Coffee with Hitler by Charles Spicer critic – polite anti-Nazi society | history books

OWhen Hitler came to power in the early 1930s, public reaction in Britain was not one of unmitigated horror. Instead, it falls somewhere between disinterest, snobbery, if inaccurate, contempt (“the man is a House painter!”), and, in some quarters, the quiet satisfaction that a vigorous reformer had shaken up his country in a seemingly effective and forward-looking way. The evils of the Nazi regime were obvious to anyone with 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 personalities, to attempt to mitigate them by means of so-called Anglo-German scholarship.

In this fascinating and deeply researched early historical biography by businessman-turned-historian Charles Spicer, community leaders paint an unimpressive picture. They consisted of “a left-wing and pacifist Welsh political secretary, a conservative businessman and Old Etonian butterfly collector and a pioneering ace of the Great War”. They were better known as David Lloyd George, Ernest Tennant and the Duke of Hamilton, and they combined high social status with an unfortunate tendency to pursue independent diplomacy unchecked by government intervention or common sense. As Spicer writes, “they infiltrated the Nazi high command deeper than any of their compatriots to convey better intelligence both to their government and to its domestic critics.”

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

Over convivial dinners and cocktails, figures like Tennant and Hamilton thought they could play a moderating role between the British government and the German high command, but their continued presence at these events gave figures such as Himmler and Ribbentrop , the future Germans. ambassador to Britain, a reassuring picture of the potential opposition they faced. After all, many figures in British society were pro-German in the 1930s. de Rothermere Daily mail published articles praising Hitler and editorials declaring “Hurrah for the blackshirts!” This was accentuated by the accession of Edward VIII, a man approvingly described by Ribbentrop as “a sort of English National Socialist”. For a while, it really looked like friendly relations would persist between the two countries, thanks in part to the work of the Fellowship.

Spicer outlines his intentions in writing Coffee With Hitler as being explicitly about those who sought to “civilize” rather than “appease” the Nazis. The book works well as a companion to Tim Bouverie’s Fine Appease Hitler, focusing less on the well-known events and figures of the time and more on the gentleman amateur diplomats of the time. Peacemakers and civilizers have overestimated their own abilities and underestimated the evils of which they have – largely unwittingly – played the servants. This engaging book offers a warning from history that remains terrifyingly relevant today.

Coffee with Hitler: The British Amateurs Who Tried to Civilize 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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