Prince Harry probably didn’t think very hard about his costume before he wore it to the “Colonial and Native” fancy dress party he attended last Saturday. But after an enterprising fellow guest snapped a picture of him sporting the Nazi uniform of an Afrika Korps soldier—complete with swastika—he’s had to think about it quite a bit. On Thursday morning the photograph found its way onto the front page of the Sun, one of the United Kingdom’s more egregious tabloids, and a storm of controversy was born. The timing could not be worse—in two weeks, Harry’s father, Prince Charles, and the queen will be participating in events commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
The royal press team quickly issued Harry’s two-sentence written statement: “I am very sorry if I caused any offence or embarrassment to anyone. It was a poor choice of costume and I apologize.” The damage, however, was done, and British papers were awash with headlines and editorials surrounding Harry’s decision, the saga of the British royal family, and debates over the place of war memories and the Holocaust in contemporary society. The Times of London called for leniency in judging the prince, noting that “Prince Harry might be a boorish hooray and an upper-class twit, but he seems unlikely to be a member of the Nazi party.” Instead, the paper argued, we should be wary of allowing “those who masquerade as our moral guardians [to] dress up foolishness as fascism.”
Others were not so lenient. As the Scotsman dutifully reported, Harry has already run afoul of the media several times in incidents ranging from soft drugs and drinking to brawling with a photographer last October. An op-ed in the Independent summed up the recent fiasco in simple terms: “Harry is a playboy prince who loves to drink, party and hang out with a bunch of wastrels.” The Independent went on to take a punt on Harry’s parentage, happily floating the “unfounded speculation that, given the obvious physical dissimilarity from his father and brother, Harry may have been the product of the affair between his mother and the former army officer James Hewitt, whom he does, curiously, resemble.”
Thus, the fact that Harry made an idiot of himself came as no surprise, but the Nazi regalia was truly shocking. Numerous public officials spoke out against Harry’s decision and called for him to apologize in person. Perhaps the most succinct comment came from Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who, according to the Jerusalem Post, “when shown an illustrated press report, reacted with shock, and allowed an involuntary ‘Oy!’ to escape his lips.” While some officials suggested that Harry was not ready for Sandhurst, the elite military academy he is slated to attend this May, others only wished he could go there sooner. A separate Independent piece quoted Lord Janner, a prominent spokesman on Jewish issues, calling Harry’s actions “both stupid and evil. … I would send him in to the Army as fast as possible.”
An op-ed in the Guardian had a different take on the Royal blunder, suggesting that the swastika was not the most alarming thing about Harry’s costume. Instead, the Guardian argued, we should be alarmed at Harry’s determined pursuit of just the right Nazi uniform for the “Colonial and Native” theme.
Harry’s mistake was that he didn’t do irony. He wore a costume but he didn’t dress up. The truly frightening thing about this particular royal gaffe is not that the prince has a perverted sense of humour. It’s when you look at his swaggering demeanour in the photographs in today’s Sun that it hits you: Harry apparently thinks he looks damned fine in Nazi costume.