Special Report

Appeasement’s Oscar

Silence is not golden on the story behind The King's Speech.

By 3.17.11

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The King's Speech has just walked off with Oscars aplenty, including Best Picture and Best Director for Tom Hooper. Why quibble with the success of a widely-praised piece of entertainment? Even some historians seem satisfied by the film. Ben Macintyre, for example, writing in the London Times, contends that Hooper has "gone to extraordinary lengths to remain faithful... to the historical record." Were it only true: The King's Speech tells a significantly false story that sadly -- and unnecessarily -- sanitizes the record of King George VI.

George VI, the shy, stuttering Duke of York, Bertie as he was known in family circles, succeeded to the British throne in December 1936 because his older brother, Edward VIII, preferred abdication to renouncing his intention to marry the American divorcée, Wallis Simpson. Only a bland hint is given of Edward VIII's partiality for Hitler and National Socialism, which did not dim with the coming of war, nor even with the Battle of Britain in the second half of 1940 -- the attempt to bomb Britain into submission and enable a German invasion. To the contrary, Edward thought the campaign of bombing might cause appeasers to prevail in Whitehall over the unshakable defiance of prime minister Winston Churchill.

Churchill too, strangely enough, is a beneficiary of distortion for, despite being the lion of anti-appeasement, the Cassandra warning vainly about the perils of Hitler, he was also an ardent monarchist whose romantic temperament impelled him to champion Edward and oppose those driving him to abdication. This disastrous misjudgment, a fateful prioritizing of sentiment over policy that foiled Churchill's comeback from the political wilderness for three vital years, is erased and replaced by a scene in which Churchill bemoans to George Edward's behavior.

A minor matter in the scheme of this film? Perhaps. Not so the depiction of its protagonist, George himself. To judge by the film, George shared Churchill's prescience in foreseeing German aggression. This is not the George known to history. While lacking Edward's fascist predilections, George was nonetheless a thorough-going appeaser who heartily approved of Neville Chamberlain's policy of propitiating the dictators and cutting off defenseless targets in their path.

George concurred with Chamberlain's skepticism about trying to draw the United States into European affairs as a counter to the dictators, as foreign secretary Anthony Eden attempted unsuccessfully to do in 1937. When in 1938, Eden's successor, Lord Halifax, negotiated the agreement with Mussolini that recognized Italy's conquest of Abyssinia, the King personally wrote to Halifax to applaud the "energy and skill" of his work in procuring the agreement.

Later that year, when Chamberlain flew to Germany to negotiate away Czechoslovakian territorial integrity and, ultimately, independence, George greeted his return with effusive words about his "courage and wisdom" In the short-lived euphoria that followed, he did what no king had done before by inviting Chamberlain, a commoner and politician, to appear at his side on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, completely associating himself with the government's policy even before the Parliament had voted on it.

In February 1939, George wrote to Halifax regarding the flow of European Jewish refugees to Palestine, saying that he was "glad to think that steps are being taken to prevent these people leaving their country of origin." George also distrusted Churchill, approved of Chamberlain's opposition to bringing him into the government, and only reluctantly agreed to Churchill's succeeding Chamberlain after the fall of Norway in May 1940. George even once told President Franklin Roosevelt that he could consent to Churchill being prime minister only in "very exceptional circumstances."

George came to change his mind about Churchill and delivered the call to arms that gives the film its title (albeit without the approving throng outside the Palace that appears in the film). All that is missing is the appeaser that he was.

The King's Speech is primarily a personal story which is under no obligation to rehearse George's record on appeasement beyond the little attention it devotes to the subject by way of necessary background. But it is under some obligation to provide a background that is truthful, not deliberately falsified. Yet, in the desire to tell a heart-warming story of George's courageous battle to overcome his impediment, the filmmakers decided that the public could not deal with shades of gray and his actual record is given a royal flush down the memory hole.

Far from having "gone to extraordinary lengths to remain faithful ... to the historical record," The King's Speech is a case of history made to order -- and that is a bad thing. Successful films reach where the scholarly tome does not. In rewriting history, they do a greater disservice to truth and public knowledge than a biased textbook. The King's Speech's string of Oscars ensures it will continue to do so.

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About the Author

Daniel Mandel is a Fellow in History at Melbourne University and author of H. V. Evatt and the Establishment of Israel: The Undercover Zionist (Routledge, London, 2004). His blog can be found on the History News Network.