Research for my new novel, The Other Guinness Girl: A Question of Honor, gave me uncomfortable insight into a particular aspect of the British aristocracy of the 1930s.
In among the hilarious tittle-tattle of Henry ‘Chips’ Channon diaries – his indiscreet, often psychologically astute pen portraits of the affairs and ambitions of the English aristocracy – are plenty of poisonous moments. There are sly snippets of anti-Semitism throughout the 1930s – one man is described as having “the Semitic flair for publicity”, another as “an insinuating Jew boy”. It is casual, almost incidental, until this entry from August 16th, 1935: “The atrocities in Germany cause very little excitement really – the latest Jew-baitings, the beatings, the alleged sexual perversions and outrages – who cares?”
Channon, an American, was married to Honor Guinness, eldest daughter of Rupert, Lord Iveagh, and the ultimate social insider of the 1930s. When he wrote that, he did so with a solid understanding of what was actually happening in Germany; that morning, The Times had carried an account of a week of attacks on Jewish homes and businesses throughout Germany. His words weren’t idle or ill-informed. And sadly, they weren’t particularly uncommon either.
Channon was part of a busy group that circled around Lady Astor – the ‘Cliveden Set’ as they were known – who worked to promote the interests of Hitler’s Germany in Britain. There was Lord Londonderry, who described Hitler as “A kindly man with a receding chin”, Lord Mount Temple, who helped found the Anglo-German fellowship, the Duke of Westminster – possibly the wealthiest man in Britain at that time, who was a member of The Right Club (founded by Archibald Ramsay, “to oppose and expose the activities of Organized Jewry”) and apparently named his dog “Jew”.
The sympathy they felt for Hitler’s efforts in Germany was driven partly by the long tradition of cultural exchange between the aristocracy of the two countries (you can’t have a royal family whose surname was Saxe-Coburg-Gotha from 1840 until George V changed it in 1917 without a degree of free-flow between the titled families); partly by admiration for Hitler’s achievements, such as reducing unemployment to an official figure of almost nil; fear of socialism (then considered by far the greater of two evils when compared with fascism), and finally by the Nazis’ anti-Semitic rhetoric, that alas focussed what had been a loose but persistent theme among British aristocracy for generations.
Top of this nasty heap was the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, who apparently told a German relative in 1933 that it was “no business of ours to interfere in Germany’s internal affairs either re Jews or re anything else,” adding, “Dictators are very popular these days. We might want one in England before long.”
These were the ‘respectable’ years of the Nazi regime, when glassy-eyed, self-interested admiration for fascism was quite the thing. Of Mussolini, Channon wrote “it would seem as if the Gods themselves were jealous of this dynamic man – so like God himself,” while in 1937 he complained that “This eternal abuse of Mussolini and Hitler is so short-sighted”.
Hitler’s envoy to London, Von Ribbentrop, was chosen in part because of his ability to ingratiate himself with this group. His impeccable tailoring and fine manners were just as important – more so, his enemies said – than any grasp of politics or diplomacy. At first, he seemed a good choice. Welcomed by the ‘Cliveden Set’, he soon established cosy relationships with Emerald Cunard and Lady Astor, and began a tradition of sending 17 red carnations every day to Wallis Simpson. What exactly the flowers meant, no one was quite sure. The Duke of Wurtemburg, cousin to the Prince of Wales, later told the FBI that the two had an affair, and the 17 carnations represented the number of times they slept together.
Whether that was true or not, certainly the future king of England’s mistress was too close to Hitler’s man in London. Something that may ultimately have had bearing on the official refusal to allow King Edward VIII to marry the ‘woman I love’. Later, once war had broken out, the FBI sent a memo to President Roosevelt, “for some time, the British government has known that the Duchess of Windsor was exceedingly pro-German in her sympathies and connections and there is strong reason to believe that this is the reason why she was considered so obnoxious to the British government that they refused to permit Edward to marry her and maintain the throne.”
Interestingly, Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists was not explicitly anti-Semitic until the mid-1930s (though it more than made up for it after that). In January 1933, Mosley made a statement to the Jewish Chronicle that “anti-Semitism forms no part of the policy of this Organisation, and anti-Semitic propaganda is forbidden”.
That began to change around 1934, when the popularity of the BUF waned dramatically – due in large part to the violence and thuggishness of their rallies. Faced with a loss of support, Mosley cast around for something to appeal to voters – and, led by Irishman William Joyce, ‘Lord Haw Haw’ – he found anti-Semitism, which then became more and more a feature of his speeches.
However, far worse than the spiteful pronouncements of the aristocracy, their casual indifference to the news trickling in from Germany, or even the anti-Semitic brutalities of the BUF, was the institutionalised protectionism of the State.
Britain accepted 70,000 Jewish refugees in the years leading up to the outbreak of the second World War, in addition to the 10,000 children on the Kindertransport. But, according to British Jewish associations, there were more than 500,000 case files of Jewish refugees who were not admitted. The immigration process was designed specifically to keep out large numbers of those fleeing the consequences of anti-Semitism.
In that context, Chips Channon’s ‘who cares?’ about the ‘atrocities in Germany’ is grim indeed.
The Other Guinness Girl: A Question of Honor, by Emily Hourican, is out now, published by Hachette Ireland
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