You will recall that in 1936 Hitler broke international treaties and invaded the Rhineland; and for many people in this country it was becoming obvious that he was bent on revenge for the First World War, that he was virulently anti-Semitic, and that he could not be trusted. So here is your starter for 10. Who went to Germany after that invasion, and returned so bamboozled by Hitler that he called him, “a born leader of men, a magnetic dynamic personality with a single-minded purpose, a resolute will and a dauntless heart”? It was the man who led us to victory in the First World War; one of the founders of the welfare state; a man who is widely revered for his work for the poor and needy of Britain. It was former PM David Lloyd George, who went on in the same emetic article to call the German leader “the George Washington of Germany”.
May 1945: Princess Elizabeth with Queen Elizabeth, Winston Churchill, King George VI and Princess Margaret on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on VE Day 1945
And Lloyd George was not alone in his bad judgment. Which editor of a great and patriotic national newspaper was a supporter of appeasement – the policy of letting Hitler get away with it? Step forward Geoffrey Dawson, fellow of All Souls and editor of The Times. He published a leader after the remilitarisation of the Rhineland announcing that it was “A Chance to Rebuild”. He was so pro-German that in 1937 he said that he spent the evenings looking at the proofs of the paper, and “taking out anything which I think will hurt their susceptibilities and dropping in little things which are intended to soothe them”. Of course, Dawson was also innocent – in the sense that he couldn’t have imagined that Hitler’s concentration camps such as Dachau, which had first opened in 1933, would become a byword for horror; and indeed The Times changed its tune pretty smartly as soon as war broke out.
Who said in 1938: “One may dislike Hitler’s system, yet admire his patriotic achievement. If our country were defeated, I hope we should find a champion as indomitable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations.”
All I am trying to show is that delusions about Hitler persisted even among the most brilliant and well-educated adults, and even among those who were to become his most formidable opponents. So here is my final question. Shortly after Hitler entered the Sudetenland, a famous statesman made an extraordinary observation. “One may dislike Hitler’s system, yet admire his patriotic achievement,” said this British politician in November 1938. “If our country were defeated, I hope we should find a champion as indomitable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations”. Who said it? Well, you all know the answer – it was Winston Churchill, of course. Ah, you will say; but we have ripped Churchill’s words out of context; we have found one iffy remark that should in no way subtract from his clear and prescient warnings about the reality of the threat from Hitler and Nazism. And you are right. It is all about context, context, context.
The two little girls are plainly fooling around, and so is their mother, and so – probably – is their uncle Edward, even if he did go on to maintain a sinister sympathy for the Nazi regime. This was a time when people made fun of Nazis and their pompous and preposterous behaviour – think of P G Wodehouse’s character Spode, in the Code of the Woosters, expecting people to greet him with the words “Heil Spode”. People have made fun of Nazis ever since. Is there anyone growing up in post-war Britain who has not at one time or another done a mock-fascist Dr Strangelove salute? Is there anyone who cannot remember little kids at some stage flapping their arms in that way? And this is after the war, after the horror had been exposed. These days people pay a high price for jokes. Think of Sir Tim Hunt. But at least he was an adult who understood what he was saying. The young Queen-to-be had no idea of the contemporary – let alone the later – significance of her gesture, and today she fully deserves the national surge of affection and admiration.