Yes, I read the new Prince Harry memoir, Spare, and wrote about it for the Globe and Mail. But as Harry is getting his 15 minutes of fame—if that expression can be applied to princes—it seems worth pausing for an extra moment on the Nazi costume incident.
By this I mean the time Harry wore a Nazi costume to what British people call a fancy dress party in 2005, when he was 20. The press got photos, Harry had to apologize, it was a whole thing.
It’s revisited in Spare, with Harry attributing his choice of costume in part to ignorance, but there is also a dig at his heir-y older brother.
What interests me about that story is not whether Harry himself is an antisemite (and my hunch is no, because having any stance regarding antisemitism would require a level of thinking about the world I’m not sure he’d be capable of), but rather what the incident says about how Nazism is ambiently understood, in Europe especially, among non-Jews.
Because I think what happens is this: Jews grow up associating Nazism with the Holocaust, and with that rather memorable full-scale attempt at ridding the planet of people like us. Non-Jews also associate Nazis with being, as the meme goes, “the baddies,” but in somewhat different terms.
For a non-Jewish European (setting Germans aside, as their story with respect to memory of Nazism is more complicated), the Nazis were the enemy or occupying force during the Second World War. Regardless of whether someone’s own family resisted the Nazis or sympathized with them at the time, that is what memory of that period looks like.
That’s what’s happening in the iconic Fawlty Towers episode, “The Germans.” Basil isn’t Jewish; indeed, Jewishness makes virtually no appearance in either season of the show. (The rule-proving exception, from the scene when Basil’s pretending to have forgotten his wedding anniversary.)
I’m not sure what I made of this, watching the show as a child, which I did, frequently. Did I assume Basil—and Brits more broadly—were such enthusiastic allies (in the identity-politics sense, not the WWII one) that he couldn’t stop thinking about Nazis? It took getting older and meeting more non-Jewish Europeans to understand that they also think about Nazis more than their North American counterparts, but as a wartime enemy, rather than a genocidal force.
Point being, I’m sure even a book-indifferent gent like Harry would have, aged 20, heard of Nazis, and of the Second World War. I’m sure he’d have known that there was something subversive about dressing as one. What surprised him and upset him after the fact was not that there’d been a WWII, but rather what the Holocaust had entailed.
I’m a year older than Harry and remember being pretty mad at him (not that he was aware of this, obvs.) at the time. But maybe I was being too hard on him (or not), and not hard enough on the perspective he was coming from.
The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @bovymaltz