On 20 January, 1936, Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, of the House of Windsor, succeeded his father, George V, as King of Great Britain and the Dominions of the British Empire. Edward VIII would abdicate in December of the same year, in order to marry the love of his life, the twice-divorced American arriviste Wallis Simpson. His 326-day reign is among the shortest in the long annals of British history.
When he was Prince of Wales, Edward became arguably the world’s first modern international celebrity. Exploits of the royal family have always been the subject of great popular interest, but Edward took to the role like none of his predecessors ever had. He was handsome, suave, fashionable, and unlike his stolid and old-fashioned father, he seemed to emulate the ebullient spirit of the post-war Jazz Age. In short, he had it all. That he would surrender so precious a prize as the British throne to marry a commoner—an American commoner, at that, and one with a somewhat notorious past—was widely viewed as the ultimate romantic gesture: a declaration of love ne plus ultra.
In fact, there is more to this tale than meets the eye. Abdication was not a great sacrifice for Edward VIII. As much as he loathed “princing,” as he called it, when he’d been Prince of Wales, he hated being king even more. It was no forfeiture to step down; to the contrary, it was a relief. Now he was free to not only marry Wallis Simpson, but also to live the life he wanted, unburdened by the many responsibilities that come with the crown.
The abdication was welcome news to the king’s ministers and most of the British government, who long knew that Edward was not up to the task. Adolf Hitler and his inner circle, however, were aggrieved at the announcement, for it was held in Berlin that Edward and his wife were Nazi sympathizers. The Fuhrer’s ambitions depended on nonparticipation, if not outright alliance, by Great Britain.
Edward had his reasons for favoring Germany. First and foremost, his family was of German descent. After the First World War, George V changed the family name to the House of Windsor from the more Teutonic-inflected House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Edward still had plenty of relatives who were citizens of the Reich. Second, Edward viewed the Nazis as a bulwark against the Soviets, whom he despised for assassinating his cousin and godfather, Tsar Nicholas II. Third, met the Fuhrer personally, on a visit to Germany in 1937, and enjoyed his company. Finally, his wife, Wallis Simpson, was concurrently the lover of the Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop; rumors persist to this day that she was a secret agent of the Third Reich.
Indeed, fears of a Nazi plot to reinstate Edward VIII on the British throne as a Fascist dictator, with Great Britain then switching sides to join the Axis, were sufficient to have him removed to the faraway Bahamas for the duration of the war. The Americans were concerned enough with his Nazi ties that President Roosevelt ordered covert surveillance of Edward and Wallis when the couple visited Florida in 1941. Fortunately for mankind, Hitler was unable to realize this ambition. Later, he would grouse to Albert Speer, “I am certain through him permanent friendly relations could have been achieved. If he had stayed, everything would have been different. His abdication was a severe loss for us."
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