A vivid tale of the men who tried and failed to ‘civilize’ the Nazis

A vivid tale of the men who tried and failed to ‘civilize’ the Nazis

In January 1935, Philip Kerr, the British Liberal politician better known as Lord Lothian, traveled to Berlin for a series of meetings with top Nazi officials, culminating in a two-hour session with Adolf Hitler. When the German leader called World War I “the greatest madness” because it pitted their countries against each other, Lothian was suitably impressed. Upon his return to London, he declared, “Germany does not want war and is prepared to renounce it absolutely … provided she is given real authority.”

In “Coffee With Hitler: The Story of the Amateur Spies Who Tried to Civilize the Nazis,” British historian Charles Spicer demonstrates that Lothian’s visit was the initial step in a carefully orchestrated campaign by the founders of the Anglo-German Fellowship, which was officially launched a few months later. Funded by Britain’s industrialists and bankers — and encouraged by German officials — it was a group of energetic amateurs with close ties to Germany who “hoped to cultivate personal connections, build trust and engender mutual respect by breaking bread together,” Spicer writes. “Their ambition was to civilise the Nazis.”

This was wishful thinking of the highest order, but Spicer argues that his protagonists should not be lumped in with the discredited appeasement camp led by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. His meticulously researched, vividly written book takes “civilising rather than appeasing as its central theme,” he notes. The distinction between caving to the Nazis and wooing them can feel contrived at times, but Spicer insists that the men who guided the fellowship’s activities in this fraught period ultimately served their country better than generally recognized — despite the presence of some outright Nazi sympathizers in their midst.

A trio of largely forgotten characters were the key players: Philip Conwell-Evans, a Welsh historian and pacifist who did a stint as a visiting lecturer at the University of Königsberg; Ernest Tennant, a decorated World War I veteran and leading businessman; and Group Captain M.G. Christie, a former British air attache in Berlin and Washington whom Spicer describes as “a self-employed independent intelligence agent.” With the help of Kerr and Leopold von Hoesch, the German ambassador in London, they attracted financial support from “the cream of British industry and finance.”

They also developed ties to top Nazis: Joachim Ribbentrop, who served as Hitler’s bumbling ambassador to the Court of St. James’s and then as foreign minister; Hermann Göring, the Luftwaffe’s commander in chief and president of the Reichstag; and Hitler’s nominal deputy, Rudolf Hess. At various times, they dangled Hitler’s idea for peace, which he did not entirely abandon even after the outbreak of the war: The terms, Hitler explained, would be British acceptance of German hegemony on the continent in return for German recognition of the “vital interests” of the British Empire. This would have been, Spicer writes, a “Faustian pact.”

Given Britain’s commitments to Poland and France, along with the mounting alarm about Hitler’s increasingly violent implementation of his racist ideology, it was inevitable that many early appeasers were forced to jettison their illusions. After Kristallnacht, “The Night of Broken Glass” targeting Jews and their property across the country, the fellowship lost about half of its members. The outbreak of the war in 1939 triggered its final dissolution.

But Spicer demonstrates that its founders remained active in the final run-up to the global conflagration, employing their knowledge of Germany and the Nazi leadership to stiffen — rather than soften — Britain’s resolve. Their intelligence “now reached the apex of British government,” he writes.

Sir Robert Vansittart, the government’s chief diplomatic adviser and a fervent opponent of appeasement, commissioned Conwell-Evans and Christie to produce a report on Hitler’s intentions. The resulting document was blistering, describing Hitler as “little better than a monster in his ruthlessness and cruelty” who was driven by his “hatred and envy of England.” Vansittart pointedly noted in his introduction that it was written by “two Englishmen who know Germany best” and that they had been, until recently, considered Germanophiles. One of the great virtues of Spicer’s book is that it brings Vansittart out of the shadows, exploring his critical role in bolstering the kind of policies championed by Winston Churchill: no compromises with Hitler.

By contrast, Spicer repeatedly skewers Ribbentrop, “this wine-salesman-turned-dilettante-turned-diplomat” who would be the first top Nazi hanged at Nuremberg. Because he spoke English and had lived abroad, Hitler was convinced that he could represent his regime well in London. But Ribbentrop was the ultimate pretentious boor and, as Spicer writes, “intellectually deficient”; even his mother-in-law dismissed him as a fool. When he felt snubbed by British society, he pivoted from his posture as a faux peacemaker to open bellicosity.

Spicer also focuses on the roles that Conwell-Evans and others played during the mounting tensions over Hitler’s push to dismember Czechoslovakia in 1938. Gen. Ludwig Beck, chief of the German general staff, was so alarmed that this would trigger a major war that he plotted, along with other military and intelligence officers, to mount a coup. The plotters kept in touch with Conwell-Evans and others in the fellowship, treating them as the best conduit for their message that London should stand firm. Chamberlain’s capitulation to Hitler’s demands at Munich aborted what was, Spicer argues, the most serious effort to topple the dictator.

This is a complex tale, but as skillfully narrated by Spicer, it moves along briskly. His main characters are not easy to characterize either, but he brings them to life, with all their contradictions.

No one figure illustrates the arc of Spicer’s story better than Lord Lothian, who was so effusive after his meeting with Hitler in 1935. Arriving in Washington to take up his ambassadorial post a few days before the outbreak of World War II, he worked feverishly to bolster U.S. support for the British war effort right until he died unexpectedly in late 1940. Hailed by both Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt for his prodigious efforts on behalf of their partnership, he demonstrated that at least some members of the fellowship deserved redemption.

Coffee With Hitler

The Untold Story of the Amateur Spies Who Tried to Civilize the Nazis

By Charles Spicer

Pegasus Books. 392 pp. $29.95

Andrew Nagorski is the author of "Saving Freud: The Rescuers Who Brought Him to Freedom."