Lord Mountbatten’s Diaries May Finally Reveal the Truth About the Royal Family and the Nazis

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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A six-year campaign to get access to the most potentially explosive diaries kept by a Royal Family insider has ended in triumph for the historian who spent his life savings pursuing it.

The diaries are those left by Lord Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten, who was a major influence in the court of Elizabeth II, first as a matchmaker in the marriage of the future Queen and Prince Philip, then as an adviser on how the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, should be raised and educated.

How Prince Philip and the Queen Fell in Love, All According to Plan

There are 47 diaries, beginning in the 1920s and ending in 1968.

When Mountbatten biographer Andrew Lownie sought access to them, he encountered a formidable alliance of opponents who wanted them kept closed: Buckingham Palace, government ministers, top officials, a university, and an army of lawyers.

On Thursday, Southampton University, where the diaries are held, quietly made most of them digitally available online.

Lownie told the Daily Beast, “I am delighted that after a battle that cost me my life savings, most of the diaries have been released. These are important historical documents bought with public monies and they should be publicly available.”

Lownie, and other historians who are keen to see the diaries, expect them to cast intimate new light on one of the most troubling skeletons in the royal cupboard, the Royal Family’s role in efforts to make a “peace” deal with Hitler—during four years before Britain and Germany went to war in 1939 and, more crucially, well into 1940, during which Winston Churchill’s position as prime minister was precarious.

“The diaries are a crucial new source for twentieth-century political and social historians,” Lownie told The Daily Beast. “They are on a par with Chips Channon’s similar private diaries, now published in unexpurgated form.”

Channon, an oleaginous upper-class partygoer with a lethal eye and ear for indiscreet gossip noted in 1936 that King Edward VIII "is going the dictator way, and is pro-German.”

Lownie explained that Mountbatten was much closer to what was happening in the Windsor court and for far longer: “The links of the Mountbattens with the Royal Family were close through five generations. Mountbatten was the last great-grandchild and godchild of Queen Victoria. King George V and Queen Mary were guests at the Mountbatten wedding and the future Edward VIII the best man.

The future George VI had been a close friend of Mountbatten’s at Cambridge. Queen Elizabeth had known the Mountbattens all her life. Prince Charles considered him the most important influence in his life.

How the effort to keep the diaries closed began is one of the strangest threads in the story.

In 2011, Professor Chris Woolgar, a historian at Southampton University, which had recently acquired the diaries from the Mountbatten family, made his first run at reading them. Some of the entries were so startling that he thought they should not see the light of day.

Woolgar wrote to the Cabinet Office in London, the administrative heart of prime minister David Cameron’s government. His letter ended up in the hands of a body that few people knew existed, with a title that George Orwell might have invented: the Knowledge and Information Management Unit (Official Histories Team).

Woolgar explained his concerns about the content: “I don’t believe these should be available to researchers, possibly from as far back as the mid-1930s, given their many references to the royal family (which I can spot)…”

To which the information manager gratefully responded in classic mandarin speak: “We tend to agree with you about the diaries, and we do really think we should keep these closed, given the Royal material which you have already spotted.”

The university bought ownership of the archives from the Mountbatten family for 2.85 million pounds, of which 2 million came from fundraising by the National Heritage Memorial Fund. The archives filled 4,500 boxes. The university said they were “the second most important collection after the Churchill papers.”

Lownie believes that the actual cost, including building climate-controlled storage and cataloging and creating databases, was 4.5 million pounds–“and another one million has since been spent in legal fees to prevent us seeing the diaries.” (The Daily Beast reached out—so far without response—to Buckingham Palace and the Cabinet Office for comment.)

Woolgar had no previous background in mid-twentieth-century political history. His published work focused on dining and diet in medieval England, and in that capacity he had reviewed a book about farting, language, and laughter in the Middle Ages.

Lownie sought to get the diaries released by using the British version of our Freedom of Information Act, but this is so enfeebled that editors refer to it as the Suppression of Information Act. Even so, the official Information Commissioner was so incensed by stonewalling by the self-appointed censors that in 2019 he charged the Southampton University with contempt and directed them to disclose the diaries.

They appealed, and that case was due in court in November. The government had prepared a legal team of top barristers to oppose Lownie, who has spent another 50,000 pounds through crowdfunding preparing his case. He says that he will now seek to recover his costs.

Woolgar’s embrace as a historian of censorship by politicians and the Royal Family is, on the face of it, highly unusual. In a long email to him, I raised this ethical issue, along with other questions, including whether he had discussed with colleagues and fellow historians the need for the continued censorship of the diaries and, if so, if there was a general consensus supporting his decisions.

In a reply, he answered none of my questions. Instead, he revealed that he had just retired from the university. (This was news to Lownie.)

A university spokesperson, replying to the Daily Beast, pointed out that the diaries from 1918 to 1934 were available online, even though the later ones were not.

Then, suddenly, without any explanation, this week, most of the remaining diaries appeared on the university’s open-source website.

However, Mountbatten’s diaries for 1947 and 1948, and, for the same years, those of his wife, Lady Edwina Mountbatten, have not been included for public access.

This raises a new set of questions that Lownie is pursuing: “There are more recent diaries, the correspondence between the couple, and scores of files missing from the Mountbatten archive inventory.”

In 1947, Mountbatten was appointed the last Viceroy of India, and oversaw its contentious break-up into India and Pakistan (Bangladesh followed in 1971). The knife-edged politics of the transition were complicated by Edwina Mountbatten’s amorous embrace of the man who became the first prime minister of independent India, Jawaharial Nehru. (The Mountbattens had long enjoyed a version of open marriage, practicing mutual and frequent promiscuity.)

In 2011, the vigilant Professor Woolgar had also alerted the Cabinet Office to Lady Mountbatten’s diaries for 1947-48 “and possibly into the 1950s” as another target for suppression. The Cabinet Office agreed and suggested “a closure period of 10 years”—theoretically, at least, meaning that they could be opened this year.

However, in the interval between his initial alert to the “sensitivity” of the Indian period of the diaries, Woolgar decided to claim that part of the story for himself. In 2018 he proposed preparing an edition of the diaries of both Mountbattens for 1947 and 1948, to be published on the seventy-fifth anniversary of Indian independence in 2022.

This did not mean that under his editing there would be any sensational revelations. He proposed “a scholarly edition…with the full understanding that what might be published is entirely at the discretion of the government.”

Neither Woolgar nor the university would explain whether the absence of the 1947-48 diaries is due to the fact that he is continuing with his bowdlerized edition of them.

Lownie’s priority, now that the diaries are accessible, is to see how closely Mountbatten followed the highly active back-channel contacts between emissaries from Nazi Germany and the royal family in extensive negotiations to avoid war with Hitler.

One of the key backers of Lownie’s campaign is Karina Urbach, a German historian, based at Princeton, who is a leading authority on these interactions.

In her 2015 book Go-Betweens for Hitler, the German scholar drew on European sources to show the importance of royal blood relatives who worked in secret as negotiators for Hitler. She shows how persuasive they were in converting members of the British royal family to the belief that Hitler was a “reasonable” leader who simply needed to be better understood.

For years, two Windsor princes, the Duke of Kent and the exiled Edward, the Duke of Windsor, were highly active agents of Hitler’s belief that there was no need for Britain and Germany to go to war. It was often put in simplistic binary terms: as a choice between communism and fascism in which fascism was the least threatening—to them. Parliamentary democracy was discounted.

The effort of the go-betweens reached a critical point early in 1940 when a group of British aristocrats put pressure on the two most wobbly appeasers at the top of the government, prime minister Neville Chamberlain and the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, to make a last-ditch deal with the Nazis.

These are the months vividly dramatized in the movie The Darkest Hour, where Winston Churchill, against much opposition, becomes prime minister in May 1940, but has a precarious hold on power as he faces both military defeat in France and a plot by the “peace” faction in his own party.

Following leads from German archives, Urbach pinpoints as a key player the London ambassador of fascist Spain, the Duke of Alba, an anti-Semite who, ironically, was connected to the British aristocracy through the Churchill family. He became a very active link between Berlin and the cabal of aristocrats, including Halifax. Among them, appeasement had curdled into defeatism. Only Churchill stood between them and surrender.

To make their cause more legitimate, the plotters would very likely have sought the support of King George VI. Shortly after the outbreak of war, the king had asked Churchill, who was then First Lord of the Admiralty, whether it would be better for England to side with Germany against Bolshevism. Was he still susceptible to this idea?

When it came to answering this question, with the help of copies of the frequent correspondence between royals in Britain and Germany, no records were to be found.

Here, a person of great interest to Urbach was the most egregious blue-blooded German advocate of a deal with Hitler, Charles Edward, the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, a grandson of Queen Victoria who was actually born at Windsor Castle. He joined Hitler’s Brownshirts and was particularly influential with Edward VIII, in the one year he was king. He reported to Hitler that the king “had a sincere resolve to bring England and Germany together.” Later, when Edward, as Duke of Windsor, openly courted Hitler, Coburg was urging him on.

Coburg’s views of the Duke helped persuade the Nazis that he might be ready to replace his brother, George VI, if the coup against Churchill succeeded. In the summer of 1940, on Churchill’s orders, the Duke and Duchess were exiled to the Bahamas. From Lisbon, where the pair were sent when Paris, their home, fell to the German army, an American diplomat, Herbert Claiborne Pell, reported that the Duke and Duchess were “indiscreet and outspoken against the British government… whether Churchill likes it or not they desire to make propaganda for peace.”

German records show that soon after the Duke arrived in the Bahamas, he sent a telegram to a German diplomat making it clear that he was holding himself in readiness to replace his brother on the throne. There is no trace of this communication in British records.

Until Urbach’s book, apologists for the Windsors portrayed the Duke of Coburg as a minor player. Urbach shows him to be a rabid anti-Semite. At the end of the war, he was captured by American troops. He told his interrogators that Hitler’s methods to eliminate the Jews were “harsh”–“but necessary to remove Jewish influence from the world of German arts, media, and culture.”

Speaking from Austria, where she was filming, Urbach told me, “Coburg visited England frequently in the 1930s and was entertained by Queen Mary and her daughter-in-law Elizabeth, mother of the present queen. It is very unlikely that he did not write to Queen Mary afterward, not even a thank you note—and yet that is what the Royal Archivist claimed when I asked for Coburg’s letters to Queen Mary.

“The archivist showed me one postcard from the Duke to Queen Mary. It was ridiculous. It was completely harmless, but it indicated how close they were. We know that Queen Mary was highly family conscious and kept up her correspondence with most of her German relatives. But they never replied to her? That would be rude and highly unlikely.”

Urbach thinks the correspondence could have been destroyed as, she said, other relatives of the Windsors in Germany had done with incriminating papers in the aftermath of the war: “They burned a lot.”

Now, the emergence of Lord Mountbatten’s diaries holds out the possibility of further answers, or at least further factual illumination, around the precise relationship between the Windsors and the Nazis.

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