From the summer of 1937, the Duke of Windsor had proposed a visit to Germany. With the Second World War looming, the policy of the British government was still one of appeasement and diplomats still made regular visits to Berlin. Most believed that communist Russia was the ultimate bad guy, and attempts were still being made to negotiate with Adolf Hitler. Nevertheless, with the benefit of hindsight, we now know that going on this visit was possibly one of the worst decisions the Duke could have made. It would continue to haunt both the Duke and Duchess for the rest of their lives.
The Duke of Windsor had long been interested in housing conditions for workers, and Germany boasted model programs for her workers, which he was curious to see for himself. He also saw it as a unique opportunity where Wallis would be treated with the respect she deserved as a royal Duchess. Sir Dudley Forwood, the equerry to the Duke, wrote, “His Royal Highness wanted to see honour and glory paid to the woman he adored. [..] She didn’t want to go. She realised that it might go against them. But His Royal Highness had made up his mind.”1 Even the Duke realised the visit might be controversial, but if he had learned anything over the last few months, it was that he no longer had any kind of official position or status.
And so, an exhausting itinerary consisting of almost two weeks, which was meant to show off the best of the Third Reich, was worked out by Fritz Wiedemann on Adolf Hitler’s instructions. All expenses were to be paid out of a special fund from the Reichsbank.
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor arrived aboard the Nord Express at Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse station in the early morning of 11 October 1937. The wall had been decorated with strings of Union Jacks alternating with the Nazi swastika, and a brass band played “God save the King” as the train came to a halt. As they alighted, there were screams of “Heil Edward!” and “Hoch Windsors!” Wallis looked the part in a tailored suit in navy blue with a matching cape, hat and shoes, while the Duke wore a light gray double-breasted suit with a red carnation in his lapel.
Dr Robert Ley, the leader of the National Labour Front, was the first to greet the Duke and Duchess. He handed Wallis a box of chocolates with a card that was inscribed with “Köningliche Hoheit” (Royal Highness). From the British Embassy, there was only a third secretary by the name of Geoffrey Harrison to welcome them on behalf of the ambassador. He handed them a letter that said that the ambassador had been called away and that the embassy had been instructed to take no official notice of the visit. Sir Dudley Forwood recalled, “Both the Duke and Duchess were very, very hurt at not being extended any sort of regular welcome in Berlin.”2
With the official welcoming ceremony done, Robert Ley escorted the Duke and Duchess to his waiting Mercedes. Two armed guards and a driver sat in the front seats. As they departed, a loud cheer arose from the crowd. Wallis later complained that the car was going way too fast, and the Duke informed Robert Ley that he really needed to slow down the motorcade on subsequent visits or they would take another car.
The Duke and Duchess were to stay in a large suite in the grand Kaiserhof Hotel. A specially invited crowd serenaded them with a song composed for the occasion on the orders of the Propaganda Ministery as they arrived at the hotel.
Wallis later wrote of Robert Ley in her memoirs, “We had been told that Dr Ley, as a young man in the chaos of Germany after the First World War, had been a fanatic Communist who had switched around to become a Nazi, an anti-Communist fighter, and a wrecker of the Weimar Republic. To me, he appeared to be the archetype of the revolutionary – a man driven by sheer evil to undermine the existing order, whatever it might be, and who lent his ugly talents to any enterprise dedicated to such an end. He had bright eyes, a florid complexion, and a squat bear-like build. To my American eyes, he was a four-flusher.”3