on 5 April 2005
Ian Kershaw's book on 'Lord Londonderry and Britain's Road to War' is an excellent piece on British politics towards Germany right up to 1939. Lord Londonderry is the two-way mirror through which Ian Kershaw tells this story.
Lord Londonderry is one these characters the world could happily do without. He is a rather well-connected aristocrat who makes a stab at playing politics without really understanding what he is up to. Indeed, he seemed to have a habit of being in opposition of British official policy. Whilst serving as Secretary of State for Air from 1931-35 he was strongly in favour of building up a powerful airforce (including bombers), which at that point flew right in the face of pacifism, which was then the predominant force in Britain. He did, however, set up the foundations for the Hurricanes and Spitfires, which became the backbone of British defence during the Battle of Britain. And that is perhaps Londonderry's only positive legacy.
Having been sacked from his job in 1935 he writes (in one of his letters) about being restless and feeling the need to do something outstanding. He subsequently plunges headlong into attempting to bring about an understanding between Germany and Britain in the course of which he establishes his life's legacy of being a super-appeaser towards Nazi Germany.
Whilst some Governments in Europe may have initially favoured Hitler's regime for bringing much needed political stability to Germany, by the mid-1930's it became increasingly clear that Hitler would follow a 'land-grabbing' strategy. The appeasement politics followed by successive British Governments up to 1939 arose out of the necessity of somehow containing Hitler, whilst hiding one's military weaknesses until after they had been resolved.
Running their own foreign policy, Lord Londonderry and others carried appeasement to extremes. The Nazis initially accepted Londonderry's overture quite readily, but they dropped him like a hot potato after they recognised that he was a non-entity in British politics. That didn't stop Londonderry who was convinced right up to the invasion of Czechoslovakia that cuddling the dictator would work. We all know what happened, but Londonderry never seemed to understand what was happening. Naivete at its best no doubt.
Could Londonderry have succeeded? Ian Kershaw asks that question in his book. And he gives the proper answer, too. And of course it is to the negative. Any containment policy or active engagement would eventually have led to Britain (and France) having to submit its policy to that of Nazi Germany. Besides, containment and engagement wouldn't have worked, because Hitler from 1933 onwards (if not since writing 'Mein Kampf') was determined to take over Europe, no matter what.
However undesirable war is, from 1936 onwards many a politician must have recognised that it would probably be the only means to rid the free world of the Nazis.
Ian Kershaw does an excellent analysis of this period of European history. He details all sides of the argument and he does a splendid job of it. Although this is an academic work, it is a fairly easy read. I also urge you to go through the footnotes, because they provide an important companion to the narrative.
on 3 October 2012
This is a rare review of a book which, although now rather long in the tooth (published in 2003) changed the long held - but perhaps less well-informed - views of this reviewer.
The 7th Lord Londonderry was a man widely disliked in our area of the UK (the North East of England) for his family's role as local coal owners, and with everything which went with this role, including the forcible eviction of striking pitmen's families from company houses the Londonderry Collieries rented out.
This heredity dislike was intensified in the 1930's when Lord Londonderry (or Charlie to his friends in the drawing rooms of the stately homes of England) became a seeming fan of Hitler and of the Nazi regime, and this dislike lingered on long after Charlie's death in 1947..
And Ian Kershaw shows just how Charles Stewart Henry Vane-Tempest-Stewart, the 7th Marquess of Londonderry became besotted by the Nazis. Londonderry, as befitted a man of his aristocratic breeding and of his dodgy experience as a Durham mine owner, was deeply suspicious of all and any left-wing politics. He believed Britain should befriend Hitler's Germany to stop communism creeping out of Russia and infecting Europe. To this end, Londonderry visited Germany in December 1935 and February 1936. He went stag-hunting with Hermann Goering (Goering bagged a bison) and stayed for a week at Goering's luxurious mountain retreat before going on to the Winter Olympics. During his stay, he had a two-hour audience with Hitler, whom he found "forthcoming and agreeable". Indeed, in a speech in Durham in March 1936, Londonderry described the Fuhrer as "a kindly man with a receding chin and an impressive face".
In return for the hospitality, Londonderry invited Ribbentrop to a house party at his North East seat, Wynyard Hall near Stockton-on-Tees. "The high spot of the weekend," says Ian Kershaw in the book, "was the grand ceremony of the Mayoral Service at Durham Cathedral." Crowds thronged the streets hoping to catch a glimpse of Ribbentrop on their way to see Londonderry installed as Durham's new mayor. Our local newspaper, the Northern Echo then said what happened. The Cathedral Organist launched into the hymn "Praise the Lord: ye heavens, adore Him". Alas, this has roughly the same tune as the Deutschland Lied, and hearing this Ribbentrop jumped up and gave the Nazi salute, only for Lord Londonderry to pull his hand down in a scene that could come out of the closing part of Dr Strangelove.
Even this debacle was not to put Charlie off of touting German government aims as ones that the UK could accede to, almost up to the start of the war in 1939.
So he was a simple bigoted English toff who adored the Nazi regime ? Well, actually not quite. And this is where Kershaw, in a carefully annotated book studded with references gives service in an act of researched and impeccable revisionism.
For it seems the real reason for his stance was born of pique at the way successive British statesmen has refused to take him seriously as someone fit for high office. His high point as a Tory Peer was as Air Minister for four fleeting years in the early 1930's and then for a few months as Tory Leader of the Lords before being totally dumped by Stanley Baldwin in 1935. He felt with some feeling that he had been used as a convenient scapegoat for the National Government and put this down to class envy on the part of the new army of the new rich who had begun to populate the Cabinet Room.
His ostensible fall from grace was simply due to the fact that as Air Minister, he had actually argued for an early re-armament policy and defended the offensive use of the RAF as a bombing wing, at a time when much of the left, including the bulk of the Labour opposition were in full pacifist mode and at a time when (in an echo of today's world) governing politicians of the right were totally intent - not on long term policy development - but on a cuts programme pure and simple. Hence his fall between two stools and the wide public denunciation of what he was asking for.
In his aristocratic heart he felt the new generation of self-made men in the cabinet had both made an error in dismissing his talents, and were also on the verge of making another huge mistake in confronting Hitler's Germany whose new, post-Versailles aims, were, he felt, justified. In this, ancestral voices played a part, with Charlie echoing his distant forebear Viscount Castlereagh, who, at the Congress of Vienna, argued that he wished to bring back the world to "peaceful habits" after the Napoleonic Wars,
Charlie was an oaf and a snob, and probably didn't deserve better, but it was a supreme irony that it was in his three years at the Air Ministry that he sanctioned and signed off the development of the first all-metal monoplane fighter aircraft - the Hurricane and the Spitfire. Yet probably few were aware as they saw the con-trails weave over Kent and Sussex in the autumn of 1940 that the instruments of the RAF's victory were fashioned by someone who felt for Hitler's supposed kinder side.
There is no shortage of biographies of "larger than life" giants. Less abundant are the stories of history's lesser players who, when all is said and done, are smaller than life. The much hyphenated Charles Stewart Henry Vane-Tempest-Stewart, the seventh Marquess of Londonderry was one such smaller than life figure. Kershaw, in his "Making Friends With Hitler" has devoted an entire book to Lord Londonderry and has managed to set it out in an informative and entertaining fashion.
Londonderry was not intelligent, perceptive, politically astute, or charismatic. Winston Churchill, a cousin, referred to him as "that half-wit Charlie Londonderry." He was known in the press as the Londonderry Herr due to his pro-German, if not pro-Nazi, proclivities and for his well-known desire to become a private statesman and make friends with Hitler and his ilk in order to keep Britain out of war.
Kershaw uses Londonderry as a vehicle through which to re-examine Britain's relations with Germany from Hitler's accession to power through the commencement of WWII. The simple picture usually painted is one of the British political establishment conducting its ill-thought out policy of appeasement while Churchill stood alone crying in the wilderness. The situation was far more complex than that. Kershaw uses the antics of Lord Londonderry to set out Britain's foreign policy in the context of the day. Kershaw does not 'excuse' Britain's foreign policy makers for the steps that led invariably to war with Hitler. He does, however, provide a detailed description of the many reasons why, by 1936 or so, Britain had no viable option other than to appease Hitler and hope for the best.
Irresolvable conflicts of interest between France and Britain rendered a unified approach to an emerging Germany impossible. France's primary interest in the years after WWI was in its own security. The idea of making concessions from the admittedly ill-conceived Treaty of Versailles did not find fertile ground in France, particularly those that involved disarmament. Britain's goal was multilateral disarmament. Disarmament was almost universally supported in Britain by all political parties. Popular support for disarmament was fueled by revulsion towards the horrors and carnage of WWI. Political support for disarmament was fueled by a worldwide depression that made cutbacks in military spending both politically expedient and economically wise.
There was a strong feeling in Britain that German antipathy to the Versailles Treaty was understandable. British government suggestions with regard to revisions to Versailles were inextricably linked, however, to disarmament proposals. France opposed any such linkage and stalemates ensued. Hitler played this difference in national aspirations like a maestro. He managed to rearm, re-occupy the Rhineland, eviscerate the Versailles Treaty, and then annex Austria while France and England failed to craft a unified, coherent, response.
Londonderry played an interesting role in Britain's relations with Germany. A descendant of Lord Castlereagh, the architect of the settlement at the Congress of Vienna, Londonderry inherited incredible wealth. Londonderry believed that he was born to rule and lacked nothing but talent. His wealth and connections led to his appointment as secretary of state for air in 1931 by Ramsay MacDonald. Londonderry was a strong proponent of the air force and promoted the development of Hurricanes and Spitfire, the aircraft that later served Britain well in the Battle of Britain. He was pro-German and anti-French by inclination but believed that this friendship should be backed by a strong military. This was not an irrational position and if Londonderry had stuck to this position he legacy may have been considerably stronger.
However, he was an inept administrator and subject to embarrassing mistakes. During a period in which pacifism was a strong political force his speech supporting the use of bombers as a means of policing the Empire (including, ironically the British controlled oil-fields in Iraq) caused a great deal of embarrassment for the British government. Londonderry was sacked by Stanley Baldwin after he succeed MacDonald as Prime Minister. Devastated, Londonderry embarked on well-publicized private campaign to save Britain from the professionals in the foreign office. Critically, he forgot his earlier argument that military strength should form the underpinning of Britain's relationship with Germany, and assiduously sought out the friendship of the Nazi leadership. Even absent a strong military, Londonderry believed he could charm Hitler into good relations.
If the successive governments of MacDonald, Baldwin, and then Chamberlain can be thought of as proponents of appeasement, the forces of Londonderry and many of his well-born peers can be thought of as proponents of 'appeasement-plus'. In essence, MacDonald, Baldwin, and then Chamberlain took something of a middle road. It is clear from the source material used by Kershaw that at least from 1935 or 1936 the British government had few delusions about Hitler's intentions. However, they were constrained severely by their low level of military preparedness and a general unwillingness of the British population to take any steps to confront Hitler that might bring the parties to war.
Kershaw does an admirable job in exploring the social,political, and economic forces that helped shape appeasement. Kershaw points out that critical decisions concerning disarmament and the economic pressures that resulted in dramatic reductions in military spending up through 1936 or 1937 rendered a forceful response to Hitler (in the absence of concord with France) little more than a bluff. Kershaw also shows that the British government(s) was buffeted not only by Churchill but also by Londonderry and those fellow travelers.
Last, Kershaw's work is an academic piece of writing and is meticulously annotated and footnoted. However, the writing style is fluid and unpretentious. It can be enjoyed by a reader seeking a popular history as much as by someone with an academic interest.
on 10 June 2012
I doubt Sir Ian Kershaw made any friends with the present Marquess of Londonderry's family writing this book and interestingly it is not for sale in the gift shop at the former Londonderry Irish mansion at Mount Stewart in Co Down (or wasn't when Lady Mairi Bury was still alive) but it is a very good analysis of how the Anglo Irish grandee Lord Londonderry tried and failed to imitate his ancestor Viscount Castlereagh, the great Foreigh Secretary, in trying to reach an accommodation with Adolf Hitler with some very unfortunate consequences. An excellent book