Hooked Trout

Geoffrey Best

  • Making Friends with Hitler: Lord Londonderry and Britain’s Road to War by Ian Kershaw
    Allen Lane, 488 pp, £20.00, October 2004, ISBN 0 7139 9717 6

Charles Stewart Henry Vane-Tempest-Stewart, the seventh Marquess of Londonderry, who died in 1949, will not be moved up the scale of historical significance even by so accomplished a book as this. Its author is unlikely to be disappointed. Ian Kershaw’s purpose has not been to write a full biography, or to rehabilitate a politician he considers to have been unjustly neglected. Instead, by examining in great detail one specimen of a particular species, he has made another foray into a well-marked historical problem: why did certain sensible and decent persons in 1930s Britain persist in thinking the best of Hitler well after others, not evidently more sensible or decent, had come to think the worst?

Of that miscellaneous assemblage of misguided men and women, Londonderry was one of the most conspicuous and respectable. He was a true-blue Conservative. He had nothing to do with Oswald Mosley and the British Fascists. He would rather have been seen dead than dressed in blackshirt and jackboots; Savile Row suits for town and tweedy plus-fours for the country remained his line. He was not much of a joiner. He did sign up with the ‘self-consciously elitist’ and purportedly non-political Anglo-German Fellowship in 1935, but, Kershaw writes, he was not one of its more active members. He had no connection with any of the pro-German groupuscules fired by rabid anti-semitism or inspired by Völkisch crankiness that figure on the fringes of Richard Griffiths’s Fellow Travellers of the Right (1980), a book to which Kershaw pays just tribute. A peer of his standing did not consort with plebs and outsiders.

He was the most respectable, and because of his coalmines in County Durham the richest, of the curious assortment of peers, mostly backwoodsmen, who thought the road to peace in the later 1930s lay through Berlin. It was part of his trouble that he had too high an estimation of himself. He could never forget his descent from Lord Castlereagh, the great foreign secretary of the post-Napoleonic years and the exemplary peacemaker at Vienna in 1814. His case was exactly the opposite of Hilaire Belloc’s fictional peer, whose ducal grand-sire berated him: ‘We had intended you to be/ The next prime minister but three.’ Poor Lord Lundy absolutely did not wish to become prime minister. Lord Londonderry did; or to be viceroy of India or, failing that, foreign secretary. The governor generalship of Canada, which he could have had, he scorned. As things were, he never made it higher than minister for air.

He would not have got even that far but for his classy connections. His cousin Winston Churchill jobbed him into a couple of junior ministerial posts between 1919 and 1921. His return ten years later to national politics and a seat in the cabinet is explicable only as the fruit of his wife’s flirty relationship with Ramsay MacDonald. How much of that was heartfelt and how much put on, is impossible to tell. The prime minister was capable of writing to her: ‘My Dear, You were very beautiful and I loved you. The dress dazzling in brilliance and glorious in colour and line, was you, and my dear, you were the dress’; she was capable of writing to him: ‘I feel so distressed about you and so is Charley . . . all our prayers and thoughts – and lots and lots of love and all good wishes, you dearest dear brave creature.’

Lady Londonderry was one of the hostesses whose parties added political zest to the London season. The biggest party was in Londonderry House at the Hyde Park Corner end of Park Lane, an 18th-century building enlarged by the Wyatts and possessed of the biggest private ballroom in London (all torn down in 1962 to make room for a hotel). The dress and diamonds that dazzled impressionable Ramsay Mac would have come into view as she received guests at the head of the grand staircase. Her brains did not match her jewels. That exacting judge of character Clementine Churchill, writing from the Londonderrys’ Ulster mansion, Mount Stewart, in 1928, told Winston that she found both of them ‘amiable but . . . each in their different way absolutely puerile and futile’. Her judgment was too severe – but not by much.

Londonderry was not the worst of air ministers. It was enterprising of him to learn to fly. The RAF liked him well enough and some good things were done under his direction, not least the groundwork for the Hurricane and the Spitfire. By 1934, many good judges believed that the likely enemy was going to be Germany, and Londonderry was blamed for failing to keep a sharp enough eye on the emerging Luftwaffe, its menace powerfully brought before the public by his Churchill cousin. Insensitive and stubborn, Londonderry played his cards poorly when defending his record and, with rearmament clearly being mandatory, he was moved to a less significant post. He never ceased to feel he had been badly treated, particularly since he had actually supported the (modest) rearmament programme. At the same time, it distressed him to believe that Germany had to be the enemy. So he became involved in the great debate about Appeasement.

Just 40 when the First World War came to an end, Londonderry shared the usual opinion that such a war must never be allowed to happen again. He was unusual in revealing from early on a disposition to be more understanding of Germany’s concerns than of those of France. He didn’t much like foreigners, but he disliked Germans less than he disliked the French. Kershaw duly notes but cannot explain the sources of this antipathy. One of the similarities between the real-life Lord Londonderry and the fictional Lord Darlington of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is Gallophobia. The Darlington Hall butler recalled ‘bringing Lord Darlington coffee in the breakfast room, and his saying to me as he folded the Times with some disgust, “Frenchmen. Really. I mean to say, Stevens. Frenchmen.” “Yes, sir.” “And to think we have to be seen by the world to be arm in arm with them. One wishes for a good bath at the mere reminder.” “Yes, sir.”’ A similar exchange might easily have taken place at Mount Stewart.

You did not have to be positively anti-French in the early 1930s to acknowledge that France’s fears regarding Germany added to the difficulties of satisfying German demands for a revision of the 1919 peace settlement. Appeasement from strength, as it might have been before 1936, was a sensible policy. Like it or not, Germany – even shorn of the French provinces annexed in 1871, not to mention its lost colonies overseas – was bound to become again the most populous nation and most dynamic economy of continental Europe. It could not be expected for ever to stay virtually disarmed, as required by the Treaty of Versailles, while France, Poland, the Soviet Union and indeed every other country retained armed forces as large as they could afford or even increased them; it was one of the Nazis’ best campaigning ploys to contrast Weimar Germany’s puny army with the bigger ones of the nations encircling it. The logical solution to the problem was disarmament all round. This could never be easy to bring about in a continent throbbing with nationalist passions and territorial anxieties which the postwar treaties had exacerbated. France in particular would need a very great deal of reassurance before it could believe in the harmlessness of its old enemy. The idea of peace through disarmament nevertheless held its place on the diplomatic agenda, not least because of its popularity with the public, and high hopes were held of the great Disarmament Conference convened at Geneva early in 1932.

Londonderry, as air minister, was one of the British delegates. His experience at Geneva cemented his conviction that Germany was more sinned against than sinning. Unable to sympathise with France’s fears, he sympathised readily with Germany’s grievances. Those grievances, it is important to remember, were already being loudly proclaimed and, so far as straitened circumstances permitted, acted on even before Hitler and the Nazi party took control of Germany’s foreign policy early in 1933. To most participants and observers, that change was for the worse; Londonderry seems not to have noticed any difference.

None of Hitler’s first unilateral ‘revisions’ of Versailles – quitting the League of Nations in October 1933, a rearmament budget in March 1934, followed by admission of the existence of the Luftwaffe, the introduction of conscription in April 1935 and the announcement that Germany was to have an army of half a million, five times larger than the Versailles allowance – surprised Lord Londonderry. They were, to his mind, no more than Germany’s entitlement, and the only pity was that Hitler had been driven to act outside the law because the option of acting within it had not been offered him. Nor did he blink at Hitler’s next batch of assaults on the Versailles order: the recovery of full control of the ‘demilitarised’ Rhineland in March 1936, the incorporation into the Third Reich of Austria and of the mostly German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia, 12 and 18 months later respectively. Versailles had made much of the principle of national self-determination, the Germans were as much entitled to it as others, and Hitler was only getting on with the job. Londonderry did not consider the peace of Europe to be endangered. He believed Hitler every time that Hitler insisted that, far from being unpeaceable, he was simply removing injustices damaging to peace.

Why did this elderly insular grandee suddenly become engrossed by foreign policy and hasten to consort with foreigners? His own explanation, that he was desperate to avoid another war, won’t do; most other people were desperate too. Kershaw’s credible explanation is that Londonderry was self-righteously and stubbornly bent on showing that he had been right about Hitler, besides being extremely piqued at the manner of his final dismissal from the government. Loss of the Air Ministry in June 1935 had been cushioned by the honorific sinecure of lord privy seal as well as by being made leader of the House of Lords. After the general election in the autumn, the new prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, gave those offices to Lord Halifax, who had not only had a turn as viceroy of India but, many years ago, had been Londonderry’s fag at Eton.

Londonderry persuaded himself that a direct approach to the men who mattered in Germany would produce quicker results than were likely to reward the Foreign Office’s formal diplomacy. He was doing what Neville Chamberlain would do in 1938: valuing too little the advice of the professionals and believing too much in his own judgment. It was unfortunate for both of them that their old-fashioned gentlemanly mentalities were up against a historically unprecedented mixture of cunning, mendacity, brutality, mysticism and ruthless ambition. The Nazi bosses were a novel phenomenon in European diplomacy, and even the two good British ambassadors in Berlin who preceded the lamentable Nevile Henderson, Horace Rumbold and Eric Phipps, could not quite make up their minds about the Führer. What they were sure of, however, was that Hitler was not to be trusted. Londonderry had a formal meeting with him in February 1936, during the first of his five visits to Germany. Hitler played him like a hooked trout, giving the impression that he was just an ordinary sort of chap, doing his best for Germany, defending democracy against Bolshevism, and standing a little in awe of the distinguished visitor who would, he hoped, put in a good word for Germany when he got home. At a lunch party next day given by the German side of the Anglo-German Fellowship, the Londonderrys’ daughter Lady Mairi Stewart had the benefit of ten minutes’ chat with the Führer and was able to share his enthusiasm for the Robert Donat comedy The Ghost Goes West. It was all very genial, even if in a social sense not quite what the milord and his family were used to. Lady Mairi, who still lives in Mount Stewart, told Kershaw that Himmler had reminded her of a ‘shop-walker at Harrod’s in the old days’.

That the Londonderrys and the many other visitors to Germany in the year of the Berlin Olympics came home with good impressions was not surprising. The German administrators had gone as far as they could bear to seem acceptable; Piers Brendon’s The Dark Valley (2000) tells how ‘Jews Forbidden Entry’ signs were removed from stadium entrances, Die Stürmer was taken off Berlin bookstalls and a few token Jewish athletes were allowed into the German teams. But it was British opinion that Hitler was especially courting in 1936. The British response to his reoccupation of the Rhineland had been so feeble that he felt the time ripe for a propaganda push. Londonderry was pleased to assist. On returning home, he began the activities on behalf of Anglo-German friendship that made him conspicuous and, to many, odious through the next three years: letters to the prime minister and other political insiders, letters to the Times, speeches in the House of Lords and elsewhere, entertainments and, in April 1938, a book, Ourselves and Germany. Its Penguin Special edition later that year enabled him to add that the Munich settlement had fulfilled all his hopes.

His fantasy world collapsed not long after. His German ‘friends’ also had indulged the fantasy of supposing that dukes and (the next best thing to them) marquesses possessed political influence. It soon became obvious to them that Londonderry didn’t. The neglected peer could not conceal from himself that Goering and Ribbentrop had lost interest in him. Hitler never bothered to see him again after October 1936. Londonderry complained to his German ‘friends’ that his efforts were not helped by anti-semitic and anti-Christian outrages which, he pointed out, were a godsend to Germany’s enemies. He did his faltering best to explain them away until reduced to silence by Kristallnacht. But still he hung on. Not until Hitler’s destruction of what remained of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 did he, like Chamberlain, recognise that there was more to the Führer than they had supposed. Prompted by the Nazi-Soviet Pact in August to be a proper patriot when war began in September, he spent the rest of his life trying to convince a sceptical world that there would have been no war if the cabinet had listened to him in 1934.

How to explain – beyond the pique and obstinacy – this very ordinary man’s blindness and folly? His prejudices and dislikes had much to do with it. Profoundly anti-socialist and a fortiori anti-Soviet, he believed that Hitler was doing Britain a good turn by offering to act as a barrier to the spread of Communism in Europe. He liked the feel of a nation united and enthusiastic for a common purpose, and he admired a government that could ‘get things done’. Leadership was something he had been brought up to understand and in Hitler he thought he saw it in a pure form; consequent losses of liberty or limitations of rights, he reckoned a price worth paying. And he had in him enough anti-semitism, of the all-pervasive, unreflective, undemonstrative sort quite normal in his class, to be ready to believe the Nazis’ justification of their violent kind, even though he could never really understand it and didn’t actually like it.

Perhaps it was Lady Mairi’s generous offer to unlock the archives that tempted Kershaw to take this project on; virgin family papers, especially such voluminous ones as these, are well-nigh irresistible to the true historical scholar. But after all his labours, is our understanding of the British appeasers of the later 1930s much altered or enriched? I regret to say, no; the subject defies even a Kershaw.