The British Royal Family found itself in the center of a furor Tuesday over the disclosure in the press that the father of a royal princess was a Nazi SS officer during the Hitler era in Germany.
At the center of the controversy--being played up heavily in the media--is Princess Michael of Kent, the 40-year-old wife of Prince Michael of Kent, who is a first cousin of Queen Elizabeth II.
Editorial writers and politicians were asking whether the princess knew of her father’s Nazi background and, if she did, had she told the Royal Family before her wedding to the prince in 1978.
The story was broken early Tuesday by the tabloid Daily Mirror, which produced documents showing that the princess’ father, Baron Gunther von Reibnitz, had joined the Nazi party in 1930 and in 1933 became a member of the SS, the security force originally set up as a bodyguard for Adolf Hitler and that later included elite combat troops and concentration-camp guards and administrators. Reibnitz died two years ago.
A Buckingham Palace spokesman said that Princess Michael confirmed her father’s SS membership.
“It came as a total surprise to her when she heard the news. . . ,” the spokesman said. “And it came as a total shock. There will be no further comment or statement from the princess.”
Conservative member of Parliament Norman St. John Stevas, a friend of the princess, said she called her mother in Australia after learning of the Mirror story and the mother confirmed it, saying the information had been kept from her daughter.
Under the headline “This Bloody Disgrace,” the Mirror declared that the “statement by Buckingham Palace that Princess Michael never knew her father was a major in the SS is unbelievable.” It added, “The Royal Family is Britain’s prized possession. Even 40 years on, the taint of Nazism undermines it.”
Born Marie Christine von Reibnitz in Bohemia, the ethnic German region of Czechoslovakia, in 1945, the princess and her family have indicated that they are of Austrian descent and were anti-Nazi.
In 1950, her parents were divorced and her father emigrated to South Africa and later Mozambique. Her mother took Marie Christine to Australia, where she grew up in modest circumstances.
During a skiing vacation in Austria, Marie Christine met and later married a London stockbroker in 1971. When that marriage went on the rocks, she became engaged to Prince Michael, who is the younger brother of the Duke of Kent.
Since Marie Christine was Roman Catholic and he a member of the Church of England, the prince had to renounce his claim to the throne. He was 16th in line to the throne.
The prince and princess have two children--who are 20th and 21st in line to the throne--and Queen Elizabeth granted Marie Christine the title “her royal highness.” Privately, however, the queen is said to have been cool to the newcomer to the Royal Family.
Princess Michael was dubbed “Princess Pushy” in the popular press because she attended as many public functions as possible, had a penchant for publicity and once said, “We’d go anywhere for a hot meal.” However, even her detractors say that she worked long and hard in her ceremonial role--appearing at many benefits and hospital openings.
In Vienna on Tuesday, Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal said he has no evidence that Reibnitz was involved at the concentration camp work. “If this man had been in a concentration camp, he would have been known by name to me,” Wiesenthal said.
He added that regardless of Reibnitz’s role in the SS, his daughter should not be held responsible.
“Look,” Wiesenthal added, “the daughter is not guilty.”