28 December 2004
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.