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.


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.



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.

The Disarmament Conference achieved nothing. It proved impossible to combine the German demand for equality of armaments with the French desire for security, which depended on France having larger forces than Germany’s. The only way this circle might have been squared was for the British to have made a military commitment to support France. But this they refused to give, Anthony Eden remarking at Geneva that “we cannot accept new obligations.” On this rock the Disarmament Conference foundered. Its futile proceedings at Geneva coincided with Hitler’s accession to power in January 1933, and it expired unlamented in 1934. Londonderry agreed with MacDonald that France was the main obstacle to the pacification of Europe. In a sense he always stuck to the Geneva agenda of making peace by negotiating arms pacts.

However, there was a British sub-plot which affected him more particularly as air minister. Britain was chiefly interested in disarmament of air forces, since the possibility of being bombed removed the traditional protection of the English Channel. On November 10, 1932, Baldwin proclaimed that “the bomber will always get through”—true enough before the days of radar. He wanted to abolish bombers altogether.5 Both Londonderry and the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Edward Ellington, were keen to retain bombers, partly to control rebellions in outlying parts of the British Empire, especially Iraq. Londonderry fought unavailingly against Treasury-imposed cuts in air expenditure. But when the Disarmament Conference resolved to ban the first use of bombers, he was allowed by MacDonald to announce at Geneva the “Londonderry exception,” giving Britain the right to retain bombing for imperial tasks. This annoyed Baldwin and infuriated the peace movement. Londonderry was dubbed “the bomber’s friend.” The East Fulham by-election of October 1933 saw a huge government majority turn into a Labour victory. This was regarded as showing the strength of pacifist feeling. In this climate, Londonderry’s stubborn defense of bombers was distinctly unfashionable.

He was to get even more out of line in the years that followed. In March 1934, faced with evidence of illegal German rearmament of air forces, Baldwin declared that Britain would not allow itself to “be in a position inferior to any country within striking distance of our shores.” Astonishingly, Kershaw argues, Londonderry, “far from grasping the opportunity presented by this shift in policy, was prepared to accept a relatively mod-est level of [British] expansion….” Churchill attacked the government’s air rearmament program as too tardy and too meager.

In a parliamentary debate in November 1934 Baldwin used figures supplied by the Air Ministry (that is, Londonderry) to refute Churchill’s charge that Germany’s illegal air force was “rapidly approaching equality with our own.” When Hitler announced in March 1935 that Germany had already achieved air parity with Britain, Baldwin was furious with Londonderry for having given him the wrong figures.

Under attack from the left for his defense of bombing and from the right for his inability to provide for Britain’s air defenses, Londonderry was politically finished. Baldwin sacked him from the Air Ministry as soon as he became prime minister in June 1935, and a few months later dropped him from the Cabinet altogether. Churchill later wrote that “after having gone through several years of asking for more,” Londonderry was “suddenly turned out for not asking enough.”

Although the argument about comparative air strengths is quite technical, we now know that Churchill was exaggerating, Hitler was bluffing, and Londonderry was right.6 Kershaw acknowledges that the technical innovations that enabled the British to defeat the Luftwaffe in 1940 date from Londonderry’s time. That’s about as much as any air minister could have done, in view of the Treasury’s stranglehold on finance. Londonderry’s limitations, on which Kershaw dwells unduly—especially his lack of political authority—had no real effect, one way or another.


Kershaw’s serious argument with Londonderry starts after he left office, and covers the years between 1935 and 1937, when he tried to “make friends” with Hitler to avert another European war. Londonderry went to Germany five times in that period, but the most important encounters were his two visits in January and October 1936, when he met Hitler and Goering, and Ribbentrop’s visits to Mount Stewart in May and to Wynyard in County Durham in November 1936. Kershaw gives a striking account of these meetings. Political conversation with Goering and Ribbentrop was interspersed with much shooting of birds and animals. Londonderry was impressed by Hitler, as were many other foreign visitors who met him at the time. Hitler was on his best behavior, didn’t rant, and said he wanted a “close friendly alliance” with Britain to avoid the “absolute madness” of another war. At a reception he talked to Edith about comedy films, and “looked rather comical himself.”

Less comical was a torchlight parade of storm troopers, viewed from the balcony of the Reich Chancellery. “This means war, Charley,” said Lord Londonderry’s mother. The Londonderrys liked Goering, the most personable of the Nazi leaders, and kept up a correspondence with him over two years. They were less taken with the others. Edith said Himmler reminded her of a department store supervisor at Harrod’s. They both disliked Ribbentrop, who reminded their friend the Conservative MP and diarist “Chips” Channon of “the captain of someone’s yacht.”

It was Ribbentrop who bequeathed the statuette of the storm trooper to Mount Stewart. On his second visit to the Londonderrys, when Ribbentrop attended the mayoral service at Durham Cathedral, Kershaw relates that when the German national anthem was played, Ribbentrop gave the Nazi Sieg Heil, and “his arm had to be gently but swiftly lowered by the adjacent Lord Londonderry.” The Germans found Londonderry “the perfect type of old-world aristocrat.” Ker-shaw comments, “Londonderry, in other words, had been gullible.” He conveys well the social awkwardness of these contacts, but why does he play the same game as the Londonderrys when he says that Neville Chamberlain “looked like a provincial bank-manager or chairman of a small-town solicitor’s practice”? What do such people look like?

A more important failing is that Kershaw both overstates Londonderry’s distance from “official circles” and understates his usefulness to the British government. At a time when both countries were probing each other’s intentions, it was useful to have a go-between. Londonderry’s houses could also be used for private contacts. His role is particularly well captured in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day (1989), whose Lord Darlington is modeled on Londonderry. Kershaw records that when Ribbentrop stayed at Mount Stewart, three squadrons of RAF planes landed on the grounds. The show, Kershaw notes, had been devised to “impress Ribbentrop with the power of the British air force.” Devised by whom? It could scarcely have happened without the approval of the government. Kershaw claims that there was no chance of the British government taking Hitler’s 1936 peace offensive seriously as Londonderry wanted it to do. But he admits that Baldwin himself wanted to meet Hitler in May 1936 and was only dissuaded from doing so by the Foreign Office.

By 1937 the romance had cooled. The Germans realized that Londonderry couldn’t “deliver” the British alliance they wanted; Londonderry had come to realize that Hitler would not trim his behavior or demands to British susceptibilities and interests. As Ribbentrop accurately reported to Hitler, an arrangement with Britain would be difficult “because Germany wants to shape her future in a way which is different from what England is apparently prepared to grant.” By 1938 Londonderry had faded from the picture as Neville Chamberlain took on the active management of “appeasement” policy. The only consequence of his much-publicized traffic with the Nazi elite was ruin to his reputation. Having started the 1930s as MacDonald’s poodle, he was now seen as Hitler’s apologist.

The charge is largely, but not completely, unfair. Londonderry would never have thought of introducing the Nazi system into Britain. But there were aspects of the Nazi regime—or at least achievement—that impressed him. As his son wrote, “to robust Conservatives like Mother[,] Nazism makes a certain appeal—[through] its anti-Jew & anti-Russia character & its impatience at the dilatoriness of democracy.” This applied to Father, too. As he wrote to Ribbentrop, “I have no great affection for the Jews.” He regarded Hitler’s anti-Semitic policy as an internal matter for Germany. But he could not understand why the German leadership was willing to risk alienating external goodwill through persecution of the Jews; and Nazism’s ferocious and pitiless anti-Semitism ultimately helped convince him that Hitler was not willing to make any real sacrifice for peace. His public condemnation of Kristallnacht, on December 13, 1938, was admirably robust; he would not countenance, he said, handing over any

populations which looked to us for protection…to the tender mercies of a country which seemed disposed to exterminate [!] a section of its population, or to allow them to live in conditions of such a barbarous character as to call for the condemnation of every right-minded man or woman throughout the civilized world. [The exclamation mark is Kershaw’s.]

At the time of the Munich Agreement, which handed the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia to Germany, Londonderry and Churchill had a fu-rious row at Grillions, an exclusive London dining club. Londonderry said France was rotten and unreliable; Churchill apparently lost his temper and subjected his cousin to a verbal fusillade that left him shattered. “The …difference…between us,” Londonderry wrote to Churchill soon afterward, was

that I wanted to get hold of the Germans when they were weak and practically defenceless and try to make them good members of the comity of nations as Castlereagh did with France, and you… never believed that policy could succeed…. My policy was never tried until it was, I regret to say it, too late.

Churchill confirmed the first part of this diagnosis of their differences:

I am quite sure that there never was and there never will be any chance of a satisfactory arrangement between the German Nazi party and the British nation, and I am very sorry that we did not begin to arm on a great scale, especially in the air, when the menace of this violent party first appeared.

This quarrel shows how imprisoned both men were in their ancestral stereotypes. Londonderry conjured up the shade of Castlereagh in support of the “concert of Europe”; Churchill summoned up the long tradition of British foreign policy in support of the balance of power, by means of which Britain had “preserved the liberties of Europe” and emerged “after four terrible struggles with an ever-growing fame and widening Empire.”7

Londonderry told “Chips” Channon that the row at Grillions had cost him a job in Churchill’s wartime administration. This was wishful thinking; in his more reflective moments he understood that he had “backed the wrong horse.” During the war, he retreated to Mount Stewart and helped with military recruitment there. Largely unemployed, he spent most of his hours trying to vindicate himself, writing many letters justifying his pre-war stands and attempting to prove that he was right and Churchill wrong about the statistics of air power in 1935. In a flash of self-knowledge he acknowledged that he had had “great chances,” but “missed them by not being good enough.” At Londonderry House, he now answered the front door himself, whereas before the war it had “28 servants in the kitchen room and 16 in the stewards'” room. Crippled by a glider accident in 1945, Londonderry suffered a series of minor strokes before dying at Mount Stewart in 1949. Londonderry House, partly destroyed by German bombing, was demolished in 1962 to make way for a hotel. Its passing was a symbol of the demolition of a whole social edifice.


Kershaw has an interesting story to tell, and he tells it well, but he missed the chance to write a truly distinguished book. One problem is that he is not really a historian of Great Britain, and the prologue in which he sets the scene is stereotyped and cliché-ridden. The tenacious way in which the British aristocracy managed to hold on to power and wealth in the nineteenth century; the carnage of lives visited on the aristocrats by the First World War, which, for them, amounted to Britain’s version of the Red revolution; the catastrophic collapse in aristocratic self-confidence—these are sketched in as background, but not adequately integrated into Londonderry’s personal history. Nor is the personal impact on him of the First World War, leading to a desire to avoid another European war at almost any price. One in five British and Irish peers and their sons were killed. They included not only Londonderry’s two best friends, but family and school friends he grew up with. Was “gullibility” the quality one would most want to single out in Londonderry’s quest for peace?

Could democratic Britain have worked out a deal with Nazi Germany? “Even to pose the question,” writes Kershaw, “…now seems distasteful.” But he tries to answer it. The official British government position was that since Germany was going to rearm anyway, the double aim of British policy should be to rearm as quickly as public opinion and economic constraints (as they were then interpreted) allowed, and to try to bind Germany to arms limitation and other agreements. Hitler, in this view, was to be allowed to tear up the Versailles Treaty but in a controlled and agreed-on way, with increasing German strength matched by increasing British strength. Baldwin was prepared to go further. If there was any “fighting in Europe to be done,” he told senior Conservatives in 1936, he would like to see “the Bolshies and the Nazis doing it.” British interests required only support for the Low Countries and France.8 Londonderry differed from these positions in that he wanted to refuse France a veto over British policy, to test by negotiation every peace proposal Hitler made, and to try to get Germany to “state its aims.”

Kershaw argues forcefully that both Londonderry’s policy of getting Germany to “state its aims” and official British policy of locking Germany into arms or territorial agreements would not have worked. Hitler aimed at world domination and could not therefore be “tied down.” His technique, Kershaw writes, was to engineer a foreign policy coup, as with his occupation of the Rhineland in March 1936, and then tease the democracies with far-reaching peace proposals, which he knew would never be accepted. Nor could he be deterred from pursuing his expansionist aims in view of the slowness of British and French rearmament. Furthermore, a containment policy depended on a degree of international cooperation that could not be achieved. In short, Hitler could not be deterred, contained, or tied down. There was no acceptable peace available.

It depends on what one means by “acceptable.” Kershaw concedes that Britain could have averted a Western war for up to twenty-five years had it accepted Hitler’s various peace offers made in 1935 and 1936. But the price “would have been a free hand in eastern Europe,” which would have “gradually and inexorably” led to Britain’s reduction to satellite status, and the “evaporation” of its world empire:

There is little doubt that German race policies would have been introduced in Britain…. Eventually, when Germany came to take on the United States, Britain would have been under pressure to join in on the German side. Meanwhile, war against the Soviet Union would have been launched—but with British backing.

Given these probable consequences, “far from being avoidable, it was absolutely necessary for Britain, whatever the cost, to fight the war to defeat Nazism.”

The issue here is not whether Britain should have gone to war in September 1939, after Hitler invaded Poland. Londonderry supported the decision, as did the overwhelming majority of the British people. The question is whether Londonderry’s policy of seeking a comprehensive agreement with Germany could have averted a war between the two countries. Kershaw thinks that it could, but only at the cost of Britain’s destruction as a world power. This has always struck me as a dangerous line of argument, because it attempts to minimize the benefits of an actually existing peace by postulating a chain of horrendous but hypothetical costs of peace stretching into a distant future. Whether it takes the form of a “domino” theory or a doctrine of preventive war, this line of reasoning always presumes that we have very much more knowledge of the future than we in fact do. The truth is that we don’t know what would have happened in the 1930s and 1940s under an alternative policy, only what did happen. Churchill was no more prescient than was Londonderry, but he turned out luckier—because British casualties in World War II were relatively light, and because, once war started, Hitler turned out to be even madder and wickeder than Churchill believed.

History will never give us the right answers, but it may help us to ask the right questions. What weight should one attach to preserving peace as against other foreign policy objectives? What conditions must be satisfied for a war to be morally justifiable? Can you discern a regime’s intentions from the nature of its government? Is tolerable coexistence possible with an evil regime? These are contemporary questions, and if Kershaw’s book does nothing else it will help us to see the dilemmas of our own times through Londonderry’s eyes.

This Issue

February 24, 2005