Jörg Später. Vansittart: Britische Debatten über Deutsche und Nazis 1902-1945. Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2003. 495 S. EUR 46.00 (gebunden), ISBN 978-3-89244-692-7.
Reviewed by Patrick Salmon (Foreign & Commonwealth Office [London])
Published on H-German (February, 2005)
A Prophet without Honor?
The name of Sir Robert Vansittart has perhaps more resonance in Germany than in his own country, or at least he is remembered for different things. In Britain he is known as the opponent of appeasement who was "kicked upstairs" in 1938--losing his job as head of the Foreign Office to become the government's "Chief Diplomatic Adviser": a largely meaningless post from which he eventually resigned in 1941. In the Federal Republic, on the other hand, Vansittart was characterized in school textbooks of the 1960s as one of the five "foreigners" who condemned Germany to destruction. The other four were Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt, and Henry J. Morgenthau.
Vansittart's reputation in Germany was based not so much on his long diplomatic career as on his role as an anti-German publicist following his elevation to the House of Lords as Baron Vansittart of Denham in 1941. His broadcasts and publications, notably Black Record (1941) and Lessons of My Life (1943) were intended to awake the British public to "The Nature of the Beast": to the habits of militarism, aggression and blind obedience which had been inculcated into the Germans since the time of Tacitus, and which made them uniquely dangerous to their neighbors. Vansittart used the metaphor of the butcherbird he had observed years before on the Black Sea, ruthlessly eliminating its unsuspecting prey one by one. In Vansittart's view, Nazism was no aberration but the logical outcome of German history.
Jörg Später has had the interesting idea of using the figure of Vansittart to explore the wider phenomenon of British anti-Germanism and anti-Nazism in the first half of the twentieth century. Vansittart was not a profound thinker but a fluent publicist. As such, he makes a better peg for such a study than some of the more eminent intellects that appear in the pages of this book: people like J. M. Keynes or E. H. Carr. After 1941 almost everyone who took a view of Germany, positive or negative, had to take a view of Vansittart too. His rhetoric stirred strong emotions: he was described as racist and reactionary; some critics turned the tables and called him an appeaser (and there was support for this view in the record of his treatment of Mussolini's Italy). He was seen as a gift to Goebbels (and indeed Goebbels welcomed him as such).
Später has an unrivaled knowledge of British writings on Germany, including much that is extremely obscure. He has also mastered the intricacies of German exile politics in London. There is a good precedent for this combination of biography and history of ideas, using a representative but second-rank figure, in the study by Ulrich Herbert (Später's supervisor) of the Nazi functionary Werner Best. The danger with such an approach is that it may add up to less than the sum of its parts. Certainly there are sections that simply recount the familiar story of the "Anglo-German antagonism" or provide potted accounts of the life and works of the protagonists--E. H. Carr is an example--without adding greatly to what is already known. There are also points where the connection with Vansittart is stretched. Später does not claim that he influenced historians such Lewis Namier and A. J. P. Taylor, but he does suggest that "echoes" of Vansittart can be found in their work (p. 442). An echo is not, however, a precise tool of analysis.
But Später's book is more than a compilation, and deserves a wider audience in English-speaking countries than it is likely to get--unless an enterprising publisher commissions a translation. It amounts to a strong defense, often stylishly expressed, of Vansittart against his critics.
Without denying his weaknesses, Später points to the paradox that Vansittart's very conservatism and his over-simplified view of the Germans helped him to a clearer understanding than that of many of his contemporaries. He defends Vansittart against the accusation of racism, noting that he worked with German exiles and that many of them were his friends. Far from being a racist, Vansittart argued that the German character was a product of social and political conditioning, and that it could therefore be changed. The remedy might be a harsh one--prolonged occupation and thoroughgoing re-education--but the Germans were not irredeemable. Moreover, Vansittart's priorities were usually correct: he was one of the few in wartime to draw attention to the mass murder of Jews.
It was precisely Vansittart's conservatism, Später argues, that made him so often right: about Hitler's warlike intentions, or about Nazi atrocities. Because he emphasized Germany's tradition of nationalism and militarism, he had greater insight into Hitler's ambitions than those appeasers who presumed that his demands could be met by appeals to rational self-interest, or the left-wing intellectuals who focused on the class struggle or theories of imperialism. Vansittart's analysis was undermined by over-simplification and prejudice: his theory of nationalism could not explain the apocalyptic element in Hitler's thinking ("total victory or total destruction"), nor the impulse that lay behind the program of racial extermination. Yet his very resentment of the Germans--his readiness to ascribe to them every imaginable crime--brought Vansittart closer to the irrational heart of Nazism than many of those who viewed them more objectively.
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Patrick Salmon. Review of Später, Jörg, Vansittart: Britische Debatten über Deutsche und Nazis 1902-1945.
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