By Dr Ellen Pilsworth, University of Reading

‘How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is, that we should be trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.’ So wrote Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain for a piece in The Times on 28 September 1938. Hitler’s recent occupation of the Sudetenland had made the prospect of war with Germany seem increasingly inevitable. This was an outcome that not only Chamberlain, but also his predecessors in government, had sought for years to avoid. Though already coming after five years of broken promises to the international community, Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia would still not prove to be the last straw. Britain only declared war after Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939. As Chamberlain’s words made clear, the suffering of the Czechs in 1938 was not thought reason enough to enter into war at this time, and the British and French governments agreed to allow the occupation.

From our perspective of hindsight, Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement now has an embarrassing, even dirty ring to it. Yet as the 1930s unfolded it was far from clear which path was the most ethical, the most responsible, and the most practical for Britain’s leaders to take. There was uncertainty right across the political spectrum. As well as the Liberal pacifists, there were those on both Left and Right who still had terrible memories of the First World War, and many on the Left who opposed war as a capitalist, imperialist project. Communists and fellow-travellers at first tried to build a popular front of all parties against Nazism, but even Stalin didn’t want outright war against Hitler until he knew he could win it, in 1944. For Britain too, recovering from economic slump and still head of a somewhat rickety global empire with colonies under threat from Italy and Japan, as well as Germany, there were practical reasons to postpone war with Hitler for as long as possible. Though British appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s certainly looks mistaken today, there is still no obvious answer to what Observer editor, James Garvin, in 1937 called ‘the greatest question in the world—that of settlement or war between Britain and Germany’.

Thanks to a research grant from the British Academy and Wolfson Foundation, I have spent the last few years reading English-language publications on Nazi Germany from the 1930s and 40s – many of them by refugees. Comparing two of these, Norman Hillson’s I Speak of Germany and Heinrich Fraenkel’s The German People versus Hitler sheds light on the fraught and evolving stance of the British public towards Nazi Germany during these years. Both Hillson and Fraenkel were against Britain’s war with Germany, though their reasoning could not have been more opposed. Drawing on publisher’s records in the University of Reading’s Special Collections, I read these books and their public reception in press cuttings, editors’ letters and sale figures to explore how these different ‘takes’ on Nazi Germany went down with the British public at the time.

Keith Norman Hillson’s plea for Anglo-German Friendship

Born in Berkshire in 1897, the son of Head Servant to M.P. Samuel Whitbread, Hillson won a scholarship to Downing College, Cambridge at the age of seventeen. A year later, when the First World War broke out, he went to France to serve as Second Lieutenant in the Royal Horse Artillery, but caught pneumonia upon arrival and was sent back to England. He served in England until near the end of war, when he returned to Downing College. Here, he founded the Maitland Historical Society in his college rooms on 27 April 1920, and became its first president. By the late 1930s, Hillson was working as a journalist, serving as editor of the London-based Leader magazine. He travelled in Germany in 1936, recording his observations in a book published by Routledge in 1937 as I Speak of Germany: A Plea for Anglo-German Friendship.

The book’s first half recounts HIllson’s travels around Germany, presenting his positive impressions of life under the new regime. ‘I discovered a new Germany inhabited by Germans who seem suddenly to have re-found their self-respect and pride of spirit’, he claims on an opening page. Hillson himself comes across as a conservative thinker, certainly no fan of the liberal, democratic Weimar era which existed in Germany prior to Hitler’s take-over. He describes the Berlin cabarets, formerly ‘synonymous with the lowest depths of human depravity’ (p. 2) as having improved under Nazism. Now the female dancers wore more clothing, and ‘the homosexuals who were such a feature of the Republican regime no longer sat in women’s clothes at the long bars or in the vestibules outside’ (p. 7). Neither is he overly troubled by the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews, expressing anti-semitic views which were common among many British people at this time: ‘An Anglo-Saxon visitor still finds it difficult to understand the party persecution of the Jews, however much he may agree that the Jews had worked their way into professions and industries to a degree that was out of proportion to their numbers’ (p.7).

Overall, he is impressed by what he sees as the new spirit of pride, orderliness, and efficiency that he sees in Germany after what he calls the Nazi ‘revolution’. He praises the introduction of compulsory labour camps for youth (‘hard work is not necessarily slavery’ p. 55), and includes photographs of workers building Germany’s impressive new Autobahnen. Describing the streets of the capital, he writes, ‘One has read of the spirit of fear and terror which prevails in Berlin and other great German centres. Ordinary observation produces no evidence of this’ (p. 7). On the contrary, he notes ‘on this occasion I sensed a feeling of definite well-being’, and generally finds the situation in Germany to be much improved under the new regime.

In the second part of the book, Hillson’s argument emphasises Britain’s ‘natural friendship’ (p. 108) with Germany, opposing this to Britain’s misguided political alliance with France at this time. After stating that ‘Both the Anglo-Saxon and German nations come from the same stock’, he writes ‘Let us be quite frank about this. The French do not like us and for our part we do not care for them’ (p. 109). Anti-French sentiment seems to have fuelled Hillson’s belief in the necessity for Anglo-German friendship as much as a pseudo-racial understanding the two nations’ shared ancestry. In fact, an early idea for the book’s title was the more argumentative ‘Backing the Wrong Horse.’

Hillson’s Readers and their Responses

Was there much support in Britain at this time for such ideas and arguments? Hillson’s editor at Routledge, T. Murray Ragg, was convinced that the book would get a positive reception, at least in some quarters. On 14 January 1937, he wrote to Hillson, ‘I believe that you have said what very few people have had the courage to say hitherto, but what many people have been waiting to hear; and you have said it eloquently and interestingly.’ It is telling, though, that he didn’t want to risk leaving this project to any other Routledge editor, assuming that anyone else ‘would be too antipathetic to the whole theme of the book.’

Hillson and Ragg’s suggestions of people who might contribute positive press reviews included the famous Nazi-supporter Lord Londonderry, and history Professor Sir Raymond Beazley, who was heavily involved in the organisation for Anglo-German friendship, The Link, and regularly wrote for its main organ, the Anglo-German Review. Both The Link and its publication attracted British antisemites and pro-Nazis, though this was not a stated aim of the group. Beazley’s review is measured in its assurance that ‘We are not called upon to approve and sympathise with everything in Germany today.’ Yet he also shares Hillson’s pseudo-racial justifications for friendship with the Germans when he describes them as ‘the finest of Continental stocks.’

Others were approached for reviews because they were known to be pro-appeasement. Observer editor James Garvin believed that war should be delayed as long as possible, until Britain was suitably prepared for it. Garvin praised the book as a ‘courageous and vigorous contribution’ to the debate on appeasement, ‘Whether one agrees with the whole of the argument or not.’ Former Conservative and Liberal M.P. Baron Mottistone was another contender. After a visit to Germany in 1935 he had told the House of Lords that ‘I have had many interviews with Herr Hitler. I think […] all the people who have really met this remarkable man will agree with me on one thing, however much we may disagree about other things—that he is absolutely truthful, sincere, and unselfish.’ He remained committed to appeasement as late as 1939, not openly denouncing ‘Hitlerism’ until 1941.

So much for the selected reviewers, but how did the book go down with the reading public at large? Unsolicited reviews came out on both sides. Reviewer A. J. H. in the journal International Affairs pointed out that ‘the correctness of Mr Hillson’s picture of conditions in Germany is seriously open to question: almost all his information appears to have been derived from the convinced Nazis who accompanied him on his visits of inspection.’ Indeed, this bias comes across in the book when Hillson insists that the violence of January 1933, in the days proceeding Hitler’s take-over, was enacted ‘on both sides’. This follows the Nazi propaganda message that justified their violent methods against a supposed Communist onslaught, which in reality never occurred. Similarly, the review calls out Hillson for downplaying the volume of opposition in Germany, and for not sufficiently considering ‘the shadow of the concentration camp’ which hung over all of society.

This critique is certainly justified. Hillson only mentions concentration camps once, and makes light of the state of terror when he writes, ‘There is no doubt that certain opponents of the regime exist both inside and outside the concentration camps. They are well aware of the rules of the political game as played in Germany. If they make any obvious moves against the regime then they are asking for persecution and suppression.’ This last statement suggests that the Nazis’ political victims—which within a year already numbered in the hundreds of thousands—had only themselves to blame.

A response in The English Review by E. D. O’Brien views Hillson’s work sympathetically. He seems frustrated by the current anti-fascist discourse in Britain, and is exasperated by ‘these days when anyone who wears a collar and tie, or says his prayers, or who objects to being butchered to make an Anarcho-Syndicalist holiday, is […] immediately stamped an obviously “brutal Fasicst”’. He sees Hillson’s book as ‘a courageous statement of the other side of the popular picture’, showing that ‘the Germany of to-day is not entirely peopled with monsters.’ Yet this reviewer has no faith in ‘the tiresome complacency of democratic governments’, and so sees Hillson’s call for Anglo-German friendship as unlikely to impact on foreign policy.

In fact, the book does not seem to have had much of an impact at all. Ragg was disappointed to report to Garvin that, ‘the press has largely treated it with complete silence,’ and he implored Garvin to run a review in the Observer to boost sales. He blamed the book’s lack of success on a supposed boycott by the lefty publishing industry, claiming that ‘not only the press but even booksellers and wholesalers (who go out of their way to sell Left-wing and Communist books) are doing nothing helpful for I Speak of Germany.’ Hillson’s work may have struck a chord with a minority, but it must have appeared increasingly out of tune as events unfolded. Would a book by German refugee Heinrich Fraenkel fare better in the bookshops, then?

Heinrich Fraenkel’s Portrait of an Anti-Nazi Germany

Though he had spent much of his early life abroad, the German Jew Heinrich Fraenkel was back in Berlin at the time of the Nazis’ take-over. Both a Jew and an antifascist, he fled Germany on the night of the Reichstag fire, 27 February 1933, and escaped the political and racial persecution that he would have otherwise endured. Holding on to his belief that the majority of Germans were against Nazism, he travelled first to Paris, then settled in London, and was tireless in promoting the existence of ‘another Germany’. He began to submit his manuscript of The German People versus Hitler to publisher Allen & Unwin just a month before the outbreak of war, sending the work in chapter-by-chapter ‘so that the least possible delay will be involved before the book goes to press.’

While Hillson’s book in 1937 had sought to present the majority of Germans as quite happy with their new regime, Fraenkel’s text argued the complete opposite. The book presents a survey of elements of the opposition in Germany at the present time, ranging from the underground Socialist activists to those on the Right and even among Nazis themselves. His work stands out amongst other such surveys for its consideration of rural opposition among peasants and farmers, as well as devoting specific chapters to women and Jews in Germany. While he points out that women had been significantly targeted by Hitler’s election campaign, and had voted for him in large numbers, he argues that many had since been completely disillusioned by the realities of Nazism, making them now a force to be reckoned with: ‘If it were possible to assess in exact terms the oppositional temper of German women, ranging from sullen resentment to white fury, the accumulation would be staggering, and the effect of that force, once it is released, will be far from trifling’ (p. 233).

What appears even more striking today, Fraenkel’s chapter on Jews insists that their suffering under Nazism, even in the concentration camps after November 1938, had been ‘not nearly so cruel as that of the political prisoners’ (p. 236). Having left Germany in early 1933, Fraenkel had no direct experience of the increasing racial persecutions of Jews in Germany and the occupied territories up to 1939. A deep loyalty to Germany comes through in his assurance that ‘the German people may even be basically the least anti-semitic in the world’ (p. 237), and he asks critically, ‘How else, otherwise, could half a million Jews have survived, more or less unmolested, for more than five years, despite the effort of a totalitarian Government systematically to incite the people to rob and murder them on the flimsiest pretext, or to do anything on earth the them, with practical impunity?’ He rightly points out that the night of anti-Jewish violence on 9 November 1938 was orchestrated by the Nazis, rather than a spontaneous uprising of German antisemitism. However, in general he underestimates the support that the Nazis received from ordinary people, insisting that ‘in the Third Reich the control of the country has been obtained by a number of gangsters availing themselves of the services of persons who, normally, should be either in prison or in homes for the mentally deficient’ (p.238). He concludes, perhaps controversially from our perspective today, that Germany should be left to fight its own way to freedom: ‘No one can save Germany from Nazism, no one can liberate the Germans from Hitler, except the German people. Its riddance must be self-begotten to be effective’ (p. 348).

Fraenkel’s Readers and their Responses

The Sunday Times praised Fraenkel’s work as a useful survey of conditions in Germany, and was enthusiastic about its call for a ‘leaflets-not bombs’ approach from Britain. The reviewer optimistically accepts Fraenkel’s view that ‘the forces of German opposition [,…] are bound to smash Hitlerism’, which would make war unnecessary and even counter-productive. For the reviewer of American Political Science Review, on the other hand, Fraenkel’s faith in the inevitable success of the German opposition was just ‘wishful thinking.’ The generally positive review of the book in Time & Tide magazine still concluded, similarly, with the need for a more robust response to the German question – one that is not afraid to use power to mete out justice when needed: ‘we who sit back in comfort and decline responsibility are a great deal more to blame than Mr Chamberlain who serves these days, it seems, as the scapegoat for many delicate consciences.’ Though it chimed with many more Liberal ‘takes’ on the German question, perhaps, in some regards, Fraenkel’s book was just as naïve as Hillson’s.

The book sold better than Hillson’s though, which was lucky for Fraenkel, as in 1940 he found himself arrested as an ‘enemy alien’ under new Home Office regulations. He spent several months interned on the Isle of Mann, forcing his wife Gretel to plead with his publisher in November for the book’s existing royalties just to make ends meet. She wrote, ‘So sorry to bother you but I do hope, you will understand, how difficult things are under these present circumstances. I am still waiting for news about the release [of my husband], but I do think there should be a decision soon now.’ There were 710 sales in the first year, 160 in 1941, and even a few sales in 1942. By then, however, the book’s analysis was no longer relevant, most obviously regarding the treatment of Jews.

News of the mass murders of Jews across Europe quickly reached those in exile, and must have devastated Fraenkel’s faith in his country. Though he briefly attempted to live in East Germany after the end of the war, he returned to England in 1949, and would stay there until his death. In his 1959 memoir Farewell to Germany, he admitted that the exile community had ‘tended to over-simplify things… The human and material strands of the real pattern were interwoven in a manner far too complex to fit into the simple black and white pattern of an exile’s dream-world.’

Did Hillson ever revise his own, contradictory, but equally over-simplified picture of the Germans? His obituary in the Downing College Association Newsletter would suggest not. As a journalist, the obituary claims that he had enjoyed a ‘special pass from Mussolini, whom he knew well’. After leaving journalism in 1950, he apparently wrote a book about the Nazi sympathiser Lord Londonderry, called Wings of Victory, though I have found no record of it as yet. From these facts alone, though, we might conclude that Hillson’s sympathy with fascist politics did not end with the outbreak of war.

So what, if anything, can these books teach us today? After several years spent reading English-language publications on Nazism from the 1930s and 40s, I confess I am less confident than ever that I know the ‘right’ answer to this question. This is not at all the position from which I began my research project. I had wanted to show the dark side of British WW2 history, shifting the emphasis from our often glorified status as the ‘victors’ who ‘stood alone’ to embrace a fuller picture. I thought I would accusingly detail our lengthy appeasement policy, our interment of refugees, our ineffective response to the persecution of Jews, and our failure to make better use of the thousands of non-Nazi Germans and Austrians who also wanted Hitler gone. All that is still worthwhile, yet there is still nobody I can point to from the period who had the ‘right’ answer at the time, still less a political group or a coherent strand of public opinion.

Overall, books like those by Hillson and Fraenkel, and, more importantly, the varied responses they received, reveal the very concept of ‘public opinion’ to be too simplistic. There was no single German or English ‘public’, but rather in both countries there were voices of all kinds fighting and writing for what they believed – however we might judge them today. Understanding the fallacies and failures of that period, right across the political spectrum, shines more light on our path forwards than the beacon of ‘victory’ ever could. Far more useful than assessing who was ‘right’ is to consider how minds were changed as events unfolded, reminding us all that sound critical thinking relies on the ability to change your views.