On 7 March 1939, a plane touched down on the tarmac at Croydon airport to be greeted by a scrum of photographers and reporters, angling for a scoop. The propellers came to a halt, the plane’s doors opened, and out stepped Reichsfrauenführerin Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, leader of the National Socialist Women’s League (NS-Frauenschaft) and a figure dubbed by Adolf Hitler as the “perfect Nazi woman”.
By refusing to answer any of the reporters’ questions, and immediately ducking into an awaiting car, Scholtz-Klink merely fed an already feverish press’s suspicions about her motives for being in Britain.
Indeed, those among the press of a more conspiratorial bent believed the real purpose of Scholtz-Klink’s visit was entirely sinister. One reporter, Richard Baxter, would allege that she was in England to secretly liaise with German and Austrian girls who had been planted in British homes by their spy ringleader, the wife of the former German ambassador, Anna von Ribbentrop.
Baxter’s imagination may have been running away with him but he was far from alone in wondering aloud what a prominent Nazi leader was doing in London at a moment when relations between Britain and Germany were rapidly taking a turn for the worse.
What makes Scholtz-Klink’s visit unusual is that it has attracted any attention at all. As we mark the 75th anniversary of the countdown to the Second World War, it must be said that for too long the story of the Britons who sought to appease the Nazis has been told with the women left out.
On 30 September 1938, Neville Chamberlain had also stepped off a plane to be greeted by a posse of reporters – this time at Heston aerodrome in west London. The prime minister’s announcement that day that he had secured “peace for our time” following his ill-fated Munich Agreement with Hitler has since been debated in infinite detail. Female contributions to appeasement have, however, been largely ignored.
But the fact is, in the late 1930s, prominent women in British public life forged links with the Nazi party, and were involved in numerous attempts at reconciliation. And it was these efforts to strike up a dialogue with Germany’s leaders that brought Scholtz-Klink to London in March 1939 – only days before Hitler sounded the death knell of the Munich Agreement by marching into Prague.
Ostensibly, the purpose of the visit – at the invitation of Prunella Stack of a British organisation called the Women’s League of Health and Beauty – was to study “social conditions”. Stack was returning the hospitality that Scholtz-Klink had extended to her when she had taken a Women’s League delegation to a physical education congress in Hamburg in the summer of 1938. There was, however, a lot more to Scholtz-Klink’s visit than that.
The Reichsfrauenführerin had also arrived at the request of the Anglo-German Fellowship, a pro-Conservative and pro-business but not overtly pro-Nazi organisation set up in 1935 to host dinners and other events in honour of cultural friendship and commercial ties between the two countries.
That the Nazi leadership approved of the visit is beyond doubt: deputy führer Rudolf Hess actively endorsed the decision to accept the invitation. The Reich foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, was also informed.
The show goes on
In January 1939 a member of Hess’s staff asked one of Ribbentrop’s senior department chiefs if the visit should still go ahead “in view of the changed situation”. This was presumably a reference to worsening Anglo-German relations as it became clear that Hitler wasn’t going to honour the Munich Agreement. However, the German Foreign Office agreed to continue as planned, and in February Scholtz-Klink was formally invited by the ambassador’s wife, Hilda von Dirksen, to use the London embassy as her place of residence during her stay.
If Scholtz-Klink was hoping to win over the British press during her visit, she was to be disappointed. Richard Baxter took exception to her lack of sex appeal, remarking that she had the “biggest pair of feet I had ever seen on a woman”, and describing her as “a dour, irritable Hun who could not even sum up sufficient decency to be civil to the authorities at Croydon, much less the representatives of the press who had come to welcome her”.
Others used Scholtz-Klink’s meetings with Stack as an opportunity to compare Anglo-Saxon and Aryan female types in a duelling atmosphere charged with political, ideological and racial tension.
The German press was far less animated by Scholtz-Klink’s visit, reflecting a general view in the Third Reich that diplomacy did not belong in the realm of women. The official party newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, carried a report on 9 March noting that Scholtz-Klink’s presence in London had aroused “great interest in the English press”, but there was no mention of any impact on Anglo-German relations. Two days later the same paper carried the briefest and blandest of notes on her return home, commenting merely that she had “used her trip to London to visit a number of women’s groups and welfare organisations”.
It is worth stressing, though, that Scholtz-Klink’s three-day stay in Britain came after several weeks of mounting anti-British rhetoric in the Nazi press, including attacks on Britain’s “unjustified” meddling in internal German matters (a reference to growing criticism of Germany’s persecution of the Jews) and its “hypocrisy” in world affairs.
In contrast, her four-day voyage to Italy in late February and early March 1939 had received much more extensive and favourable coverage at home. It was emphasised, for instance, that the Reichsfrauenführerin had met with leading figures in the government in Rome, including the prime minister Benito Mussolini, the crown prince Umberto and the secretary of the Fascist party, Achille Starace.
Unlike the Italians, the British didn’t wheel out the prime minister or a high-ranking member of the royal family for Scholtz-Klink’s visit, but that didn’t stop the Nazi leader meeting some of the most influential women in the country. The Anglo-German Fellowship leapt at the chance to host a dinner in her honour at Claridge’s and filled her table with an impressive list of dignitaries that included Viscountess Halifax, wife of the British foreign secretary; the Dowager Marchioness of Reading, chairman of the Women’s Voluntary Services for Civil Defence; and Lady Violet Astor, controller of the County of London Auxiliary Territorial Service.
Guest of honour
Elsewhere in the room sat representatives of over a dozen organisations such as the British Red Cross, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, the National Women’s Citizens’ Association, the National Council of Women of Great Britain and the National Council for Maternity and Child Welfare.
The guest of honour gave a speech in German about women’s work in the Reich, and Scottish MP Florence Horsbrugh replied by discussing the work of leading women’s organisations in Britain.
Scholtz-Klink then spent the next couple of days visiting various ideologically compatible women’s organisations that advocated women’s domesticity, such as the Mothercraft training school at Highgate, the League of Health and Beauty, and the Lapswood training school for girls. It was ironic indeed that the same women’s organisations that rolled out the red carpet for Scholtz-Klink were, all the while, gearing up for war with Nazi Germany by, for example, training women for wartime national service.
Yet not everyone welcomed Scholtz-Klink to Britain with open arms. Not surprisingly, her presence in London was met with some feminist anti-fascist protest. For them, this was one Nazi encounter too many, far too close to home, and conspicuous for its poor timing.
Twelve members of the Women’s Committee for Peace and Democracy walked in a single line from Tottenham Court Road to the German embassy in Carlton House Terrace, their posters reading “Clear Out Scholtz-Klink”, “Hitler Wants War, We Want Peace”, “No Nazi Klink for British Women”, and in German “Freedom for the Women of Hitler’s Concentration Camps”.
Scholtz-Klink’s status as the leader of the reactionary NS-Frauenschaft that had risen to displace and then replace the once vibrant German women’s movement meant that the senior female MP Lady Nancy Astor had no interest in making her acquaintance, judging that her activities “give no recognition to the rights of women in any sphere but the home”. Although Lady Astor was herself implicated in appeasement and behind-the-scenes Anglo-German relations as the hostess of the so-called Cliveden Set, she was also a staunch feminist, and objected to Nazism on the grounds that the regime represented an assault on working women.
So what was the significance of Scholtz-Klink’s arrival in London at this most strained moment in the descent to war? If nothing else, her visit highlights the varied roles that women played in shaping Anglo-German relations in the 1930s. While it would be rash to tar as pro-Nazi all the women who extended the hand of friendship to the Reichsfrauenführerin in March 1939, her visit was nonetheless one of many efforts made by women to avert war and to demonstrate their appeasement credentials.
Scholtz-Klink was not a diplomat but her trip was certainly intended to foster mutual understanding between British and German women. In this sense it was largely a failure; it did little to alter what historian Richard Overy describes as “the growing public acceptance [in Britain] in 1938 and 1939 of a necessary showdown” with Nazi Germany and associated “forces of darkness”.
And yet, what is perhaps most significant is how this event has been almost entirely ignored by historians and thus largely forgotten. It is time that women should be recognised in the history of appeasement.
The hand of friendship: four women who shaped Anglo-German relations
Prominent Scottish MP and arch-appeaser
Horsbrugh was first returned as MP for Dundee in 1931, and was re-elected in 1935. She took a keen interest in international affairs, and was a delegate to the League of Nations assembly in 1933, 1934 and 1935.
She was also a strong supporter of prime minister Neville Chamberlain, and as such was an ardent critic of the Duchess of Atholl, her fellow Scottish Conservative and Unionist MP, who came out publicly against appeasement. Horsbrugh was appointed to a junior post as secretary to the Ministry of Health from 1939–45.
The Nazi leader whose visit to Britain caused a furore
Scholtz-Klink was the Reich Women’s leader in Nazi Germany from February 1934, placed in charge of the pro-Nazi National Socialist Women’s League and the more broadly based umbrella body, the German Women’s Enterprise.
In spite of her high profile, Scholtz-Klink was subordinate to male colleagues and lacked real authority. For instance, she was forced to cede control of young women to the Reich youth leader Baldur von Schirach, and of women workers to the German Labour Front leader, Robert Ley.
Her first husband died of a heart attack in 1930. She married two more times, dying in 1999 at the age of 97.
The fitness pioneer who invited Scholtz-Klink to Britain
Stack was known as “the most physically perfect girl in the world” and, from 1936, was head of the League of Health and Beauty, a pioneer in organised women’s physical fitness.
In October 1938, just as Chamberlain was in his honeymoon period with the public after signing the Munich Agreement, she married David Douglas-Hamilton, the youngest son of the 13th Duke of Hamilton. The Hamilton family had a tangled relationship with Nazi Germany: in May 1941, when deputy führer Rudolf Hess flew to Scotland on his ill-fated peace mission, he claimed he was coming to see the Duke of Hamilton. Stack died in 2010, aged 96.
She slammed the Nazis’ record on women’s rights
Astor was elected to parliament in 1919, and was the first woman to take her seat, serving as an MP until 1945.
As a fiery and quick-witted but not always discreet political hostess, she became identified as one of the main protagonists in the so-called Cliveden Set (from 1937), a group of upper class, right-wing individuals, named after Astor’s house at Cliveden in Buckinghamshire.
While a staunch supporter of Chamberlain and of appeasement, Astor was also a determined feminist who believed that the Nazis denied the rights of women – except in the home. She was involved in a number of campaigns to free women imprisoned in Nazi Germany. Violet Astor (who, unlike Nancy, did attend Scholtz-Klink’s lunch at Claridge’s), was her sister-in-law.
Dr Julie Gottlieb is senior lecturer in history at the University of Sheffield and Matthew Stibbe is professor of modern European history at Sheffield Hallam University.
This article was first published in the March 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine