Alex Constantine - October 31, 2010
" ... Photographs showing members of the British Legion taking part in what appear to be Nazi events on a visit to Germany make for uncomfortable viewing. ... There is one part of the trip that ... has been documented in the Legion archives: the delegation's visit to the first Nazi concentration camp, Dachau. The archives show that they viewed solitary confinement cells. At the time Jews were already being imprisoned there ... "
By Liam Maguire
Daily Mail | October 31, 2010
I came upon it by accident. I was searching through shelves looking for something else when it caught my eye. But there it was, a huge, thick, hard-backed, red book – with a metal swastika on the front. At the time I was accompanied by a photographer from the Discovery Channel and we were carrying out research for a documentary. As the Press officer for the Royal British Legion, my job is to protect the reputation of the organisation. But at that moment I was torn. Should I ignore the book with the Nazi emblem that looked so out of place in the Royal British Legion headquarters? Or should I open it?
False Friends: The British Legion chairman, Major Francis Fetherston-Godley, meets Hitler
Curiosity got the better of me. The book fell open on a page that showed me an image that would shock many. There was the leader of Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler, meeting the man who was chairman of the British Legion in the run-up to the Second World War, Major Francis Fetherston-Godley.
What were the British Legion – British ex-servicemen from the First World War – doing meeting Hitler?
Later, I looked through the book alone. I could barely believe my eyes. Here was a 148-photograph document of a trip that a six-man delegation from the British Legion made to Nazi Germany in July 1935, during which they met not only Hitler but also the head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goering – and Major Fetherston-Godley is pictured shaking hands with the Fuhrer's deputy, Rudolf Hess.
Then there are photographs of German ex-servicemen in wheelchairs giving Nazi salutes as our delegation parade past with the Union flag, and pictures of the delegation at Commonwealth war graves in Germany, their flag flanked by swastikas as First World War veteran Major Fetherston- Godley lays a wreath.
Here was I, an injured ex-Army officer cadet, working for an organisation that I knew to be not only standing shoulder-to-shoulder with all who serve, but whose patron is Her Majesty the Queen.
I spend every working day thinking of ways to help members of the Armed Forces past and present, and their dependants. How could I square that with these images of the same organisation making an official visit to Nazi Germany?
I asked around at the Royal British Legion about the album, but little was known about it. We decided that the background to the album should be investigated. As a result, a Discovery Channel documentary has been made, with the album as its focus. To help us in put the photographs into context, historian Professor Richard Griffiths was called in. He deciphered the gothic writing in red and black ink on the opening page of the album, which commemorates the visit of the 'British Legion in Deutschland'.
The inscription calls for the British and Germans to understand each other in the way 'Tommy' and 'Fritz' – shorthand for each country's combatants – did at the end of the First World War. And above those words there is an illustration of a Nazi swastika flag, partly overlaid by a Union flag, as if the two are joined.
This album gives a chronological account of the visit. The photographs show the delegation being greeted by crowds giving the 'Heil Hitler' salute as they arrive at Friedrichstrasse station in Berlin.
Evil: Hermann Goering shows off his archery skills for the visitors. The images were part of a Nazi plan to turn the British visit into a propaganda coup
The trip was organised by Joachim von Ribbentrop, then the Nazis' ambassador-at-large.
When the delegation is pictured meeting Hitler at the German Chancellery, the Fuhrer's office, they are surrounded by Nazi film cameras. And Major Fetherston-Godley is photographed shaking hands with Hess. The delegation is also shown laying a wreath for the fallen soldiers of the First World War at the Neue Wache monument in Berlin and, outside, the Legionnaires are seen shaking hands with wheelchair- bound German veterans.
When the delegation paraded with the Union flag past the German ex-servicemen, they were greeted with 'Heil Hitler' salutes from the injured combatants, and, in one striking picture, the Nazis leading the British parade are giving salutes too. The Legionnaires' arrival in Berlin was made to look like a Third Reich military parade.
The trip took the Britons to Stahnsdorf cemetery, just outside Berlin, to pay their respects to the 1,200 Commonwealth war dead from the 1914-18 conflict who are buried there. Photographs show huge Nazi flags surrounding the delegation as they pay their respects.
Other moments captured in the album include members of the Hitler Youth laying flowers at Commonwealth graves and Major Fetherston-Godley laying flowers at the grave of the Red Baron, First World War German flying ace Manfred von Richthofen.
The delegation also met Goering. Dressed in Robin Hood-style garb, he demonstrates his archery skills. However, there is one part of the trip that was not recorded in the album, but which has been documented in the Legion archives: the delegation's visit to the first Nazi concentration camp, Dachau. The archives show that they viewed solitary confinement cells. At the time Jews were already being imprisoned there – 'returned emigrant Jews under observation' say the Legion records, along with the 'workshy', 'professionally criminal' and 'moral perverts'.
Some of the delegation also had dinner with Heinrich Himmler, who set up the concentration camp and was head of the SS, Hitler's own bodyguard.
To get to the bottom of what happened on the trip, I went to Germany with historian Harry Harris to make the documentary.
We saw the locations where the pictures were taken and spoke to German historians. Angela Schwarz, Professor of Modern History at the University of Siegen, told us the crowds greeting the delegation would definitely have been stage managed. The delegation was invited by German ex-service organisations but, in a Nazi propaganda coup, ended up meeting Germany's political leaders.
The trip turned into a series of public events that seemed to suggest a union between Britain and Germany.
The visit wasn't without its critics: the Scottish Legion voted against it, and after the delegation returned, the Jewish chapter of the Legion voted against a reciprocal visit by German ex-servicemen to Britain, which happened in 1938.
And Anthony Eden, who was at the time in Government as Lord Privy Seal, presciently warned the Legion about the trip being used for Nazi propaganda. Professor Griffiths explained that before the Second World War there was a strong feeling in Britain that we should extend the hand of friendship towards Germany to avoid further conflict, even though Jewish families were already fleeing Nazi Germany because of state anti-Semitism.
In the Thirties the Legion had a foreign policy arm and had regular meetings with the Prime Minister. And in early 1935, the Legion's patron, the Prince of Wales – who was crowned King Edward VIII the following year – gave a speech to the Legion's annual conference in which he supported the trip.
The photographs showing members of the British Legion taking part in what appear to be Nazi events on a visit to Germany make for uncomfortable viewing.
We can't deny the trip took place, but we can discover the truth behind it.
- Wartime Secrets With Harry Harris starts next Sunday at 10pm on the Discovery History channel.