Ribbentrop’s Nazi salute at Buckingham Palace

One law for Ribbentrop, another for Robinson Crusoe

Shameful moment No. 6

Ribbentrop (front) gives the Nazi salute – Wikimedia

In the first week of February 1937 two incidents involving Nazi salutes in London were mentioned in the British press. One was given by the newly appointed German ambassador, Joachim von Ribbentrop, to King George VI at Buckingham Palace, a radical departure from normal royal etiquette which was accepted with a mixture of polite indifference and a few raised eyebrows.  The other was an unlawful and dangerously subversive satirical “Heil Hitler” salute on stage, which was severely sanctioned by a heavy fine.

There were a few short and mostly non judgmental articles in some newspapers informing readers that the German ambassador, Joachim von Ribbentrop, had greeted King George VI with a Nazi salute at Buckingham Palace.  Although it was his first appearance at the palace, every head of a diplomatic mission was reminded on arrival of the appropriate etiquette which was to halt three times and bow during the approach to the sovereign. However, von Ribbentrop replaced the first two bows with a smart click of his heels while extending his arm in a vigorous salute together with a salutation of “Heil Hitler.”  It was an unprecedented departure from palace etiquette, which must have astonished the king and the other diplomats present.

Surprisingly, not all newspapers thought that Ribbentrop’s Hitler salute a suitable subject to mention. The Times, for instance, merely stated in its “Court Circular” column that “His Excellency Herr Joachim von Ribbentrop,” along with 33 other named ambassadors, had attended the Court of St. James to present “to his Majesty their new letters of credence.” There was no reference anywhere in the newspaper to any sort of salute.[1] It had shown a similar deferential discretion the previous November when it did not include a mention of an earlier Nazi salute by Ribbentrop, when it reported his attendance at Durham cathedral at which Deutschland Deutschland über alles had been played by the organist in his honour, prompting Hitler’s ambassador to leap up from his pew with his arm outstretched.[2]

The Daily Telegraph was only marginally less discreet in its coverage of the Buckingham Palace salute.  Its diplomatic correspondent decided to inform his readers of the gesture, but in a tortuously convoluted way, describing what happened as a “variation introduced on Thursday by Herr von Ribbentrop into the accepted ceremonial form of presenting diplomatic credentials to the king,” and promptly added that “there is no desire in official circles to magnify the incident.”[3]

At the least deferential end of the spectrum of newspaper reaction was  the Morning Post‘s diplomatic correspondent, who gave a most colourful description, informing his readers how, “instead of making the usual bow to his Majesty, (von Ribbentrop) drew himself to full height, clicked his heels, thrust out his arm in the Nazi salute and rapped out the words ‘Heil Hitler !”  The correspondent added that “King George showed no surprise.”[4] Confirmation that the incident had not caused even a diplomatic ripple came the following week when the German ambassador again greeted the king with the same salute at St James’ Palace.[5]  As usual, only the rabble rousing Daily Worker thought drastic measures were necessary. Under a front page headline “Hitler’s Ambassador Must Go !” it noted

So secure in the protection of his powerful friends in England does Ribbentrop feel, that he now behaves as though Nazi rule were established in this country already.”[6]

There were only one or two newspapers where editorial eyebrows were raised, including the left leaning Daily Mirror, with the paper’s veteran commentator William Conner, better known by his pen name of Cassandra, lamenting the “new level of boorishness” in diplomatic etiquette. “Some years ago,” he recalled nostalgically, “mild surprise was caused by the envoy of an eastern state who saluted Queen Victoria by knocking his head twice on the floor (but) this gentleman was paying homage to the monarch, not making a ranting, impudent gesture in favour of the chief of his tribe overseas.”[7]

However the paper’s editorial support for Britain’s continued good relations with Hitler was evident the same day even on the astrological page. “A greater friendship,” it suggested strongly, “should be cultivated between the British government and Herr von Ribbentrop, who is most anxious to negotiate peace and a general European settlement.” There were however “powerful (astrological) influences… against friendly cooperation with Germany” which was vexing “especially as it should be perfectly obvious that such cooperation with Germany, and incidentally to a lesser extent with Italy, would guarantee peace in Europe for a generation.”[8]

Other newspapers, such as the Yorkshire Post, appeared anxious to downplay the issue of the Nazi salute as a misunderstanding of a well meant gesture.  The paper commented that “some quarters have made rather too much of Herr von Ribbentrop’s Nazi salute at yesterday’s Royal Reception of the Diplomatic Corps,” and it insisted that the salute had been a relatively discreet, behind the scenes, gesture. It acknowledged that “the German ambassador did give such a salute, but only on entering the room where the king was receiving the foreign envoys,” and it stressed that,  “the salute was not the full Nazi greeting, the sloping outstretched arm, but the gesture was the half raised arm, which is used by senior members of the party and as an everyday acknowledgement.”[9]

There was however greater unease among the British establishment concerning one of Ribbentrop’s new diplomatic proposals.  Nazi Germany’s new alliance with fascist Italy was making the prospects of an eastwards advance of German economic and military hegemony, which would also push back Soviet influence in eastern Europe,  more difficult to attain due to Mussolini’s insistence that Austria retain its independence.  An editorial in the Daily Mirror, the day after Ribbentrop’s Nazi salute,  noted that “since Hitler and Mussolini got together we have heard no more of the drive east.”[10]

That in itself was disappointing to many of the British elite, but the most disagreeable development was that, as a consequence, Hitler was now considering the possibility of Germany reclaiming her African colonies which had been placed under effective British control since the Versailles Treaty.   On 9 February, the Daily Express observed that “opposition to the surrender of British mandates is growing in parliament,” and noted the view of Conservative MPs that such a “transfer would gravely imperil the strategic safety and impair the homogeneity of the Empire.”[11]

The Daily Worker, however, though playing up the sudden “uneasiness” of “the British ruling class,” suspected that the German demand was merely an elaborate ploy, part of a smoke and mirrors effort to secure more much needed financial credits for its massive rearmament programme.  The paper warned that  “(Hitler) must have foreign economic support to sustain his regime,”  and added that “He is utilising…. his colonial demands to secure those credits.”[12]

In contrast, the establishment and the mainstream press on both sides of the Atlantic enthusiastically favoured continuing further economic aid for Germany, with even the liberal American intellectual Walter Lippmann observing in the New York Herald Tribune on 21 January 1937 that “It is plain to everyone that if Great Britain is to make peace with Germany, she must offer Germany greatly improved economic prospects.”[13]

On the British side of the Atlantic, following a speech by Hitler to the Reichstag on 30 January, the Manchester Guardian, a leading exponent of more liberal establishment opinion, also recommended the continuation of British collaboration. It reasoned that since “(Hitler) says, in answer to Mr. Eden’s (the British Foreign Secretary’s) recent question, that he is for cooperation, he should be taken at his word.”[14]

Less surprisingly, the more conservative Daily Mail expressed the same view, and unlike other sections of the British press, even thought the “return” of some colonies could be a price worth paying in order to enable Germany to secure its vital need for raw materials.  It reminded readers, and it was a message that was repeated continually throughout the thirties, that Hitler was Britain’s indispensable ally against Bolshevism. He was, it explained, “(a) man who, since 1932, has crushed six million German communists threatening their country with the doom of Moscow.”[15]

It was therefore entirely logical for  the establishment to downplay Ribbentrop’s Nazi salute for fear of arousing inconvenient public anger. Walter Lippmann, who was now one of the leading advocates of British collusion, had written ten years earlier that  “the public must be put in its place…so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd.”[16] It was therefore, likely to have been his view that the role of the British press should be to refocus the public mind on the need for ongoing collusion with the Nazi regime.  The Ribbentrop salute had been an unwelcome distraction from this effort, but one which the press had dutifully either ignored or made light of.

For the same reason the establishment could not afford to be so forgiving of a brief moment of irreverent humour during a pantomime performance of Robinson Crusoe at the King’s Theatre, Hammersmith.  According to the Yorkshire Post,  George Titman, the Lord Chamberlain’s secretary, had purchased a ticket for a show on 7 January and claimed that “during a scene where white people were defending themselves in a stockade against an assault by black people….(a man) made up to represent Herr Hitler ran into the camp giving a Nazi salute and asked ‘Vott is sis all about ?'”[17]

The Daily Mirror, under the headline “Hitler Joke in Panto,” gave a different account. It explained that the actor, Hal Bryan, had decided to introduce the joke in a romantic scene involving a “dusky queen.”  One of the actors warns him “Don’t let the Queen get you or she will make you her dictator.”  Then Bryan “put on a little black moustache, pulled one lock of hair over his forehead and came down the stairs shouting ‘heil, heil, heil.”[18]

When interviewed, after receiving one of three summonses on 19 January, delivered by a Scotland Yard officer, Bryan expressed surprise that the satirical salute had provoked such a reaction. “It seemed such a simple little Joke,” he told the journalist. “You see I was not even dressed like Hitler. I had a pilot suit and a red wig.”[19] However, what he wasn’t aware of was that the original complaint came from the German embassy and had been initially made to the Foreign Office, who then instructed Titman, the Lord Chamberlain’s secretary,  to investigate.  In his report Titman backed the embassy’s accusation.

After perusing the script and being assured that no such representation of Herr Hitler, or a dictator, had been  passed, I attended last evening’s performance at the theatre. I found that the German Embassy was fully justified in the protest made.”[20]

The Lord Chamberlain wrote to the Director of Public Prosecutions making it clear that he viewed such satire as unlicensed and unlawful, observing that “his (the actor’s) appearance in this guise is quite short, but sufficiently long for there to be no doubt about his identity…  (and) his Lordship desires me to inform you that he has at no time permitted the representation of Herr Hitler in any stage play, for reasons which are obvious.”[21]

The manager, Thomas Pigott, the actor, Hal Bryan and Amy Mulholland, the theatre’s owner and licensee, were all charged under section 15 of the Theatre’s Act, 1843.  Lawson-Walton for the prosecution explained in court that “the Lord Chamberlain did not permit gags about any foreign rulers” and that the lines were clearly not compliant with the play’s original license. Although the offending scene had lasted just thirty seconds, Paul Bennett, the magistrate reminded the court that “the objectionable incident….. would probably cause offense to some people” referring presumably to Nazi officials and anyone who might sympathise with them.[22]

Fortunately for Mulholland,  the theatre’s owner,  the case against her was dismissed since all the evidence suggested she had no knowledge of the joke which had only been used during twelve performances.  However the manager and the actor were less fortunate.  Insisting that “I cannot take a lenient view,” Bennett fined Bryan £10 and Pigott £15.[23]  The total fine of £25 was a substantial sum, sufficient to purchase one thousand six pence tickets to the pantomine’s performance or three thousands copies of the Times newspaper.[24]

Francis Wrigley Hirst, an eminent journalist and member of the Liberal Party Council, had observed just four weeks earlier that “an individual in a modern state cannot have the perfect freedom to do as he likes which Robinson Crusoe enjoyed on his island.” Hirst then knew nothing of the coming charges based on a few irreverent lines in the pantomine performance of Robinson Crusoe, but he would have agreed with the magistrate’s view that the incident was “objectionable,” “offensive” and should not be dealt with leniently.  He, like others, believed that “liberty is a comprehensive term” and that “the price of peace and liberty is eternal vigilance – more than ever before in these dangerous terms.” He was also convinced of the need to maintain that “vigilance” against any threat to Britain’s friendly relations with Nazi Germany, adding that

A British government can do far more for the world by… promoting commercial intercourse between nations and by setting the example of a good neighbour than if – yielding to the jingo exponents of the new pacifism, it sacrifices the lives and fortunes and happiness of its citizens in futile attempts to destroy militarism abroad by introducing militarism at home.”[25]


1. “Court Circular – Buckingham Palace 4 February,” The Times, 5 February 1937, p17 accessed online in The Times Digital Archives on 17 July 2017

2. “Mayoral Service at Durham,” The Times, 16 November 1936 p14 accessed online in the Times Digital Archives on 20 September 2017 and Ian Kershaw (2004), “Making Friends with Hitler: Lord Londonderry and Britain’s Road to War,” Allen Lane, Penguin Books, p182.

3. “Nazi Salute For The King,” the Daily Telegraph, 6 February 1937, p13

4. The Morning Post quoted in “Nazi Salute to King”, the Northern Whig and Belfast Post, 5 February 1937 p8. See also -“Nazi Salute – German Ambassador’s Surprise at Buckingham Palace”, the Lancashire Evening Post, 5 February 1937, p7.

5. “Nazi Salute – German Ambassador’s Greeting to the King,” the Belfast News-letter, p7.

6. “Hitler’s Ambassador Must Go !” the Daily Worker, 6 February 1937, p1

7. William Connor ( Cassandra ), “Keep It Dark,” the Daily Mirror, 6 February 1937 p11

8. “Next Week’s Warning in the Message of the Stars,” the Daily Mirror, 6 February 1937, p18

9. “Von Ribbentrop’s Salute,” the Yorkshire Post, 6 February 1937 p12

10. “His Master’s Voice,” the Daily Mirror, 5 February 1937 p13

11. “Britain Putting All-Round Peace Plan to Hitler,” the Daily Express, 9 February 1937 p1

12. “Peace or War in the Balance,” the Daily Worker, 6 February 1937 p4

13. Walter Lippmann writing in the New York Herald Tribune quoted in “Peace or War in the Balance,” the Daily Worker, 6 February 1937 p4

14. Editorial in the Manchester Guardian, 1 February 1937 quoted in Franklin Reid Gannon (1971) “The British Press and Germany,” Clarendon Press, Oxford p109

15. The Daily Mail quoted in J.A. MacNab, “Behind the News,” Action No 51, 6 February 1937 p16

16. Walter Lippmann (1927) “The Phantom Public,” Macmillan, New York, p155

17. “Pantomine Gag About Hitler”, the Yorkshire Post, 3 February 1937, p3, “Gag about Hitler. Comedian and Manager Fined for Stage Offence”, the Linlithgowshire Gazette, 5 February 1937 p3, “Pantomine Gag Costs £25 in Fines”, the Hull Daily Mail, 2 February 1937, p1 and “Panto Gag About Hitler Costs £25”, the Sunderland Echo, 2 February 1937, p1

18. “Hitler’s Joke in Panto: Three Summonses,” the Daily Mirror, 20 January 1937, p3

19.  Ibid, p3

20. Lord Chamberlain’s Correspondence 1935/14581 quoted in Steve Nicholson, “The Censorship of British Drama: 1900-1968. Volume Two:1933-1952,”  University of Exeter Press, p23-24.

21. Ibid , p24.

22. “Pantomime ‘Gag’ About Hitler,” the Yorkshire Post, 3 February 1937 p3 and “Hitler Must Not Be Guyed,” the Daily Worker, 3 February 1937 p5

23. “Pantomime ‘Gag’ About Hitler,” the Yorkshire Post, 3 February 1937 p3

24. The prices for tickets ranging from six pence to six shillings were given in the Daily Mirror, 22 January 1937 p20.  The price of The Times was two pence see Franklin Reid Cannon (1971), “The British Press and Nazi Germany: 1936-1939,” Clarendon Press, Oxford, p56

25. Francis W. Hirst, “Liberty and Peace,”  the Boston Mercury and Guardian, 1 January 1937 p3

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