By Dr George Venturini
In Go-Betweens for Hitler Dr. Karina Urbach tells how Hitler’s secret diplomatic links with some of Germany’s top aristocrats provided a direct line to their influential contacts and relations across Europe – especially in the United Kingdom, where they included the press baron and Daily Mail owner Lord Rothermere and the future king Edward VIII.
Dr. Urbach’s essay for Talking Humanities, 6 August 2015 and the article ‘Only with the Blitz did the royal family give up on peace with Hitler’ | Karina Urbach, The Guardian, 19 July 2015 were tagged with Duke of Coburg, Freikorps, German politics, Go-Betweens for Hitler, Munich agreement, royal appeasement, Royal Nazi salute.
Some elucidations may be necessary.
The name of the Duke of Coburg appears frequently in recent studies by Dr. Urbach. He was – precisely – Charles Edward, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, of the same house as Queen Elizabeth II.
This is his story.
Officially known as Leopold Carl Eduard Georg Albert (1884-1954), Charles Edward was the son of Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, the fourth son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and of Princess Helena, Duchess of Albany – née Princess Helena of Waldeck and Pyrmont, the fourth daughter of George Victor of Waldeck and Pyrmont and of his first wife Princess Helena of Nassau. He was born at Claremont House near Esher, Surrey.
Present to his baptism and acting as godparents were Queen Victoria – his paternal grandmother, the Prince of Wales – his paternal uncle, Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein – his paternal aunt, the Marchioness of Lorne – his paternal aunt, Princess Frederica of Hanover – his father’s second cousin. Two more invitees, Alexis, Prince of Bentheim and Steinfurt – his uncle and George Victor, Prince of Waldeck and Pyrmont – his maternal grandfather could not attend.
As a grandson of Queen Victoria, the Duke was a first cousin of King George V and of many European royals: Queen Maud of Norway, Grand Duke Ernest Louis of Hesse, Empress Alexandra of Russia, Queen Marie of Romania, Crown Princess Margaret of Sweden, Queen Victoria Eugenia of Spain, Queen Sophia of Greece, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, Josias, Hereditary Prince of Waldeck and Pyrmont and Wilhelm II, German Emperor.
Significantly, he was cousin to both kings George V and George VI and a direct relative of today’s Royal Family, but his name is never mentioned in royal circles – even today. He is regarded as the ‘black sheep’ of a family still embarrassed by some of its links to Germany.
Charles Edward was educated as a Prince of the United Kingdom for his first 15 years. He attended Eton College.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, and because of a dispute on the succession to the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, sixteen-year-old Charles Edward found himself next in line. And when his uncle Alfred died in July 1900, he inherited the ducal throne of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
In 1900 the then Eton schoolboy was requested by the Royal Family to go to Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to take up the ducal title, as they feared losing a valuable inheritance and considerable land.
Originally the role had been offered to his cousin Arthur, who turned it down. Prince Arthur was something of a bully and threatened to “punch Prince Charles Edward’s head in” if he did not accept. Immense family pressure was also brought to bear and he was left with no alternative but to comply. He told his friends at Eton: “I’ve got to go and be a beastly German duke.” He would later change his mind – and considerably.
With his mother and sister Charles Edward moved to Germany. Following an education plan by Wilhelm II, he attended the Preußische Hauptkadettenanstalt (Prussian Main Cadet Institute) at Lichterfelde, studied in Bonn and became a member of Corps Borussia Bonn. He also joined the 1st Garderegiment zu Fuß (Guard Regiment on Foot) at Potsdam and spent some time at the German court in Berlin. His uncle, Edward VII, made him a Knight of the Garter on 15 July 1902, just prior to his 18th birthday. He was unable to speak German at the time. Kaiser Wilhelm sent him to the Bavarian equivalent of Sandhurst for training. Between 1900 and 1905 Charles Edward reigned through a regency.
The regent acted under the strict guidance of Emperor Wilhelm II.
Such was the interest Wilhelm II showed in his young cousin’s upbringing that Charles Edward was known amongst the Imperial Court as “the Emperor’s seventh son.”
It was then that the task began, much of it uphill, of transforming a gawky young schoolboy into a powerful German duke. Charles Edward’s advisers, however, were encouraged by the fact that he had a distinctly Germanic appearance – not surprising considering the origins of the Royal Family.
He was tutored in German history, traditions and – importantly – how to be a German officer.
He already spoke the language – King Edward VII spoke German frequently at Court – and before long Charles Edward had been transformed into a typical Teutonic aristocrat.
All too easily he absorbed the mannerisms of a heel-clicking martinet – a complete contrast to the more languid English aristocrats with whom he had grown up.
Upon coming of age on 19 July 1905, he assumed full constitutional powers. He proved loyal to the Emperor and was deemed a constitutionally-minded prince.
Charles Edward was the last reigning duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha from 30 July 1900 until 1918.
At the time when one seeks a partner for life Wilhelm II gave him one: Princess Victoria Adelaide of Schleswig-Holstein, the niece of his wife, Empress Augusta Victoria. The designated bride was the eldest daughter of Friedrich Ferdinand, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein, and Princess Karoline Mathilde of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg. Marriage took place on 11 October 1905, at Glücksburg Castle, Schleswig-Holstein. They had five children, including Sibylla, the mother of Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden.
Charles Edward was a controversial figure in the United Kingdom due to his status as the sovereign Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, which was part of the German Empire, during the first world war. The war might have caused an uncomfortable conflict of loyalties for Charles Edward. He had titles and connections in the United Kingdom, but held vast possessions in several parts of Germany. He threw his fortune with that of the German Empire. He broke off relations with his family at the British and Belgian courts. Yet he had not calculated correctly. Perhaps he was not too bright a calculator: his undoing was not sufficient to overcome doubts about his loyalties in Germany.
His misfortune began in 1915 when king George V ordered his name removed from the register of the Most Noble Order of the Garter.
In March 1917 the Landtag – the State Diet – of Coburg excluded members of the ducal family from the succession if their country, in this case the United Kingdom, was at war with Germany.
In July 1917, still unaware of the change in law at Coburg, in an effort to distance his dynasty from its German origins, George V changed the name of the Royal House from the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to the House of Windsor. At that time, anything with a faintly German ring to it was hated and King George V had to convince his people that he was not some German puppet. It was an infantile gesture, meant perhaps as a way of reneging on the monarchy’s German origin. (A. Roberts, The House of Windsor, Orion Publishing, London 2000, at 6).
That same year the United Kingdom Parliament passed the Titles Deprivation Act which empowered the Privy Council to investigate “any persons enjoying any dignity or title as a peer or British prince who have, during the present war, borne arms against His Majesty or His Allies, or who have adhered to His Majesty’s enemies.” (A. Lyon, Constitutional history of the UK, Taylor & Francis Ld., London 2016, at 421).
Having fought in the German Army – as a general, of course – under the terms of that Act, an Order in Council on 28 March 1919 would deprive Charles Edward of his British peerages, his title of Prince and Royal Highness and his British honours. His children also lost their entitlement to the titles of Prince and Princess of the United Kingdom and the styles Royal Highness and Highness. Nevertheless, they retained the style of Highness as members of a sovereign ducal house in Germany. He was of course regarded as a traitor and labelled a “traitor peer.”
The Russian Revolution of 1917 had caused Charles Edward much concern and he watched anxiously during the ensuing power struggles between the left- and right-wing parties in Germany. On the morning of 9 November 1918, during the German Revolution, the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council of Gotha declared him deposed. On 11 November his abdication was demanded in Coburg. On 14 November 1918, however, after a revolution in Germany, he was forced to abdicate and to acknowledge that he had lost any right to the ducal throne, and therefore ceased to rule as Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
He had been effectively exiled from the United Kingdom and was fearful of the communist threat. He thus started looking for a new ‘political home’. He also worked towards the restoration of the monarchy, thus supporting the nationalistic-conservative and populist right – essentially racist.
There is sufficient evidence that, not long after the German defeat, he joined the Freikorps – German for ‘Free Corps’ – German volunteer units which had existed from the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries. They were essentially mercenary or private armies, which fought regardless of their own nationality. In German-speaking countries they were made of native volunteers, enemy renegades, deserters, and plain thugs – more or less like Mussolini’s contemporary squadristi.
In the aftermath of the first world war, and particularly during the German Revolution of 1918–1919, Freikorps consisted largely of war veterans. Many German veterans felt disconnected from civilian life, and joined a Freikorps in search of stability within a military structure. Others, angry at their sudden, apparently inexplicable defeat, joined up in an effort to exact some form of revenge on those they considered responsible for the armistice. They were essentially right-wing paramilitary militias, ostensibly to fight on behalf of the government against the Soviet-supported German Communists attempting to overthrow the Weimar Republic. However, the Freikorps also largely despised the Republic and were involved in many assassinations of its supporters.
Charles Edward became associated with various right-wing paramilitary and political organisations. He supported Hermann Ehrhardt both morally and financially after the Freikorps’ commander’s participation in the failed Kapp Putsch. Hermann Ehrhardt was a Freikorps commander during the period of turmoil in Weimar Republic Germany from 1918 to 1920, he commanded the famous II.Marine Brigade, better known as the Ehrhardt Brigade or Marinebrigade Ehrhardt. The Kapp Putsch, also known as the Kapp-Lüttwitz Putsch after its leaders Wolfgang Kapp and Walther von Lüttwitz, was an attempted coup on 13 March 1920 which aimed to undo the German Revolution of 1918–1919, overthrow the Weimar Republic and establish a right-wing autocratic government in its place. It was supported by parts of the Reichswehr – the military organisation of Germany from 1919 until 1935, when it was united with the new Wehrmacht, and other conservative, nationalist and monarchist factions. Until 1922 Charles Edward was the head of the Preußenbund – broadly translated as the Prussian confederation, which included certain areas of eastern and central Germany.
He met Adolf Hitler for the first time on 14 October 1922, at the Nazis’ second Deutscher Tag – German Day, held at Coburg. The following day Hitler and Charles Edward celebrated together in a Coburg local pub, following a mass street brawl between Communists and Nazis. Fighting continued throughout the night and a local Jewish businessman was attacked.
Their camaraderie would continue and in 1935, Hitler would present the Charles Edward with the Coburger Ehrenzeichen der Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei – the Coburg decoration of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party or N.S.D.A.P. – a special decoration awarded to those who had participated in the Coburg German Day which became immortalised in Nazi mythology.
In 1923 Charles Edward joined the Bund Wiking – Viking League as Oberbereichsleiter – Governor, in Thuringia. When the Wiking joined the Stahlhelm, Bund der Frontsoldaten – the Steel Helmet, League of Front Soldiers, Charles Edward became a member of the Stahlhelm’s national board.
In 1932 Charles Edward took part in the setting up of the extremist Harzburger Front – Harzburg Front, a short-lived radical right-wing, anti-democratic political alliance in Weimar Germany – which became associated with the Nazis. He was mesmerised by Hitler and, being now totally German in outlook, found a new allegiance to his adopted country through the ranting dictator. He publicly called on voters to support Hitler in the presidential election of 1932.
Charles Edward formally joined the Nazi Party in March 1933 and that same year became a member of the Sturmabteilung, SA – Brownshirts, rising to the rank of Obergruppenführer – Senior Group Leader by 1936. He also served as a member of the Reichstag – the German Diet or Parliament representing the Nazi Party from 1936 to 1945 and as president of the German Red Cross from December 1933 to 1945. By the time he took over this position, the German Red Cross had already been under the Nazis’ control.
In 1934 Charles Edward visited Japan to attend a conference on the protection of civilians during war; he delivered Hitler’s birthday greeting to the Emperor. By 1936 he had agreed to be a spy for Hitler, while attending the funeral of George V at Sandringham, for example, but he was unreliable, according to a historian, “telling them what they wanted to hear.” (D. Blakeway, The last dance: 1936: The year our lives changed, Hodder & Stoughton, London 2011). Hitler also used him to encourage pro-Nazi sentiment among the Duke of Windsor and his wife. (A. Morton, 17 Carnations : The Royals, the Nazis, and the Biggest Cover-Up in History, Grand Central Publishing, New York 2016) Records indicate that Charles Edward received a monthly payment of 4,000 Reichsmark – worth about AU$37,000 in 2018) from the Führer.
After some backdoor diplomatic arrangements, the former Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was allowed back to Britain in 1936 in his role as President of the Anglo-German Friendship Society. His mission was to improve Anglo-German relations and to explore the possibility of a pact between the two countries. It was in fact a cover for an organisation the main aims of which was to prevent war between Britain and Germany – and, hopefully, either entice Britain on to Hitler’s side or persuade it to remain neutral.
“Hitler was an Anglophile, and his dream [during the early 1930s] was to have an alliance with Britain.” Dr. Urbach is firmly of the view that the British Royals are covering up an anti-Semitic past.
“Hitler needed people who had access to the elite in Britain. Carl Edward was therefore ideal. He was born in Britain, and he was related to Queen Mary, who was very pro-German. She invited Carl Edward several times to England and had a correspondence with him that has mysteriously vanishe,” said Dr. Urbach.
“The Royal Archives in Britain are hindering research on this subject,” she alleged. (J. P. O’Malley, ‘British archives hiding royal family’s links to anti-Semitism in 1930s, says historian,’ The Times of Israel, 19 July 2015).
The former Prince sent Hitler encouraging reports about the strength of pro-German sentiment among the British aristocracy and about the possibility of a Britain-Germany pact. He had been instructed by Hitler to measure the degree of appeasement and pro-German sympathy which existed in Britain.
In her book Go Betweens For Hitler (Oxford University Press, Oxford 2015) Dr. Urbach explores how members of the aristocratic class across Europe worked as secret negotiators for Hitler during the interwar years.
The ‘go-betweens’ were unofficial, invisible actors who secretly delivered messages between heads of state to ensure that off-the-record conversations could happen at the highest levels in the murky world of international relations.
While research hitherto has focused on the support German aristocrats secretly provided Hitler within Germany, Urbach’s book discusses an additional, international dimension to this secret diplomatic back channel, most notably from members of the British Royal Family.
Charles Edward became acquainted with the ‘Cliveden Set’, led by Lady Nancy Astor – a Right-wing, upper-class group who wielded much political influence. They met regularly at Cliveden, the stately home in Buckinghamshire which was then the Astors’ country residence.
The former Prince was welcomed by the group, most of whom were in favour of Hitler’s views – although their attitudes changed on the outbreak of war in 1939.
Charles Edward, somewhat overwhelmed by his welcome among these Right-wing aristocrats, sent messages back to Hitler that there was considerable sympathy to the idea of an Anglo-German pact.
He underestimated the large body of opinion, led by Winston Churchill, that felt war was inevitable and that Hitler and Nazism had to be stamped out.
The ex-Prince’s arrogance knew few bounds and, much to the horror of the Royal Family and the anger of the crowds, he wore his Sturmabteilung – Brownshirts – general uniform, complete with swastika and metal helmet, at the funeral of his first cousin George V.
The former aristocrat formed a close friendship with king Edward VIII and Mrs. Wallis Simpson. Charles Edward had many encouraging discussions with the king about the future of Europe and the manner in which Germany was being run.
There was additional warmth towards Mrs. Simpson, who had forged a close friendship – some say more than that – with Hitler’s Foreign Minister Von Ribbentrop.
However, Nazi hopes of a sympathetic presence on the British throne collapsed with the king’s abdication.
At the end of the second world war, the American Military Government in Bavaria, under the command of General George S. Patton, placed Charles Edward under house arrest at his home, the vast Veste Coburg or Coburg Fortress, because of his Nazi sympathies, which had been made obvious when he joined the Schutzstaffel – an élite military unit of the Nazi party which served as Hitler’s bodyguard and as a special police force, better known as SS. As well, “Carl Edward’s British network was very useful for Hitler,” according to Dr. Urbach. In a discussion with a journalist, Dr. Urbach said that she found evidence of Carl Edward donating generously to the Nazi party for years, financing political murders and being aware of the death camps in Buchenwald. (J. P. O’Malley, ‘British archives hiding royal family’s links to anti-Semitism in 1930s, says historian,’ The Times of Israel, 19 July 2015).
Continued Saturday – Terminal adolescents (part 9)
Previous instalment – Terminal adolescents (part 7)
Dr. Venturino Giorgio Venturini devoted some seventy years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. He may be reached at George.firstname.lastname@example.org.
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