Why was Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon siegheiling?

…And were ‘we’ really so unaware of what it meant in 1933? Michael Rosen writes.

Mural on Cable St to commemorate antifascist protestors (Michael's parents were among those at the Battle of Cable St in 1936). Photo Matt Buck (via Flickr cc).
Mural on Cable Street to commemorate antifascist protestors. Michael’s parents were among those at the Battle of Cable Street in 1936.     Photo: Matt Buck via Flickr cc.

The real problem posed by the photos of the future queen siegheiling is not whether she was too young to know what she was doing but why her mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, was doing it too. I’ve noticed on twitter, and indeed in the discussion on Newsnight, that the default defence of all this is that 1933/34 (when the photos were taken) was ‘too early’ for Brits to know what was going on in Germany. After all, the argument goes, this is long before the awful truth of the Holocaust became known. True.

So, really the question to ask – and it’s a question that seems to have been far too hard for the backroom staff at Newsnight to have figured out – is how were the Nazis going down amongst the public in 1933/34?

First, to put some important matters on the map: by the middle of 1933, the Nazis had abolished democracy with the Enabling Acts and the Reichstag Decrees; they had set about the immediate, pressing task of beheading the labour movement, by imprisoning or killing trade unionists, socialists and communists. The concentration camp, Dachau, was used to imprison opponents (or people deemed to be opponents) and immediately, thousands of working-class militants were put into hard labour gangs.

In Britain, in 1932, Oswald Mosley founded the British Union of Fascists based on fascist parties across Europe and was given great coverage in the British press for his ideas, even as his thugs started terrorising Jews in the East End of London and starting up provocations in the West End where there was a strong Jewish presence in the ‘shmatte’ (rag) trade. From a purely personal point of view, this is where some of what has been said about the Royals’ siegheiling is so offensive. Whenever mainstream journalists and commentators talk about racism, they very frequently lapse into a commentary that is itself racist in the use of the very word ‘people’. So we are often told that ‘people’ were racist or ‘people’ were antisemitic. This is both offensive to those people who aren’t or weren’t racist, but also leaves out of the category ‘people’,  the very people on the receiving end of the racism or antisemitism!  So in the trope, ‘people’ didn’t know about the Nazis’ antisemitism, the fact that Jews did know about it, is left out! The papers of the Jewish establishment were quite vocal and explicit about the Nazis’ antisemitism but this awareness is left out of the picture in the rush to explain away the Royals’ salutes.

The full coverage of one Adolf Hitler is only a google click away on the British Newspaper Archive site, where you can get quickly get a sense of how much news from Germany was getting through to British readers from 1928-33. On Newsnight, we had to put up with insulting waffle about how people didn’t have TV and the internet then, so they didn’t know what fascism was about. Newspapers like the Daily Mirror (very briefly sympathetic to Mosley’s fascists),  the People, the Daily Herald and Reynolds News (left Sunday) all had a left-leaning, Labour-supporting approach to this alongside some of the popular local and local evening papers. Of course the Daily Worker had followed the rise and rise of the Nazis very closely and had reported on them albeit with the winding, twisting track of both identifying the menace as well as carrying Moscow’s position on the ‘social fascism’ of the German social democrats.

Meanwhile the Times decided to serialise ‘Mein Kampf’ in July 1933 so, again, what the Nazis stood for was hardly a secret, hardly unknown! Indeed, the moment Hitler took on the full power of the German state in January 1933, boycotts of German goods began to be organised by Jewish organisations in the US – also widely reported around the world. Again, it was no secret as to why this happened.

In truth, the full picture of British attitudes to the Nazis between 1928 and 1933 is that plenty of powerful people thought that Hitler was right precisely because he was out to kill off the left and precisely because he promised that he would persecute the Jews. The word ‘appease’ is utterly inadequate to describe this. It was an explicit sympathy and support. Sadly, the word ‘appeasement’ has ended up confusing the matter as if this were a matter of weak kow-towing to Nazism or even a form of honestly meant – even pacifist – Realpolitik. This of course exonerates and explains away a body of conservative (and Conservative) opinion that thought that clobbering Jews, trade unionists, socialists, communists and anarchists was absolutely right.

I suspect we will never be told exactly how integrated with this body of opinion Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was. She has the status of demigod in the ranks of those who want us to admire monarchism. In the meantime, we have to put up with swathes of mealy-mouthed crap about how ‘we’ didn’t know about Nazism, ‘we’ didn’t know about the Nazis’ abolition of democracy, persecution and pogroms against the working-class leaders and ‘we’ didn’t know what Hitler wrote in ‘Mein Kampf’. Well, actually ‘we’ did.



  1. I’m reading Richard J Evans’s three part history of the Nazis and coincidentally just reading about this very period in The Third Reich in Power (part II of the trilogy). So I bookmarked a couple of pages.

    By 1933, public denunciation was rife. In 1933, 3,700 people were jailed for an average of six months in the Special Courts which “cracked down hard on the kind of casual dissent that would go unremarked in a normal democratic political system”. (Evans)

    “Most strikingly, however, while three-quarters of all critical remarks prosecuted by the courts were overheard in Augsburg’s pubs and bars in 1933, the proportion sank to two-thirds in 1934 and little more than half in 1935. … Clearly fear of being overheard rapidly inhibited free conversation in pubs, destroying yet another aspect of social life that had hitherto existed free from Nazi control.” (Evans)

    So, this tells us that by 1933 there was already a climate of fear in German society, with personal grudges often being settled through denunciation. The police state was well under way and while the British public may not have been entirely aware of the widespread fear in German society, the notion that those in the ruling classes in Britain remained ignorant is clearly ludicrous.

    There’s no question that Bowes-Lyon knew exactly what she was doing and plenty has been written about her lifelong support of the far right. Who would take seriously the excuses of the BBC and the current right wing press as a robust defence of sieg-heiling royalists? They know and knew what they were doing.

  2. Also, it’s part of middle class history that the middle class flatters themselves that they and they alone ‘know what’s going on’ as if a) newspapers like the Mirror, Daily Herald, Reynolds News and the People said nothing. (not true) b) trade union papers, local evening papers, and sectional interest papers and left political papers said nothing and didn’t reach working class people (not true) and c) working class people didn’t attend trade union, Labour and left meetings where such things were discussed (not true).

  3. There would of course have been some working class people, often the most unorganised, who supported Moseley and the BUF. But it was the Catholic dockers and trade unionists who stood side by side with ordinary Jewish people at the battle of Cable Street. As Professor Bill Fishman, who as a 15 year old took part in the counter-demonstration wrote: “We were all side by side. I was moved to tears to see bearded Jews and Irish Catholic dockers standing up to stop Mosley. I shall never forget that for as long as I live, how working-class people could stand together to oppose the evil of racism.”

    Support for the fascists was widespread amongst the ruling class. Both Churchill and Lloyd George expressed their admiration of Hitler see my ‘Shock Horror – the Royals Just Loved the Nazis’ http://www.azvsas.blogspot.co.uk/2015/07/shock-horror-royals-just-loved-nazis.html. Don’t forget that fascist groups had begun their cooperation with ruling class reactionaries when they organised scab groups during the General Strike. In Brighton, as late as 1938 the local police entertained a visiting group of German policemen.

    The ruling class didn’t fight the Nazis because they became converted to anti-fascism but because Hitler threatened their interests. One can see this most clearly in Greece, where the British army fought the communists and Churchill put in the very Nazi collaborators that the resistance had fought against.

  4. An aspect not mentioned here is the fact that whilst some were aware of the goings on, still the general populous did not, at least to the degree that the royal family would have been.
    The royals aren’t at all representative of the poor or working class knowledge of world events, whilst the general populous go about their daily struggles in life and had little time for much else, the Royal family are not in that environment and they knew very well what was happening and that is leaving aside the fact they have close family ties with Germany.

  5. And let’s not forget that those who fought at Cable Street were working class regardless of their ethnic, cultural or religious background. We don’t want to fall into the trap of equating the working class with myths of a homogeneous white, anglo saxon reactionary underclass the right loves to perpetuate. Not to say that racist ideas don’t sometimes take hold but that the urban working class is far less reactionary than some of those in power who claim to speak on their behalf. .

  6. Please, do not lump ‘working class people’ as a single group and blame them all for supporting fascism – in my personal experience this was not how it was. It is falling into the same habit as those who claim ‘we’ the people did not know what was going on. Just as Michael Rosen is quite right to show that some of ‘we’ did know, it is also right to point out that many working class people did not support fascism. There are many people working class people who were unemployed and busy trying to survive in the 1930s (including my aunt who died in childbirth, along with her baby, because they were both too half-starved to cope with the birth) who did not resort to blaming anyone other than the leaders of the country who were ignoring their plight. My father, as a Daily Herald reader at the time, never let us forget that justice for all is paramount and hated fascism. My mother had a simple philosophy: we are all God’s children and should do as we would be done by – and that genuine remorse with attempts to remedy errors should be met by genuine forgiveness. They were very much working class. They, along with many friends, did not support fascism, although some certainly did.

  7. This is an excellent riposte, except I fear you’re being somewhat too gentle. I believe it’s vital to acknowledge the role of working class people, particularly leaders, who supported fascism in general and Hitler and Mosley in particular. A passing reference to the Daily Mirror’s brief support for Mosely is inadequate, for two reasons. One, the Mirror was a corporate entity and could be reasonably (and fairly) regarded as separate from working class people. Two, it ignores ordinary working class people’s support for rightwing extremism. Also, while the Times’s serialisation of Mein Kamp is of great importance, that paper was an organ of the ruling elite and it’s too much of a stretch to argue that its decision to do so affected popular discourse; goodness knows there were plenty of other cultural activities that could achieve that! But these points, overall gentleness aside, are quibbles. You’ve done an excellent, measured job here, just as I’d expect of you.


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