Winston Churchill makes a fine movie star. If only we had a leader to match him in real life today
Britain’s wartime leader is played by Gary Oldman in the film Darkest Hour, following portrayals by John Lithgow and Brian Cox. His enduring legend is a rebuke to current world politicians, says the Observer’s chief political columnist
Sun 7 Jan 2018 08.00 GMT
‘He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle’: Winston Churchill rallies the nation in May 1940.
In an early scene in Darkest Hour, Clementine Churchill tells another character that her husband is “just a man, like any other”. This is a knowing opening joke in Joe Wright’s new film about May 1940 and the first three weeks of Winston Churchill’s premiership. It is a joke that just about everyone is guaranteed to get. Even those of its citizens with the slenderest grasp of this country’s past will know that Churchill was not a man like any other. During its long and rich history, Britain has had good, bad and mediocre leaders. Churchill occupies an elevated plinth all to himself as the prime minister who led his country through a struggle for national survival, the like of which it had never before endured and has never since experienced. The stakes were vertiginous when he replaced the discredited Neville Chamberlain at Number 10. The choices made in the early weeks of Churchill’s premiership were a hinge point in history. In play was not just the freedom of Britain but the future of an entire continent.
This makes the Churchill legend one deserving of his country’s pride and at the same time it presents us with several linked problems. He is a challenge for actors who try to embody him and for the politicians who have followed him. There is also a Churchill conundrum for the country that remembers – and misremembers – his role in its history.
Let’s start with the actors. Their portrayals of Churchill matter. As the wartime generation fades away, more and more of us will only know him – or think we do – from the versions we see on screen. Some of our finest actors have given it a go in recent years. There was a cameo Churchill from Timothy Spall in The King’s Speech, which was rightly chastised for taking some liberties with the history of his relationship with the monarchy. John Lithgow offered an empathetic Churchill in his second, peacetime, period as prime minister for the Netflix series The Crown. Michael Gambon gave us an affecting portrayal of the great man in decline in ITV’s Churchill’s Secret. He was never seen on screen during Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, but a Churchillian spirit infused that immersive account of the British army’s narrow escape from France in 1940. Brian Cox was a jowl-quivering Churchill in last year’s film of the same name, which presented him not as the imperturbable war leader but as a man tortured with agonies about the risks of attempting the 1944 Normandy landings.
Darkest Hour also has an ambition to peel back myth and find the complex character within. Wearing a fat suit and a lot of prosthetics, Gary Oldman’s impersonation is sufficiently spirited to shine even through layers of latex. This film doesn’t avoid all the Churchill cliches. There is a lot of cigar-chomping and whisky-swilling. Despite that, Oldman succeeds in creating a Churchill who is more interesting than the “bulldog” of simple legend. We see him courageous, martial and inspirational, but also beleaguered and uncertain, playful and earthy, fearsome and maudlin, cunning and loving, bad-tempered, sentimental and tearful. We are reminded that the superman was, just as his wife said, a man. He was a genius not because he was without faults but because he transcended his flaws. This is what makes him such a remarkable example of the human species.
And such an intimidating challenge to each politician who has followed him in Number 10. At some level, every prime minister since has known that they will never match his place in history. In today’s rather baleful political scene, he is more than a challenge –he is a rebuke.
We pine for politicians who aspire to do more with language than marshal banalities, incite division and rouse nastiness
The recent burst of film-making about the 1940s may be mainly because the period provides such strong material. I suspect something else is going on: a feeling that there is no one like Churchill – or anywhere close to being like him – among contemporary political leaders on either side of the Atlantic. It is our misfortune to be passing through a period when the worst sort of leader uses passion in the service of malevolence while the better types struggle to articulate much by way of uplifting conviction. Do we have a yearning for leadership that combines principle, vision and humanity with the capacity to mobilise and unify people behind a collective and heroic endeavour? I rather suspect we do.
We surely also pine for politicians who aspire to do more with language than marshal banalities, incite division and rouse nastiness. Darkest Hour pivots around three of Churchill’s finest speeches: his debut to parliament as prime minister, his first radio address to a frightened nation and another speech to MPs following the Dunkirk evacuation. In that short span of just three weeks, Churchill produced a triptych of some of the most influential feats of 20th-century oratory when, in the words of Edward R Murrow, “he mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”.
It would be unreasonable to expect today’s politicians to match the Churchillian style. His lavish orotundities and bombastic circumlocutions are stirring in a historical drama but they wouldn’t suit our period when television and social media are the principal environments in which contemporary politicians must operate. That said, his most memorable phrases resonate down the decades because they are timeless in their potency and so much better than anything to be heard from politicians of this age.
“I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined the government: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
“You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. Victory. Victory at all costs. Victory in spite of all terror. Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”
“We shall fight on the seas and oceans. We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…”
Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to one man’s brilliance with words.
Compare and mournfully contrast the power of his oratorical poetry with a Donald Trump tweet or Theresa May coughing her way through a conference speech or Jeremy Corbyn having a bit of a rant or Jean-Claude Juncker on a verbal ramble at a Brussels news conference. Inasmuch as contemporary political players pay homage to Churchill, it is the dismal tribute of offering bastardised versions of his wartime rhetoric in self-serving support of their own causes. Mrs May does this with her awful “red, white and blue Brexit”.Boris Johnson does this when he claims that Britain will become “a vassal state” if it doesn’t have a relationship with the European Union that he approves of.
How painful it is to contrast what was at stake in 1940, when there was a genuine danger of Britain becoming “a vassal state” of Nazism, with the phoney and petty furies that foam around many of the arguments related to Brexit. The current cabinet bickers about whether Britain should aspire to be Canada plus or Norway minus. What wretchedly pathetic wrangling compared with the awesome choice facing Britain when Churchill became prime minister.
Hitler had swallowed Austria and consumed Czechoslovakia. Poland had been devoured by Nazism in diabolical compact with Stalin’s Soviet Union. Denmark and Norway had been gobbled up too. Belgium, Holland and France were overrun within a month of Churchill’s arrival at Number 10. The military situation facing Britain looked catastrophic. Consideration was given to evacuating George VI and the royal family to Canada. The Americans were sitting on their hands. In an excellent scene in Darkest Hour, Churchill is on a bad transatlantic phone line to Washington to beg help from Franklin Roosevelt. The American president is all sympathy and no assistance. He can give only excuses for inaction. The Americans are even reluctant to release planes that Britain has already paid for.
To fight on – or to take up an offer from Mussolini to mediate a peace with Hitler? That is the grave question around which revolves the political drama of Darkest Hour. The film reminds us that the choice made by Churchill was not at all obviously the correct one to many of his colleagues. He began his wartime premiership as a much distrusted figure within the Tory party. Though it later suited everyone to pretend that he was the inevitable choice as prime minister, a significant number of his colleagues thought it should be anyone but him. George VI, who has been treated kindly by recent film and television productions, was among the Churchill sceptics.
Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) are accurately portrayed agitating for Britain to take up Mussolini’s offer. One of the things to like about Darkest Hour is that it does not depict them as cartoon appeasers of fascism, but as men sincerely convinced that fighting on will be national suicide. To them, Churchill’s fine rhetoric is beside the point compared with the power of Hitler’s weapons of destruction. “Words and words and only more words,” sneers Halifax. He was wrong, but he was wrong for reasons that seemed compelling to many people in May 1940. Much of the British military thought invasion highly likely and defeat unavoidable. This context makes Churchill’s determination to fight on all the braver.
Here the story of his leadership folds into our national legend to create a collective memory that has always set apart Britain from its neighbours. For most Europeans, 1940 will always be a darkest hour. The majority of the continent was either celebrating Hitler or allied to Germany or conquered by the Third Reich or would be soon occupied. For Britons, 1940 became a finest hour. It was retrospectively bathed with a fierce patriotic glow as the year when this country stood splendidly defiant – “very well, alone”, as the great man put it. This has made a major contribution over the decades since to a strong strand of British exceptionalism that has inevitably infected the argument whenever we have debated our relationship with the rest of Europe.
Yet 1940 has never represented a case for Britain to be detached from its continent. Churchill understood that. It is central to his historical importance that he saw this much more clearly than Chamberlain and Halifax. He argued for fighting on because he grasped that Britain’s fate was entwined with that of its continent. Making peace with Hitler would mean surrendering Europe to the barbarity of Nazism. On 18 June 1940, in the wake of the capitulation of France, he told the Commons: “Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”
He took this stance in the face of considerable public terror about the consequences of fighting on. The most irritating scene in Darkest Hour is one that is entirely made up. At the height of the war cabinet’s debate about whether to sue for peace, the film-makers put Churchill in a London underground carriage where he asks a selection of salt-of-the-earth Brits whether he should open negotiations with Hitler. To a man and woman, adult and child, they all respond “never”. This invented scene is seriously misrepresentative of public opinion in May 1940. Many Britons were very fearful, and understandably so, of carrying on the war. It had not been that long ago that crowds thronged to cheer Chamberlain when he returned from Munich with his bogus “peace for our time”.
Britons were still scarred by the meat-grinder carnage of the trenches of the first world war. The advent of airpower – “the bomber will always get through” – added to the horror of a conflict of indefinite duration that the country could not be at all confident of surviving. It was really only after the unexpected deliverance at Dunkirk and during the Battle of Britain that followed that the nation solidified behind Churchill’s view that there could be no compromising with the menace of Nazism.
This is one of the many aspects of Churchill to admire. When he started to deliver his fighting speeches, he couldn’t be sure that he would carry Britain with him. He did not tell the public what they all wanted to hear; he used his powers of advocacy and inspiration to rally parliament and the people behind him. He did not follow public opinion. He led it. That is at the heart of his magnificence. It is also another reason to mourn the lack of contemporary politicians who aspire to emulate his example.
Lord Halifax tried to negotiate peace with the Nazis
Lord Halifax, Britain's Foreign Secretary at the outbreak of the Second World War, secretly met with an Old Etonian who tried to broker a peace deal with the Nazis, according to newly-declassified security files.
By Chris Hastings, Public Affairs Editor 2:09PM BST 30 Aug 2008
The files reveal that shortly after the outbreak of war Halifax helped with the travel arrangements of John Lonsdale Bryans, who believed he could bring down Hitler by making contact with prominent anti-Nazi Germans including Ulrich von Hassell, the former German ambassador in Rome.
Initially Lonsdale Bryans thought he could drum up support for an anti-Nazi coup in Germany. But he subsequently changed tactic and tried to contact Adolf Hitler in a bid to negotiate a peace.
The disclosure that the Foreign Secretary had such close links with someone trying to contact Hitler during wartime will reignite the debate about his own beliefs.
Halifax, who met Hitler in 1937, was criticised for being too close to the cause of appeasement. Shortly after Churchill took over as Prime Minister in 1940 he was moved from the Foreign Office to the British Embassy in Washington.
The documents reveal that Halifax met Lonsdale Bryans, personally helped with his travel arrangements and even accepted intelligence reports from him.
A letter in the files from the passport office to Captain WS Mars, dated January 9, 1940, states: "The permit granted on the 8th was given at the request of Mr CGS Stevenson, the Private Secretary to Lord Halifax, who telephoned to say that the Secretary of State wished that all possible facilities should be granted to Mr Bryans."
More details of Lord Halifax's involvement are contained in a internal note for the Ministry of Information dated October 19, 1945.
Its states: "Lonsdale Bryans met Lord Halifax on 25 August 1939. That he should travel to Europe to make contact with enemy groups opposed to Hitler. Lord Halifax is reputed to have said that Britain would not fight for Danzig and the [Polish] corridor and later to have minuted that he was impressed by the proposal."
Security officials stumbled upon the mission by accident when they arrested an associate of Lonsdale Bryans called Anderson who had letters from the old Etonian on his person.
A note connected with an interrogation of Anderson states: "The main point which seemed to emerge from the interrogation was that according to Anderson, Lonsdale Bryans was a personal friend of Lord Brocket and also claimed to be something in the nature of an unofficial envoy of Lord Halifax. He wished to see Hitler and with this in view had asked Anderson to get in touch with a certain Stahmer that Bryans would be vouched by a number of persons including those on the list."
On December 13, 1940, MI5 contacted Sir Alexander Codogan, the Permanent Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, to provide further details of the arrest and to disclose what the service had learned about Lonsdale Bryans from his associate.
The MI5 note states: "With reference to our conversation yesterday afternoon with regard to the case of John Lonsdale Bryans, I attach a copy of a letter which this individual wrote to the Director of the Schwartzhaupter Verlay, Leipzig, evidently offering to make a trip to Germany for the purpose of an audience with the Fuhrer.
"In writing this letter Bryans has of course been guilty of an offence under the Defence Regulations (DR4A) in the he has attempted to communicate with the enemy, but I certainly agree with your view that in the circumstances of the case the suggestion that we should request the Admiralty to intercept the Portuguese vessel on which Bryans is now travelling from Funchal to Lisbon is not practical."
Sir Alexander agrees that given the Foreign Office's involvement the idea of an arrest is out of the question. On 7th April 1941 he wrote: "Although there seems to be a good deal to be said for locking him up to prevent him airing his views to all and sundry, I understand that if this is done it will inevitably involve him bringing up the question of his contacts with the Foreign Office and the facilities offered to him to get into Italy.
"In the circumstances we feel that he might be left at large though of course be strictly watched."
The Foreign Office seems to have spent the rest of the war worried that Lonsdale Bryans will reveal the mission to the outside world.
One Foreign Office note from the period states: "Bryans is becoming desperately short of money and although no mischief has been done so far, I anticipate the possibility that he might try to sell his story the press. It occurs to me that it might be a good idea to warn Lonsdale Bryans as seriously and solemly as possible that he should not go on telling people of how he contacted the Germans."
An MI5 official notes on 1 March 1944: "Bryans story would make sensational reading in the Daily Mirror."
The Foreign Office provided its clearest explanation of events in a letter sent seven years after the end of the war, when the security services found out about plans by Lonsdale Bryans to write about his adventures.
In a letter dated 15 August, 1952, an official wrote: "The truth of the matter seems to be that Bryans managed, by importuning a number of influential people in the country, to get himself an interview with Lord Halifax and, by virtue of his Italian contacts, to arrange a meeting with von Hassell in Switzerland to discuss a possible revolution in Germany and peace terms. He brought back a paper which he gave to Sir Alexander Cadogan purporting to be set out von Hassell's views. His did this off his own bat and was never set on any mission by Lord Halifax or employed by HMG in any capacity whatsoever, though Lord Halifax did see him and though his journeys to Switzerland and Italy were facilitated on two occasions, but solely to the extent then necessary to enable anyone to travel."
Charles Vane-Tempest-Stewart, 7th Marquess of Londonderry
He was appointed to the new Air Council at Westminster in 1919 by the postwar coalition government. Promoted to Under-Secretary of State for Air in 1920, Londonderry was nevertheless frustrated and took advantage of his Ulster connections to join the first Government of Northern Ireland in June 1921, as Leader of the Senate and Minister for Education. At Belfast he acted as a check on the increasingly partisan and survivalist government of Prime Minister Sir James Craig. Nevertheless, Londonderry's Education Act of 1923 received little in the way of good will from either Protestant or Catholic educational interests, and was amended to the point that its purpose, to secularise schooling in Northern Ireland, was lost.
In 1926, he resigned from the Northern Ireland Parliament and involved himself in the General Strike of that year, playing the role of a moderate mine owner, a stance made easier for him by the relative success of the Londonderry mines in County Durham. His performance earned him high praise, and along with the Londonderrys' role as leading political hosts, he was rewarded by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin with a seat in the Cabinet in 1928 as First Commissioner of Works. Londonderry was also invited to join the emergency National Government under Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and Lord President Baldwin in 1931. This was the cause of some scandal as MacDonald's many critics accused the erstwhile Labour leader of being too friendly with Edith, Lady Londonderry.
When the National Government won the 1931 General Election he returned to the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Air (Londonderry also held a pilot's licence). This position became increasingly important during his tenure, not least due to the deliberations of the League of Nations Disarmament Conference at Geneva. Londonderry toed the British government's equivocal line on disarmament, but opposed in Cabinet any moves that would risk the deterrent value of the Royal Air Force. For this he was attacked by Clement Attlee and the Labour Party, and thus became a liability to the National Government. In the spring of 1935 he was removed from the Air Ministry but retained in the Cabinet as Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords. Combined with his role as a leading member of the Anglo-German Fellowship, he attracted the popular nickname of "Londonderry Herr".
The sense of hurt Lord Londonderry felt at this, and of accusations that he had misled Baldwin about the strength of Nazi Germany's Luftwaffe, led him to seek to clear his reputation as a 'warmonger', by engaging in diplomacy. This involved visits to meet Hitler, Hess, Goering, Himmler, von Papen, and other senior members of the German Government and the much-discussed two stays, of several days each, in 1936, of Joachim von Ribbentrop, German Ambassador to the Court of St. James, later the German foreign minister, at the principal ancestral homes of the Marquess in Northern Ireland and England. They came to Mount Stewart on 29 May – 2 June, and were at Wynyard Hall on 13–17 November, and for subsequent briefings with government officials in London.
Between January 1936 and September 1938 Lord Londonderry made six visits to Nazi Germany, the first lasting for three weeks, but a seventh invitation previously accepted for March 1939 was abruptly declined by Londonderry following the Nazi occupation of Prague.
During the first two visits, prior to the abdication of Edward VIII (who the Nazis assessed as a supporter of their party), Londonderry was considered an aristocrat of real influence by Hitler. The friendly regard in which the Marquess was held in Berlin was reflected in Hitler indiscreetly informing his guest, in October 1936, of his intended moves both on Czechoslovakia and Poland years in advance of these two invasions being actioned.
Although Londonderry immediately passed this information regarding Hitler's indicated future direction of German policy on to a member of the British Government, via a letter to Lord Halifax on 24 December 1936 rearmament was not notably accelerated in Britain at this point. In the end, Londonderry's high-profile promotion of Anglo-German friendship marked him with a far greater slur than that which had led him to engage in appeasement in the first place.
Under attack from anti-Nazis inside and outside Westminster, Lord Londonderry attempted to explain his position by publishing Ourselves and Germany in March 1938. Then, after the Munich agreement, in October 1938, Londonderry wrote in a letter that he was aware that Hitler was "gradually getting back to the theories which he evolved in prison", when working on Mein Kampf.
After playing a marginal role in the resignation of Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister in 1940, he failed to win any favour from the new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (his second cousin), who thought little of his talents. Out of office during the war, he produced his memoirs, Wings of Destiny (1943), a relatively short book that was considerably censured by some of his former colleagues.
Ian Kershaw’s biography of Adolf Hitler is widely regarded as the definitive work on the subject, as well as one of the most brilliant biographies of our time. In Making Friends with Hitler, the great scholar shines remarkable new light on decisions that led to war by tracing the extraordinary story of Lord Londonderry—one of Britain’s wealthiest aristocrats, cousin of Winston Churchill, confidant of the king, and the only British cabinet member to outwardly support the Nazi party. Through Londonderry’s tragic tale, Kershaw shows us that behind the accepted dogma of English appeasement and German bullying is a much more complicated and interesting reality—full of miscalculations on both sides that proved to be among the most fateful in history.
The lord who courted the Nazis
Alan Judd reviews Making Friends with Hitler by Ian Kershaw.
Alan Judd12:01AM BST 24 Oct 2004
Ian Kershaw's attention was drawn to Lord Londonderry's relationship with the Nazis by an 18in Meissen porcelain statuette of an SS stormtrooper adorning the mantelpiece of the Londonderry family home in Northern Ireland. It was a present from Joachim von Ribbentrop, German ambassador to London and later Hitler's foreign minister, who had been a weekend guest in 1936. Making Friends with Hitler is a window into the almost-forgotten world of 1930s appeasement, showing why it appealed to so many and why it was doomed from the start.
It is hard now to appreciate the social and political eminence of people such as Lord and Lady Londonderry, owners of coal mines, vast tracts of land and, among other properties, a Park Lane mansion with 44 servants. They entertained royalty – Londonderry was called "Charley" by the King – and were on first-name terms with leading political figures. It is harder still to appreciate how they saw themselves: their rights were birthrights, their pre-eminence pre-ordained. They were the cream of a society which it was not only their pleasure but their duty to lead and serve.
To Lady Londonderry, society hostess and high Tory, it was perfectly natural that she should have Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour prime minister, at her fingertips. (The gossip of the time suggested it was rather more than that, although Kershaw thinks their flirtation didn't amount to an affair.)
In 1931 Londonderry was made secretary of state for air by MacDonald's National Government – an appointment which, according to Lloyd George, can be attributed to his wife's influence. Londonderry's political tastes were pro-German and anti-French, which brought him into early conflict with British policy, but his overwhelming motive was to avoid repeating the First World War. In this he was at one not only with his colleagues but with most of his countrymen. Yet he recognised that, if we were to have an air force (there was pressure for the RAF to be scrapped), it ought to be modern, and he pressed for expansion.
Like nearly everyone – apart from Churchill and Sir Horace Rumbold, British ambassador to Berlin – he underestimated Hitler and thought the Germans could be persuaded to disarm, especially if we strengthened our air force. When, in 1935, the true scale of German rearmament was at last accepted and the political tide turned overnight, Londonderry was pilloried, then sacked.
He spent the rest of his life trying to justify a career that had been characterised by political misjudgments, moderate competence, an overestimation of his own abilities and a degree of bad luck. But his activities during the next few years made everything worse. Convinced that the Foreign Office (now waking up to Hitler) was wrong in its estimation of the German threat, and that critics such as Churchill were more likely to bring about the war everyone feared, he courted the Nazi leadership, visiting Hitler, going shooting with Goering and entertaining von Ribbentrop.
He applauded Nazi anti-communism and was unworried by its anti-Semitism, but he was no Nazi. Rather, as Kershaw says, he was "idealistic enough to presume that politics… were determined by goodwill, moral objectives, the gentleman's code of honour, the preservation of legal order". Above all he wanted to avert another war. He was not alone: Attlee, convinced that Hitler's dictatorship was "gradually falling down", was still opposing rearmament in 1939. Privately, both the Londonderrys and the Nazis made similar miscalculations – on the one hand that German aggression could be ameliorated by friendship, on the other that social position was sufficient to influence British national policy. It wasn't like that any more – if it ever had been.
During the war Londonderry proved a staunch patriot, albeit dominated by his desire for vindication. "I was the only person who was right during the 1930s," he claimed. Of his cousin Churchill he wrote: "I wanted to achieve by what I thought was statesmanship what he wanted to achieve by war." Denying that he was an appeaser, he couldn't see that what he had tried to do was, in fact, to appease; but that is perhaps the nature of appeasement.
This is an erudite, wise and instructive account of what might, with hindsight, seem one of history's sideshows. Yet it was for years the conventional political wisdom, the most favoured illusion, and Kershaw helps us to understand it better.
The other man who tried to appease Hitler
Rich, well connected and with a fascination for politics, Lord Londonderry was that most useful of men - a perfect scapegoat. Ian Kershaw tells his story in Making Friends with Hitler
Sun 21 Nov 2004 00.50 GMT First published on Sun 21 Nov 2004 00.50 GMT
'Very agreeable... a kindly man, with a receding chin and an impressive face'. So reported Lord Londonderry after his first meeting with Hitler in 1936. Lady Londonderry, the great society hostess and fixer, saw 'a man with wonderful, far-seeing eyes... simple, dignified, humble'. Later, she wrote to him: 'You and Germany remind me of the Book of Genesis in the Bible.'
At this point, you may wonder why a good scholar like Ian Kershaw has bothered to write about such a twit as Londonderry, the sort of solemnly self-important ass my parents used to refer to as a 'stiff'. But Londonderry, if he did not achieve anything much, certainly stood for something. In the first place, he came to stand for the archetypal pro-Nazi appeaser. This was unjust, because he was never anything like a fascist. Londonderry regarded the Nazi regime as foul and suitable only for foreigners, but he did believe that Hitler had genuine grievances and should be reasoned with, not excluded.
However, during and after the war, the British needed an aristocratic scapegoat, someone who was at once appeaser and coalfield owner to symbolise the rotten old system which had brought the Depression and war.
Second, Londonderry stood for a policy which did make a sort of sense. Once Hitler came to power in 1933, there were three possible British policies. These were: to negotiate with Hitler and to disarm in order to reassure him; to give him not an inch and to rearm at full speed (Churchill's line); or to open a dialogue with Germany while steadily rearming. Londonderry pursued the third option. He did so very badly, but given that his cousin Churchill's 'war policy' had almost no support at the time, it was the least worst path to take.
The Londonderrys were immensely rich, owning more than 50,000 acres, a colliery empire in the north-east of England, Mount Stewart in County Down and four other country houses, and Londonderry House on London's Park Lane.
Charles Vane-Tempest-Stewart, 7th Marquess of Londonderry, was raised to expect responsibility and office. 'Charley', as King George V called him, became a Tory MP in 1907 and fought on the Somme in 1916. His mother and wife wangled him a transfer home, but he was denied the junior ministry he expected. This was because he had failed to get Lord Curzon's footman exempted from active service.
In 1931, he was made Secretary of State for Air in the National Government. This was because Ramsay MacDonald was obsessed with Lady Londonderry, calling himself 'your attendant ghillie'. At the Disarmament Conference, Londonderry made himself unpopular by resisting pressure to reduce Britain's bomber force. At home, he was denounced as a warmonger. He made it all worse by arguing that bombers were needed to deal with rebellious wogs in Iraq or the North-West Frontier.
When Germany walked out of the conference in 1935, Londonderry asked for an increase in the RAF. The government at first refused, then suddenly changed its mind. Chamberlain (then Chancellor) took the credit for almost doubling aircraft strength. Londonderry, once blamed for loving bombers, was now blamed for failing to rearm fast enough. In March 1935, Hitler announced that he had already achieved air parity with Britain. Londonderry responded hopelessly badly in Parliament, querulously defending his own record instead of promising more aircraft. Stanley Baldwin, the new Prime Minister, sacked him. It was all very unfair.
Now began his long, fatal flirtation with Nazi Germany. He would show those middle-class second-raters what a freelance grandee could achieve. The 1936 visit to Hitler and Goering was the first of a series in which he offered himself as a mediator, as an influential friend who could convey German wishes to the highest circles in Britain.
At first, the Nazi leaders took his self-importance at face value. It was several years before they realised that nobody in Whitehall listened to Londonderry any more. The Foreign Office, which comes out of this book very well, had always known that Hitler's promises were worthless. The politicians, although they dithered, were too afraid of public opinion to follow Londonderry's calls for a 'rapprochement'.
The high-point of all these contacts was the weekend when Joachim von Ribbentrop, soon to be Nazi ambassador to London, flew in his own Junkers to Mount Stewart and joined Londonderry's house party. The diplomatic results were zero and the visit damaged Londonderry's name almost as badly as his attempt to invite Goering to the Coronation in 1937.
Kershaw, who shows genuine pity - if not quite sympathy - for his subject, points out why his campaign for friendship with Germany failed. First, Londonderry kept asking the Nazi leaders what they wanted and what the limits of their claims were. This was a non-question, because they wanted all they could get, preferably by war rather than by some international treaty.
Second, although a conventional anti-semite, he never grasped that murderous violence against Jews was central to the Nazi project, not a mere excess. Third, he could not conceive that British opinion might come to prefer an alliance with 'Bolshevik Russia' against Nazi Germany, rather than the reverse.
For a moment in 1938, Munich persuaded him that Britain had seen the light at last. Chamberlain's calculation was that Britain must negotiate with Hitler because our forces were still too weak to win a Czechoslovak war against him. But his mistake was also Londonderry's: that Hitler must prefer gains by treaty to gains by war. Within weeks, the 'Crystal Night' pogrom and then the occupation of Bohemia in March 1939 ended all Londonderry's hopes.
'Charley' was tall, thin and courteous and had a charming smile. It was not the fact of being an aristocrat in 20th-century politics which sank him; it was the fact that he was a stupid aristocrat, unable to grasp how the world had changed. The fabulous receptions at Londonderry House earned him no respect from the bourgeois politicians who thronged them.
And he did not respect them, either. Privately, he thought they were all tradesmen except for cousin Winston, of course. 'I now see why I failed to understand the very second-class people I had to deal with and how glad they must have been to get me out of the way,' he reflected. But that was the only failure he ever admitted.
‘The Londonderry Herr’: Lord Londonderry and the appeasement of Nazi Germany
Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2005), Volume 13
The term ‘appeasement’ remains as much a slur today as it was in the 1940s. Yet appeasement is far from unusual in politics, although owing to the negativity surrounding ‘appeasement’ we now prefer to use words like ‘compromise’ and ‘accommodation’. Our detailed knowledge of Nazi Germany (1933–45), in particular its project to exterminate European Jews, has only emphasised the folly of appeasement and those who advocated it in the 1930s. Yet for those who lived through that decade, with memories of the Great War of 1914–18 and deep fears of a new war involving the use of aerial bombing, the issues were not as clear-cut as they would appear to us today.
The reputation of the British aristocracy in particular was damaged by the involvement of many aristocrats in the appeasement campaign. One such nobleman, with substantial connections to Ireland, was the seventh marquess of Londonderry (1878–1949). Up until very recently Lord Londonderry has received almost no scholarly attention, an omission signally rectified by two new books, Sir Ian Kershaw’s Making friends with Hitler: Lord Londonderry and Britain’s road to war, and this writer’s The marquess of Londonderry: aristocracy, power and politics in Britain and Ireland. The Londonderry family owned an estate near Newtownards, Co. Down, as well as wealthy coalfields in County Durham, England. The seventh marquess had been the first Northern Ireland minister for education (1921–6), and from 1931 to 1935 he sat in the British cabinet as secretary of state for air.
Why should the aristocracy be remembered in particular? Most people in the UK and France feared another war with Germany. Nevertheless, many found the fascist regimes of Europe distasteful, and governments had to balance their wish to avoid another war with a foreign policy that did not appear too friendly towards Mussolini and Hitler. This situation heightened the sense of confusion surrounding foreign affairs in the 1930s. With governments trying to steer a careful course, interest groups for and against appeasement were developed to agitate ministers. One such group was the Anglo-German Fellowship.
Members of what might be called ‘the establishment’ dominated the Fellowship. Their wealth and influence were considerable, and they had the economic and social means to visit senior Nazis in Germany. But far from being overly powerful, the Fellowship was only one of many pressure groups and interests that the UK government had to consider when formulating foreign policy. And although all wanted to avoid war, there was a significant difference of opinion, in the cabinet, parliament and the intelligence services, on how this was to be achieved.
As the appeasement lobby appeared to be dominated by titled grandees, that class became associated with being pro-Nazi, a presumption reinforced by the odd maverick like Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. However, even before the mid-1930s, aristocrats were being marginalised. Compared to their dominance in the nineteenth century, it was increasingly difficult for them to occupy posts in the cabinet without criticism, and they had to jostle for influence with other wealthy and powerful groups such as the press, businessmen, trade unions and, most importantly, the electorate.
It is unsurprising, then, that for their detractors the aristocracy’s role in appeasement confirmed long-term criticisms. But such condemnation tends to ignore the almost universal support given to appeasement before the Second World War, and that the hero of that war, Winston Churchill, was the grandson of a duke and a cousin of Londonderry.
Aristocratic appeasement is also easier to understand when we consider how the Nazis viewed the aristocracy. For Hitler the nobility was ‘the scum produced by societal mutation gone haywire from having had its blood and thinking infected by cosmopolitanism’. But for Hitler’s Nazi adviser on foreign affairs, Joachim von Ribbentrop, the British aristocracy was the key to power and influence in the UK. Realising that Britain could be the main opponent to Nazi territorial expansion, Ribbentrop, with Hitler’s approval, set about forging better relations with Britain’s nobility, a task made simpler by his appointment as ambassador to London in October 1936.
Londonderry and appeasement
Lord Londonderry’s relations with Nazi Germany cannot be taken as typical, although his motivations were far from unusual. With enormous wealth at his disposal, Londonderry could have retired quietly from politics in 1935. But it was his political career and outlook, alongside other widely held reasons for appeasement, that determined Londonderry’s decision to take up the cause.
As an approach to politics, appeasement was a crucial component of Londonderry’s political character. From the period when he represented the Ulster Unionists at the Irish Convention of 1917–18, Londonderry was determined not only to buck the trend of aristocratic decline and have a career in politics but also to adopt what he felt to be a conciliatory approach, most notably in Ireland: he had advocated cooperation with nationalists at the Convention, and as Northern Ireland’s first education minister he attempted (unsuccessfully) to build a non-denominational primary-school system (HI Spring 2001).
However, it was Londonderry’s period as air secretary that led him to engage in the appeasement of Germany outside government. His dismissal from the cabinet in November 1935 was the conclusion to a troubled period of representing the interests of the Royal Air Force. Londonderry’s overly careful attitude had led him to be blamed for both the retention of air forces (and thereby aerial bombing) and not rearming the RAF fast enough in the wake of claims about German rearmament. With the Labour Party branding him a warmonger, Londonderry was determined to restore his reputation. As a former cabinet minister, he believed that he could do this and also play a useful role in promoting better understanding between the UK and Germany. Like many Conservatives, Londonderry had long regarded the Versailles Treaty as too harsh on Germany, and in May 1932 he warned that Hitler would assume power unless German grievances were addressed.
Visiting the Nazis
Londonderry initiated his new political role with a private visit to Germany at the end of January 1936. Ribbentrop ensured that Londonderry was treated well and that he met with leading Nazis like Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess and Hitler himself. All the Nazis made sure that their guest understood that Germany only wanted friendship with the UK, but that it also expected certain grievances to be addressed, such as the return of African colonies and a revision of its European borders. The Nazis suggested an anti-communist alliance as the basis for UK–German relations. Like many British appeasers, the fear of Soviet expansion was central to Londonderry’s advocacy of better relations with Berlin. But the British government, although sympathetic to such a view, was not yet prepared to formalise a pact with dictators.
Unwilling to encourage amateur diplomats like Londonderry, only one cabinet minister was prepared to meet with him upon his return from Germany, and Oliver Stanley was Londonderry’s son-in-law. Londonderry despaired at the attitude of his former colleagues. But if the government acted indifferently, the high society circles in which the Londonderrys had moved did not approve. However, both Londonderry and his formidable wife, Edith, were determined to struggle through such criticism, although it became increasingly difficult when the press began to label them pro-Nazi.
Londonderry was an easy target for such accusations. His pleas for better UK–German relations were matched by the Londonderrys’ legendary hospitality towards Ribbentrop. The ambassador visited their County Down estate, Mount Stewart, in May 1936. He described Edith’s gardens as ‘paradise’, and created quite a stir in the locality with his SS guard. Indeed, Ribbentrop’s association with the Irish peer became so infamous that he was nicknamed ‘the Londonderry Herr’.
Action and reaction
In the months and years that followed his first visit to Germany in early 1936, Londonderry made himself one of the most prominent advocates of appeasement. Owing to his ability to contact senior ministers in both London and Berlin, he became increasingly useful in circumventing the lack of full and frank diplomacy between the two states.
In March 1936 Londonderry was criticised for a letter to The Times in which he not only defended Hitler’s recent occupation of the Rhineland but also called for an agreement to be made with Berlin. The British government began to take an increasing interest in what their former colleague was discussing with the Nazis. And although Londonderry had never forgiven Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin for dismissing him in 1935, the latter attempted to mend the fence by having his close associate Lord Halifax meet with Londonderry to discuss his findings. However, discussions soon broke down when Halifax refused to countenance Londonderry’s request for an anti-communist pact.
Following the utter failure of his attempt to influence foreign policy, Londonderry dropped his advocacy of a direct deal between London and Berlin in favour of a conference of the great powers, to include Britain, France, Germany and Italy, but not Russia. Londonderry argued that this conference should resemble the Congress of Vienna, the great diplomatic achievement of his ancestor Viscount Castlereagh (later second marquess of Londonderry). Such comparisons with his forebear heightened Londonderry’s sense of personal mission. But he also felt that just as Vienna had created peace after the fall of Napoleon without crushing France, so a similar congress was necessary to revise the controversial Versailles Treaty. Such an agreement would, he hoped, ‘pin Hitler down to peace under all circumstances for a period of time if necessary’.
A second meeting between Hitler and Londonderry in October 1936 reawakened the interest of Halifax. Londonderry informed Halifax that, among the usual list of German complaints and aspirations, Hitler alluded to the eastward expansion of the Reich.
Drift ends, deception begins
On the face of it, 1937 should have been a good year for UK–German relations. In May Neville Chamberlain replaced Baldwin as prime minister. Chamberlain was determined to end the policy of drift and actively engage in improving diplomatic channels with the Nazi leadership. But it was during that year that it became increasingly obvious to Ribbentrop that power in Britain did not lie with the aristocracy. He was weary of his unpopularity among London socialites and disappointed at the lack of openly amicable relations between his country and the UK. Under pressure from Hitler, Ribbentrop concluded that Britain would not be an ally to Nazi ambitions. In fact, he argued that if war should break out the UK would be the Reich’s main enemy.
Although the Nazis switched their focus to forming anti-communist alliances with Italy and Japan, they continued to cultivate supporters of appeasement in Britain. That way, it did not appear that Germany rejected British overtures for peace, especially when it came to revising the Versailles Treaty, but it meant that appeasers like Londonderry were unwittingly engaged in promoting a sham. When Londonderry visited Göring in September 1937 he was disappointed by his host’s ‘less conciliatory’ attitude. He complained about this to Ribbentrop, blamed it on Mussolini’s recent visit to Germany, and protested that he had barely any influence over his former colleagues in the government.
Just as the Nazis were downgrading Londonderry’s value as a man of influence, the British were becoming increasingly interested in his recent findings. Ironically, worsening relations between London and Berlin made informal contacts more valuable. Following his visit to Göring, Londonderry met with Chamberlain. Subsequently, Londonderry was kept informed of a secret plan to send Halifax over to Germany for a meeting with Hitler in November 1937. It is uncertain how much of an influence Londonderry was at this point, but it is notable that part of Halifax’s mission was to propose a pact between the powers of Western Europe.
Prior to the visit, Londonderry paid another trip to Germany and informed Halifax of his findings. Halifax has been criticised for mentioning revisions to Germany’s eastern border before Hitler raised the subject. However, it is worth noting that Hitler had communicated this aspiration through Londonderry a year in advance.
Londonderry was deeply disappointed that that meeting did not produce an agreement. He recognised that the Nazis no longer seemed responsive to British concerns, but failed to register why. For Londonderry, the cloud of suspicion that complicated relations between the two states had to be cleared. In his letters to Ribbentrop, he became markedly more critical of the damage that certain Nazi policies were doing to British public opinion, but continued to advocate a Vienna-style congress.
Ourselves and Germany
To his lasting misfortune, the cooling of UK–German relations led Londonderry to conclude that more efforts to promote them were necessary. From this endeavour came Ourselves and Germany, published and reprinted throughout 1938. The small book was intended to promote an understanding of Nazi grievances. It contained frank reports of Londonderry’s relations with leading Nazis, some of which dealt with the persecution of Jews. Given that he hoped to generate mutual understanding, Londonderry printed a letter in which he informed Ribbentrop that although Germany had a legitimate grievance with the Jews, it was not applicable to every Jew, and such policies were harmful to public opinion in the UK.
The letter attracted adverse publicity, although the context is often ignored. It does reveal, however, that the Nazis could rely on the widespread popularity of anti-Jewish prejudices. Nevertheless, it is important to note that Nazi brutality towards the Jews made comparatively mild prejudices seem harmless. Londonderry certainly did not regard himself as anti-Semitic; one of his sons-in-law, Lord Jessel, was Jewish, and he apologised for publishing the letter to his friend Anthony de Rothschild. Fearing for his reputation and the prospects of worsening relations, Londonderry became increasingly critical of Nazi policy towards religious minorities, and mentioned it to Hitler when he wrote to the indifferent leader of Germany in April 1938.
Ourselves and Germany was published against the background of worsening relations. In March 1938 Hitler broke the Versailles Treaty by incorporating Austria into the Reich. In private, Londonderry wrote to a member of the Anglo-German Fellowship condemning Hitler’s sudden and unilateral methods. But this only encouraged him to believe that an agreement would pin Hitler down. In his April 1938 letter to Hitler, Londonderry defended some of his more critical comments about German policy in Ourselves and Germany. But he reminded Hitler that Britain and Germany could still reach an agreement that would allow both to be leading powers. Hitler sent a curt reply to thank Londonderry for his copy of Ourselves and Germany. The book was subsequently refused publication in Germany until Londonderry leant on Göring.
Londonderry paid another visit to Germany in June 1938. He met with Göring and noted how his host appeared less truculent than before. Göring informed Londonderry that Germany’s final demands would be satisfied by the settlement of the Sudeten question in favour of the Reich. Londonderry afterwards reported this to Halifax, although the latter did not appreciate Londonderry’s negative views on Czechoslovakia.
As the crisis intensified, Chamberlain flew to Germany for a meeting with Hitler at Berchtesgaden on 15 September 1938. Londonderry’s informal contacts were no longer useful now that the prime minister was meeting Hitler face to face. However, Londonderry was pleased that his hoped-for summit between the two leaders was finally happening. After some initial difficulties, a conference between the four powers convened at Munich on 29 September. Londonderry was in Munich at the time but played no part in the proceedings. The resulting agreement gave Hitler the Sudeten territories and guaranteed the remainder of Czechoslovakia through an agreement with France and Italy. The following day Chamberlain had Hitler sign the infamous letter declaring their intention never to go to war. As Churchill informed Londonderry, ‘Your policy is certainly being tried’.
But unlike Chamberlain, Londonderry did not enjoy any short-lived public adulation. His presence at Munich attracted the hostility of the left-wing press. Not only did he rush to his own defence, but he also added his name to a letter to The Times from the pro-Nazi ‘Link’ group of politicians, praising the Munich agreement. He was not the only non-member to add his name, but as an ex-cabinet minister it was a scandalous act, considering the Link’s reputed connections to Berlin. As he subsequently informed Lord Powerscourt, he thereafter became the victim of a ‘conspiracy of silence’.
The apparent triumph of ‘Munich’ quickly turned sour by 10 November 1938 following reports of Crystal Night, a violent anti-Jewish pogrom in Germany. Londonderry halted his communications with Nazi leaders and publicly condemned what had happened, but, in contrast to many other appeasers, the worsening situation led him to call for a new agreement between the two states. The Londonderrys were in Sweden as guests of the royal family when, on 15 March 1939, the Germans divided Czechoslovakia between themselves, Poland and Hungary. This ended Londonderry’s public calls for a deal with Germany; instead he argued that Hitler was untrustworthy. But it did not end his private advocacy of an agreement in correspondence with Halifax.
In the months that followed, Londonderry continued to involve himself in a situation that was heading towards war. Reopening communications with Göring, he said that he could do little other than support Chamberlain’s guarantee of Poland; he felt that Hitler had ‘destroyed’ all his efforts at promoting peace. He sent a similar complaint to the former chancellor of Germany and fellow aristocrat Franz von Papen. Londonderry also wrote to the German ambassador to London, demanding that he save UK–German relations by denying press reports about Nazi brutality. The ambassador failed to rise to the challenge, yet Londonderry issued a renewed call for a peace settlement in a letter to The Times on 22 June 1939.
It would seem that Londonderry had begun to separate his views on the Nazis from those on Germany. In early July 1939 he arranged with Philip Conwell-Evans—an ex-appeaser who had forged links with German opposition groups—a meeting with the ‘moderate’ Colonel Schwerin of the German general staff. Schwerin was one of a number of aristocratic senior officers who regarded Hitler’s military plans as disastrous. Londonderry informed Halifax of the meeting although he was sceptical of Schwerin’s request for British military force. Halifax appreciated the information. But this gratitude only led Londonderry to believe that he could perform a useful role again and he began to plan another visit to Hitler.
As soon as Halifax was informed of Londonderry’s proposed mission he stopped it. The former air minister had over-inflated his own usefulness, and the government had its own special envoy. Londonderry argued defensively that he had unique contacts with the German leadership that would allow him to declare that he had been betrayed by their assurances and that he ‘represented the spirit of the British government and people in being determined to resist any further aggression’. It was Hitler’s style to leave his guests with the impression that they mattered. Halifax, also a victim of this, remained steadfastly opposed to the visit.
With this, Londonderry’s political career and reputation lay in ruins. When the Nazis concluded a pact with Stalin on 23 August, Londonderry blamed not himself for being deluded but the way that the British government had allowed this development to happen by not acting earlier. In the weeks leading to the declaration of war on 3 September 1939, the Londonderrys moved to Mount Stewart and were subject to press rumours about being interned.
It has been suggested that during the war Londonderry was part of a mysterious ‘peace party’ that wanted to negotiate with Hitler. It is true that Londonderry remained concerned about Soviet expansion and broadly sympathetic with German grievances. But his inclusion on a list of names carried by Hess on his flight to Scotland in September 1940 reveals more about Nazi delusions than political power in Britain. In contrast to some aristocratic appeasers, Londonderry was not openly hostile to the war, and far from being a member of a peace party he had advocated Chamberlain’s replacement with Churchill. For the remainder of the war Londonderry helped with army recruitment in Northern Ireland and struggled with the government to publish his memoirs. He died at Mount Stewart in 1949 and was buried in the family graveyard there, flanked by statues of four Irish saints.
For Londonderry and many other aristocrats the promotion of appeasement had given them a renewed sense of political input after decades of steady decline. Their participation was intensified by the lack of a clear British foreign policy, Nazi encouragement and the universal fear of another war, with its concomitant danger of Soviet expansion and further imperial decline. We now know how deeply mistaken they were to rely on Hitler. But they were far from unique in this regard. As John F. Kennedy noted while a student in London in the 1930s, British public opinion dictated the need for disarmament and appeasement, for almost no one wanted to provoke another war.
Neil Fleming is Lecturer in Modern History, Queen’s University, Belfast.
N.J. Crowson, Facing fascism (London, 1997).
N.C. Fleming, The marquess of Londonderry (London, 2005).
H.M. Hyde, The Londonderrys (London, 1979).
I. Kershaw, Making friends with Hitler (London, 2004).