The Secret History of the British and American Elite Who Worked for Hitler

Susan Ronald’s meticulously researched book, Hitler’s Aristocrats: The Secret Power Players in Britain and America Who Supported the Nazis, 1923-1941, begins with a dramatis personae including lords, ladies, barons, dukes, duchesses, and many more titles. It also includes a veritable who’s who of the industrialists, businessmen, bankers, socialites, and media barons of the time from both sides of the Atlantic. But the most prominent British name on the list is Edward, Duke of Windsor, who ascended the throne in 1936 as King Edward VIII, abdicated less than a year later and, in 1937, married Wallis Simpson, an American socialite.

The first chapter describes how disappointed Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German ambassador in London, was that he would be attending the 1937 coronation of Albert (George VI) and not Edward. Edward was enchanted with Adolf Hitler and Nazism and, later in the same year, visited Germany, met Hitler, dined with Rudolf Hess, and was taken on a concentration camp tour. As World War II was nearing its end, Edward is reported to have remarked that “it would be a tragic thing for the world if Hitler is overthrown.” If Hitler won the war, Edward hoped, he could be back as a “leader” in an England that did not want him as a king.

Hitler, too, was taken with Edward. The Fuhrer obliged when, at Edward’s suggestion, the British Legion, a charity that assisted war veterans, decided to visit Germany in the spirit of friendship. The visiting veterans were dazzled with a grand reception. They dined with Heinrich Himmler and were deceived into thinking that Hitler was a man of peace. The fit prisoners they were shown at Dachau were SS men. The delegation went back singing Hitler’s praises.

Lord Londenderry was another important British personage and Nazi sympathizer von Ribbentrop introduced to Hitler and top Nazis. As a member of the elite Anglo-German Group, he aimed to forge an alliance between the two countries, disseminating the German view that the Franco-Soviet pact was a valid justification for militarizing the Rhineland. At this time, most British elite believed there was nothing wrong with Neville Chamberlain appeasing Germany. Winston Churchill was the lone voice of dissent; he alone sensed the portents of war.

How did Hitler achieve such acceptance? The answer lies in the book’s epigraph, from none other than Hitler: “By the clever and continuous use of propaganda, a people can even be made to mistake heaven for hell, and vice versa.” Hitler applied it in Germany, of course, along with his oratorical skills, to channel into support for him the German public’s frustration with Germany’s defeat in the Great War and their anger at the Versailles Treaty’s punitive measures. Even more skillfully, he deployed subtle propaganda in the very countries he would later go to war with, getting his big lie accepted among the people who mattered.

Well before the war began, Hitler had been creating and cultivating networks of influence—the crème of Europe, Britain, and America, who portrayed him as a man of peace; disseminated his propaganda among high society, wealthy powerbrokers, and the political class; and reported back to him. Some of the most important of them are the subject of Ronald’s book. She clarifies at the outset that there were hundreds of them, so the book cannot cover them all. To qualify as “one of my aristocrats,” she writes, they should have stridden on the international stage, “exerting their power on world events.” Her research uncovers how Hitler used the twin forces of power and propaganda to achieve his nefarious aims.

While Ronald identifies Edward the abdicator as a blueblood apologist Hitler chanced upon, she also chronicles the activities of a supportive commoner with royal pretensions who was just as fake as her name was long: Princess Stephanie Julianne zu Hohenlohe-Waldenburg-Schillingsfürst. Nevertheless, she was always “liebe Prinzessin” to Hitler, her adoring fan, and ferried messages for him, arranged meetings, and helped build useful relationships. She always denied her Jewish origins, though they were well known. For her services, she was awarded the gold medal of the Nazi party and declared an Ehrenarier or honorary Aryan.

Stephanie was a formidable woman who used wealthy men to guard her royal status and ensure her financial security. In London, she cultivated support for the Nazis among the British aristocracy and developed a friendship with Harold Harmsworth (aka the 1st Viscount Rothermere), a newspaper tycoon who owned the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror. She introduced Rothermere, one of a series of wealthy men who financed her, to Hitler’s inner circle; his papers praised the Nazi regime, acknowledging only “minor misdeeds.” Churchill wrathfully remarked, “I was disgusted by the Daily Mail’s boosting of Hitler.”

It was Stephanie who had arranged for von Ribbentrop to be made ambassador, and organized a warm reception for him in London’s social circles, intrigued at the time by the rise of the dictators—Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. Von Ribbentrop would oblige when some society hosts and hostesses requested meetings with top Nazi hierarchs. He met the likes of Lady Astor, the Aga Khan, George Bernard Shaw, the Archbishop of Canterbury and, of course, Edward.

According to Hitler’s Aristocrats, in the U.S., the Nazi influence extended to captains of industry and finance. The list runs long: Prescott Bush, Thomas Watson of IBM, Henry Ford, Alfred Sloan, Joseph Kennedy, Charles Lindbergh, and others. Bush, a banker-politician, was linked to a New York-based investment bank that acted for German armaments manufacturer Fritz Thyssen, who later employed slave labor at Auschwitz. Bush was also linked to shell companies that helped the Nazis obtain foreign exchange to payroll war preparations. Lindbergh was awed by Germany’s post-war rejuvenation; the Nazis, in turn, feted him when he inspected aviation facilities in Germany. He attended the opening of the Berlin Olympics, sponsored by Standard Oil and Coca-Cola.

Ford, whom Hitler viewed as an inspiration, used his Dearborn Independent to espouse his Jew-hatred, knowingly printing fake quotes from the “Learned Elders of Zion” in 1923. Influenced in part by Ford’s praise of Hitler, Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic radio priest with over 30 million listeners, advanced the view that fascism was an antidote to communism. Like Ford, he was an antisemite and criticized President Roosevelt for being friendly with Jewish bankers, whom he blamed for the Russian revolution.

The book also covers those from whom sympathy for Germany, and by association, Nazism, might be expected: immigrants, outright spies, and organizations such as the Friends of the New Germany, later called the German-American Bund. The Bund promoted Nazism through events such as a 1939 Madison Square Garden rally which criticized the allegedly malign Jewish influence on American politics.

Of these Bund members, the notable are Heinz Spanknoebel, an immigrant settled in Detroit and founder of the Friends of New Germany; Hans-Heindrich Dieckhoff, German ambassador (1937-38) to the U.S., who supervised the works of Spanknoebel; and Nikolaus Adolph Fritz Ritter, who settled in the U.S. in 1924 before returning to Germany in 1935-36 to run spy networks in America and Britain as the Nazis’ chief of air intelligence (Abwehr). One of Ritter’s recruits was Rudolph Ilgner, who, as the New York manager of the German firm I.G. Farben, conducted industrial and financial espionage for the Nazis. Other German companies, like Siemens, too, had eyes and ears in America.

Ronald has extensively researched and written on prominent people with Nazi sympathies and connections: The Ambassador, on Joseph Kennedy; A Dangerous Woman, on Florence Gould, a socialite and Nazi collaborator who later ran a money-laundering operation for Nazis in hiding; and Hitler’s Art Thief, on Hildebrand Gurlitt. Hitler’s Aristocrats, her latest work, scheduled for release on March 14, combs through the extensive networks of influence that the Nazis created—Hitler’s fifth column—and lays bare how it worked.

Now discredited and interred in the dustbin of history, that network is nevertheless a case study of the virtuoso deployment of guile in the service of abominable evil. Ronald does a masterful job of chronicling the creation and operation of that spider’s web. In doing so, she offers a cautionary tale for our times.

Image: Cover of Hitler's Aristocrats: The Secret Power Players in Britain and America Who Supported the Nazis, 1923–1941, by Susan Ronald.

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