Farm story 14: Adolf, Gustav, Edward and George

Child's stamp album , mid-1950's

On one of the bookshelves upstairs is a little little brown clip file, a stamp album, 20 by 22 cm, 3 cm thick, with about 40 loose leaves on which stamps have been mounted. I guess that my husband Olle must have been around ten years of age when he started his collection, for the headings of some of the pages are written in careful, but unformed, joined-up writing. Others look as if they’ve been written by an older hand. The name of each country is written at the top of the page and they range from Argentina with thirty-seven stamps, including some fetching ones of a smiling Eva Peron, to Ungern (Hungary) with an astonishing 95.

There are also pages and pages of German stamps, but unfortunately they are not dated and most of them could be from 1910 or 1990 for all I know. There are only a few which catch my eye, the first of which are three rather modest looking ones with the words Deutsches Reich along the top and a sort of non-descript cobweb pattern in the middle. They come in three colours, blue, green and red and are quite unremarkable - except for the fact that their values are one, four and five million marks respectively. Helpfully, this is written twice, in both large and small characters, just in case you can’t believe your eyes. They were produced at some time during Germany’s period of hyper-inflation in the 1920´s and these tiny objects are a record of the economic conditions which contributed to the Second World War and the rise of the man whose profile is the subject of the next stamps in the album, Adolf Hitler. For Germany was in a panic. Their money was being devalued at such a rate it was worth next to nothing, so it was no wonder they were looking for a person to bring order to the chaos.

By the time the stamps on the next page were issued the economic situation had stabilised and Germany had found its longed-for leader. There are six stamps from this period. Those with lower values, 5, 10 and 15 pfennigs are smallish – 2 by 2½ cm – and come in green, brown and maroon. The next set of three are slightly bigger and cost 50, 60 and 80 pfennigs. They come in green, brown and dark blue. All have the words Deutsches Reich along the bottom and show the easily-recognised face of Hitler in profile facing to the right, although the head is tilted very slightly towards us. I couldn’t find out the name of the artist who made this picture - perhaps after the war “Hitler’s portrait painter” wasn’t something you wanted on your CV. But this nameless artist is talented and has done his best with what, surely the most ardent Nazi would have had to admit, were unpromising materials.

In most films and photos it’s clear that Hitler had a mean little face, quite undistinguished for a man with such power and ambition. However, in the portrait the artist has done his best to add character and has fixed his subject’s gaze on the distance, as if the Fuhrer was thinking great thoughts and dreaming noble dreams. He, (for I don’t imaging that the Nazis would have trusted a mere woman to paint Hitler’s portrait) has also managed to reduce the impact of the dreadful little moustache. It is chilling to realise that he overcame the disadvantages of his insignificant appearance, patchy education and humble origins by his intelligence, vision and strange charisma – then used his gifts to destroy the lives of millions of people.

Turning over the page there are some later stamps with the same head. There are seven of them, ranging in value from 10, 20, 40, 60, 80 pfennigs to 1.20 and 1.60 marks, and they are of varying colours. They are also larger than the earlier sets at 2½ x 3 cm and along the bottom reads, Deutsches Reich and below that Generalgouvernement . Some adjustments have been made to Hitler’s earlier profile. The hair is a little thinner and the face a little older while the lips, which had been slightly parted in the earlier portrait, are now resolutely shut. The face is no longer that of a visionary but of a benevolent father regarding his children more in sorrow than in anger – as if they weren’t really trying hard enough. Some of the stamps don’t have postmarks while on others they are present but illegible. The exception is the only stamp where the whole of Hitler’s face has been covered by heavy black ink. Perhaps the person doing the stamping was expressing a personal opinion of the man who was by then the country’s former leader because by 05.1.46, the date of the postmark, Hitler had been dead for over eight months. However, I imagine that by that time the German people had enough on their plates re-building their country to worry about replacing the man with the mini moustache on their stamps.

Naturally, Olle’s little album contained a collection of Swedish stamps too, including many of King Gustav, who was 81 at the start of the war. Despite his age he survived Hitler and remained monarch until his death in 1950. But Gustav’s portrait was far from having a monopoly on the stamps of his country for in 1939 the classic tre kronor (three crowns) stamps were introduced, which ran until 1969. In the same year neutral Sweden launched a series intended to make the wider world aware of the distinguished men (and one woman) it had produced over the centuries. It’s a mixed bag. In 1939 they started off with commemorative stamps portraying Per Henrik Ling (physical education and massage) and later that year Jöns Jacob Berzelius (chemistry) and Carl von Linné (botany, geology and zoology). They widened the field still further in 1941 to include the 400th centenary of the first Bible in Swedish, and the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of an outdoor museum in Stockholm called Skansen. Artur Hazelius, the man who had designed the museum, got his own stamp the same year, as did Sweden’s Saint Birgitta. They form a strange assortment and were all issued in the first, desperate years of the Second World War.

The reason was that Gustav V was far from being a symbol of unity at a time when the country sorely needed one. Gustav’s German queen was regarded as pro-Germany and anti-democracy, added to which there were domestic tensions for the king himself was an arch-conservative, opposed to social democracy as a whole and unions in particular. The portrait on the 1939 stamps shows an old man’s bony head and neck rising from the high collar and epaulettes of a military uniform thick with gold braid, and he has a row of medals across his chest. However, this year was the last time a Swedish monarch acted as the country’s Commander-in-Chief, as political power shifted away from the monarchy to the country’s elected politicians. The stamps of the old king’s head remained during the war, but with the new designs featuring the three crowns or famous Swedes, the government seemed to be reminding the people that their country was more than its monarch.

The British didn’t meddle with their stamps during World War II, seeming satisfied with the picture of their king, George VI, who had come to the throne in 1936 and whose face adorned their stamps until his death in 1952. But there were two British stamps in Olle’s little album which showed the profile of a British monarch whose face I didn’t initially recognise. They were in green (costing a halfpenny) and brown (costing a penny halfpenny) and it turned out that they were of Edward VIII, George VI’s older brother, who had come to the throne on the death of his father before the war and who had preceded George V as king.

Edward was king for less than a year, from January to December 1936. He was never crowned because he abdicated to marry his lover Mrs Simpson. In many people’s eyes, though clearly not Edward’s, abdication was inevitable as the woman he’d chosen to marry, a divorced American still married to her second husband, was extremely unpopular with the British people. The prospect of her becoming queen was likely to have sparked a constitutional crisis – and might even have proved a threat to the existence of the monarchy itself. Edward couldn’t have chosen a worse time to trigger such a crisis, as war with Germany was looming and Britain more than ever needed a monarch who could unite its people. Luckily, they found one in Edward’s brother George, the grandfather of the present king, who with his family admirably fulfilled the important role as wartime figurehead and provided Britain with a unifying force when it needed one.

It took me a while to pinpoint the main difference in the stamps of the two brother-kings. The faces had a family resemblance, but in Edward’s case the crown had floated off to settle in the upper right-hand corner of the stamp, presumably because he was never crowned. When it came to King George it hovered determinedly, directly above his head, seeming to signify that at last it had found the right man for the job.

© Gwyneth Olofsson, 2023 For more pictures of the farm on Tjörn go to Instagram account, gwyneths_swedish_farm

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