Hitler-Chamberlain-Munich-Appeasement comparisons have long become a cliché. The latest proposed nuclear deal with Iran may be unwise, but not every bad policy, however dangerous, equals 1938. The British prime minister who ceded Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany in a vain quest for peace never recovered from his ignominy, although he later backed his successor Winston Churchill. Neville Chamberlain’s partner in appeasement was Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, the tall, slender nobleman who embodied British aristocratic understatement.
Halifax’s biographer is the distinguished British conservative writer Andrew Roberts, who now lives in New York, and whom I briefly met recently at a Winston Churchill symposium. The Holy Fox: the Life of Lord Halifax has been out of print for years and is hard to get. Roberts delightedly told me it’s being republished early in 2014. Days later, I happily found a rare old copy at a Washington, D.C. used book store.
Movie goers may remember Halifax briefly but ominously appearing in Anthony Hopkins’ The Remains of the Day, when Hopkins’ employer, Lord Darlington, hosts the Foreign Secretary, Prime Minister, and German Ambassador at his estate for pre-Munich negotiations. Staff for the German ambassador amusingly measure Darlington’s artwork, gleefully anticipating its eventual procurement for the Reich. The fictional Darlington is deeply committed to appeasement of Germany and, like Halifax and Chamberlain, afterwards discredited. As his faithful chief butler, Hopkins’ character remains resolutely loyal to his employer’s legacy. Darlington had been, after all, a courteous, thoughtful, high-minded gentleman of the highest order, and Hopkins counted his service to him the greatest honor.
In elegance, courtesy, public spirit, and noble stature, the Darlington character resembled Halifax, who served as Viceroy of India and, after World War II began, was dispatched by Churchill to serve as Ambassador to the U.S. Chamberlain and much of the British Tory establishment desired Halifax to succeed as prime minister despite his complicity in Appeasement. Halifax, with characteristic decorum, unsurprisingly yielded to Churchill.
Chamberlain was a Christian Scientist, and Churchill an often indifferent Anglican. But Halifax was a devout Anglo-Catholic sometimes described as an Anglican mystic. According to Roberts, Halifax’s even more mystical father had ardently sought a rapprochement between the Church of England and Roman Catholicism. The father once told the son: “I am quite determined that you are to be Prime Minister and reunite England to the Holy See.” Halifax inherited his father’s belief in transubstantiation and other Roman Catholic doctrines except papal infallibility and the Immaculate Conception (the sinlessness of Mary the mother of Jesus).
There’s no evidence that Halifax’s piety directly influenced his support for Appeasement, according to Roberts. A cleric friend of Halifax’s recalled that Halifax “expects nothing from God, he hopes [for] nothing material, [and] he would not understand ‘guidance’ or being ‘charged’…” Instead, Halifax’s “religion is one in which the soul is consistently paying tribute to its creator; worship, giving, paying homage, rendering oneself in perfect fullness back to the Divine Life is his philosophy.” Whether worship makes a “better man would strike him as quite irrelevant…he is a little inhuman.”
Although as a Christian Halifax believed in human sin, he seems to have fallen into the progressive preference for blaming abstract forces instead of human depravity for war and international misconduct. He dreamt of a “genuine determination for peace on the part of all human beings.” And he imagined, with many others, that the First World War was caused by the arms race, or secret treaties and unstable alliances, rather than German aggression. International cooperation was seen as the universal salve for preventing future conflict. He did reputedly understand Hitler’s evil but “would give a look of pained surprise at each enormity that Hitler committed.” Halifax was said to have likened Hitler to Gandhi, with whom he had dealt in India, in that Hitler was a “very nasty little man” but “inspired.”
In his 1937 meeting with Hitler, Halifax initially mistook the Führer for a footman and nearly offered him his hat. Despite urgings by colleagues, Halifax avoided pressing Hitler hard on persecution of churches and the Jews. Instead, he commended him for countering Communism and suggested alterations in the Versailles Treaty to Germany’s benefit. Hitler counseled Halifax to shoot Gandhi and as many Indians necessary to suppress dissent. Afterwards Halifax described Hitler as having a “different set of values” but “sincere.” Hitler recalled Halifax dismissively as the “English parson.” Halifax had cordial meetings with Hermann Göring, who was “frankly attractive,” and Joseph Goebbels, about whom he said, “I couldn’t rather help but like the little man.” Some of the German officials are said to have admired Halifax’s tall, slender build, which contrasted with the very short Goebbels and the very fat Göring.
Prime Minister Chamberlain acclaimed Halifax’s German visit a “great success” for convincing Hitler of British “sincerity.” The summit of course had actually persuaded the Germans of British weakness and helped to ensure the impending cataclysms. Creditably, at the nearly last minute, before Chamberlain went to Munich in 1938, Halifax turned against his own policy, and urged defiance of Hitler over Czechoslovakia. After the Munich capitulation, Halifax was grimly supportive, believing resignation was an abdication of responsibility.
After the war began and Churchill was prime minister, Halifax reverted to form as France was falling and urged openness to overtures from Germany, which Churchill successfully rebutted in Cabinet. His power secure, Churchill dispatched Halifax as ambassador to Washington, where he crisply and competently presided over increasingly intimate relations with America. He set aside his aristocratic hauteur to “chat” on the phone with U.S. officials and to mingle with “old ladies and Methodist leaders” in the heartland whose support for Britain was urgently required. The King cabled Halifax to send American toilet paper to Buckingham Palace, which of course he did.
Again reverting to form, Halifax disliked Churchill’s postwar warnings against the Soviet threat. His criticism of Churchill once provoked Lady Churchill to tell him, “If the country had depended on you we might have lost the war.” Her husband urged her not to apologize. Churchill would say: “Halifax’s virtues have done more harm in the world than the vices of a hundred people. And yet when I meet him, I can’t help having friendly talk.”
Halifax the pious Anglican once warned: “Many of our intellectual difficulties come from an attempt to think that the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world are concerned with the same problems.” He strove to be a realist, not so distracted by moral aspirations. But he strove too hard, to the whole world’s detriment.
Britain’s appeasement of Nazi Germany can’t be likened to every contemporary situation. But its disastrous consequences are always instructive. So too is the life of Halifax.