After the story about the Sun front page story about a home movie showing the future Queen, her mother and her uncle doing raised-arm salutes, all sorts of implications have been read into it. I’m quite sceptical; with scientific training, I can understand all sorts of complicated theories without necessarily believing them to be true.
I started from the vague idea that such a salute derived from the Roman Empire and then was revived in Italy by Mussolini. Even that is doubtful. The earliest documented example is apparently an eighteenth century painting of a Roman scene by the French artist JL David. From that it began to be incorporated into other art works such as later paintings, right down to films and TV programmes in our time.
Mussolini wasn’t the first Italian nationalist to use it, either. There are earlier examples, but not much earlier.
We have views of history that are overlaid by later events. Our views now are not how people saw it at the time. Though we now see Hitler as the dominant partner in what was to become the Axis, we forget that Mussolini was the senior partner for about 10 years from the early 1920s, when he seized power within the Italian monarchy. So the Nazis adopting the Fascist salute was a natural development. The period between the wars had examples of ‘Strong Man’ regimes in many European countries, so that, in that spectrum Hitler and Mussolini did not seem as outlandish as we recognise them to be now. In the same period, there were a number of examples of extreme left revolutions savagely put down. Right-wing authoritarians played on the fears of those disruptions to the hilt and portrayed themselves as bringers of order, albeit ones who stabilised by depriving people of human rights. There are books and articles written at the time that embody what now seems a dangerous toleration towards such movements. John Buchan’s novel ‘House of the Four Winds’ describes a coup that is backed by a rather fascistic movement against a communist government. P.G. Wodehouse created, in Sir Roderick Spode, a comical and incompetent fascist leader; his attitude served him ill when he himself fell into the hands of the Nazis. (John Buchan, by the way, devoted his last years, as Governor-General of Canada, to strengthening relations between the UK, USA and Canada in the vital run-up to World War II.)
There is a parallel story of the raised-arm salute. The so-called Bellamy salute was widely used in the USA from 1892 to 1942 to salute the flag and the national anthem, especially in schools. Twelve months into the war with the Nazis, it became an embarrassment and was replaced by the hand-over-the-heart salute that we see many presidents using in our era.
So what was the lead-up to that piece of film? It could have been something like:
What is that funny salute that the new government in Germany is insisting on? Let’s see if we can do it.
How do American schoolchildren salute the flag?
It may have been a matter of role-play. As a grandfather, I know how small children indulge in role play, and they may insist on their adult companions joining in too. Sometimes they are quite happy to take the role of people or animals that they fear, such as scary monsters.
My three explanations may not be true, but I think their just as likely as more sinister explanations I’ve heard.
We must not make bricks without straw about the events of 1933. And we must remember that all three of the people in the film learnt a lot since, especially in the succeeding ten years. In that they were typical of their contemporaries.
Altogether, a stereotypical silly season story, manipulating emotions and selling newspapers, but of little consequence.