One issue some had with The Crown’s depiction of Edward VIII in the first season was that it attempted to hold his love affair with Wallis Simpson up against Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend as a direct parallel. In doing so, the political concerns that many in Edward VIII’s government had about him were ignored and by that, of course, I mean his known affection for Germany and seeming tolerance for Nazis.
Now, finally, The Crown is addressing the issue by way of a trip the then-Duke of Windsor made to England to gin up support for a more formal role in service to his country. It’s unlikely that such a trip was ever made – the Duke and Wallis did visit England in the 1960s, but I’m not personally familiar with any such visit (or with any such intent) in 1959.
The crux of the issue, however, are the Marburg Files, also referred to as the Windsor Files. The meat of what happened is accurately depicted – the ties between the Duke of Windsor and Germany were captured in records that Winston Churchill temporarily quashed in the 1940s and which were ultimately published in the 1950s. What is off in the series, however, is how Elizabeth deals with her uncle, but that is not an issue isolated to this episode.
The Duke of Windsor is given his chance to state his case to Elizabeth. He argues, with conviction, that World War II was avoidable if only Britain had offered a chance for peace. That war – and the slaughter of so many Europeans – could have been bypassed had it not been for grandstanding and too bullish a position from the British, among others. He claims the files are lies about him – that while he may have preached peace he ended up carrying out his duties to his brother, the crown and the British government.
And so Elizabeth is left nearly convinced that the time has come to forgive her uncle. She runs it by Philip who tells her to go to Tommy Lascelles, who not only served her and her father as private secretary, but her uncle as well. And so we are gifted a scene in which Tommy is making up a battle field with model soldiers as he enjoys his retirement. His restrained irritation when Elizabeth picks up one of the figures and puts it down in the wrong spot is frankly enough to make him the series’ hero in my book.
It is during this conversation that the full extent of her uncle’s ties to the Nazis are uncovered. Here she learns that not only did he and Wallis have sympathies and potential intelligence leaks while the Duke sat on the throne, but that after the Abdication he actively sought ways to come back to Britain with German help. Their visit to Nazi Germany in 1937 was less a moment of poorly thought out diplomacy and more the first stage of a plan that would eventually remove George VI for his brother. Finally, Lascelles adds the cherry on top of the sundae – the Duke told Germany to keep bombing Britain for they were close to making peace.
How this moment in time fits into the narrative of The Crown’s second season isn’t necessarily clear except for the fact that parts of these files were published in the 1950s. The visit, then, appears to be a contrivance to allow Elizabeth and her uncle to have a face-to-face conversation. So, why does this moment warrant an entire episode in which not very much else goes on? Well, it certainly speaks to a conversation going on in the United States right now and it’s hard not to make that linkage even if the show doesn’t articulate it. You can listen to the conversation in which the Duke of Windsor argues for shades of grey and the passage of time and you could, for a moment, feel as Elizabeth felt then. But as Tommy reminds her, there isn’t room for debate here and the Duke’s weak moral code, if left in power, would have been catastrophic.
He committed treason and Elizabeth, who spends the rest of the episode contemplating the sermons of North Carolina preacher Billy Graham, is unable to turn the other cheek this time.
As for reality, I think the Duke’s position can perhaps best be summed by him saying in to Patrick Balfour in the 1960s that he “never thought Hitler was such a bad chap.”