• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

In the Führer’s Face

1.

Two themes run through the life and career of Charles Stewart Henry Vane-Tempest-Stewart, 7th Marquess of Londonderry. The first is the decline and fall of the British aristocracy; the second is British attitudes toward Hitler and Nazi Germany. They intersect in the person of “Charley” Londonderry because he was an aristocratic survivor in an age of democratic politics who, like many of his kind, saw agreement—friendship is too strong a word—with Hitler as a way of avoiding another war which would finally destroy his kind, and the civilization for which it stood.

Londonderry was an important-enough figure in both stories to make his own well worth telling. Making Friends with Hitler is a spin-off from Kershaw’s monumental two-volume biography of the Führer. The new book is not a full-scale life, which is a pity, for Londonderry’s attitudes in the 1930s require a fuller family and biographical background than Kershaw provides. (It should be read in conjunction with Montgomery Hyde’s admirable history of the Londonderrys.1 ) Kershaw first got interested in the family when, on a guided tour of Mount Stewart, their grand Northern Irish country estate, now a National Trust property, he saw a white Meissen porcelain statuette of a helmeted SS man carrying a Nazi flag on the mantelpiece of what had been Lord Londonderry’s study. “What was it doing there?” This book is an attempt to answer that question.

It’s a curious production. It might be called a sympathetic study, which defends Londonderry from the charge of being pro-Nazi, but only by not taking his ideas or diplomatic efforts seriously. His gullibility and obtuseness are throughout contrasted unfavorably with Winston Churchill’s prescience and clarity. In fact, Churchill’s policy of resisting Hitler gives the book both its personal and its political counterpoint.

Personal, because Winston Churchill, four years’ Londonderry’s senior, happened to be his cousin. With so much blue blood coursing through British foreign policy in the 1930s, it is not irrelevant that Londonderry’s most famous ancestor was the second Viscount Castlereagh, architect of the “concert of Europe” in 1815, who strove “to bring the world to peaceful habits” after the Napoleonic wars, whereas Churchill’s was the first Duke of Marlborough, victor of Blenheim and Ramillies, and champion of the balance of power.2 Castlereagh’s austere character and his inability to deliver his thoughts clearly and concisely were inherited by his descendant, whereas Churchill exhibited the first duke’s eloquence and easy facility for moving between parties and conjuring up broad alliances. Both men, one could say, had a past to live up to. Although Churchill’s gifts were incomparably greater than Londonderry’s, the huge disparity in their final achievements was due to one man—Adolf Hitler.

2.

Originating as Scottish Presbyterians, planted in seventeenth-century Ulster by King James I, Londonderry’s forebears, the Stewarts, owed their rise to marrying money and connection. By the time Charley was born in 1878, the family had acquired a packet of Irish and English peerages and properties—mines in Northumberland, agricultural estates in northeast England, Ireland, and Wales—and lots of well-placed cousins. They were then the fourteenth-largest British landowner, with a gross annual income of £110,000, about £5 million or $9.35 million today. (Income tax was then 5 percent, and there were no inheritance taxes.) They did their main political entertaining in a sumptuous London palace, Londonderry House in Park Lane. Circulating around the five family houses, which included Mount Stewart in County Down, Northern Ireland, meant that Charley never stayed in the same place for more than ten days.

He was educated at Eton, where Edward Wood, later foreign secretary as Earl of Halifax, was his “fag” or schoolboy servant, and the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. He was commissioned in a crack cavalry regiment, the Royal Horse Guards (“The Blues”), in 1897, and married Edith Chaplin, granddaughter of the Duke of Sutherland, two years later. A woman of beauty, spirit, and strong Tory opinions, her devotion to her sometimes erring husband, and her shameless wire-pulling on his behalf, gave a boost to a political career always in danger of being becalmed.

In 1906 Charley left the army, and became Conservative MP for Maidstone in Kent, holding his seat as Viscount Castlereagh. When he succeeded his father as Marquess of Londonderry in 1915, his Commons career ended, and he transferred to the House of Lords, by then very much the inferior of the two Houses in power. To move from soldier to politician was quite usual for aristocratic males in the heyday of empire: soldiering was for pleasure, politics for duty. The young Churchill followed the same career path, with considerably greater panache in both departments. (It was his great luck not to inherit the ducal title, being the son of a second son.)

For the aristocracy politics was a branch of estate management. As Charley’s own son Robin was to write, “It is the only job that gives one a chance of taking an intelligent interest in the various properties my Father owns.” Charley himself hankered for a serious, not just ornamental, political career. In 1931 he turned down the governor-generalship of Canada, writing to King George V that “the positions in which we are invited to represent Your Majesty are rapidly be-coming sinecures…[with] no responsible duties to perform.” A peerage had in fact become a political liability: no inherited sense of duty, wealth, or connections could make up for the lack of a seat in the House of Commons.

At the outbreak of war, Edith arranged for Charley to have a staff job, but he insisted on rejoining his regiment. He saw service in the battles of the Somme and Arras, witnessed the mass slaughter firsthand, was mentioned in dispatches. “These experiences,” Kershaw briefly comments, “would leave an indelible mark with him.” By contrast, Churchill, in the opinion of many of his contemporaries, “loved war.” It appealed to his ancestral imagination. Nothing he saw in his brief period at the front (which terminated before the Battle of the Somme) produced the revulsion against the slaughter that affected so many of the “war generation.”

In 1917 Londonderry, after more networking by Edith, was given indefinite leave from the army, and resumed his political career as Ulster Unionist delegate to the “Irish Convention” set up by Lloyd George in response to the Dublin uprising of 1916. He proposed a federal Ireland within a federal United Kingdom, a sensible way of keeping Ireland in the Union, which was predictably rejected by all sides. A year later he was rescued from what he called “local magnate” status by Winston Churchill, then secretary of state for war and air, who offered him a job in the Air Ministry—the first of his government appointments by connection. The appointment also linked his political life to aviation, for which he had a genuine enthusiasm. He qualified as a pilot at the age of fifty-six, and used to enjoy flying above his house before breakfast.

In 1921 Londonderry accepted an invitation from Sir James Craig, prime minister of the newly devolved government of Ulster, to become leader of the Senate and minister of education in his government. Refusing an offer from Prime Minister Bonar Law to join the British Cabinet as air minister, he said it would be “like leaving the front line for a soft billet at GHQ.” He soldiered on in Ulster for three years, with his main legislative achievement, the “Londonderry Act,” aimed at ending segregated education for Protestants and Catholics. He resigned in 1924 and his life for the next three years, according to Montgomery Hyde, consisted of “looking after his estates and his collieries, indulging his interest in horse breeding and racing, hunting, shooting, sailing, playing bridge, and entertaining with his wife in their various country houses, as well as in London….” Londonderry’s industrial attitudes were rooted in the past. He was a paternalistic employer, who kept open unprofitable mines to save miners from unemployment, but he objected if they formed a trade union or went on strike. It is interesting, though unrecorded by Kershaw, that he supported Lloyd George’s “New Deal” for the unemployed in 1935.

It was at Churchill’s prompting that Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin appointed Londonderry to his Cabinet as first commissioner of works in 1928. Edith deserves some of the credit. She had become London’s leading political hostess, giving huge formal receptions at Londonderry House on the eve of the annual openings of Parliament. David Cannadine writes: “Greeting her guests at the top of the famous staircase, in the company of the Prime Minister of the day, she was the glamorous embodiment of traditional aristocratic social power.”3 On hearing of Londonderry’s appointment, the Conservative MP Cuthbert Headlam cynically remarked, “One can’t use a man’s hospitality and not give him a job if he wants it.” Lord Birkenhead talked of him “catering his way to the Cabinet.”

Edith was also a great help with his next appointment. She had formed an improbable friendship with the Labour Party’s leader, James Ramsay MacDonald, an elderly Scottish widower, for whom she provided an outlet for his bottled-up amorousness and an escape into a world in which he would have liked to be born. He poured out his feelings in flirtatious letters which Kershaw rightly finds “particularly grating in style and embarrassing in expression.” Her wooing of Labour’s leader was not in vain. On November 5, 1931, it was announced that Lord Londonderry had been appointed secretary of state for air in the new “National” (in fact, mainly Conservative) government, which MacDonald had formed during the financial crisis.4 His previous jobs had all rested “heavily on patronage linked to his aristocratic status and connections.” He was now “Ramsay’s man,” rather than Churchill’s or Baldwin’s, but with a patron much less able to protect him from his limitations than the previous two had been.

3.

The Air Ministry was a more exposed job than any of Londonderry’s previous political appointments. This was not because he was ignorant of aviation. He knew more about it than anyone else in the government, and certainly more than Churchill did. It was because the air force in the first half of the 1930s was at the center of the debate about foreign policy, and it was Londonderry’s misfortune, though not altogether his fault, to fall foul of the successive phases through which this debate ran.

At the start the public mood was heavily in favor of disarmament. The world Disarmament Conference opened at Geneva in February 1932 under the presidency of Labour’s ex–foreign secretary, Arthur Henderson. Disarmament was left over from the Versailles Treaty of 1919, which had imposed severe arms limitations on Germany as a prelude to general disarmament. In the pre-Keynesian world, the bottom of a world depression seemed a good moment to try for a general reduction in military spending. This would promote economic recovery and secure disarmament and German equality at the same time. In fact, rearmament could have provided the economy with the stimulus it needed.

  1. 1

    H. Montgomery Hyde, The Londonderrys (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1979).

  2. 2

    The two families were related through the marriage of the third Marchioness of Londonderry’s oldest daughter to the seventh Duke of Marlborough. Churchill’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was the first cousin of the sixth Marquess of Londonderry, Charley’s father.

  3. 3

    David Cannadine, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (Yale University Press, 1990), p. 344.

  4. 4

    MacDonald had resigned as prime minister of the minority Labour government on August 25, 1931, when a large minority of the Cabinet rejected cuts in unemployment benefits. The King persuaded him to form a “National” government to save the pound, which was made up almost exclusively of Conservatives and Liberals, with the Labour Party going into opposition. The pound was forced off the gold standard in any case on September 21, 1931, but MacDonald called a general election for October 27, 1931, asking for a “doctor’s mandate,” and the National government was returned to power with a majority, the Labour Party being almost obliterated. MacDonald’s “betrayal” of his party was widely attributed to the “aristocratic embrace” to which he had succumbed, and in particular to the machinations of Lady Londonderry.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print