David Windsor came to the throne as Edward VIII, king of
the same year, to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. It was the celebrity scandal of the decade, what with the king throwing duty over the side, Mrs. Simpson under the misapprehension she could become queen, the ruling Tory party mutinous and ready to resign from government, the Archbishop of Canterbury discouraging any Anglican clergy from performing the wedding, the Royal Family caught up in both a domestic soap opera and a political crisis that threatened the monarchy - and just when you thought it was all a tempest in a teapot, it could well have affected the outcome of the Second World War.
You have to cast your mind back to the climate of the late 1930's, the consuming fear of Bolshevism and the rise of Fascist reactionary politics in Europe - the Arrow Cross in Hungary, the Iron Guard in Romania - but more particularly the Fascist states, Spain, Italy, and Nazi Germany. You also have to remember the strong isolationist and antiwar sentiment in the U.S. and Great Britain, and even overt sympathy for Nazism. (Sir Oswald Mosley married his second wife Diana Mitford in Berlin, at Goebbels' house. Hitler was there.) The most charitable thing you can say about the Duke of Windsor is that he was hopelessly naive.
Invited to Germany in 1937, after the abdication, the Windsors toured the Krupp weapons works, were Hitler's guests at Obersalzberg and Goering's at Karinhall, and gave energetic Nazi salutes. It was a general embarrassment to the British government and personally to David's brother Bertie, who'd succeeded him as GeorgeVI. Windsor, who was himself extremely sensitive to slights, apparently had no shame, or was simply insulated from questioning his own conduct. He led an unexamined life, immune to consequences and tone-deaf to anybody's grievances but his own.
The plot, however, thickens. Once the war began, the Windsors retreated first to the south of France, then to Barcelona, and then in July of 1940 to Lisbon. Spain and Portugal were neutrals, but Franco's regime was in bed with the Nazis. Windsor had made some extremely ill-judged and gratuitous remarks, proposing a negotiated peace, which came close to sedition, and the Germans pricked up their ears. David also insisted to his brother the king that Wallis be treated as a member of the Royal Family. It was this last bone of contention that suggested itself to the German foreign minister, von Ribbentrop, as leverage. What if, he reasoned, the Duke of Windsor were to return to England, and be crowned king again? Would it take England out of the war? In hindsight, it's hard to believe this ever got legs, but in the event, SS-Sturmbannfuhrer Walter Schellenberg, deputy chief of Reich state security, flew to Madrid. The operation was code-named Willi.
None of this took place in a vacuum, British intelligence not being utterly comatose, and Windsor known to them. He was never celebrated for discretion. It had been hastily arranged for him to become governor of the Bahamas, safely out of circulation. He was supposed to sail from Lisbon on August 1st, but mulish as usual, he was dragging his feet - his suspicions are being fed by German agents, who plant the idea that MI6 is plotting to assassinate him once he's aboard ship - and Schellenberg, now based in Lisbon, is wondering if simplest is best: why don't they just throw a blanket over the guy and smuggle him out of town? This admirably direct strategy is vetoed by Wilhelmstrasse, the Windsors set sail for the Bahamas, and the plan (such as it was) evaporates.
The issue isn't that Windsor was a vain and deeply unserious person, but that the Nazis, delusional as they were, had reason to think he might actually go along. David was a featherbrain,who probably deserved no better than the equally fatuous and self-absorbed Wallis. On the other hand, von Ribbentrop was generally regarded as a meathead by his own colleagues and in foreign chanceries - his one success the non-aggression pact with Stalin - and he lacked the imagination. Schellenberg, though, was nobody's fool, and wouldn't have chosen a fool's errand in Lisbon. So how did they persuade themselves? My guess is that it was wishful thinking. Hitler's main strategic objective was the defeat of Russia. He thought England would come to the bargaining table once Luftwaffe bombers began crossing the Channel, and it suited him to believe Windsor was more sympathetic to German aggrandizement than George VI. But as petty or foolish as David Windsor was, he must have realized he couldn't be a Nazi collaborator, a puppet king. It would have been beneath contempt.
We're left with speculation. Jack Higgins wrote a corker of a thriller about it. Schellenberg, in his memoirs, characterizes the whole episode as farce. Deborah Cadbury's recent book, PRINCES AT WAR, shows Windsor in an unflattering light, if she stops short of calling him a Quisling. In his memoirs, Windsor says he believed Germany was a military counterweight to the Soviet menace, but he never supported the Nazis. Which is it? There's no way of knowing. The man was shallow, written in water, and unexceptional. Only the circumstance of his birth gives him any historical weight, and simple accident put him in the crosshairs. Windsor had but one decent virtue. He was a stranger to himself, too oblivious to know better.