Welcome back BritIt Readers! I have the pleasure of being the resident BritIt blogger about British history and Brits who have made a lasting impact. Today I move away from musical icons and introduce you to two colourful characters from modern British history.
How do you measure historical worthiness?
On a simple level personalities are deemed to be of historical significance if they have altered history in some significant way; therefore we shouldn’t be surprised if Julius Caesar, Napoleon and Alexander the Great loom large in the popular imagination. Naturally, this perception has altered with changing times. This focus on the ‘world historical individual’ is of course flawed; can’t the inventor of penicillin, or the internet claim to have changed the world more than the most celebrated general? A more reliable test of historical worthiness is perhaps the manner in which the individual excites the public imagination. With this in mind, I will now bring you a short overview of two British characters whom were rarely likeable but never dull. Read about Edward VIII and Kim Philby and decide for yourself about their level of historical worthiness.
UK Historical Figure 1 – King Edward VIII (1894-1972)
German connections and admiration
Public opinion in the UK was recently outraged when several newspapers published pictures of the present queen (then seven) giving a Nazi salute encouraged by her pro-German uncle. The Royal families Germanic roots run deep, up until 1917 the name of the Royals was Saxe-Coburg und Gotha, altered during World War 1 to the more Anglophonic Windsor. Edward clearly felt at home in Germany and like many aristocrats he loathed communism and admired Hitler. The Nazis were delighted when he became king in 1936, helping bring about the Anglo-German Naval Agreement.
Love and the monarch
Edward bought about a constitutional crisis when he proposed marriage to Wallis Simpson, an American, who had divorced one husband and was seeking to do the same from a second. His ascension to the throne conflicted both with public opinion and his role of titular head of the Church of England. Edward chose to abdicate.
After war broke out he was posted as a major-general to the Allied Military Mission in France whereupon he was accused of leaking war plans for the defense of Belgium to the Germans. Fleeing France after the German invasion the Windsor’s took up residence in Spain then Lisbon, Portugal. He was put under surveillance by German agents, there was even a plan to kidnap him if necessary. He was finally ordered back to Britain by Winston Churchill under threat of court-martial. For the remainder of the war he was given the ignominious position of governor of the Bahamas which he bitterly resented.
Pro-Nazi or Pacifist?
Towards the end of the war an MI5 agent is rumored to have visited Schloss Friedrichshof on the request of the royal family to retrieve sensitive correspondence between Edward and Nazi leaders, including Hitler. Edward claimed that he admired the Germans but was never pro-Nazi, that his connections with them had merely been a means of avoiding war.
UK Historical Figure 2 – Kim Philby (1912-1988)
Russia’s most successful British agent
The career of the double-agent Kim Philby proves that one can hold two conflicting ideas at the same time whilst believing simultaneously in both of them. He was Russia’s most successful British agent who together with Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and John Cairn cross, known collectively as The Cambridge Five, successfully penetrated the upper echelons of the British establishment. Spies like serial-killers exert an enduring fascination on the popular imagination.
Soviet insider advantage over Brits
The ‘Fives’ recruitment at Cambridge during the 1930s was a remarkable coup for the NKVD (later the KGB). It seemed inconceivable to many that core members of the British elite could be traitors. Having access to classified information within the foreign office and British Intelligence the Cambridge Five were able to pass much of it on to their Soviet handlers during and after the Second World War. Belatedly exposed Burgess and Maclean fled to France, disappearing only to resurface several months later in Moscow. Aware that the noose was tightening around him, Philby followed suit in 1963.
Serving the interest of the Soviet Union
Ironically the Soviets never trusted Philby suspecting him of being a British ’triple’ agent. His apologists have claimed that he was duped by the USSR that communism was fashionable in British intellectual circles during the 1930’s and that the Cambridge Five were forerunners of the 1960’s counter-culture. Yet, these justifications don’t ring true. Philby worked for Stalin. He passed on the names of British agents to his Soviet handlers, boasting about it in his memoirs, “The Agents we sent into Albania were armed men intent on murder, sabotage and assassination. I was serving the interests of the Soviet Union…to the extent that I helped defeat them, even if it caused their deaths, I have no regrets”.
Your choice of BritIt Content
In the next few months I’ll be bringing you more insights into British historical events and the key figures who featured. Have you got a British event or figure you would like me to blog about? Let me know via the comment box.
 (Adjective) not perfect
 (Noun) going up, promotion
 (Adjective) humiliating.
 (Adjective) lasting. permanent
 (Noun) a knot on a rope which is tightened as the rope is pulled.