Review of Episode 6, Season 2 of The Crown: “Vergangenheit”

The Crown is a historical drama series that dramatizes the life and reign of Queen Elizabeth II. It was created by Peter Morgan and produced by Left Bank Pictures and Sony Pictures Television Studies and distributed through Netflix. The first season was released in 2016 and the last season on 2023. The series starts with Queen Elizabeth’s wedding in 1947 through the wedding of Prince Charles in 2005.

Peter Morgan was also the writer for The Queen, a film focused on the response of Queen Elizabeth, her family and her Government to the death of Princess Diana. The Crown is a much expanded reflection on the character and history of the monarchy as seen through the many changes experienced during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.

The seasons of the Crown are organized chronologically. Season one covers the ascension of Queen Elizabeth, her coronation and her struggles trying to understand and fulfill her obligations as queen. Season two focuses a lot more on the challenges posed by decolonization and the attempt of the Crown to assert its meaning and value on the face of a changing world.

Episode 6 “Vergangenheit” (which, interestingly, translates as “the past”, in contrast with “geshichte” which would be “history”) was written by Peter Morgan and directed by Philippa Lowthorpe. It is available on Netflix where I watched it. This episode starts with a scene with two cars driving on an empty road surrounded by forests. On the screen, we see a caption identifying the place as “Thuringia Forest. Germany 1945.” The cars are driven by soldiers, some of the them speaking in English, and, at least one of them dressed in a German uniform and speaking in German. The cars stop, the soldiers start to search. The German soldier indicates a spot on the ground and the other soldiers start digging until they find something. They unearth a metal box and drive away with it. In the next scene we see the same cars arrive on what the caption tells us is “Marburg Castle”. We see many soldiers sorting through boxes and files. An American officer in the castle opens the box where he find letters, files and several reels of microfiche. He asks one of the American soldiers accompanying the German officer what is that he wants. He wants freedom and enough money to retire, responds the American soldier. To this, the American officer responds that they will have to see whether there is anything good in the documents provided by the German officer, and orders the documents to be translated. We never do find out if this German soldier got what he wanted, but we do find out that, what was contained in that box were the Marburg File.

The Marburg File contained information about the connections between the Duke of Windsor and his wife Wallis Simpson, and high ranking members of Nazi leadership. The Duke of Windsor had abdicated the throne of the United Kingdom in 1936 after choosing to marry Wallis Simpson an American divorcee. In previous episodes, we have seen the contentious relationship between the Duke and members of the Royal Family and other members of the British establishment who blame him for the premature death of his brother, King George VI, father of Queen Elizabeth, and for bringing the monarchy to the verge of a major constitutional crisis. You would think that Nazi sympathies would be a major black mark on an already blemished record, but somehow, information about the Duke’s Nazi connections had managed to stay hidden.

At the beginning of the episode, the Duke, who lives in a comfortable exile in France, is planning to visit London in search of a job, a way in which he can “continue to serve his country.” Unfortunately for him, the Marburg file had been recently rediscovered by a group of British and American historians. The file was first presented to King George VI and Winston Churchill shortly after it was found. The then King and Prime Minister decided to keep them secret. Years later, however, this principled historians were determined to see the information in the file made public. If British historians could not publish the information, American historians could since they had copies. In light of this threat, the file make its way to the new Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and the Queen herself who then has to decide whether she can allow the Duke of Windsor take up a position in the diplomatic core. In her meeting with the Duke, Queen Elizabeth confronts the Duke with the contents of the file (36:05- 41:28). The Duke tries to explain his actions arguing that his connections with Hitler and Germany pre-dated the abuses of the Nazis and were guided by his desire to avoid another war with Germany. He questioned the reliability of the files referring to them as Nazi propaganda. This is the first key moment of this episode where two versions of the past are being confronted, and as a viewer one has to ask oneself how can Elizabeth evaluate the explanations of his uncle in light of the evidence she has read in the files. Most importantly, in his attempt to justify his actions, the Duke also gave Elizabeth an interpretation of the war where England had contributed to the radicalization of Hitler and pushed him into another war. This was not an uncommon view on the eve of the Second World War, and one that is defended by the Duke from the point of view of someone who had experience with the previous war.

The episode who simply be about these contrasting interpretations of the war, however, Peter Morgan adds another layer. The episode also portrays a parallel story where the American Evangelist Revered Billy Graham visited England. Queen Elizabeth arranged to meet with him in a couple of occasions. In the Episode, the Queen is seeking a way to forgive her uncle as a gesture of her Christian faith and, in what she thinks should be the spirit of a Christian nation. However, she is discouraged to do this and, in turn, advised to speak to the retired private secretary of the Duke, Tommy Lascelles, to ascertain whether his explanations were to be believed. Here is where we see a second key moment in the episode where Lascelles tells the Queen what he knows of the the Duke’s involvement with the Nazis, including that the Duke had not only provided classified information to the Germans, but that he had done so in exchange of the promise that he would be re-instated as King on the event of Great Britain falling to the Nazis, effectively dethroning King George VI, father of Queen Elizabeth (44:14- 48:32). Stunned by these revelations, the Queen denied the request of the Duke to assume a position in the service of his country and sent him back to France.

This episode is a good example of how Peter Morgan addresses some big topics by combining known episodes in the life of Queen Elizabeth. The Marburg Files do exist and they do document the connections between the Duke of Windsor and the Nazi Regime. These connections have been in fact documented through other means and it is now well established that the Duke and his wife visited Nazi Germany in 1937 and maintained correspondence with various Nazi officials during the course of the war. What has remained a rumor is the idea that the Duke’s cooperation has motivated by the promise that, after the fall of England to the Nazis, he would be restored to the throne. What makes this episode quite interesting is that most of the facts are accurate, where Peter Morgan is presenting us with an interpretation is with regards to how these facts were experienced at the time by the people who were learning them, and what they may have meant to them, in contrast to what they mean to us today. We do not know, for instance, that the Queen was seeking for a way to forgive the Duke of Windsor. In fact, there is some evidence to the fact, that she had not inclination to do so. We also have not reason to believe that the arrival of Reverend Graham would have had any influence in that decision. But Peter Morgan connects two relatively unconnected episodes to reflect on a larger theme, the confrontation between the past and the present and the struggles of a Monarch to confront the consequences of what the Duke of Windsor has represented in the course of the series, a forward-looking individualist who seeks for the modernization of the Monarchy, especially if it benefits his personal interests. This in contrast to the self-less and dutiful role that Elizabeth has been taught to perform, in the service of the preservation of the monarchy and its tradition. In the end, the question that this episode punctuates is what is the price of change? and how much should the monarchy change in order to survive?

I think that the first step in getting students to understand the themes explored in this episode would be to build a chronology of the events. This is one of the tricks used by Morgan, and other writers and film makers, events get moved around to punctuate certain themes or questions. Once a chronology is clear students can see that it would have been possible for members of the Royal Family and the Government to realize that the abdication, was the least of their problems when it came to the Duke and that the major task was to protect the legitimacy of the Crown in light of the clear betrayal of the Duke of Windsor. Once that becomes clear, it is easier to understand why the Marburg file had to be hidden. I think this would also be a good opportunity for students to investigate the laws and regulations around archives and documents and use this episode to gain a greater understanding of how history is built from documents, and layers of memory.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *