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. ) 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. 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.
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 …