Culture

Coffee With Hitler by Charles Spicer review – polite society v the Nazis

When Hitler rose to power in the early 1930s, public reaction in Britain was not that of unalloyed horror. Instead, it lay somewhere between disinterest, snobbish, if inaccurate, contempt (“the man’s a house painter!”), and, in some circles, quiet satisfaction that a vigorous reformer had shaken up his country in an apparently effective and forward-looking fashion. The evils of the Nazi regime were obvious to anyone with either a social conscience or a knowledge of history, but it was more convenient either to ignore them, or, in the case of a group of well-meaning but misguided society figures, to attempt to mitigate them by means of the so-called Anglo-German Fellowship.

In this fascinating and deeply researched debut historical biography by businessman turned historian Charles Spicer, the leading lights of the Fellowship paint an unimpressive picture. They consisted of “a leftwing, pacifist Welsh political secretary, a conservative, butterfly-collecting Old Etonian businessman and a pioneering Great War fighter ace”. They were better known as David Lloyd George, Ernest Tennant and the Duke of Hamilton, and they combined high social standing with an unfortunate tendency to pursue freelance diplomacy unchecked either by government intervention or common sense. As Spicer writes, “they infiltrated the Nazi high command deeper than any of their countrymen to pass back better intelligence to both their government and its domestic critics”.

Unfortunately, this infiltration was not a one-way street. While many, even most, of the British members of the Anglo-German Fellowship were Germanophiles rather than Nazi sympathisers, there was a fine line between cultural appreciation of the country’s literature and art and the more ambiguous ideas expressed by such shadowy figures as the historian TP Conwell-Evans, a man jocularly described by Lloyd George as “my Nazi” and a leading member of the Fellowship.

Over cosy dinners and cocktail receptions, the likes of Tennant and Hamilton believed that they could act as a moderating influence between the British government and the German high command, but their continued presence at these events gave such figures as Himmler and Ribbentrop, the eventual German ambassador to Britain, a reassuring picture of the potential opposition they faced. After all, many leading figures in British society were pro-German in the 30s. Rothermere’s Daily Mail published articles praising Hitler and editorials declaring “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!” This was accentuated by the accession of Edward VIII, a man who was described approvingly by Ribbentrop as “a kind of English National Socialist”. For a moment, it genuinely seemed as if amicable relations would persist between the two countries, thanks in part to the work of the Fellowship.

Spicer describes his intentions in writing Coffee With Hitler as being explicitly about those who sought to “civilise” rather than “appease” the Nazis. The book works well as a companion to Tim Bouverie’s fine Appeasing Hitler, focusing less on the well-known events and figures of the era and more on the gentlemanly amateur diplomats of the day. Both appeasers and civilisers overrated their own abilities and underestimated the evils to which they – largely unwittingly – played handmaiden. This engaging book offers a warning from history that remains terrifyingly relevant today.

Coffee with Hitler: The British Amateurs Who Tried to Civilise the Nazis by Charles Spicer is published by Oneworld (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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