mother and the future King Edward, her uncle.
Criticism of the actions of a seven-year-old girl seems silly and nonsensical. What the footage does show however, is the private behaviour of the elders of the royal family. It was well-known at the time that a wide number of people in the royal family and the establishment in general, were sympathetic to the Nazi regime and its ideas. The future King Edward was the most high-profile member of the royal family to be openly supportive of the Nazi regime, even during the war and afterwards. For this reason, if he had remained as the monarch at the outbreak of war, the UK would surely have faced a constitutional crisis unlike anything it had ever seen; the actual "abdication crisis" would have felt like a walk in the park by comparison.

Further revelations have revealed (or more exactly, been re-told) that not only were many of the future Queens' relatives sympathetic to the Nazis, but her future husband's family were, in anything, even more interlinked with Hitler's party. Due to his family's German roots, Prince Philip's sisters were married to Nazi officers at the time. So while there may be the view that the UK had "dodged a bullet" by the abdication of King Edward, Philip's Nazi links through his family simply looked to have swapped one imbroglio for another.
In reality, the onset of war changed everything, and the vast majority of those in the royal family (on both Elizabeth's and Philip's sides) distanced themselves very quickly from anything to do with the Nazis. Philip's sisters, of course, could do nothing about being married to Nazis. This was something they had to live with for the rest of their lives. But the pre-war links to the Nazis and the British establishment are something that now look like very uncomfortable reminders of a different time.

Britain and Germany: "best frenemies"?

Large parts of the British establishment became fascinated by the Nazis during their rise to power. Like the higher echelons of the then British Empire, the Nazis were fiercely anti-Communist, saw strikers as a Third Column for Stalin, and were instinctively anti-Semitic. What's often forgotten is that many of the Bolshevik elite were themselves Jews, and the "internationalist" nature of communism was partially what drew some Jewish intellectuals to the Bolshevik cause. For some Jews who did not have a real nation to call their own, Communism fitted the bill.  For the same reason, this was why this was seen by some as a mortal threat to the "established order" around the world at the time: "Godless" Communism was therefore a "Jewish conspiracy" at world domination. At the time of Hitler's rise to power, plenty of the great and the good in the UK and the USA saw the Nazis as, at least, a "necessary evil"; others, as we have seen with the future King Edward, actively supported their ideas.

This "moral support" with the British establishment may not only have come about through the "shared goal" of aggressively fighting Communism, but also through a sense of injustice inflicted on the "sister country". Britain's royal family is of German origin, with many of its members married to members of the (former) German royal family in the years after the First World War.
The schism that occurred between Britain and German relations in the year immediately prior to the First World war was down to a variety of reasons. Up to the early 1890s, relations were very friendly, not least because of the extremely close family ties (Kaiser Wilhelm was Queen Victoria's nephew - more on his personality here). It was the poor choices that the Kaiser and his advisers made in foreign policy after this point that led to the collapse in good relations with the British government; in that sense, Germany and Britain became "best frenemies" in those last, fateful years before the war.
In the aftermath of the war and the punishing terms of the Treaty of Versailles, there were probably many in the British establishment that must have felt pity for what went wrong with Germany. So by the time of the Nazi's rise to power, those same people would have felt relief that the country was back on the road to recovery that it should never have been forced to take. Whatever misgivings they might have had about the Nazi's methods of this "recovery" would probably have either been put at the back of their minds or dismissed as Communist propaganda.
Seen in this way, the royal family's distancing from the Nazis as the march to war got ever louder by the end of the 1930s would probably have re-ignited the same sense of disillusionment that the British royal family must have felt at the outbreak of the First World War. Germany and Britain had become "best frenemies" once again. The "love-in" that Germany and Britain's establishment once shared had turned into a "mutual loathing" - for a second time.

Controlling "assets"

Apart from the historical context, the establishment's reaction to the publishing of these "revelations" is perhaps more telling than the revelations themselves. The palace has become highly-defensive about the nature of the footage revealed, and is highly-protective of the royal's privacy, for their past private behavior and actions as much as currently.
As the adage goes "information is power". The author recently discussed how technological advances have allowed government the "control of information" in ways never before possible. These days, the "establishment", in the guise of the security services, has the capability to know almost everything that is happening. At the very least, this allows them to have a very good idea about where "threats" may come from.

The phrase "national security" is used a lot by the government to justify its mass surveillance: they cite the now "unpredictability" of the world and the "new techniques" that dangerous groups and individuals pose.
But "security" has a double meaning in reality: officially, it means the security of the nation-state (and by extension, its citizens); unofficially, it also means the security of the government (and its assets).

The reaction that Buckingham Palace has had to the release of the "damaging" footage is the same the reaction that the British government had when Edward Snowden revealed the way that GCHQ work with the NSA to make mass collection of people's communications. The palace sought to punish the leaker of the "damaging" footage, discredit the implications of the footage, and to strongly defend the head of state's right to "privacy" (this last point is an odd stance to take, which we'll look at more in a moment).
When the government discovered "The Guardaan" newspaper had information disclosing how it used mass surveillance, its reaction was to have the newspaper destroy it - which it did under government supervision, even after being told there were other copies outside the UK the government could do nothing about. Later, it used anti-terror laws to arrest the Brazilian partner of a "Guardian" freelancer who was in transit at Heathrow airport, and confiscated his laptop to try and find out what information the "Guardian" had on them. Meanwhile, it strongly discouraged other newspapers from writing any negative coverage about the whole issue.

There's the old saying that you only really know someone when they're really tested. The same can be said of governments and institutions. When tested (using the examples above of Buckingham Palace and the UK government), the establishment's instinct has been shown to be authoritarian and secretive. It behaves so even when it is probably against its longer-term interests. While on the surface the establishment makes a show of respecting "democracy", "oversight" and "freedom of speech", when the chips are down, these ideas are swiftly disregarded.
As seen earlier, the British government gave itself some awful press for the sake of pointlessly destroying a newspaper's computers, and pointlessly (and almost certainly illegally) arresting and detaining a foreigner because they wanted to see what was in his computer and flash drives. Buckingham Palace protects the royal families "privacy" and longer-term legacy with fearsome possessiveness. Some royal experts even argue that it would be better for the royals if more private correspondence was made public, to show that the royal family is, indeed, just a fairly average family in many ways. There have been some good people and bad people in it; people make mistakes and do foolish and horrible things from time to time. This is normal. But by their instinct of wanting to keep many things private, it simply feeds the conspiracy theorists that the royals have a host of "skeletons in the cupboard"

Information is an "asset" for governments; outside information is precious to obtain; inside information is even more precious to keep hold of. Unfortunately, this is also the same thinking used by authoritarian regimes around the world. The establishment, by following this nature, has done itself no favours over the years. It is due to this climate of secrecy that the child abuse scandal has been so damaging. Bad people swarm to a "climate of secrecy" like moths to a flame, for they know they will be protected at all costs, no matter what they do. This is innate, corrupting power of "the establishment": it is corrupt because there is no accountability. If one card falls, they all fall: this is the self-justifying logic of the establishment.

It explains by the infamous MP Cyril Smith was never prosecuted (because of who he knew), and also why Jimmy Savile got away with his behaviour for decades (because of who he was).

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