The last (effortless) rulers of the world
A review of Nevile Henderson's memoirs “Water under the bridges"
Nevile Henderson is remembered mostly (if at all) as one of the key authors of the policy of “appeasement”. He was the last British ambassador in Nazi Germany, was the first British ambassador to attend a Nuremberg rally, worked strongly to make Munich a success, and it was he who delivered the British declaration of war to Ribbentrop on September 3, 1939. He returned a couple of days after to England, to general opprobrium, and to die in relative obscurity several years later. He wrote “Failure of a mission”, a book on his ambassadorship in Germany where he defended his (and Neville Chamberlain’s) policy. Just before dying, he completed “Water under the bridges", a rather short memoir dealing with his entire diplomatic career.
And what a career it was! Henderson was posted abroad practically without interruption form 1904 to 1939. He was in St Petersburg when Japan attacked Russia (and England supported Japan), then in Japan when the two made peace, returned to Russia just before the Great War, spent time with the Serbian Army as it withdrew into Greece under constant attack by Austrians and Germans, attended the Versailles peace conference, served in Constantinople when the city was under the Tripartite occupation, was in Cairo and Alexandria, “ruling” (by his own admission) Egypt, moved to the new state of Yugoslavia just to witness the tensions with Italy and the assassination of King Alexander, was posted (somewhat incongruously) to Argentina whence he, finally, took the post of the last British ambassador to Nazi Germany.
He was, as his pre-World War I souvenirs make clear, part of that last generation of British diplomatists that seemingly effortlessly ruled the world. Undergirded by the commercial and military might of Britain, that aristocratic and quasi-aristocratic class behaved as legitimate (in their own eyes) rulers of the world. No big power probably conducted its foreign policy with such desinvolture as the Imperial Britain. Many decisions were taken by diplomats who “forgot” to check things with the Foreign Office, ignored their superiors or informed them after the fact. One wonders how such “decentralized” foreign policy did not affect British power negatively. I think the only reasonable answer lies in the recruitment of its foreign service from amongst the people who by temperament and background shared the same worldview. They could then behave like semi-independent imperial pro-consuls because their decisions generally mirrored those that would be taken (if they were consulted) by the London mandarins. No other foreign power could or can conduct a foreign policy that gives the protagonists such great margin of maneuver simply because diplomats of other powers are much more diverse both ideologically and culturally.
That world took a hit during the Great War, but was not down-and-out yet in the interwar period, as Henderson careers in Turkey, Egypt and Yugoslavia illustrate. It is here especially that the book veers into anecdotes, concerns with diplomatic promotions, name-dropping, the number of gun salutes received by various dignitaries (including of course Henderson: first 18 then only 14 salutes), interminable hunting trips, and quality of champagne served in different embassies. We thus read a complaint about the small size of British embassy in Buenos Aires (400 invitees only) which prevented Henderson from hosting more frequent dinners.
The last chapter of the book is the most substantive one. (The others are, I think, largely intentionally, devoid of the great themes.) Here Henderson defends “appeasement” and the Munich accords. The policy of “appeasement” is defended as the last ditch effort to avoid the war between Germany and Great Britain—particularly a war for which Britain was totally unprepared. The defense of the Munich continues along the same lines, but brings several additional elements. One is the right of self-determination that was thought unfit to apply to Germany according to the Versailles Peace Treaty. It was difficult, in principle however, to deny the right of self-determination to three million Sudeten Germans. Further, Czechoslovakia was a house of cards: not only did Slovaks support Germans (as they indeed did a year later and were rewarded with an independent state), so were Hungarians and Poles, the East European neighbors, ready to feast on Czechoslovak territories (as they soon did too). The western powers were not only too weak to confront the Nazis; they had to defend a country that was under attack by all its neighbors… and falling apart internally.
A final argument (if nothing so far is found sufficiently convincing) is that the Munich accords bought a year (actually two) of reprieve so Britain could face Germany in 1940 much better armed and psychologically readier than in 1938. Munich was at least an exercise in the buying of time. These are not new arguments now, but by 1942, made by one of the architects of the policy, they probably were—the events seemed to have disposed of them. Perhaps wrongly.
The world had greatly changed between 1904 and 1939. Henderson lived and witnessed the great transformation although one is not sure, while reading his memoirs, that he fully grasped the magnitude of the change, and the decline of the British role. But then by 1942, the post-War contours were still vague and the end of British colonial power and the disappearance of that diplomatic caste which straddled the world and ruled it with such casualness could not be foreseen. He was probably part of the group of people who had best lives--ever: if a combination of high living with meaningful exercise of power and immunity from responsibility is considered a good life. But he was unaware that he was describing an era that was gone forever.
PS. Students of Anglo-Serbian relations may be interested in his discussion of perennial enmity of British policy towards Serbia (Yugoslavia) with which Henderson disagreed.
PS2. I will be remiss not to mention, in a book that gives hardly any numbers at all, a “praise” of the Prince of Wales who in 1938 donated ₤25 out of the total ₤80,000 collected for the British hospital in Argentina; that is, 0.03 of 1 percent (not a typo!) of the total amount. This illustration of the Windsor’s proverbial miserliness is left for the reader to figure.