In April 1945, less than a month before the end of World War II in Europe, an American army captain found an abandoned vehicle with a trove of German government documents, one of which was signed by Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi foreign minister who would later be executed at Nuremberg. Eventually, the Americans searched castles in the nearby area, as well as a country house in another part of the country, and found a huge cache of files that would eventually provide insight into the inner workings of the Nazi state—along with one set of microfilm that detailed the Third Reich’s attempt to build a relationship with King Edward VIII, whose 1936 abdication made him a virtual exile, after his brief reign on the throne.
In his new book, Traitor King, out this week, historian Andrew Lownie uses these files and many more, including documents from the FBI and the State Department, to trace the route that Edward and his American-born divorcée wife, Wallis Simpson, took from France to Portugal to the Bahamas during World War II, and the way that they kept in touch with German agents and officials even after the Battle of Britain began in the summer of 1940. He notes the American intelligence service belief that Wallis was in “constant contact” with Ribbentrop after the war started and cites a report that she even kept a signed picture of him on her dressing room wall. In the book, Lownie also elaborates on Ribbentrop’s eventual plan to kidnap the couple when they wouldn’t willingly join onto a German effort to force a negotiated peace with England.
“It’s to the credit of the Americans, particularly the American historians, that captured German documents found at the end of the war, which give chapter and verse to the duke’s treachery, were saved,” Lownie said in a video call. “Of course, this has provided our evidence, but there’s plenty of other evidence. I found, for example, private diaries of the king’s private secretary, of an MI-5 officer, diplomats, all of this confirming that the German documents were accurate and that the duke had been a traitor.”
The traditional view of Edward is that he chose love over his duty to the country and sparked a crisis in the British government. But in investigating the connections between Edward VIII and Wallis, Lownie finds evidence that it isn’t the whole story. “The revisionist view is my view, which was that he was maneuvered off the throne because they were desperate to get rid of him,” Lownie said. The government may have been skeptical of Edward even before he became king. “Fortunately Wallis came along and gave them their excuse to push him off the throne.”
Last month, Vanity Fair spoke to Lownie about the case that Edward and Wallis represented a bigger threat to Britain than previously acknowledged and why he prefers writing about the royal “baddies” over the “goody-goodies.”
Vanity Fair: For decades there has been speculation that Edward and Wallis were Nazi sympathizers based on a few of their comments, but your book tries to make the case using historical documents. How did you get started on the project?
Andrew Lownie: I’d always suspected that they were more actively involved as intriguers with the Nazis rather than unwitting victims of the Nazis. That’s what I set out to investigate. By looking at files in the States and in other countries and looking at private papers, one began to get the sense that they were much more deeply implicated than perhaps history has realized, because of course, a lot of the files have been destroyed or cleaned out. So the evidence really wasn’t there in the British archives.
The truly shocking thing about the book is your argument that members of the U.S. and U.K. intelligence services were convinced that Edward was doing something treasonous. Even Churchill seems to have believed it eventually. But you also document him trying to delay release of some of the memos about it. Why do you think he did that?
If the Queen’s uncle has committed treachery and should be executed, that’s a big story. That would shake the monarchy, so that has to be covered up. I don’t think he approved of Edward’s behavior. He certainly didn’t—I mean, he threatened to court-martial him—but he knew that this is a story that couldn’t be allowed to get out. That’s why he tried to suppress it in his communications with Eisenhower and tried to destroy the material.
Unlike most books about Edward, you don’t spend too much time thinking about the abdication and don’t really dwell on his motivations. There’s a common idea that the abdication was an existential crisis for the monarchy, but it seems like one of the best things that could have happened to Britain, right?
We were saved, and I end the book on that note. There is a paradox. Here was a man who didn’t want the crown, in effect, and allowed himself to be maneuvered away. But I think he changed his mind, and he realized what he’d lost. He needed to build himself up in the eyes of Wallis. She, I think, resented the fact that he had been outmaneuvered. It was a mixture of personal and political. So, personal was upstaging his brother, getting back at the family who he felt had not been very nice to him by freezing him out. And part of it was political, this desire that [Germany and Britain] should work together against the Communists because that was the real threat.