Hitler’s new ambassador had one mission: seal an alliance with Britain. A gripping new book on the abdication crisis reveals how the ambitious former Champagne salesman wooed Wallis to ingratiate himself with King Edward VIII... fuelling rumours of an aff
WHEN the Prince of Wales attended the German embassy in London as guest of honour in July 1935, he was the first member of the royal family to have visited since 1914. With his gift for empathy – some called it attention-seeking – he declared that “the hand of friendship” should be outstretched by former soldiers “who fought them and have now forgotten all about it and the GreatWar”.
Unsurprisingly, this caused considerable controversy in England; few had forgotten the butcher’s bill of the First World War, but the Nazis greeted it with unavowed delight. It was a propaganda triumph; Edward seemed like a man with whom the newlyresurgent Germany could partner.
This feeling was strengthened by the prince’s cousin, the Duke of Saxe-Coburg, who claimed Edward believed an AngloGerman alliance to be “an urgent necessity and a guiding principle for British foreign policy”. Saxe-Coburg later claimed, once Edward had ascended the throne, that when challenged about Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s fears he was acting in too political a fashion, he replied: “Who is King here? Baldwin or I? I myself wish to talk to Hitler, and will do so here or in Germany. Tell him that, please.”
Edward VIII had inherited the throne in January 1936 after the death of his father, George V. Good-looking, possessed of considerable charm and relatively youthful, Edward quickly became a popular ruler, and one who brought a dash of glamour to the throne. Gossip suggested he was partial to a cocktail or three in nightclubs, to say nothing of the company of beautiful women.
It was this dedication that had contributed to an uncertain mood in London in late 1936 although few had any inkling of the enormity of the coming crisis.
BUT THE king was also a committed nationalist and occasional xenophobe. He had decried indigenous Australians in a 1921 letter to his mistress, Freda Dudley Ward, and consorted with Oswald Mosley, charismatic leader of the British Union of Fascists. A confidential police report of March 1935 attested to Edward admiringly asking Mosley about the “strength and policy” of the BUF.
He was also reputed to hold Hitler in high esteem, seeing him as a vigorous reformer, and his own German heritage led to a residual affection for the country.
So when Adolf Hitler’s new ambassador to London, former wine trader Joachim von Ribbentrop, arrived in the capital on October 26, 1936, he hoped to achieve a diplomatic innovation – not least through his friendship, some claimed relationship, with Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee who had beguiled the king. Hitler had tasked Ribbentrop with a crucial mission: to obtain the much-prized German partnership with England.
To do so, he would have to make connections at the highest levels, including the king himself, who was believed sympathetic to the Nazi cause. The importance that the Germans placed in this – and the British Government’s justified fears of such an outcome – can today be revealed.
For an Anglophile such as Ribbentrop, who collected English books and could speak the language fluently, the posting was an honour. But Hitler had also made it clear that public support in London would be an unparalleled coup. As they parted, the Führer reputedly
‘Trying to give the Nazi salute at Durham Cathedral, the new ambassador committed faux pas after faux pas’
told him, bring me alliance.” Ribbentrop believed Edward was “a kind of English National Socialist”. The ambitious ambassador made it his personal business to ingratiate himself with the king. His first encounter with the then Prince of Wales had been in June 1935, at a lunch given by the society hostess and German sympathiser Lady Maud “Emerald” Cunard, who was thrilled by the presence of a man she delightedly described as “a real, live Nazi”.
Ribbentrop had met Wallis at the same lunch, and rumours subsequently developed of an affair between the two, fanned by Ribbentrop’s penchant for sending her 17 long stemmed red roses at regular intervals – allegedly the number of times they had slept together. The rumour seems implausible, as the notably uxorious Ribbentrop was unlikely to jeopardise his career, marriage and the chance of an alliance for a liaison. But despite their conviviality, the lunch had not been an unqualified success. Lord Wigram, George V’s private secretary, wrote
“Ribbentrop, the English privately to the king to inform him that, “Ribbentrop poured out all the German propaganda, which I expect bored HRH. However I am told that Ribbentrop telegraphed to Germany that the Prince entirely agreed with his views, and that HRH added that after all he was half a German.”
Ribbentrop had sighed admiringly that he “desired good AngloGerman relations”. He considered his first formal reception with the new king, on October 30, 1936, just days after his arrival a success. They had met earlier that year, in March, but little was exchanged other than pleasantries. Now, he had a responsibility, as he saw it, to press home his advantage and recruit the king unequivocally to the Nazi cause. “King
TALL RIGID FIGURE: Nazi diplomat Joachim von Ribbentrop
Edward VIII had shown his sympathy for Germany on several occasions [and] had warmly supported a meeting of German and British leaders of ex-servicemen’s organisations”.
While his memoirs punctiliously noted Ribbentrop did not offer Edward a Nazi salute, he found the king, whom he met in the company of his foreign secretary Anthony Eden, “most affable”. Edward enquired after Hitler’s well-being and Ribbentrop was pleased that he “repeated clearly that he desired good Anglo-German relations”. Ribbentrop hoped the next step would be to meet Edward on a confidential basis, aided by various shadowy “friends”, and see what new understanding might be brought about. He was to be disappointed. Edward later wrote that his first encounter