Making friends with Hitler: Britain’s pre-war admiration for the Nazi dictator

By the end of the Second World War, Hitler's name was a byword for evil, yet in the 1930s he was just another European statesman, writes Ian Kershaw. Many in Britain admired his work in bringing economic revival to Germany and were keen for an understanding between the two countries...

Adolf Hitler photographed with British politician Henry Vane-Tempest Stewart, 7th Marquess of Londonderry (left) and Joachim von Ribbentrop (right), minister of foreign affairs of Nazi Germany from 1938 to 1945. (Photo litzy ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems odd that anyone in Britain would have wanted to make friends with Adolf Hitler, the most recognisable face of evil in the 20th century. But in the 1930s, many people in this country looked to Hitler with admiration. He was applauded, like Mussolini, for restoring order and national pride, bringing economic revival, and, not least, for suppressing the Left and forming a bulwark against the menace of Bolshevism. Admiration was not confined to the fanatics who supported the British Union of Fascists. Hitler had also impressed others in high places, those among the social and political elite of the land.

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Their hopes of befriending Hitler were not identical with the wider sector of influential opinion which sought an accommodation with Germany through growing recognition of Britain’s military weakness. But befriending and accommodating were related strands of appeasement – a policy of avoiding war through concessions to Hitler. It was a policy which later, once it had failed, carried the badge of national shame, and was associated with the government’s “guilty men” who had not given Britain adequate defences and tackled the Nazi threat in time. But for most of the 1930s, appeasement had enjoyed wide support – and not just among Conservatives. Making friends with Hitler, or buying him off, seemed to offer the best prospect of avoiding another war. And, with the horrors of the First World War of 1914–18 fresh in the mind, that was what most people wanted above all.

It was certainly what Charles Stewart Henry Vane-Tempest-Stewart, the 7th Marquis of Londonderry wanted. He was born in 1878 into wealth and privilege, a scion of one of Britain’s grandest aristocratic families, owners of the Durham coalfields and extensive estates in northern England and Ulster. He served on the Western Front during the First World War, witnessing the carnage of the Somme in July 1916 and losing his best friend in action. It was a searing experience.

He gained governmental experience in Britain and in Northern Ireland during the 1920s before being appointed Secretary of State for Air in November 1931, soon after the formation of the National Government. His term of office coincided with the arrival of Hitler on the world stage. The  matter of air power was soon at the centre of military strategy and international diplomacy. Londonderry’s difficulties, and his eventual failure, as air minister helped to turn him, following his dismissal in 1935, into one of the most outspoken advocates of friendship with Hitler’s Germany.

In earlier years, Hitler was largely successful in portraying himself as a nationalist with peaceful intentions

Those who thought they could make friends with Hitler, or at least coexist peacefully through accommodating some of his territorial demands, were living under an illusion. In retrospect, this is easy to see. At the time, it was more difficult. Contemporary British newspaper reports indicate what a puzzle Hitler was to British observers, and how grossly he was misjudged. The Times was not alone in seeing him as a “moderate”, compared with some of the radical members of his movement. During the first years of Nazi rule, when German military defences were still weak, Hitler was largely successful in portraying himself as a nationalist with peaceful intentions, wanting only settlement of what were widely accepted in Britain as Germany’s justifiable grievances under the unfair Versailles Treaty of 1919.

Timeline: Hitler in the 1930s

30 January 1933

Hitler takes power in Germany

14 October 1933

Germany withdraws from the Disarmament Conference in Geneva, and leaves the League of Nations

16 March 1935

Hitler announces, in breach of the Versailles Treaty, the reintroduction of conscription and the building of an army of 550,000 men

25–6 March 1935

Visit to Berlin by Sir John Simon, the British foreign secretary, and Anthony Eden, Lord Privy Seal, at which Hitler declared that Germany had attained parity of air strength with Britain

11–14 April 1935

The leaders of Britain, France, and Italy meet at Stresa and agree to contain Germany by upholding the Locarno Pact of 1925, which guaranteed the western borders of the Reich, and to support Austria’s national integrity

18 June 1935

Naval Pact between Britain and Germany, allowing Germany to construct a navy of 35 per cent of the size of the British navy and a submarine fleet equal to the size of Britain’s, stirring French disapproval at the bilateral act undermining the stipulations of the Versailles Treaty

7 March 1936

Hitler announces the remilitarisation of the Rhineland, in contravention of Versailles and Locarno, prompting condemnation but no military intervention by the western Allies, France and Britain

12 March 1938

German troops enter Austria while the western powers look on with disapproval of the methods but acceptance of the result. The Anschluss, or annexation of Austria by Germany, concluded the following day

30 September 1938

The Munich Agreement cedes the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia to Germany; Neville Chamberlain, claims on his return from Munich that he has secured peace

15 March 1939

German troops enter what was left of Czechoslovakia, exposing the hollowness of Hitler’s pretension to expansion restricted to the integration of ethnic Germans

23 August 1939

Talks entered into by Britain to reach an agreement with the Soviet Union to deter German aggression towards Poland are overtaken by the Hitler-Stalin Pact; war was now imminent

The British government remained from the outset in a quandary. “Are we still dealing with the Hitler of Mein Kampf, lulling his opponents to sleep with fair words in order to gain time to arm his people?”, asked Sir Maurice Hankey, secretary to the Cabinet, in October 1933, “or is it a new Hitler, who has discovered the burden of responsible office?”. He had no answer. “That is the riddle that has to be solved”, he concluded. Buying time, and hoping for the best, not planning for the worst, scenario, was what British policy amounted to in these early years of Hitler’s rule. Just how weak Britain was in the face of the menace from Germany became apparent in March 1935 when Hitler told Sir John Simon, on the visit of the Foreign Secretary to Berlin, that the Luftwaffe had attained parity with the British air force. The claim was untrue.

But in Britain the sense of shock was widespread. Only the previous autumn, Stanley Baldwin, soon to become prime minister for a third time, had announced that Britain was substantially ahead of Germany in air armaments. Now it seemed clear that Britain’s defences had been sorely neglected while Germany had been rearming at great speed. Winston Churchill’s dire warnings about German air strength began to strike home. Scapegoats for Britain’s failure to build sufficient air defences were needed. One was immediately at hand: the Secretary of State for Air, Lord Londonderry.

Friendship with Nazi Germany

In a way, Londonderry’s dismissal as air minister in June 1935 was harsh. He had faced severe budgetary limitations on expanding the air force. It was a fact, nonetheless, that little expansion had taken place. He was replaced by the more energetic Philip Cunliffe-Lister and as a sop was given the post of Lord Privy Seal. But in November, Londonderry was sacked from this position too. Together with his growing anger and impatience at the drift in foreign policy, and the failure (in his eyes) of the Foreign Office to “take a strong line with France and insist upon international measures being taken to allow to Germany that measure of justice which we acknowledged was hers”, the bitterness and humiliation he felt pushed him in a new direction, that of open advocacy of friendship with Nazi Germany. His underlying belief was that, through personal contact with Nazi leaders, he might bring about that which the formal diplomacy of the Foreign Office could not achieve: the breakthrough to the understanding between Britain and Germany that in his view was the only way to avoid another war.

At the end of January 1936, Londonderry (accompanied by his wife and daughter) visited Germany, where he had talks with Hitler, Goering, and other Nazi leaders. The German leadership still hoped – though the hopes were already beginning to wane – for the Anglo-German “understanding” that Hitler’s foreign-policy strategy had rested upon since the writing of Mein Kampf in the mid-1920s. Hospitality was lavished on the Londonderrys, as on other British visitors, to impress upon them the positive image of Nazi Germany which might then be transmitted both publicly and privately within Britain. The audience with Hitler was an integral part of this image. He was invariably adept in persuading his visitors of the reasonable nature of his intentions, aimed at rectifying the grievances of the Versailles Treaty and attaining equality with other nations.

Charm offensive: Hitler wooed British visitors

Hitler’s standard image is of the manic ranter and raver at huge mass meetings and rallies. But to the British visitors he wanted to impress in private audiences and use as a conduit for his views, the consummate actor presented quite a different image. There was no ranting and raving. His slightly stiff mannerisms suggested diffidence and a feigned humility. He projected sincerity. A lengthy monologue, with standard components, formed the central part of an audience. There were no histrionics.

Hitler presented himself as a reasonable and amenable advocate of German interests, keen to work for accommodation with Britain, playing on the fears of Communism, anxious above all to prevent another disastrous war in which Britain and Germany might again confront each other. He was invariably polite and measured in his response to points raised.

His visitors met the German dictator in a setting, whether the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, or his alpine retreat near Berchtesgaden, which conveyed the aura of great power. They were from the outset generally impressionable, already in awe of Hitler, and predisposed to accept his forceful, but seemingly not unreasonable arguments, skilfully couched and effectively geared to the interests of his interlocutor. It was all part of a charm offensive.

The message was always the same: Germany’s earnest desire for an understanding with Great Britain, but need for expansion. “It was almost like a wooing by Hitler of the coy Britannia” was how Hitler’s interpreter, Paul Schmidt, put it. And it largely worked. Practically all who spoke privately with Hitler were won over. David Lloyd George, the former Liberal prime minister, announced on his return that Hitler was “a great man”. The pacifist Labour leader, George Lansbury, thought Hitler was prepared to do what was necessary to avoid war. Lord Londonderry, too, came back enthused by what he had seen in Nazi Germany, and convinced that Hitler desired accord with Britain and peace in Europe.

From the German point of view, Londonderry, a member of the aristocracy with connections to British political leadership, seemed ideally placed to carry the message of the desired rapprochement. Londonderry felt courted by his German hosts yet it became obvious to them that he carried little weight at Whitehall; with that recognition, their interest in him declined. But in 1936 the expectations on both sides remained high. Londonderry returned home duly singing the praises of the new Germany and, soon afterwards, defended Hitler’s remilitarisation of the Rhineland. At the end of May, Ribbentrop stayed with the Londonderrys in Northern Ireland. Londonderry went to Germany again in the autumn for a hunting expedition with his host, Hermann Goering, and once more in autumn 1937, but noticed a cooling of relations on the last visit. He became gloomy about the chances of avoiding war – his advocacy of friendship with Germany fell on deaf ears with the British government. Neither Stanley Baldwin nor his successor as prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, showed interest in Londonderry’s reports of his visits to Germany. His best contact in the Cabinet, Lord Halifax (who had replaced him as Lord Privy Seal, and would become foreign secretary in February 1938) was polite and diplomatic in his frequent correspondence with Londonderry, but that was all.

Frustrated by the lack of response, Londonderry published in April 1938 a short book, Ourselves and Germany, in which he defended the German annexation of Austria that had just taken place. In the tense summer of 1938, he went on to support German ambitions on the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. By the time an updated, second edition of his book was published in October, the western allies had ceded the Sudetenland to Germany at the Munich Conference.

Peace and conciliation

The widespread rejoicing in Britain that accompanied Neville Chamberlain’s flight to Munich and triumphal return was a short-lived expression of relief that there would be no war and rapidly gave way to deep misgivings about the morality of the settlement. For Londonderry, and the minority which thought as he did, however, Munich did not represent political and moral humiliation for Britain, but the crowning glory of a policy which ought to have been followed earlier and held out hope of a future of close cooperation between Britain and Germany. Londonderry could, accordingly, refer to Munich as “the fulfilment of all my hopes”, prompting “great happiness” that “all I have advocated has been brought about in a moment of time”.

The following months brought swift disillusionment. In November, as the German synagogues burned during the Kristallnacht pogrom throughout Germany and in the newly acquired territories in Sudetenland and Austria, Londonderry, though latently anti-semitic, could not comprehend the savagery. The scales finally fell from his eyes: the German entry into Prague in March 1939 was a plainly imperialist act of aggression which could no longer be justified as nationalist integration. He admitted that he now had no arguments left, but was still offering to go to Germany in the last-minute hope of avoiding calamity. But the last thing that Lord Halifax and the Foreign Office wanted was an amateur diplomat and German sympathiser sending the wrong signals to Hitler.

German soldiers invading Poland
German soldiers invading Poland during the Blitzkrieg offensive. (Photo by Pressefoto Kindermann/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Once war began, Londonderry retreated in the main to Northern Ireland. In September 1939 it was rumoured that he had been interned as a spy, prompting the MP and political columnist, Harold Nicolson, whose political stance differed sharply from Londonderry’s, to write in The Spectator: “Only a maniac could conceive that his former endeavours to get to know and understand the Nazi leaders were anything but honourable attempts to prevent a disaster which he was one of the first to foresee”. Londonderry voiced staunch support for the war effort, which he saw as a fight for freedom against thraldom under Nazi rule. He concluded that there could now be no cooperation with Nazi Germany, just “a fight to a finish”. He lived out the war in relative seclusion, and in the political cold.

What might have been

Londonderry had wanted to couple friendship with Germany with an intensive programme of rearmament. His view had been that if Germany refused to become a “helpful partner”, she would be “immobilised”. That could only have been achieved while Germany was still militarily weak. But the possibility of a preventive strike was ruled out by both the British and the French governments. Even economic sanctions would have been dependent upon international cooperation which, as Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 was to prove, was not forthcoming. Given American isolation, Anglo-French divisions, and the feebleness of the League of Nations, coordinated action against Germany was out of the question. An Allied commitment to military action could have stopped Hitler in his tracks when his troops entered the demilitarised zone of the Rhineland in March 1936. But hardly anyone in Britain at the time favoured military intervention. Nor, as Hitler knew, were the French prepared to move.  Though Londonderry linked German friendship with British rearmament, Londonderry’s prime emphasis was laid on the former. He was prepared to place trust in German friendship down to and beyond Munich in autumn 1938. By then, with Britain inferior to Germany in armed strength, any hope of backing kind words by strong action had long since gone.

Even if willing alliance with Nazi Germany, such as Londonderry and others wanted, was correctly ruled out as a policy option, could the other form of appeasement, based on reluctant acknowledgement of weakness, have been avoided? Given the rejection of a policy of friendship, or a pre-emptive strike to bring about regime change, the British government was left with the alternatives of containing or deterring Hitler. Containment would have demanded a level of international cooperation and commitment that was not available. Deterrence could only have been achieved through a major programme of rearmament as soon as Hitler came to power. That was not feasible on economic grounds, for a country in deep economic depression and insistent upon balancing the books, or on political grounds, given the widespread opposition to rearmament. Only belatedly did this opposition weaken. By then Hitler was strong, and Britain lagged far behind.

(Photo by Spiegl/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Adolf Hitler, photographed with German workers. (Photo by Spiegl/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Churchill was one of the very few who favoured massive rearmament at an early stage. Londonderry, too, had been right to look to rearmament. But whereas his second cousin, Winston Churchill, increasingly saw peace in Europe coming about only through the armed destruction of Nazi Germany, Londonderry saw peace only through friendship with Hitler. After six years of bitter conflict, the division left one cousin a war hero, the other with a lasting, but undeserved, reputation as a “Nazi Englishman”. Londonderry was misguided and naive. But, in looking for ways to save Europe’s peace, he was not alone in proving gullible to Hitler’s lies.

Ian Kershaw is professor of Modern History at the University of Sheffield and is one of the world’s leading authorities on Hitler

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This article was first published in the November 2004 issue of BBC History Magazine