Engaging with the enemy

Twenty years ago, in 2002, The Times published a report headlined “Famous family, ignoble secret”. In it, the journalist Maureen Paton described “ambushing”, in her word, the octogenarian Duke of Wellington and quizzing him about his uncle Charles, the fifth Duke, who had died sixty years earlier. The dead Duke had been a member of the Anglo-German Fellowship, which enabled The Times to describe him as “Nazi- supporting”, “extremist” and an associate of “the traitor William Joyce, also known as Lord Haw-Haw”. Charles Spicer’s meticulously researched, fresh-thinking, calm and emphatic book dispels the smog of misunderstanding and the smut of class enmity that has enabled members of the Fellowship to be described as “half-crazed”, as “well-wishers of Hitler” and as “Nazi-friendly”.

Coffee with Hitler shows that the activities of the Fellowship, which was founded in 1935 and suspended in 1939, had three distinct phases. It was formed as the sequel to a trade mission to Germany organized by the Anglo-Dutch soap and margarine conglomerate Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch joint Shell-Mex & British Petroleum, and Dunlop Rubber. Imperial Chemical Industries became the largest financial backer of the Fellowship after Unilever. Other support came from the businesses that supplied Morris motorcars, Tate & Lyle sugar, Johnnie Walker whisky, McDougalls flour, Ever Ready batteries and Triple safety glass. These corporate interests were keen to promote trade between the two largest exporters in Europe, to avert the appropriation of their foreign subsidiaries and to impede the imposition of hostile tariffs. The Fellowship, in this phase, was a business lobby, which the Foreign Office treated as a nuisance.

Business concerns had less influence in the Fellowship’s second phase. Its active members saw themselves as cultural proselytizers trying by personal contacts with leaders of the Third Reich to reclaim it from barbarity. They believed, in 1936-7, that it must still be possible to entice Germany’s return into the comity of European civilization. They had, perhaps, the optimism of F.H. Bradley’s aphorism: “The world is the best of all possible worlds, and everything in it is a necessary evil.” If their aims seem hopeless with hindsight, they were not ignoble. Although some Nazi propaganda appeared in the Fellowship’s publications, its leaders criticized Nazi policy, and especially decried the persecution of Jews. Spicer estimates that 5 per cent of the Fellowship were antisemites, but the bulk of the others were intent on achieving a peaceful accommodation with a re-civilized Germany. Typically, its chairman, Lord Mount Temple, a former Conservative Cabinet minister, believed that the peace and prosperity of Europe, and a united front against communism, required Anglo-German conciliation. Like the Fellowship’s corporate backers, he contemplated the restoration of Germany’s former colonies and the cancellation of its war reparation debts in return for Germany’s rejoining the League of Nations, engaging in disarmament talks and ceasing the persecution of Jewry. He hoped to exercise a temporizing influence on Hitler, but would make no terms with Nazi racism. His wife was Jewish, and he resigned as chairman of the Fellowship after Kristallnacht in 1938. He had helped to found the Jewish Emergency Committee in response to Nazi, and supported Zionism.

Philip Conwell-Evans is a central figure in Coffee with Hitler. A tailor’s son from Carmarthen, he was a Fabian socialist, a pacifist, translated into English a French novel about trench warfare entitled Civilization, and had been secretary of a committee to raise awareness of Turkish mosques of Armenians. William Beveridge and the future Nobel peace laureate Philip Noel-Baker were his mentors. He was a high-minded internationalist rather than a crypto-Nazi. Conwell-Evans, aided by the merchant banker Ernest Tennant and by Grahame Christie, a chemical engineer and aviator who had been British air attaché in Berlin during the 1920s, spearheaded the Fellowship’s attempts to court and acculturate Hitler’s paladins Ribbentrop, Göring and Hess. By 1938 the three Englishmen had infiltrated the Nazi leadership as deeply as any of their compatriots, and were remitting first-rate intelligence to Whitehall officials—notably Robert Vansittart and Alexander Cadogan at the Foreign Office—and then to the prime minister, the Foreign Secretary , Lord Halifax, and other politicians. They had, by the time of the Sudetenland crisis in September 1938, lost all hope of “civilizing” the German leadership.

Two months later, in November, Austrian and German Jews were stricken by the mob violence of Kristallnacht. About half of the Fellowship’s 900 members resigned in shock and disgust. The Fellowship’s governing council issued a full denunciation. Soon afterwards Vansittart received an excoriating report by Conwell-Evans and Christie – “two Englishmen who know Germany best”, as he said – which Halifax circulated to the Cabinet Foreign Policy Committee. The two Fellowship denounced the Nazi regime for its idolatry of violence, fanatical nationalism, racial brutality and contempt for humanity. Hitler was called “a monster in his ruthlessness and cruelty”. This report and Christie’s briefings contributed to Cabinet decisions soon afterwards to double the Territorial Army and to legislate for conscription.

The Anglo-German Fellowship suspended operations on the day Germany invaded Poland. At the time it was respected for its useful work by the Chamberlain government, by Intelligencearians, by the Secret Service, by diplomatic correspondents and by international businesses. Yet it has been disparaged ever since. The legal bully Sir David Maxwell Fyfe prevented its leaders from testingifying at the Nuremberg trials of war criminals: Tennant, he said, was a “gentleman of no official position”; Conwell-Evans was “not even in Who’s Who“. Spicer, who has given close, neutral and unerring scrutiny of the sources, proves to be a brisk, fair-minded and authoritative revisionist. He sees Christie, Conwell-Evans and Tennant as successful agents of intelligence and persuasion. “They were better men doing better jobs for better reasons than has been assumed.” Coffee with Hitler Should make it impossible to continue to lampoon the Fellowship as an unsavoury gang of reactionary noblemen, Jew-baiters, anti-communist paranoiacs, profiteering industrialists and (misogynists have liked to add) meddlesome society women.

That is not to deny that there were reactionary, racist, anti-red noblemen within the Fellowship. Lord Londonderry, a Cabinet minister in the 1930s, had political clout in both London and Berlin; but the others were of scant influence or significance. Lord Redesdale, for example, was a nugatory Little Englander who detested foreigners and (for most of his life) Germans especially. He briefly relented in his hatred of “Huns” after his daughter Unity Mitford met Hitler in 1935 and became infatuated with him. Redesdale joined the Fellowship, and was an appreciative but bemused guest of the Nazis: he treated the Nuremberg rally of 1938, said his companion there, Robert Byron, “as though it was a house party to which five hundred thousand rather odd and unexpected guests had turned up.” A year later, after four years of inchoate Nazi sympathies, Redesdale reverted to his lifelong loathing of Germans.

Redesdale’s unbalanced, unimportant daughter is the Hitler’s Girl of Lauren Young’s title. The book is sincere and laudable in some of its intentions, but, as shown by the foregrounding of Unity Mitford, it mistakes newspaper headlines for matters of substance and submits to what Marc Bloch called the “satanic enemy of true history, the mania for making judgments”. Reproachful moralizing, Bloch understood, leads to a slackness in both evidence and explanations. Young is upset by deceitful adventurers leading nationalist upsurges, illegal attempts to override election results or to prorogue parliament, endemic political corruption. But her efforts to use the events of 1933-9 as a reproach to the Make America Great Again and Brexit movements are too confident and hasty. She seems enraged by the British class system, but is uncomprehending of its structure and workings. The inflamed prologue to Hitler’s Girl poses a question that shows the difficulties into which she is blindly stumbling: “Was the British ruling class united behind the British government during … the 1930s, or did they have an entirely different agenda?” What does “ruling class” mean in her mind? If it is neither part of the government, nor “behind” the government, if indeed it is “different” from the government, how is it ruling? Young similarly bandies the word “elite”, and implies that elites have an incorrigible tendency to betrayal; but she never defines the term. There are no senior judges mentioned in her book, and few lawyers; So one must assume that the judiciary are not members of Young’s “elite”. Instead, by her account, it includes “Prince Yuri Galitzine, whose high-society wartime wedding was closely covered by the press, and Lord Ronald Graham, an upcoming naval officer and fixture on the London party circuit”.

Young makes big assertions. “Fascism in England was arguably more insidious [than in Nazi Germany], largely the handiwork of the elite ruling class in a bid to preserve its power.” Although she refers on one occasion to “rank-and-file Brits”, she seems oblivious of the predominantly working-class membership of the British Union of Fascists, rather as she seems unaware that “appeasement” was a populist policy. Instead, she is convinced that the support of Hitler by “a small and insular aristocratic elite”, by “the top echelons of British society”, by “a defeatist pampered group” bent on protecting their selfish way of life, was protected by the “complacency and complicity” of the governmental authorities and has been “covered up” by generations of toadies. “Privilege,” she writes, can be “the perfect cover for treachery.” She takes a decrepit blunderbuss to pepper her often flimsy targets: the heavy bombardment in Maurice Cowling’s The Impact of Hitler (1975) and the sophisticated drone attack in Tim Bouverie’s Appeasing Hitler (2019) are more deadly.

Richard Davenport-Hines is a Quondam Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. A collection of his lectures, entitled Conservative Thinkers from All Souls College, Oxfordwill be published in October

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