Politics & Policy

Waving The Bloody Shirt

Prince Harry's wardrobe malfunction.

Gott im Himmel, what was Harry thinking? If you are a public figure, the great grandson of the last emperor of India no less, and you live in censorious–and camera-phone-saturated–times, attending a “Native and Colonial” party is almost certainly unwise. To do so in Nazi uniform is absolute madness. And after days of high drama, low farce, and massed denunciations, we all know the result.

The “Clown Prince” and the Circus

To take just a brief selection of the criticism, Harry is now the “Hitler Youth” (the Sun, a newspaper that dilutes its moments of moral indignation with bouts of manic punning), “the most tasteless fool in the country” (London Times), and “an idiot” (Independent). Perhaps more worrying for the “clown prince” (Sun, again), the principal prominenti to rally to his support were David Irving (a historian often accused of Holocaust revisionism), a disgraced Tory MP, and Fergie.

It would have done nothing for the Night Porter, but Harry’s has been the shirt seen ’round the world, the mother of all wardrobe malfunctions, a poor, sad scrap of bad taste, a feeble facsimile of an Afrika Korps tunic, garnished with a swastika armband, a touch that the late Field Marshal Erwin Rommel would, I suspect, have found somewhat vulgar.

And yes, it was a dumb, dumb thing to do. Stupid rather than malicious, but, particularly given Harry’s status, it was clearly inappropriate–and genuinely offensive to many. Quite rightly, the prince was quick to issue an apology. That should have been an end to the matter. That it was not says plenty about modern Britain and contemporary Europe, little of it good.

A Reich History

To be sure, the British press was always going to keep the story alive for as long as it could. Royal scandals shift newspapers, and so do the Nazis. Combining the two was a circulation manager’s dream. Even allowing for this, however, the torrent of humbug, hypocrisy, and hysteria that has engulfed the hapless Harry has been remarkable and, in some ways, rather more repellent than the wretched regalia that sparked the uproar in the first place. It also ignores the fact, critical to understanding this incident, that for many Brits, the Nazis have long been good for a laugh.

Now, Harry is not, by most accounts, much of an intellectual, so to claim that his brown-shirted burlesque was somehow a deliberate Producers-style satire is a stretch too far. At the same time, his dreadful choice of costume, however dimly, however unconsciously, reflected a national fondness for making a mockery of the pretensions of the Third Reich. On occasion this can be tasteless, but ridicule is not a bad way to strip the swastika of some of its malign power. The failure of neo-fascists ever to make much progress in the U.K. (unlike in some other European countries) can at least partly be put down to the fact that voters have been too busy laughing to take them very seriously.

Some press comment in Britain did allude to this tradition, but a good number of journalists took the chance to indulge in royal-bashing and class warfare. It was a wonderful opportunity to give the toffs a good kicking, while appearing to remain on the moral high ground. The Guardian is usually a good source for this sort of thing. It didn’t disappoint. To take just a quick dip into the venom, we find John O’Farrell frantic and foaming over “pro-hunting upper-class twits,” sly hints from Mark Lawson that the evil Tories are far more likely to dress up in Nazi uniform than their political opponents and a reminder from Duncan Campbell that Edward VIII had “admired what Hitler was doing in Germany.”

In Germany itself, reactions were no less vitriolic, and, reflecting exasperation at the U.K.’s endless, and frequently crass, obsession with the Second World War, included some Brit-bashing for added flavor. The most weirdly entertaining response, however, came from a commentator in the mass-circulation Bild who scribbled this message to Harry. “You are…about as disgusting as a moldy piece of food. I vomit. It is high time that you were given serious medical treatment. You are a traumatized child.”

Nazi or Red?

Getting it exactly wrong, meanwhile, Der Spiegel described the uniform of the Afrika Korps as being “hated” in the U.K. because of British casualties in the desert war. In fact, the reverse is true. The soldiers of Rommel’s army have traditionally been seen as the “good” Germans, worthy opponents beaten in a fair fight. If, as was apparently nearly the case, Harry had opted, God help us, for a SS uniform, the row would have been far, far worse.

Adding to the frenzy, and showing that, even now, after nearly six decades of democratic government, they do not fully understand the occasionally uncomfortable realities of free speech, some German politicians used Harry’s gaffe to lobby for a Europe-wide ban on the display of Nazi symbols. Such a ban would be a mistake on a number of grounds, but it is interesting to see that there was no suggestion that it should also cover Communist insignia. Why not? Do the tens of millions who died under the hammer and sickle count for any less than those butchered by the Hitler regime? To look at this point another way, ask yourself if there would have been such uproar if Harry had come dressed as a Stalin-era commissar or clutching Mao’s Little Red Book. You know the answer.

As if that level of hypocrisy was not enough, it seems that even some fascists, real ones, may be regarded as less of a scandal than the wayward Windsor. Le Monde has reportedly suggested that the furor over Harry may hit London’s chances of winning the right to host the 2012 Olympics over rivals such as Paris, the capital of a country where some15 percent of voters regularly give their support to the National Front, a party headed by a man who has described the Holocaust as a “detail.”

More ominously still, this wave of indignation over a spoiled and irrelevant young prince makes a revealing contrast with Europe’s supine response to Islamic extremists, the brownshirts of our own era. But, perhaps we should not be surprised. How much simpler, and politically more convenient, to condemn one moronic 20-year-old, his unpopular social class, and (internationally) his countrymen, than to confront the real danger to freedom now developing among a section of the EU’s Muslim minority. Facing this challenge will be a tricky task not easily reconciled with the multicultural pieties of Europe’s ruling establishment, or, arguably, the pockets of anti-Semitism that may lurk within it. Symbolic solidarity with the vanished victims of the past is so, so much less demanding.

Ironically, however, these politics of the empty gesture reached their nadir with the suggestion by the Simon Wiesenthal Center (an organization which should know better) that Harry should be made to attend the commemoration at Auschwitz of the 60th anniversary of the camp’s liberation. Such a grotesque stunt, both morbid and meaningless, would have been an insult to those murdered in that terrible place. Thankfully, the idea was rejected.

In this squalid and sorry saga, it was a rare moment of dignity.

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