DC at Night

DC at Night

Friday, June 14, 2013

Great Love Story or Sordid Spy Tale?

Edward and Simpson meet with Adolph Hitler
It was one of the greatest love stories of the 20th Century. Seventy-six years ago this month, King Edward VIII gave up the British throne to marry the twice-divorced American international socialite Wallis Simpson. But behind the beauty of the romantic tale there has always lurked a more sordid, shadowy story of gossip and secret files portraying the Duke and Duchess of Windsor as, at best, naive admirers of Adolph Hitler and his Nazi Empire and, at worst, spies betraying their countries.

Earlier this week, Amanda Olhke, the director of adult education at the International Spy Museum delivered  a talk entitled Wallis Simpson: Duchess of Windsor: Nazi Spy? And the final verdict? Even at the end of an engaging hour-long presentation, the truth remained unclear.

In his days as the Prince of Wales, Edward earned a reputation as an international playboy, specializing in romancing married women. In 1930, he met Wallis Simpson, a Baltimore social climber, who was then on her 2nd marriage. To use the British term, Edward became completely besotted  and decided he must have her for his wife. Some could not understand the attraction. But later dossiers made public (that many believed were faked) indicated that Simpson had picked up sexual secrets in the brothels of China that could, in the parlance of the time, "hot up men."

The British public produced an insatiable need to know all the details of the woman who had beguiled the heir apparent to their kingdom. It was discovered that she had been on quite friendly terms with both German and Italian fascists. Even after he became king in 1936, Edward continued his affair with Simpson, lavishing extremely expensive gifts on her, a move which scandalized proper British society. He demanded that he be able to marry his love, but officials and the Church of England would not acquiesce to his demands. Instead of leaving Simpson, Edward signed the articles of abdication in the same year he assumed the thrown, elevating his younger brother to the royal position.

The kingdom, by then under threat of Nazi Germany, wondered - what will happen to Edward now? First, he married Simpson in 1937. Then they began a European trip that would forever place them under a cloud of suspicion. The couple traveled to Italy. There, they jointly proclaimed that fascism "is the great way forward." At the time, Edward still was convinced he could use his power to prevent war and bring peace to Europe. However, some officials in England saw the situation quite differently. They believed the couple were giving valuable information to fascist enemies.

Next, the couple moved on to Germany. Even before becoming king, Edward had evidenced very strong feelings for Germany and "liked what he was hearing about Hitler's new regime," Olhke explained. The couple was warmly received and Edward was pictured delivering the Nazi salute. Edward was quoted as saying he was impressed with Nazi efficiency. He and Simpson met and partied with Hitler, Himmler, Goering, Hesse, and many other Nazi leaders. He even toured what would become battlefields, handing out advice on what he would do there militarily.

"Now, in England, he and Simpson were seen as a truly disabling element in world affairs," Ohlke said. "He's buying the Nazis hook, line, and sinker." For his part, the Duke was aware of British official sentiment and even joked about being considered a spy.

However, when Great Britain did declared war on Germany, Edward secured a general's commission and reported to duty in France. However, still fearing communists more than fascists and ever hopeful of peace at whatever cost, he was quoted as supporting German bombing of Britain since such a move "would make England ready for peace."

In England, the people began a cry - "who is working for whom and what is their (Edward and Simpson's) real plan. Does he want to again be king - but this time of a newfangled totalitarian England. He's a loose cannon at best. Maybe they are both spies," Olhke said.

Finally, the Duke and Duchess were ordered to sit out the war in Bermuda, where Edward was made governor and served from 1941 to 1945. However, he continued contact with Nazi sympathizers. After the war, he never served in any other official capacity, leading people to believe it was punishment for  his support of Germany, whatever that may have been. There were stories of secret British raids to recover and destroy documents linking Edward, and perhaps Simpson, directly to information obtained by Hitler. Since then, scores of books have been written about the couple, but no definitive answer to the spying charges has ever been established.

At the end of her talk, Ohlke was asked what she thought. "I firmly believe they were ready to take the best offer they could get, but we may never know the truth."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Following her presentation,  Ohlke conducted an interview with Wallis Simpson (actually historical enactor Emily Lapisardi, who stayed in character the entire evening). To the delight of the crowd, Simpson adroitly  deferred Ohlke's attempts to get at the truth. She did admit that her husband was a trusting fellow, who always spoke his mind. She also acknowledged that she found Hitler and many of the other Nazis charming. However, when asked directly if she was a spy, Simpson replied that as a lady of grace and refinement she found such a charge scandalous and not worthy of a response.

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