Thursday, July 4, 2013

Dilettante historians

As a young man in Sydney (in the years preceding my arrival in Paris in 1962), I often used to run into an English expatriate literary critic named Charles Higham [1931-2012], who had arrived in Australia in 1953. The news had got around that Higham was the offspring of a knighted British MP who had made a fortune in advertising. Apart from that, the young journalist from the Mother Country had the reputation of being a poet... which sounded good in our rough-and-ready Aussie ears.

— original photo Gene Maggio/The New York Times

In 1963, the Aussie press magnate Frank Packer sent Higham to California with a mission to send back interviews with celebrities, which were to appear in Sydney's The Bulletin under the title of "Charles Higham's Hollywood". Wow! This was a Women's Weekly challenge. Within a decade or so, Higham had become a successful pop biographer, specializing in the life stories of Hollywood personalities such as Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Lucille Ball and Howard Hughes. In 1988, he tackled a steamy subject: the US-born femme fatale Wallis Simpson [1896-1986] whose romantic affair with the king Edward VIII [1894-1972] had led to the latter's abdication.

Here's the publisher's blurb for a 2005 reedition of this inflammatory biography:
The romance of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor has been called the greatest love story of the twentieth century. However with the first edition of this biography in 1988, highly acclaimed author Charles Higham used explosive secret intelligence files to reveal a far darker side to their forty-year relationship. Now the author has re-visited and updated his international bestseller, resulting in a fascinating, and at times shocking exposé of Wallis Simpson. New and disturbing revelations have come to light, adding to the now classic story of an illegitimate child from Baltimore who rose to become the mistress of the king of England and brought about his abdication. Wallis gained control of the Monarch through sexual techniques learned in China, but risked losing everything through a reckless, long-term affair with William Bullitt, US Ambassador to France. Newly released FBI files demonstrate, as no other source has done, the extent of the Duchess’s espionage activities and how she conspired against Britain in the interest of Hitler. This is an intimate and extraordinary account of the woman who very nearly became the Queen of England.
Higham's presentation of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor is conspiracy-theory writing of a Californian kind, but not necessarily authentic history... in spite of the allusion to recently-released FBI files. Concerning the latter, it's clear that FBI agents could hardly be thought of as credible authorities concerning the murky background to Nazi events in the Old World. These agents could do little more than note down rumors that floated their way. Consequently, Higham's presentation of FBI impressions of the "secret lives" of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor deserves to be thought of as no more than poorly-written historical fiction.

Yesterday evening, on French TV, I watched a recent French documentary—presented by a bright fellow named Franck Ferrand—that sets out to demonstrate that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were traitors working for Hitler.

In the short list of books upon which the program had been constructed, Ferrand included the Higham biography... but without mentioning the fact that the author was by no means a reputable historian. Worse still, Ferrand and his three acolytes placed a lot of trust in a notorious book by Martin Allen, Hidden Agenda: How the Duke of Windsor Betrayed the Allies, published in 2002.

Martin Allen claims that the former King Edward VIII provided the Nazis with military secrets, deliberately, which were exploited to the detriment of the Allies, including France and the UK. In other words, the author is accusing explicitly the Duke of Windsor of treason. The author claims that the British government was aware that King Edward VIII was a potential pro-German traitor, and that the supposed love affair between their king and the US divorcee Wallis Simpson was simply a convenient pretext for getting rid of him, by obliging him to abdicate. Martin Allen says that the UK then used the Duke of Windsor, exiled in France, to send back information on the state of French defence installations. According to Martin Allen, Edward also sent a copy of this precious data to his friend Adolf Hitler, using as intermediary a millionaire Franco-American businessman named Charles Bedaux [1886-1944] in whose fairy-tale castle in the Val de Loire, Candé, the Windsors had been betrothed on 3 June 1937.

The following delightful image clip from the News Review magazine dated 16 September 1937 shows the Windsor and Bedaux couples bedecked, no doubt for fun, in Teutonic gear:

Martin Allen's book evokes a dubious handwritten letter in German from Edward to Hitler, which the author apparently found in his father's papers, sent to him allegedly by the stoic recluse of Spandau, the Hitlerian architect Albert Speer [1905-1981].

The only problem with Martin Allen's devastating accusations is that they are no doubt based upon fake documents introduced amazingly into the National Archives, as outlined here. Everybody has known for ages that British royalty is issued from a Germanic dynasty known as Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. But the dilettante historians of French TV were surely a little too eager to suggest that our royals (already overburdened with minor faults of all kinds, as in any big family) might have been traitors, worthy of facing a firing squad.

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