Adolf's Best Friends - Coffee with Hitler Book Review by Ivo Dawnay- Oneworld £20
Hindsight is not always a fine thing – especially when it comes to wars.
Widely-held opinion, aided and abetted by fictions like Julian Fellowes’s Gosford Park and Kasuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, still caricatures the coalition of businessmen and aristocrats that comprised the Anglo-German Fellowship (1935-39) in the run up to the Second World War as a pro-Nazi front.
Charles Spicer’s fascinating debut history – Coffee with Hitler – paints a very different picture. In fact, very few – at most five per cent – of the AGF’s 700-odd members subscribed to National Socialist ideology. Almost all felt that the Treaty of Versailles had dealt Germany an unfair hand. Some admired Hitler’s reconstruction of Germany. All wanted to avoid another war.
It was that latter objective that motivated Spicer’s three unsung – indeed, still often castigated – heroes to set up the Fellowship in the first place.
The founders – Philip Conwell-Evans, an obscure pacifist historian; Grahame Christie, a First World War air ace; and Ernest Tennant, an Old Etonian businessman – were all Germanophiles.
They were also convinced that the new regime in Berlin could be ushered into the community of civilised nations with a little encouragement from the country the German leadership (at first) most envied and admired.
They were joined by Philip Kerr, later Lord Lothian, a fervent Liberal initially convinced that the hand of friendship was enough to avert war. They were not alone. When Lloyd George was persuaded in 1936 to meet the Führer, he concluded that he was ‘really a great man … unpretentious, modest and quite well-educated’.
But if their project was naive, their motives were honourable. Tennant had, after all, lost seven of his male relations and 19 of his school friends by 1916, and was equally determined to avert another tragedy.
Spicer’s story charts how – alas, very late – the scales fell from their eyes, and also, more importantly, how their early proximity to key movers and shakers within the Nazi regime – Ribbentrop, Goering and Hess – turned his protagonists into vital intelligence agents for the British Government in the run up to hostilities in 1939.
Spicer’s account rattles on at pace. And, for the non-expert, there are interesting revelations, including the insight that Goering was extremely dubious about Hitler’s Sudetenland plan – German public opinion likewise.
Indeed, he reports that the horrors of Kristallnacht were, in part, an effort by Hitler to toughen up a population psychologically unprepared for the bloodletting to come.
There are wonderful little asides too, such as Himmler’s belief that the British Empire was grounded in the aristocracy’s fondness for porridge, or the more accurate aperçu by Hitler himself that major events should be timed for weekends when Britain’s ruling class could be relied on to be shooting or fishing on their estates.
There are times when one can almost sympathise with German irritation at British haughtiness, not least when the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, nearly mistook Hitler for a footman and began to offer him his overcoat when he came to meet him at the Berghof.
The trio’s volte-face came swiftly. By late 1936, Lord Lothian was revising his stance on the German threat. Conwell-Evans and Tennant had noted Joachim Ribbentrop’s journey from super-Anglophile to bitterness, an inferiority complex derived from being ‘treated like a commercial traveller’ and a ‘figure of fun’ by London society while short-lived Ambassador to the Court of St James.
Within months, all three founders of the Anglo-German Fellowship had become the Foreign Office and MI6’s best intelligence sources on Berlin’s plans.
And, from a small, ground-floor flat in Cornwall Gardens, they were conspiring with an embryonic German resistance to launch a coup against the regime. (Meanwhile, a junior member of the AGF staff – one Kim Philby – had established his credentials in Moscow as a deep-cover agent.)
As a lesson of history, this excellent book is a sober reminder to policymakers to look at the evidence in plain sight. As NATO ponders its future in the face of Putin’s war in Ukraine, it could do well to ask itself why it did not heed the Russian dictator’s long and publicly announced promises to restore the glories of the Soviet Empire.
Lord Lothian, a close fellow-traveller of the AGF founders who later became a heroic champion of the British war effort as Ambassador to Washington, decided to read Mein Kampf only in 1939 – just months before the war began.
Ivo Dawnay was Washington Bureau Chief for the Sunday Telegraph