‘The Londonderry Herr’: Lord Londonderry and the appeasement of Nazi Germany

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2005), Volume 13

The term ‘appeasement’ remains as much a slur today as it was in the 1940s. Yet appeasement is far from unusual in politics, although owing to the negativity surrounding ‘appeasement’ we now prefer to use words like ‘compromise’ and ‘accommodation’. Our detailed knowledge of Nazi Germany (1933–45), in particular its project to exterminate European Jews, has only emphasised the folly of appeasement and those who advocated it in the 1930s. Yet for those who lived through that decade, with memories of the Great War of 1914–18 and deep fears of a new war involving the use of aerial bombing, the issues were not as clear-cut as they would appear to us today.
The reputation of the British aristocracy in particular was damaged by the involvement of many aristocrats in the appeasement campaign. One such nobleman, with substantial connections to Ireland, was the seventh marquess of Londonderry (1878–1949). Up until very recently Lord Londonderry has received almost no scholarly attention, an omission signally rectified by two new books, Sir Ian Kershaw’s Making friends with Hitler: Lord Londonderry and Britain’s road to war, and this writer’s The marquess of Londonderry: aristocracy, power and politics in Britain and Ireland. The Londonderry family owned an estate near Newtownards, Co. Down, as well as wealthy coalfields in County Durham, England. The seventh marquess had been the first Northern Ireland minister for education (1921–6), and from 1931 to 1935 he sat in the British cabinet as secretary of state for air.

Aristocratic appeasers

Why should the aristocracy be remembered in particular? Most people in the UK and France feared another war with Germany. Nevertheless, many found the fascist regimes of Europe distasteful, and governments had to balance their wish to avoid another war with a foreign policy that did not appear too friendly towards Mussolini and Hitler. This situation heightened the sense of confusion surrounding foreign affairs in the 1930s. With governments trying to steer a careful course, interest groups for and against appeasement were developed to agitate ministers. One such group was the Anglo-German Fellowship.
Members of what might be called ‘the establishment’ dominated the Fellowship. Their wealth and influence were considerable, and they had the economic and social means to visit senior Nazis in Germany. But far from being overly powerful, the Fellowship was only one of many pressure groups and interests that the UK government had to consider when formulating foreign policy. And although all wanted to avoid war, there was a significant difference of opinion, in the cabinet, parliament and the intelligence services, on how this was to be achieved.
As the appeasement lobby appeared to be dominated by titled grandees, that class became associated with being pro-Nazi, a presumption reinforced by the odd maverick like Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. However, even before the mid-1930s, aristocrats were being marginalised. Compared to their dominance in the nineteenth century, it was increasingly difficult for them to occupy posts in the cabinet without criticism, and they had to jostle for influence with other wealthy and powerful groups such as the press, businessmen, trade unions and, most importantly, the electorate.
It is unsurprising, then, that for their detractors the aristocracy’s role in appeasement confirmed long-term criticisms. But such condemnation tends to ignore the almost universal support given to appeasement before the Second World War, and that the hero of that war, Winston Churchill, was the grandson of a duke and a cousin of Londonderry.
Aristocratic appeasement is also easier to understand when we consider how the Nazis viewed the aristocracy. For Hitler the nobility was ‘the scum produced by societal mutation gone haywire from having had its blood and thinking infected by cosmopolitanism’. But for Hitler’s Nazi adviser on foreign affairs, Joachim von Ribbentrop, the British aristocracy was the key to power and influence in the UK. Realising that Britain could be the main opponent to Nazi territorial expansion, Ribbentrop, with Hitler’s approval, set about forging better relations with Britain’s nobility, a task made simpler by his appointment as ambassador to London in October 1936.

Londonderry and appeasement

Lord Londonderry’s relations with Nazi Germany cannot be taken as typical, although his motivations were far from unusual. With enormous wealth at his disposal, Londonderry could have retired quietly from politics in 1935. But it was his political career and outlook, alongside other widely held reasons for appeasement, that determined Londonderry’s decision to take up the cause.
As an approach to politics, appeasement was a crucial component of Londonderry’s political character. From the period when he represented the Ulster Unionists at the Irish Convention of 1917–18, Londonderry was determined not only to buck the trend of aristocratic decline and have a career in politics but also to adopt what he felt to be a conciliatory approach, most notably in Ireland: he had advocated cooperation with nationalists at the Convention, and as Northern Ireland’s first education minister he attempted (unsuccessfully) to build a non-denominational primary-school system (HI Spring 2001).
However, it was Londonderry’s period as air secretary that led him to engage in the appeasement of Germany outside government. His dismissal from the cabinet in November 1935 was the conclusion to a troubled period of representing the interests of the Royal Air Force. Londonderry’s overly careful attitude had led him to be blamed for both the retention of air forces (and thereby aerial bombing) and not rearming the RAF fast enough in the wake of claims about German rearmament. With the Labour Party branding him a warmonger, Londonderry was determined to restore his reputation. As a former cabinet minister, he believed that he could do this and also play a useful role in promoting better understanding between the UK and Germany. Like many Conservatives, Londonderry had long regarded the Versailles Treaty as too harsh on Germany, and in May 1932 he warned that Hitler would assume power unless German grievances were addressed.

Visiting the Nazis

Londonderry initiated his new political role with a private visit to Germany at the end of January 1936. Ribbentrop ensured that Londonderry was treated well and that he met with leading Nazis like Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess and Hitler himself. All the Nazis made sure that their guest understood that Germany only wanted friendship with the UK, but that it also expected certain grievances to be addressed, such as the return of African colonies and a revision of its European borders. The Nazis suggested an anti-communist alliance as the basis for UK–German relations. Like many British appeasers, the fear of Soviet expansion was central to Londonderry’s advocacy of better relations with Berlin. But the British government, although sympathetic to such a view, was not yet prepared to formalise a pact with dictators.
Unwilling to encourage amateur diplomats like Londonderry, only one cabinet minister was prepared to meet with him upon his return from Germany, and Oliver Stanley was Londonderry’s son-in-law. Londonderry despaired at the attitude of his former colleagues. But if the government acted indifferently, the high society circles in which the Londonderrys had moved did not approve. However, both Londonderry and his formidable wife, Edith, were determined to struggle through such criticism, although it became increasingly difficult when the press began to label them pro-Nazi.
Londonderry was an easy target for such accusations. His pleas for better UK–German relations were matched by the Londonderrys’ legendary hospitality towards Ribbentrop. The ambassador visited their County Down estate, Mount Stewart, in May 1936. He described Edith’s gardens as ‘paradise’, and created quite a stir in the locality with his SS guard. Indeed, Ribbentrop’s association with the Irish peer became so infamous that he was nicknamed ‘the Londonderry Herr’.

Action and reaction

In the months and years that followed his first visit to Germany in early 1936, Londonderry made himself one of the most prominent advocates of appeasement. Owing to his ability to contact senior ministers in both London and Berlin, he became increasingly useful in circumventing the lack of full and frank diplomacy between the two states.
In March 1936 Londonderry was criticised for a letter to The Times in which he not only defended Hitler’s recent occupation of the Rhineland but also called for an agreement to be made with Berlin. The British government began to take an increasing interest in what their former colleague was discussing with the Nazis. And although Londonderry had never forgiven Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin for dismissing him in 1935, the latter attempted to mend the fence by having his close associate Lord Halifax meet with Londonderry to discuss his findings. However, discussions soon broke down when Halifax refused to countenance Londonderry’s request for an anti-communist pact.
Following the utter failure of his attempt to influence foreign policy, Londonderry dropped his advocacy of a direct deal between London and Berlin in favour of a conference of the great powers, to include Britain, France, Germany and Italy, but not Russia. Londonderry argued that this conference should resemble the Congress of Vienna, the great diplomatic achievement of his ancestor Viscount Castlereagh (later second marquess of Londonderry). Such comparisons with his forebear heightened Londonderry’s sense of personal mission. But he also felt that just as Vienna had created peace after the fall of Napoleon without crushing France, so a similar congress was necessary to revise the controversial Versailles Treaty. Such an agreement would, he hoped, ‘pin Hitler down to peace under all circumstances for a period of time if necessary’.
A second meeting between Hitler and Londonderry in October 1936 reawakened the interest of Halifax. Londonderry informed Halifax that, among the usual list of German complaints and aspirations, Hitler alluded to the eastward expansion of the Reich.

Drift ends, deception begins

On the face of it, 1937 should have been a good year for UK–German relations. In May Neville Chamberlain replaced Baldwin as prime minister. Chamberlain was determined to end the policy of drift and actively engage in improving diplomatic channels with the Nazi leadership. But it was during that year that it became increasingly obvious to Ribbentrop that power in Britain did not lie with the aristocracy. He was weary of his unpopularity among London socialites and disappointed at the lack of openly amicable relations between his country and the UK. Under pressure from Hitler, Ribbentrop concluded that Britain would not be an ally to Nazi ambitions. In fact, he argued that if war should break out the UK would be the Reich’s main enemy.
Although the Nazis switched their focus to forming anti-communist alliances with Italy and Japan, they continued to cultivate supporters of appeasement in Britain. That way, it did not appear that Germany rejected British overtures for peace, especially when it came to revising the Versailles Treaty, but it meant that appeasers like Londonderry were unwittingly engaged in promoting a sham. When Londonderry visited Göring in September 1937 he was disappointed by his host’s ‘less conciliatory’ attitude. He complained about this to Ribbentrop, blamed it on Mussolini’s recent visit to Germany, and protested that he had barely any influence over his former colleagues in the government.

Heightening confusion

Just as the Nazis were downgrading Londonderry’s value as a man of influence, the British were becoming increasingly interested in his recent findings. Ironically, worsening relations between London and Berlin made informal contacts more valuable. Following his visit to Göring, Londonderry met with Chamberlain. Subsequently, Londonderry was kept informed of a secret plan to send Halifax over to Germany for a meeting with Hitler in November 1937. It is uncertain how much of an influence Londonderry was at this point, but it is notable that part of Halifax’s mission was to propose a pact between the powers of Western Europe.
Prior to the visit, Londonderry paid another trip to Germany and informed Halifax of his findings. Halifax has been criticised for mentioning revisions to Germany’s eastern border before Hitler raised the subject. However, it is worth noting that Hitler had communicated this aspiration through Londonderry a year in advance.
Londonderry was deeply disappointed that that meeting did not produce an agreement. He recognised that the Nazis no longer seemed responsive to British concerns, but failed to register why. For Londonderry, the cloud of suspicion that complicated relations between the two states had to be cleared. In his letters to Ribbentrop, he became markedly more critical of the damage that certain Nazi policies were doing to British public opinion, but continued to advocate a Vienna-style congress.

Ourselves and Germany

To his lasting misfortune, the cooling of UK–German relations led Londonderry to conclude that more efforts to promote them were necessary. From this endeavour came Ourselves and Germany, published and reprinted throughout 1938. The small book was intended to promote an understanding of Nazi grievances. It contained frank reports of Londonderry’s relations with leading Nazis, some of which dealt with the persecution of Jews. Given that he hoped to generate mutual understanding, Londonderry printed a letter in which he informed Ribbentrop that although Germany had a legitimate grievance with the Jews, it was not applicable to every Jew, and such policies were harmful to public opinion in the UK.
The letter attracted adverse publicity, although the context is often ignored. It does reveal, however, that the Nazis could rely on the widespread popularity of anti-Jewish prejudices. Nevertheless, it is important to note that Nazi brutality towards the Jews made comparatively mild prejudices seem harmless. Londonderry certainly did not regard himself as anti-Semitic; one of his sons-in-law, Lord Jessel, was Jewish, and he apologised for publishing the letter to his friend Anthony de Rothschild. Fearing for his reputation and the prospects of worsening relations, Londonderry became increasingly critical of Nazi policy towards religious minorities, and mentioned it to Hitler when he wrote to the indifferent leader of Germany in April 1938.
Ourselves and Germany was published against the background of worsening relations. In March 1938 Hitler broke the Versailles Treaty by incorporating Austria into the Reich. In private, Londonderry wrote to a member of the Anglo-German Fellowship condemning Hitler’s sudden and unilateral methods. But this only encouraged him to believe that an agreement would pin Hitler down. In his April 1938 letter to Hitler, Londonderry defended some of his more critical comments about German policy in Ourselves and Germany. But he reminded Hitler that Britain and Germany could still reach an agreement that would allow both to be leading powers. Hitler sent a curt reply to thank Londonderry for his copy of Ourselves and Germany. The book was subsequently refused publication in Germany until Londonderry leant on Göring.
Londonderry paid another visit to Germany in June 1938. He met with Göring and noted how his host appeared less truculent than before. Göring informed Londonderry that Germany’s final demands would be satisfied by the settlement of the Sudeten question in favour of the Reich. Londonderry afterwards reported this to Halifax, although the latter did not appreciate Londonderry’s negative views on Czechoslovakia.

Munich

As the crisis intensified, Chamberlain flew to Germany for a meeting with Hitler at Berchtesgaden on 15 September 1938. Londonderry’s informal contacts were no longer useful now that the prime minister was meeting Hitler face to face. However, Londonderry was pleased that his hoped-for summit between the two leaders was finally happening. After some initial difficulties, a conference between the four powers convened at Munich on 29 September. Londonderry was in Munich at the time but played no part in the proceedings. The resulting agreement gave Hitler the Sudeten territories and guaranteed the remainder of Czechoslovakia through an agreement with France and Italy. The following day Chamberlain had Hitler sign the infamous letter declaring their intention never to go to war. As Churchill informed Londonderry, ‘Your policy is certainly being tried’.
But unlike Chamberlain, Londonderry did not enjoy any short-lived public adulation. His presence at Munich attracted the hostility of the left-wing press. Not only did he rush to his own defence, but he also added his name to a letter to The Times from the pro-Nazi ‘Link’ group of politicians, praising the Munich agreement. He was not the only non-member to add his name, but as an ex-cabinet minister it was a scandalous act, considering the Link’s reputed connections to Berlin. As he subsequently informed Lord Powerscourt, he thereafter became the victim of a ‘conspiracy of silence’.

Worsening relations

The apparent triumph of ‘Munich’ quickly turned sour by 10 November 1938 following reports of Crystal Night, a violent anti-Jewish pogrom in Germany. Londonderry halted his communications with Nazi leaders and publicly condemned what had happened, but, in contrast to many other appeasers, the worsening situation led him to call for a new agreement between the two states. The Londonderrys were in Sweden as guests of the royal family when, on 15 March 1939, the Germans divided Czechoslovakia between themselves, Poland and Hungary. This ended Londonderry’s public calls for a deal with Germany; instead he argued that Hitler was untrustworthy. But it did not end his private advocacy of an agreement in correspondence with Halifax.
In the months that followed, Londonderry continued to involve himself in a situation that was heading towards war. Reopening communications with Göring, he said that he could do little other than support Chamberlain’s guarantee of Poland; he felt that Hitler had ‘destroyed’ all his efforts at promoting peace. He sent a similar complaint to the former chancellor of Germany and fellow aristocrat Franz von Papen. Londonderry also wrote to the German ambassador to London, demanding that he save UK–German relations by denying press reports about Nazi brutality. The ambassador failed to rise to the challenge, yet Londonderry issued a renewed call for a peace settlement in a letter to The Times on 22 June 1939.
It would seem that Londonderry had begun to separate his views on the Nazis from those on Germany. In early July 1939 he arranged with Philip Conwell-Evans—an ex-appeaser who had forged links with German opposition groups—a meeting with the ‘moderate’ Colonel Schwerin of the German general staff. Schwerin was one of a number of aristocratic senior officers who regarded Hitler’s military plans as disastrous. Londonderry informed Halifax of the meeting although he was sceptical of Schwerin’s request for British military force. Halifax appreciated the information. But this gratitude only led Londonderry to believe that he could perform a useful role again and he began to plan another visit to Hitler.
As soon as Halifax was informed of Londonderry’s proposed mission he stopped it. The former air minister had over-inflated his own usefulness, and the government had its own special envoy. Londonderry argued defensively that he had unique contacts with the German leadership that would allow him to declare that he had been betrayed by their assurances and that he ‘represented the spirit of the British government and people in being determined to resist any further aggression’. It was Hitler’s style to leave his guests with the impression that they mattered. Halifax, also a victim of this, remained steadfastly opposed to the visit.
With this, Londonderry’s political career and reputation lay in ruins. When the Nazis concluded a pact with Stalin on 23 August, Londonderry blamed not himself for being deluded but the way that the British government had allowed this development to happen by not acting earlier. In the weeks leading to the declaration of war on 3 September 1939, the Londonderrys moved to Mount Stewart and were subject to press rumours about being interned.

Peace party?

It has been suggested that during the war Londonderry was part of a mysterious ‘peace party’ that wanted to negotiate with Hitler. It is true that Londonderry remained concerned about Soviet expansion and broadly sympathetic with German grievances. But his inclusion on a list of names carried by Hess on his flight to Scotland in September 1940 reveals more about Nazi delusions than political power in Britain. In contrast to some aristocratic appeasers, Londonderry was not openly hostile to the war, and far from being a member of a peace party he had advocated Chamberlain’s replacement with Churchill. For the remainder of the war Londonderry helped with army recruitment in Northern Ireland and struggled with the government to publish his memoirs. He died at Mount Stewart in 1949 and was buried in the family graveyard there, flanked by statues of four Irish saints.
For Londonderry and many other aristocrats the promotion of appeasement had given them a renewed sense of political input after decades of steady decline. Their participation was intensified by the lack of a clear British foreign policy, Nazi encouragement and the universal fear of another war, with its concomitant danger of Soviet expansion and further imperial decline. We now know how deeply mistaken they were to rely on Hitler. But they were far from unique in this regard. As John F. Kennedy noted while a student in London in the 1930s, British public opinion dictated the need for disarmament and appeasement, for almost no one wanted to provoke another war.

Neil Fleming is Lecturer in Modern History, Queen’s University, Belfast.

Further reading:

N.J. Crowson, Facing fascism (London, 1997).

N.C. Fleming, The marquess of Londonderry (London, 2005).

H.M. Hyde, The Londonderrys (London, 1979).

I. Kershaw, Making friends with Hitler (London, 2004).

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