Ian Kershaw
Making Friends With Hitler

Even before taking up his appointment, Henderson had been urged by Chamberlain (still at the time Chancellor of the Exchequer) 'to take the line of co-operation with Germany, if possible'. It was not Britain's business, Chamberlain had said, to interfere with forms of Government which other countries chose to have'. Henderson was happy to follow this guideline, which corresponded so directly with his own preferred approach. He had plainly indicated this approach in a memorandum in May in which he had emphatically stated that eastern Europe was not a vital British interest and that 'the German is certainly more civilised than the Slav, and in the end, if properly handled, also less potentially dangerous to British interests'. Accordingly, 'it is not even just to endeavour to prevent Germany from completing her unity or from being prepared for war against the Slav, provided her preparations are such as to reassure the British Empire that they are not simultaneously designed against it'. Though such a line was promptly disavowed by Vansittart as contrary to government policy, Henderson's appointment to the key post of Berlin at a time when a new Prime Minister was proposing a more conciliatory approach to Germany marked an important development. A rift between Chamberlain and the main proponents of an uncompromising position on German demands, Eden and Vansittart, was in the making.

Almost immediately Chamberlain became Prime Minister, Henderson received instructions to make a first overture towards improving Anglo-German relations by extending an invitation to the German Foreign Minister, Konstantin von Neurath, himself a former Ambassador to Britain, to visit London. Eventually, after some hesitation, the invitation was accepted and the visit scheduled for late June. However, an unsuccessful torpedo attack—one possibly even fabricated by German propaganda—in mid-June on the German cruiser Leipzig, carried out by Spanish Republic forces off the north African coast, coming only two weeks or so after the German battleship Deutschland had been bombed in the Mediterranean by Spanish government aircraft, prompted a further souring of relations between Berlin and London. The British government, alongside the French, had decided the previous year on a policy of non-interventionism in the Spanish Civil War, in the vain hope that this would discourage other powers from involvement in Spain—a powder-keg, it seemed, likely to explode into general European conflict, unless contained. In 1937 naval patrols off the Spanish coast had been belatedly implemented, supposedly by all the major powers, in an equally futile attempt to prevent repeated breaches of the agreement on non-interventionism (to which Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union, the main culprits in arms deliveries to Spain, had been signatories). The German government now peremptorily demanded far-reaching action by Britain, as a non-interventionist power, to ensure such incidents as that concerning the Leipzig would not recur. When Britain, together with France, rejected the demands out of hand, the German press launched biting attacks on Eden, seen as chiefly responsible. The incident was then used by von Neurath as a pretext to call off a visit which, especially given Ribbentrop's baleful presence in London, had never much appealed to him. Chamberlain's first seeds to improve relations with the Germans had fallen on stony ground. The rebuff over von Neurath's visit was also a sign of the changed climate. In the early years of the Nazi regime, Hitler had repeatedly sought to win British friendship, but had met a cool reception. Now Britain was attempting to take the initiative—but finding that Hitler was not easy to please.

By the time Londonderry paid his third visit to Germany within two years, accepting Goring's invitation again to hunt with him at Carinhall, in late September, the outlook was distinctly less rosy than it had been a year earlier. The annual Nazi Party Rally in Nuremberg had only just taken place, its pageantry of power mightily impressing Sir Nevile Henderson as 'a triumph of mass organisation combined with beauty' on the first occasion a British Ambassador had attended, and producing a predictably savage onslaught by Hitler on Bolshevism, with a side-swipe at the divisions with Britain and France over the Spanish Civil War. And, days later, Mussolini's state visit to the country would underline the closeness of the Axis partners and the combined threat they posed to British interests.

The visit of the 'Duce', Goring told Londonderry when they sat down to talk on 22 September, was 'entirely due to Eden and Vansittart'. Owing to Britain's unwillingness to grasp the still extended German hand of friendship, Germany had been compelled to seek friends elsewhere, and had found them in Italy and Japan. The errors and inconsistencies of British foreign policy had driven together the three countries. Britain, said Goring, had accepted Italian conquest in Abyssinia and Japanese conquest in China, but refused to accept German policy of incorporating in the Reich the German-speaking population of Austria and Czechoslovakia and was, despite claiming global supremacy on the seas, unwilling to grant Germany military superiority on the European Continent. British policy, he declared, 'was to be first everywhere and to claim everything as a right which we [the British] denied to everybody'. The lack of any concession on the colonial question was a further indication of how unwilling Great Britain was 'to assist Germany to obtain her rightful position as a great power'. Definition of spheres of influence could be achieved without any conflict. Instead, there was the prospect of Bolshevik influence in Spain spreading to France and Belgium. Londonderry found Goring 'far less conciliatory' than on earlier occasions, and had the impression of 'a distinct deterioration' in relations with Germany.

Londonderry also detected a note of impatience in Goring that he had not encountered before. Some of this was conceivably personal. Though Londonderry had been courted by leading Nazis on his first visit to Berlin eighteen months earlier, the general cooling of ardour towards Britain can only have prompted a recognition that the aristocratic former Air Minister was a far less weighty and influential personage than had at first been thought. His visits, and those of many other British dignatories who had been wined and dined by the most mighty figures in the Third Reich, had brought no dividend at all. The hunting expedition with Londonderry, though it had followed Goring's invitation, was time the busy German Luftwaffe chief might understandably have thought he could well be spending on other matters. In the event, he told Londonderry that the autumn manoeuvres of the armed forces in Mecklenburg and Pomerania demanded his presence, and fobbed him off with a hunting trip relocated to the state hunting-lodge at Darss on the Baltic coast in Pomerania where he had lined up Franz von Papen, the suave and devious diplomat and ex-Chancellor who had smoothed the path for Hitler's takeover of power, to look after him.

Von Papen, who spoke good English, was a well-chosen host. He was himself of aristocratic descent, and his demeanour and bearing set him apart from the archetypal Nazi leaders Londonderry had mainly encountered. His instincts were deeply reactionary, not radical, and had come close to costing him his life in the 'Night of the Long Knives' purge of June 1934, since when he had served as Hitler's diplomatic representative in Vienna. Having narrowly escaped to tell the tale, he needed no second bidding to swallow all criticism and act as the loyal mouthpiece of the regime. This was the role he now carried out to perfection in persuading Londonderry how desirous Hitler was to bring about a friendly understanding with Great Britain and in eulogizing on the great achievements of the 'Fuhrer' for Germany. He advised Londonderry that outstanding problems would have to be negotiated directly with Hitler, and that solution of these problems would take the wind out of the sails of the Nazi Party's 'exaggerated nationalism'. He suggested, somewhat implausibly, that Hitler's new friendship with Mussolini provided 'a sobering influence', and impressed upon Londonderry his conviction that a generation that had been through the First World War would not permit a second conflagration. 'Lord Londonderry accepted my statements at their face value', he later wrote, 'and I found it an immense pleasure to talk to a man of his honourable and open nature. He was the perfect type of old-world aristocrat.' Londonderry, in other words, had been gullible.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.