Excerpts from a review in the London Review of Books, discuss:
Musical Chairs with Ribbentrop [aka “Brickendrop“]
Nancy: The Story of Lady Astor by Adrian Fort
Playing musical chairs with the Nazis (and letting them win) seems almost too perfect an image for the particular brand of appeasement Astor and her ‘Cliveden set’ embraced. Cliveden in Buckinghamshire had been given to Nancy and her husband Waldorf as a wedding present by his father, William Waldorf Astor, who had called it ‘the most magnificent wedding gift ever made, I should imagine’: a Palladian mansion in 375 acres on the banks of the Thames. Waldorf and Nancy hosted epic house parties there, welcoming, among others, Shaw, Amy Johnson, Roosevelt (F.D.), Henry Ford, Asquith, Charlie Chaplin, J.M. Barrie, Churchill, Henry James, Edith Wharton, kings and queens and Mahatma Gandhi. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand spent a weekend there not long before his assassination. By the 1930s, the guest list – both at Cliveden and in St James’s Square – had evolved. Now, the Astors frequently invited Geoffrey Dawson, editor of the Times, Nevile Henderson, ambassador to Germany, and Philip Kerr, the Marquess of Lothian, a Christian Scientist like Nancy, and one of several to express the view that in marching into the Rhineland, Germany was merely walking into its own backyard. Nancy and Waldorf also regularly entertained Neville Chamberlain…
The Cliveden set was ridiculed in Reynolds News as a kind of upper-class pro-Hitler cabal. It was felt that the house was becoming a second, covert Foreign Office, with the expertise of civil servants being trounced by cocktail party consensus. ‘For 18 months,’ the paper reported, ‘Cliveden has been the centre of friendship with German influence.’ There was some truth in it. After his merry game of musical chairs, Ribbentrop reported to Hitler on the likelihood of England and Germany forging a lasting agreement. He singled out the Astorgruppe as one of the circles ‘that want a fresh understanding with Germany and who hold that it would not basically be impossible to achieve’.
Nancy herself, however, was irked by the view that the parties at Cliveden represented any kind of pro-German conspiracy. And in her defence, she was no Diana Mosley. Waldorf may have been one of the first in Britain to meet with Hitler face to face, but it was not from any love of National Socialism. Waldorf wrote to the Times to defend the Cliveden house parties and to insist that he and ‘Lady Astor’ were ‘no more fascists’ than communists: ‘To link our weekends with any particular clique is as absurd as is the allegation that those of us who desire to establish better relations with Germany or Italy are pro-Nazis or pro-Fascists.’ Like many in their circle, the Astors were very conscious of the heavy burden the Treaty of Versailles had imposed on Germany and feared, as many did, the anarchy of another Great War. Yet much of what seemed to be pro-German bias in Nancy’s thinking reflected instead a deep hatred and suspicion of the Russians on the one hand and the French on the other. Adrian Fort, in his new biography, argues persuasively that ‘on European matters a paramount influence upon Nancy seemed to be an aversion to the French’ and to ‘Latins in general’…
And an interesting and relevant book:
The Führer’s friend
Ian Kershaw shows how the seventh Marquess of Londonderry had a knack for always backing the wrong horse in his biography of Churchill’s ‘half-wit’ cousin, Making Friends with Hitler
Making Friends with Hitler: Lord Londonderry and Britain’s Road to War
…Londonderry actually managed to make Ribbentrop look good, snatching back the over-generous half-crown tip that he gave to a golf caddie and replacing it with a shilling. Wits called the pro-Nazi nobleman “The Londonderry Herr”.
Ian Kershaw seeks to use the Marquess as a case study in appeasement. Londonderry’s story, he says, was “a mirror of Britain’s struggle to come to grips with the problem of Hitler”. It casts light on the mentalities and political structures that shaped British foreign policy during the 1930s. It is also “an elegy on the decline and fall of the British aristocracy”. Needless to say, Kershaw’s account of all this is scholarly and meticulous. It is based on a wealth of original sources and a comprehensive understanding of the period. The trouble is, though, that Londonderry was too much of an oddity to be a representative figure…
From another review of the book:
…The governor generalship of Canada, which he could have had, he scorned. As things were, he never made it higher than minister for air…
Londonderry was not the worst of air ministers. It was enterprising of him to learn to fly. The RAF liked him well enough and some good things were done under his direction, not least the groundwork for the Hurricane and the Spitfire. By 1934, many good judges believed that the likely enemy was going to be Germany, and Londonderry was blamed for failing to keep a sharp enough eye on the emerging Luftwaffe, its menace powerfully brought before the public by his Churchill cousin. Insensitive and stubborn, Londonderry played his cards poorly when defending his record and, with rearmament clearly being mandatory, he was moved to a less significant post. He never ceased to feel he had been badly treated, particularly since he had actually supported the (modest) rearmament programme. At the same time, it distressed him to believe that Germany had to be the enemy. So he became involved in the great debate about Appeasement.
Just 40 when the First World War came to an end, Londonderry shared the usual opinion that such a war must never be allowed to happen again. He was unusual in revealing from early on a disposition to be more understanding of Germany’s concerns than of those of France. He didn’t much like foreigners, but he disliked Germans less than he disliked the French. Kershaw duly notes but cannot explain the sources of this antipathy. One of the similarities between the real-life Lord Londonderry and the fictional Lord Darlington of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day [a wonderful novel] is Gallophobia…
Mark Collins is a prolific Ottawa blogger
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