Does "The King's Speech" have a Jewish accent?
The odds-on favorite to snare the Oscar for best picture at the awards ceremonies on Feb. 27, is this sentimental sensation about English King George VI's stammer more Hollywood than history?
Without doubt, as George VI, Colin Firth is first of firsts in portrayals this year; indeed, the golden statuette has started logging in his home address on its GPS. But is the account on screen speaking in a decidedly forked tongue when it comes to offering up a portrait of a sweet, mild-mannered monarch with a speech impediment who overcomes an affliction to impassionately exhort his nation to take on the Nazis in World War II?
Or is it all a war of words, with the kindly king actually coming down on the other side?
Not to take away from Firth's impressive performance — or rush to judgment on Geoffrey Rush's extraordinary work as the speech therapist prone to giving the king the third-degree when he has none of his own — but accounts of the era earn King George VI somewhat of a tarnished crown atop his head.
The man who would not be king — if it weren't for his brother Edward's abdication of the throne to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson — seemingly stammered rather than came out forthrightly about the "Jewish question" that Nazi Germany later turned into an exclamation mark of horrors.
Some of the secret papers of George VI and the Queen Mother, whose death in 2002 led to the opening of the cache of correspondence collected by the royal couple, offered insight into their thoughts and actions concerning the war.
According to an account of 1939 writings, published in the April 14, 2002, edition of London's The Observer: "The historian Andrew Roberts believes that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy" placating Hitler and Nazi Germany at the outset of World War II " 'commended itself to the royal family on a number of levels. It was, correctly, considered axiomatic that another war would spell doom for the British Empire.' "
"In the spring of 1939," wrote Observer correspondent Ben Summerskill, "George VI instructed his private secretary to write to Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax. Having learnt that 'a number of Jewish refugees from different countries were surreptitiously getting into Palestine,' the King was 'glad to think that steps are being taken to prevent these people leaving their country of origin.'
"Halifax's office telegraphed Britain's ambassador in Berlin asking him to encourage the German government 'to check the unauthorized emigration' of Jews."
In another report, told to the Daily Telegraph, historian Roberts clarifies and quashes speculation: "It's perfectly true," he said, that King George VI was in favor of limiting "Jewish immigration into Palestine in 1939." But, he continued, "that was government policy at the time, however short-sighted it was in view of what was going on in Europe.
"But to extrapolate from that that the Royal family was anti-Semitic in the 1930s is ludicrous."
In plain English about a complicated English matter, historian Andrew Lees, a professor of history at Rutgers University/ Camden well versed in the study of German-English relations surrounding World War II, confirmed that view of ambivalence: "King George VI was neither a hero nor a villain," Lees says of the profile he cut "as regards foreign policy before the outbreak of war."
"Like most English men and women, who still had bitter memories of the loss of British young men during World War I, and like the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, the editors of the Times of London, and other opinion leaders of the time, the king favored a policy of 'appeasement,' a word that still had highly favorable connotations at the time," a word which "meant literally the effort to soothe tensions and eliminate conflict. Who could be opposed to that?"
But was George VI heir to the pro-Nazi airs carried by at least one other family member, the Duke of Windsor? "Geoorge VI did not, so far as I know, admire Hitler and what he stood for at all," says Lees.
"To be sure, he was no Winston Churchill, but his laboriously delivered speeches — and also the fact that he stayed in London during the time when the Germans were bombing it — did help to maintain British morale."
But, the man on the throne was not alone in apprehensions regarding Jewish immigration to the Mideast. Avers Lees, "There were lots of people in Britain who feared what would happen to British relations with Arab states in the event of British support for such a population movement."
But the crowning glory may have been one filled with thorns. "Britain had made a promise to support a Jewish state in Palestine in the Balfour Declaration during World War I," notes Lees, but there was a lot of apprehension about what might happen "if Britain made good on its earlier promises."