WE ALL have old family photographs or film footage capturing a shaky, hazy past, although not all of us are doing Hitler salutes. Man On Ledge has not always been a balding man perched on high and contemplating an uncertain view. Once he was a pretty boy with a cloud of Jimi Hendrix hair and a guitar in his hand, as old family Kodachrome transparencies reveal.
The pictures of the Queen aged six or seven and performing a Hitler salute appeared in The Sun newspaper and were drawn from 80-year-old home movie footage. “Secret 1933 film shows Edward VIII teaching this Nazi salute to the Queen,” ran a sub-head next to a still from the film. Unsurprisingly, all this has caused a stir and raised many pert and pertinent questions.
It has long been an open secret that leading royals in the 1930s had links with the Third Reich and were sympathetic towards Hitler – partly, it is often said, as a bulwark against communism, the greatest evil of the age to some British aristocrats at the time.
In the uncovered footage, the young Elizabeth is shown with her younger sister, Princess Margaret, her mother, then Duchess of York, and her uncle Edward, the Prince of Wales. Edward later became king but abdicated to marry the American socialite Wallis Simpson; he faced many accusations of having Nazi sympathies.
So to an extent what The Sun has done is to bring back out into the open a very old story: one that should have been published 50 years ago, and never mind now.
What else does the footage tell us? Nothing much about the Queen, who was only a child at the time. As for the salute itself, was it done in sympathy with Hitler or was it a small act of mockery? It is not possible to say at this distant juncture. But it is possible to point out that this is where being too secretive may well get you in the end.
Access to the royal archives is grudging and tight-lipped, with no 30-year rule as operates with British political history, which does at least allow historians and journalists to rake over very cold coals. As a rule it is reasonable to say that if things are hidden, they will eventually be exposed. So why hide the past behind a high palace wall of secrecy? Partly to maintain the myth and magic, to keep from the public gaze anything that might cast the royals in an unflattering light or spoil the illusion.
People who live behind high walls don’t in general appreciate the lower orders, or nosy journalists working on their behalf, scrabbling up to peep over. That is why, alarmingly, the Government has launched a review of the freedom of information legislation. Labour introduced this openness 15 years ago, and it is fair to say that Tony Blair, so enthusiastic at first, grew less keen later on.
Apparently, ministers now avoid writing down information for fear of exposure under the act – and are said to believe the act stifles creative thinking among officials. And is that not the biggest pile of weasel words flecked with maggoty excuses you have ever seen?
The more openness the better should be the rule. It would be a poor step into a darker past if the Government closed down some rights to freedom of information.
That said, not everything unearthed turns out to have been worth the digging. The legislation was used by The Guardian in a ten-year fight to publish the “black spider” letters the Prince of Wales sent to government ministers, telling them how to run the country. A noble fight was won; and the letters turned out to be rather less interesting than everyone had hoped.
Also, freedom of information can lead to a boring branch of journalism in which the reporter dreams up requests and waits for the answers, rather than going out and grappling with more human stories.
But it’s mostly been for the good. It is only right that we should know as much as possible about everything, and the corridors of power should be opened up to scrutiny. As too should red-carpeted corridors along which the royals once trod, Nazi salutes or not.