Prince's Nazi Costume Sparks Uproar in Britain

Published: January 13, 2005 New York Times

Bruno Vincent/Getty Images

Photographs of Prince Harry wearing a swastika emerged, and wide protests followed.

LONDON, - Britain's royal family could hardly be described as immune to slips and stumbles and scandals, but even by those standards, Prince Harry, son of Princess Diana, grandson of Queen Elizabeth II and third in line to the throne, has broken new ground.

After photographs of him wearing a Nazi swastika at a private fancy dress party appeared in the British tabloid The Sun today, Jewish groups from Los Angeles to Jerusalem registered protest and some people called for him to visit the Auschwitz death camp to understand why his party clothes caused such deep offense.

The affront was all the deeper since the photographs appeared just two weeks before the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz an event that is to be observed by other members of the royal family, including the Queen.

"This was a shameful act," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal human rights group in Los Angeles. Urging the prince to join other Britons, including his uncle Prince Edward, at the commemoration on Jan. 27, Rabbi Hier said:" There he will see the results of the hated symbol he so foolishly and brazenly chose to wear."

There were calls, too, for the 20-year-old prince to be barred from entering Sandhurst, Britain's premier military academy, for training and for him to go further in apologizing than he did in a written statement Wednesday night as The Sun's first edition hit the streets.

But, above all, the debate provoked some introspection about whether the memory of the death camps has endured across the generations in Britain.

In Jerusalem, Robert Rozett, the director of the library at Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, said in a telephone interview that Prince Harry was "an important symbol" who had not displayed "a deeper understanding" of the Nazi era.

The photographs, Mr. Rozett said, showed that "the lessons of the Holocaust have not really entered deeply within his understanding and consciousness." And Roxanne Gibb, a theology student in her early 20's, said on Sky television that the event showed "the general thing that people our age are forgetting what the Holocaust was all about."

The photographs showed the prince wearing a khaki shirt with German insignia and a red, white and black swastika arm-band at a fancy dress party last weekend where the theme was "colony and native", according to The Sun.

In his statement Wednesday night, the prince said he was "very sorry if I have caused offense."

"It was a poor choice of costume and I apologize," he said.

But the prince came under pressure from opposition politicians today to offer a more direct, personal apology. "It would be appropriate if we heard from him in person about how contrite he is," Michael Howard, the leader of the opposition Conservatives.

The royal family, however, withheld any further comment, saying the prince would not be making another statement and did not plan to attend the Holocaust commemoration.

For his part, Prime Minster Tony Blair declined to be drawn into the debate, saying it was up to Buckingham Palace to deal with the controversy.

Prince Harry has a reputation for headline-making behavior, including alcohol and marijuana abuse, an allegation that he cheated in an examination and an incident last year when he was seen struggling with a paparazzi who tried to take his photograph outside a nightclub.

Over the years, the royal family has committed an array of gaffes, many of them by Prince Philip, the Queen's husband, who reinforced his reputation for ill-chosen utterances in 1997 when he addressed Helmut Kohl, then chancellor of Germany, as "Reichskanzler" the title used by Adolf Hitler.

Not only that, as The Evening Standard of London among others pointed today, the royal family had an ambiguous relationship with Germany and the Nazis. The House of Windsor was created only in 1917 when the royal family changed its name from the house of Saxe-Coburg Gotha, a name it acquired with the marriage in 1840 of Queen Victoria and Albert of Saxe-Coburg.

In the 1930's, moreover, some members of the royal family were widely seen by Britons as openly sympathetic to the Nazi regime. In one iconic photograph reprinted in The Evening Standard today, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, smiling broadly, were seen greeting Adolf Hitler.

The photograph was taken in 1937, one year after the Duke of Windsor abdicated as King Edward VIII after marrying the American divorcee Wallis Simpson, as the duchess was known before acquiring her title. The marriage caused one of Britain's gravest constitutional crises.

Prince Harry has sought to modify his tearaway image recently by working in support of AIDS sufferers in Lesotho last year and being photographed with his elder brother, Prince William, 22, loading relief supplies for tsunami victims. Both princes are sons of Princess Diana, who died in a car crash in Paris in 1997.

Prince Harry is supposed to enter the military academy at Sandhurst later this year and the army indicated today that his newest notoriety would not alter the plan.

But one former armed forces minister, Doug Henderson, said the prince was "not suitable" for the academy. And Dickie Arbiter, a former Buckingham Palace spokesman, said the incident showed Prince Charles, the former husband of Princess Diana, did not have "the right discipline over his children, particularly Prince Harry."

Some British Jewish groups said the prince's apology should be accepted. But an editorial set to appear on Friday in The Jewish Chronicle, a London-based weekly, declared: "For a member of the royal family to conclude that it might be a nice lark to dress up in the trappings of a genocidal dictatorship whom his own brave elders helped, at huge cost, to defeat six decades ago was nothing short of mind-boggling."