Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Contents of the old oak chest revealed - Part 2: the meeting with Adolf Hitler

Roger and Mary Chance, my grandparents, spent the winter months and early spring of 1934 in Hindelang in the Bavarian Alps. They were drawn by the reputation of the local quack, Professor Franz Gerl, who seemed to have some success treating Mary's thyroid trouble. There they got to know another of Gerl's patients, Rudolf Hess, with whom Roger spent many hours discussing Hitler's intentions for Europe.

In May they returned home to Hampstead, London, where Roger wrote an article for the Fortnightly Review, Does Germany mean war? Attempting to give a 'fair' judgement, the article was translated to German and reprinted (apparently with the critical paragraphs edited out), attaining a wide readership in literary and political circles.

Soon afterwards Roger got a telephone call from Hess inviting him to attend the Party Day in Nuremberg as his guest, with the hope that a meeting with the Fuhrer could be arranged.  Hess, Hitler's deputy in the Nazi Party, was a man of some influence in the Reich while Roger was well connected in London, from former Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin downwards.

Though he does not mention this in his memoir, I recall in a conversation while staying with Roger during a university vacation in 1981, his speculating Hess believed the Fuhrer could use him as a trusted cipher to communicate with the British government, without having to go through diplomatic channels which he suspected diluted his communiques. This was early in Hitler's Chancellorship when his ambitions were regarded as radical and provocative, even in Germany.

Party Day turned out to be a week in September and Roger took up the invitation with some trepidation. At first he was holed up in a third class hotel with a few foreign journalists but was soon transferred to the Grand Hotel, as Hess's guest. In his memoir Roger expresses his disquiet at being possibly regarded as one of Oswald Mosley's supporters (Mosley was the leader of the British Union of Fascists and widely distrusted in Britain). He had reason to be concerned, as another guest at the hotel (he recounts) was the Duchess of Brunswick, daughter of the Kaiser, a fervent Hitler supporter and Mosley confidant. 

On the morning of the last week guests from the Grand were given seats on a terrace close to the tribune in the enormous open air Nuremberg stadium. As Roger recounts: 'There we looked down on the arena, the central path of which divided a mass of young Labour Services men, shouldering spades instead of rifles. Bands played a marching song when the Fuhrer, accompanied by Hess and Himmler, walked slowly from the far end towards us, and mounted the tribune where Goering stood to receive them. This performance, I should have guessed, showed future events. My Liberal and Labour colleagues, almost to a man, declared spades stood for rifles, meaning war.'

After dinner that evening Joachim von Ribbentrop, whom Roger had met in Berlin en route home from Bavaria, summoned Roger to meet him in the entrance hall of the Grand. 'The jumped-up wine merchant, who secured a 'von' to his name, struck me as arrogant, but as I was also an ex-cavalry officer he accorded me some respect, aware too of all Hess must have told him.'

Ribbentrop, a successful businessman who played a big part in bringing Hitler to power a year earlier, styled himself as an alternative German foreign minister, evidently with Hitler's approval. His presence lends credence to Hess's surmising of why Hitler agreed to the meeting. (In 1936 Hitler appointed Ribbentrop Ambassador to London and in 1938 Foreign Minister - see Part 3, coming soon!)

Ribbentrop and Roger stepped into Hitler's black Mercedes, hood down, and shot off to the Deutscher Hof which the German high command had taken over for Party Week. The broad streets were lined with Hitler's Brown Shirts, a menacing sight. Dropped off, he waited in a first-floor sitting-room for what seemed a very long time. At last Ribbentrop returned, with Hess.

Roger takes up the narrative from here:

'"The Fuhrer is ready to see you" I was told.'

'Outside, we ran into Dr Goebbels. The hand I shook felt like a piece of cold fish, but the small club-footed master of propaganda moved crowds with his oratory. Brown Shirts guarded the passage. Ribbentrop and Hess, who accompanied me to an open door, asked me to enter first. Hitler rose from his chair and came forward to receive me. (It was a medium-sized room, filled with the scent of flower bouquets.) I bowed, determined not to salute. So here was Adolf Hitler facing me. He wore the familiar brown tunic which showed the Swastika on his right arm and displayed the Iron Cross medal. In my halting German I thanked him for receiving me. Turning to his chair at the end of the room, he gave me one opposite, ready for our talk. Ribbentrop and Hess took seats - or was it a sofa? - against the right-hand wall. They deferred to their master as if in the presence of royalty.

'Hitler began by telling me of his front-line service when, as a corporal and company runner of an infantry battalion, he took part in the first battle of Ypres. 

"I was near Wyscheate and Messines" he said. 

"Just think of that," I said. "I was there also. You drove us out. What a pity I didn't shoot you."

'Believe it or not, those words were what I actually said, in German. But I had intended to say 'lucky', instead of 'unfortunately' (leider). 

'Hitler frowned. I broke the stunned silence with a laugh, aware of what I  had said, and framed an apology which he evidently understood, but received without remark. He broke the awkward silence, saying "I hear you know Stanley Baldwin. He has said the British frontier is on the Rhine. Be good enough to tell him that our frontier is on the Volga."

'Thus memory records him, word for word. 

'The conclusion of the speech he flung at me, is here paraphrased:

"'Volksgemeinschaft, the coming together of the German people, is the goal of our National Socialist Movement. For this, I demand living space beyond our present frontiers, and I shall go on demanding it, preparing for war, ready for peace. If your country and mine were joined together, no power on earth could stand against us."'

Roger goes on, in the memoir, to lament his failure to ask Hitler about the Jewish question, 'fearing an explosion after my monstrous gaffe'. He admits, though, he was badly informed, like most people, concerning the Nazi treatment of the Jews, 'with the final solution of Auschwitz gas-chambers no-one could then imagine.'

He closes this chapter by referring to the Diaries of Harold Nicolson, who attended the Nuremberg Trials. Nicolson records what Dr Schacht, the Nazi economic head from 1933 to 1937, said of Adolf Hitler: "He was a diabolical genius."

Like many before and after him Roger left meeting Hitler impressed by his calm, mesmerised by his piercing eyes and confounded by his ambitious claims for the Fatherland. His calling for a German-British alliance is a theme that came up many times in the years leading to war. Hitler admired Great Britain and her empire, though later spurned he was determined to destroy it.

Roger's memoir does not mention returning to London for an official - or unofficial - debrief by security services or the Cabinet Office, which is perhaps strange. However, he wrote this memoir when well into his eighties so some of the details probably escaped him. His later appointment as Press Attache to the British embassy in Berlin suggests, though, he kept in close touch with his government and diplomatic contacts so it is highly probable the details of his meeting with Hitler reached Number 10 Downing Street.

Looking back eighty years later, it's extraordinary that meetings such as this one, in which Hitler repeated plainly what he'd written in Mein Kampf, did not open the eyes of the blind and gullible political establishment in Britain and elsewhere. The lesson for later generations is clear: when a man of paranoid delusional psychopathy comes to power, every effort by good men should be made to shut him down as soon as possible, before the sickness infects sufficient followers to create an unstoppable movement. We in South Africa would be well advised to remember this as we enter some potentially tricky political waters ahead. 

Before he died in 1987 Roger gave me the heavy black overcoat he wore on that cold night in September 1934. It now sits in my wardrobe in Johannesburg, the closest I get to the moment my grandfather exchanged words on grave matters with one of history's most notorious miscreants. 

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