The blistering cables from our man in Hitler’s Berlin that make Darroch’s look tame! Ambassador to Nazi Germany branded regime ‘pathological’, called its members ‘hooligans’ and branded Adolf a ‘demagogue’
The British embassy had good reason to be worried. Here was an ultra-nationalist, populist government intent on violating international agreements, offending world opinion and rearranging the global order.
No wonder our ambassador felt compelled to offer the Foreign Office a confidential, unvarnished assessment of the situation as he saw it.
The leader of the foreign power, he said, was ‘pathological’, adding: ‘Many of us have a feeling that we are living in a country where fanatics, hooligans and eccentrics have got the upper hand, and there is certainly an element of hysteria in the policy and actions of the… regime.’
Hatred of the Nazis: British Ambassador Sir Eric Phipps, with Hitler in 1937. Sir Eric Phipps was prepared to goad his German hosts to their faces. Famously, one such episode occurred shortly after the Night of the Long Knives in the summer of 1934, when several senior Nazis were murdered. Goering, arriving late for a dinner at the British Embassy, explained that he had been shooting. ‘Animals, I hope?’ replied Phipps from the other end of the table
This was not Sir Kim Darroch reporting on the Trump administration, but Sir Horace Rumbold, 86 years earlier, providing a devastating assessment of the new government of Adolf Hitler.
This is by no means to equate the President of the United States with one of the vilest murderers in history.
But with Sir Kim forced to resign last week – essentially for providing Her Majesty’s Government with a plain-spoken appraisal of the turmoil in Trump’s extraordinary White House – it is worth remembering that his travails were as nothing compared with the task facing his predecessors as they struggled amid the tumult of 1930s Berlin.
Sir Horace Rumbold had reported that Nazism had succeeded in ‘bringing to the surface the worst traits of the German character, that is, a mean spirit of revenge, a tendency to brutality and a noisy and irresponsible jingoism’
As amazing as it now seems, many people in Britain began by underestimating Adolf Hitler. The Daily Telegraph wondered how a man who looked so uninspiring, with that ‘ridiculous little moustache’, could prove so attractive to the German people.
The Daily Herald scoffed at the ‘stubby little Austrian with a flabby handshake, shifty brown eyes, and a Charlie Chaplin moustache’.
Nothing, continued the Herald, ‘in the public career of little Adolf Hitler, highly strung as a girl and vain as a matinee idol, indicates that he can escape the fate of his immediate predecessors.’
By contrast, the British Ambassador was far more perceptive. With droopy eyes, his own well-trimmed moustache and a stolidly impassive expression, Sir Horace appeared as ‘English as eggs and bacon’.
Lord Curzon, an earlier Foreign Secretary, had thought him not alert enough for the Berlin Embassy. Within weeks of the Nazi takeover, however, Sir Horace was providing London with a stream of amazingly perceptive dispatches.
Unlike almost anyone in Whitehall, Rumbold had read Mein Kampf (Hitler’s autobiography-cum-manifesto) and on April 26, 1933 – a mere two months after the Fuhrer’s accession to power – he warned the British Government of Hitler’s crude social Darwinism.
‘He starts with the assertions that man is a fighting animal; therefore the nation is, he concludes a fighting unit… Any living organism which ceases to fight for its existence is, he asserts, doomed to extinction… The fighting capacity of a race depends on its purity…Only brute force can ensure the survival of the race…
‘The new Reich must gather within its fold all the scattered German elements in Europe… To restore the German nation again ‘it is only necessary to convince the people that the recovery of freedom by force of arms is a possibility.’
The previous month, Rumbold had reported that Nazism had succeeded in ‘bringing to the surface the worst traits of the German character, that is, a mean spirit of revenge, a tendency to brutality and a noisy and irresponsible jingoism.’
Sir Nevile Henderson appeared to be the classic Englishman abroad. Fond of wearing his Old Etonian tie and with a red carnation in his buttonhole, he responded to the ‘Heil Hitler’ greeting with his own ‘Rule Britannia’ salute
Hitler was ‘an uncommonly clever and audacious demagogue’ directly responsible for the persecution of the German Jews (already under way), while the President of the Reichstag, Hermann Goering, was described as a ‘vindictive and irresponsible partisan’.
It remains a tragedy that Rumbold should have been obliged to leave his post in July 1933, having reached the retirement age of 64.
Fantastically clear-sighted, his searingly honest dispatches may have been enough to deter the British Government from embarking on the doomed policy of appeasement.
Although he was not sacked, his fate was to be ignored. Not that his successor was in any way sympathetic to the Nazis. On the contrary, Sir Eric Phipps was prepared to goad his German hosts to their faces.
Famously, one such episode occurred shortly after the Night of the Long Knives in the summer of 1934, when several senior Nazis were murdered.
Goering, arriving late for a dinner at the British Embassy, explained that he had been shooting. ‘Animals, I hope?’ replied Phipps from the other end of the table.
On another occasion, Phipps was invited to visit Goering at his country estate. This was to inspire a famous piece of Foreign Office literature – the so-called ‘bison dispatch’ – in which the ambassador gave a vivid appraisal of the corpulent Goering’s personality based on the pride he displayed in showing-off his possessions, including a bison.
What the three diplomats said about Hitler’s regime
Sir Horace Rumbold
“Nazism embodies all the worst traits of the German character”
Sir Nevile Henderson
Went native and called the Third Reich a ‘great social experiment’
Sir Eric Phipps
Goering showed us his toys like a big, fat, spoilt child
Reading this report now, it is hard not to be put in mind of more contemporary populist leaders.
‘The chief impression was that of the most pathetic naïveté of General Goering, who showed us his toys like a big, fat, spoilt child: his primeval woods, his bison and birds, his shooting-box and lake and bathing beach, his blonde ‘private secretary’, his wife’s mausoleum and swans… all mere toys to satisfy his varying moods, and all, or so nearly all, as he was careful to explain, Germanic.
‘And then I remembered there were other toys, less innocent, though winged, and these might some day be launched on their murderous mission in the same child-like spirit and with the same child-like glee.’
Unsurprisingly, the Nazis loathed the urbane Phipps. Hitler called him ‘a thug’, while an aide to the German foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, later claimed that Phipps was ‘from the very beginning inspired by a hatred of the Nazis’. Not even the Nazis, however, made their complaints public or demanded the ambassador’s recall.
Despite the early warnings of Rumbold and Phipps, the British Government was determined to build bridges with the Germans. One recurrent suggestion was that Hitler, or one of his leading lieutenants, would be flattered by an invitation to London and an audience with the King.
The German Chancellor would ‘receive a most friendly reception in England from the people and the Government’, Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald told the German ambassador in early 1934.
Two years later, the Foreign Office was in a tizzy over the possibility that the German government might propose Goering as its representative to the coronation of King Edward VIII.
‘If we resist we may incur Goering’s undying hostility,’ wrote Phipps from Berlin, ‘and if we let him come we run quite a good risk of his being shot in England.’
‘Neither of these alternatives’, the Ambassador noted dryly, ‘would be likely permanently to improve Anglo-German relations.’
As it was, neither of these events came to pass. The German foreign minister, Konstantin von Neurath, knowing the protests that would greet a visit by Hitler, considered MacDonald’s suggestion ‘absurd’, while the Foreign Office was spared the dilemma articulated by Phipps when the German government decided to send the war minister, Werner von Blomberg, to the coronation of King George VI.
Still, the idea that ‘some flattery… and a little country-house life’ might work wonders with Nazi bigwigs persisted, and in early 1938 the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, discussed inviting Goering to shoot partridges with the Royal Family at Sandringham.
The Nazis, Halifax explained to the MP Harold Nicolson, were terribly thin-skinned and insecure. They felt the British looked down on them as a parvenus and were, consequently, ‘enraged when we suggest that Hitler might go to a better tailor.’ An invitation to Goering from the King could but just the thing.
Nicolson, a known anti-appeaser, was appalled. ‘No’, he exclaimed. ‘Ask Goering to Nepal as much as you like but do not expect the Queen to shake hands with him.’
In April 1937, Phipps was transferred from Berlin to Paris. Considered too anti-Nazi to be able to make progress with the regime, he warned in a masterly valedictory dispatch that Hitler was planning to incorporate both Austria and the Sudeten Germans of Czechoslovakia into the Reich and was, even then, unlikely to be sated.
Phipps was replaced by the Ambassador to Buenos Aires, Sir Nevile Henderson, who had proven his ability to get on well with dictators when he was representative to the court of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia.
Henderson appeared to be the classic Englishman abroad. Fond of wearing his Old Etonian tie and with a red carnation in his buttonhole, he responded to the ‘Heil Hitler’ greeting with his own ‘Rule Britannia’ salute.
But he was determined to ingratiate himself with the Nazis, to flatter them and promote the cause of Anglo-German friendship almost regardless of the circumstances. Consequently, he went ‘native’.
Phipps said of Goering (above) ‘The chief impression was that of the most pathetic naïveté of General Goering, who showed us his toys like a big, fat, spoilt child: his primeval woods, his bison and birds, his shooting-box and lake and bathing beach, his blonde ‘private secretary’, his wife’s mausoleum and swans… all mere toys to satisfy his varying moods, and all, or so nearly all, as he was careful to explain, Germanic
Arriving in Berlin in May 1938, among his first acts as Ambassador was to break the unofficial boycott of his predecessors – supported by the French and American ambassadors – and announce that he would be attending the Nazi rally at Nuremberg.
A month later, in a well-publicised speech to the German-British Fellowship, he criticised those people in Britain who banged on about the Nazi dictatorship and failed to pay attention to the ‘great social experiment’ Hitler was undertaking.
The Foreign Office was appalled. Thinking he had appointed a ‘complete Nazi’ to Berlin, the Permanent Under-Secretary, Sir Robert Vansittart, rebuked Henderson. But he was unabashed. Encouraged by the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, he was determined to prevent a European war by making what he felt were reasonable concessions to the Nazis.
Henderson accordingly took a highly sympathetic view of German foreign policy. If Hitler wanted to incorporate Austria, the Sudeten Germans of Czechoslovakia, even parts of Poland, then the British should let him.
Britain, after all, was an island power; Germany a continental one. As such, ‘both can go along the road to its own destiny without a clash of vital interests’, he told the Foreign Office.
Yet Henderson’s understandable desire to avoid war led him to underestimate Hitler’s capacity for aggression. Swallowing the Fuhrer’s risible claims to pacifism, the Ambassador told London in March 1938 that Hitler ‘hates war as much as anyone’ and continued to argue, against the evidence, that Hitler desired a peaceful solution to the Austrian, Czechoslovakian and Polish ‘questions’.
The irony is that the Nazis disliked Henderson even more than his more critical predecessors. Hitler could barely see him without flying into a temper, while Ribbentrop mocked the dandyish ambassador who seemed so eager to please. ‘How on earth could anybody take seriously a man who wore a blue pin-stripe suit with a claret pullover and a red carnation?’ demanded the German foreign minister.
The lesson from Britain’s three envoys to Nazi Germany is clear. Ambassadors are not sent to foreign capitals to pander to the prejudices of their hosts but to promote their own country’s interests and report thoroughly and truthfully on events and personalities.
This is what Sir Kim Darroch was doing and, by all accounts, doing well. Far from being ‘undiplomatic’, the most surprising thing about his dispatches is the mildness of the language.
That the Trump White House is dysfunctional and that the President is an insecure lightweight who will always prioritise his own ‘America First’ agenda, is simply a statement of the obvious.
Had the cables from Britain’s German Embassy been published in the 1930s, there would certainly have been a row. Yet the ambassadors would have been guilty of a gross dereliction of duty if they had abandoned their judgment in favour of anodyne statements.
As to the suggestion that Britain would now be better served by a political appointment to Washington – a Nigel Farage, politically aligned with President Trump, for example – the fate of Sir Nevile Henderson stands in eloquent rebuttal.
Although Britain’s last ambassador to Germany before the Second World War detested much of what the Nazis stood for, his efforts to curry favour caused him to abrogate his critical judgment and even his morality.
His appointment was, as Prime Minister Anthony Eden later reflected, ‘an international misfortune’ and, when Henderson came to write his own memoirs, he had little choice but to entitle them Failure Of A Mission.
Tim Bouverie is the author of Appeasing Hitler: Chamberlain, Churchill And The Road To War (Bodley Head).
Source: Read Full Article