Monday, 5 January 2015

Contents of the old oak chest revealed - Part 3: the drift to war

I'm now in Plettenberg Bay on the final leg of my holiday, though I've scheduled some meetings which have a bearing on my political responsibilities - more on those in a future blog post. Somehow work seems to follow you around if you keep your eyes and ears open.

But back to the oak chest, and my grandfather Roger Chance's memoirs, Some Men of my Time: From War to War. The final chapter, Moray Firth to Berlin, recounts a short spell in Scotland (which features at greater length in the chapter on Kurt Hahn, the founder of Gordonstoun school which my father attended) and his time as Press Attache at the British Embassy in Berlin.

In June 1935 Stanley Baldwin invited Roger to breakfast at 10 Downing Street. Just weeks into his new premiership this was perhaps a sign that Baldwin took more than a passing interest in Roger's meeting with Hitler some nine months earlier. Through Roger's friendship with Baldwin's son Oliver the Prime Minister had come to know of his exploits in Germany the previous year. As spelt out in my last post, there is no suggestion any senior government official or politician had solicited his views on Hitler after their meeting in Nuremberg. So Baldwin's breakfast invitation is understandable, providing him a first-hand impression of the German chancellor from a trusted source.

Roger gave his account of the meeting with Hitler and repeated the warnings of Winston Churchill, who had returned to the back benches and was the lone voice in the House of Commons for standing up to the dictator and his poodle Mussolini. Roger recalls Baldwin's response: "No doubt, Roger, but unreliable, so unreliable." Churchill, for his part, in his History of the Second World War, dismissed Baldwin's "marked ignorance of Europe, and aversion from its problems."

At this time Roger was practising as a journalist, writing articles for the Fortnightly Review, and since 1933 had been editor of the magazine Review of Reviews. (One of his employees was the recently-graduated Kim Philby, who achieved notoriety as an M.I.6 double agent and Soviet spy, defecting to Russia in 1963). So he should not have been too surprised to receive an invitation late in 1937 to consider a temporary appointment as Press Attache to the British embassy in Berlin. After an interview with the Ambassador, Sir Neville Henderson, in London he took a refresher course in German with a family in Munich before spending Christmas with the Gerls in Hindelang. At the end of January he set out for Berlin, leaving his wife and four children behind.

1938 is remembered as the year France and Britain chose not to stand up to Hitler but "appease"him, with disastrous results. From his vantage point in the embassy, Roger witnessed the contortions his embassy superiors were forced to perform at the behest of the two spineless Nevilles - Prime Minister Chamberlain and his envoy Henderson.

Roger writes in his memoir:

'Anthony Eden, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, cold-shouldered by Chamberlain, was driven to resign. Soon after this Sir Neville Henderson, who owed his appointment to Eden, summoned me to his room, ostensibly to talk over the appeal of the British press for an interview he never wanted, fearing "leaks." But first he spoke of Anthony Eden in words something like this: "Good thing he's gone, you may be sure Halifax will do well."

'I was deputed to attend Hitler's annual Party Day in Nuremberg only a few weeks, as it turned out, from the Munich Conference. Two special sleeping car trains with restaurant attached took the world press and diplomatic corps from Berlin to Nuremberg, where for a mysterious reason they were shunted to sidings far off from each other so that a call to Sir Neville Henderson involved a taxi drive through the town. Urged by our own newspaper correspondents, I ran him to earth in one of the compartments reserved for ambassadors, Until then I suggested the interview would be premature.

'Early next morning I and my colleagues, driving to the open-air stadium of Nuremberg, looked down from the perimeter seats as Hitler reviewed the Reichswehr, so evidently prepared for war, while Luftwaffe aircraft circled above. That night, when he spoke broadcast (sic) to the world, his harangue was not merely a barrage of threats. But clearly the fulfilment of his demands in the name of the Third Reich had to be a condition of peace. Our ambassador, when finally and with good grace he submitted to a press conference, appeared hopeful.

Roger's short character sketch of Henderson explains why:

'Henderson...enjoyed shooting deer with Goering, and often - diplomatically, no doubt - entertained Nazis of high rank destined, in their turn, to be shot. A bachelor, most of his services had been abroad, and while opposed to Russian Marxism he was not entirely averse to dictatorial rule. Hitler's demand for "living-space" ought, he held, to be encouraged, provided it went East....'

Roger describes the days leading to the fateful meeting in Munich:

'Sir Horace Wilson, charged with a message for Hitler from the Prime Minister, flew to Berlin on September 26th. That evening Ewen Butler, a correspondent of The Times, asked me to join him at a Sportspalast assembly staged for Hitler. The huge hall enclosed tiers of seats overlooking a central gangway which led to the platform. From the upper circle, amid youthful Brown Shirts, we saw Goering, Ribbentrop, Goebbels, Keitel, with other "boss" Nazis, take their row of chairs each side of the tribune from which Hitler was to speak.

'First he spoke quietly from the tribune, to members of the Party and their Movement. On this occasion, warming up to a torrent of words, while not exactly "foaming at the mouth", he charged President Benes with being responsible for the murder of the Sudeten Deutsch, and immediately there came the cry of "Bluthund" from the gallery. Hitler paused. Goering - I can see him now - smiled, but shook his head and waved a finger at the Brown Shirt youth above, as if to warn them"You go too far".'

Britain, France Germany and Italy convened the Munich Conference the next day. The Czech President, Edvard Benes, whom Hitler portrayed as the murderer to deflect the world's attention from his own murderous intent, was not invited. Early on the morning of 30th September the infamous Munich Agreement was signed, handing the western part of Czechoslovakia, home to some 3 million "Sudeten Deutsch", to Germany.

Chamberlain portrayed it thus, from the balcony of Number 10: "This is the second time in our history that there has come back, from Germany to Downing Street, peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time."

Roger was among many at the Embassy who resigned, though in his memoir he puts this down to poor health. He ends off this chapter with an interesting anecdote:

'Sir Neville Henderson gave a dinner party and hearing that my wife had come to join me, he sent us an invitation. Naturally we accepted, unaware what sort of party it might be..... To our astonishment the guests of honour were Charles Lindbergh, the airman, with Anne his wife, hardly less famous. But memory, both of them and of others there, eludes me, except for Colonel Mason-Macfarlane, our Military Attache. When, in customary manner, the ladies withdrew to the drawing room, we men heard Lindbergh say how Goering had conducted him to the German airfields - "taken him up the garden path", as I and Mason-Mac thought.

"My dear Colonel," said  Lindbergh. "You haven't a hope."

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