7 OCTOBER 1972, Page 19


Adam von Trott, Oxford, America and the anti-Nazis

Lionel Gelber

Adam von Trott, a conspirator against Hitler, undertook a transatlantic visit at the dawn of World War II that, if crowned with success, could only have made it more arduous for Britain to hold out until, two years later, the United States came fully to the rescue. His biographer, Mr Christopher Sykes, has described how the proposals conveyed by Trott were qualified momentarily and then restarted. But did anyone in the American or British governments sense at the time all that these might entail? The ideas purveyed by Trott across the Atlanticwere scarcely calculated to fortify the British position. How did the Foreign Office react to reports about them?

There was a chance that answers to questions such as these might be found when the Public Record Office released for scrutiny dispatches from the Washington Embassy to the Foreign Office for 1939 or 1940. Documents for both years are available at last. None of them refer to Trott.

What, besides, calls for fresh comment is the scale of priorities adopted by reviewers and polemicists when Trott's biography was published four years ago. No phase of his career evoked as little attention as his American travels during the autumn of 1939. Yet none could have had so dangerous a bearing on Britain's own immediate future. But how familiar are the British people with what was being done in various North American quarters to further the British cause before Pearl Harbour catapulted the United States into war? Then, too, it was Trott's sojourn at Oxford which had rendered possible his ventures into personal diplomacy on both sides of the Atlantic. Another look at that may help round out the picture.

Trott failed when the Roosevelt Administration stuck to a looser form of neutrality than he desired. Britain might have collapsed between the fall of France in the spring of 1940 and Pearl Harbour in December 1941 without Lend-Lease, the destroyers-for-bases deal, a morale-booster like the Atlantic Charter. None of these measures would have been feasible if, during the autumn of 1939, Adam von Trott had got his way. Perhaps the Roosevelt Administration would have had to take him more seriously if he himself had had a better grasp of American pressure politics and if Oxford had not been, for a German aristocrat with historic American antecedents of his own, his main ultimate source of introductions to the American scene.

Before this point is developed, it may be well to summarise Trott's general aims. On the eve of the war he had argued at the highest levels in Britain that anti-Nazi elements in the German armed forces could be bribed into revolt against Hitler by letting them retain Nazi conquests. The rulers of Germany were to alter, in other words, but not her overall rule. When these overtures got nowhere, though, there was another decisive factor to be considered by Trott and his seniors in the German Foreign Office. President Woodrow Wilson had thrown the weight of the United States into the scales against the German Empire and it was so as to preserve Germany from a repetition of her ensuing defeat that Trott embarked upon his last voyage across the Atlantic. Generous terms

by the Allies, he assured the State Depart' ment, were what were likely to hasten the, denazification of Germany. These presupposed, if the United States were to serve as a go-between, that she stays neutral and aloof. But what did Trott mean by generous terms? Never was he himself. willing to relax the Reich's grip on Austria — though he vacillated, it is true, over the years about other features of German: self-aggrandisement. The free world prayed• for the Nazi monster to disgorge. To feed! the beast was, until the Allies were advancing towards German soil in 1944, Trott's recurrent panacea.

And it is in this context that one un, noticed paradox of Trott's American trip might be suggested. He knew what, for him, were the wrong people. American I internationalists whom he had met, directly or indirectly, through his Oxford connections got him in touch with Roosevelt's t Washington. But Adam himself must have detected (as some have since confirmed to me) the lack of any real confidence between him and them. There were Americans, all the same, with whom politically he had a lot in common. These were the ones for whom the European hegemony of a larger German Reich was less of a menace than co-operative American efforts by which it might be forestalled, curbed or undone.

Nor were they hard to track down. It would have been best for him to avoid Father Coughlin, the Detroit radio personality. Yet there were isolationist militants in the Senate like Messrs Taft, Borah, Wheeler, Nye and Vandenberg; national politicians such as Thomas Dewey, the , Republican, and Norman Thomas, the ' Socialist; so influential a Wall Street apologist for German supremacy as John Foster Dulles. Others also were soon to emerge: the Lindberghs, for whom Nazism ' was, in their own phrase, the wave of the future; the well-heeled champions of Fortress America, as ex-President Hoover himself dubbed it, and those at Yale who founded America First. Nor could the American Communist Party, non-ideological bedmates of right-wing isolationists, be excluded. A year and a half was to pass, fraught with unprecedented peril for Britain and the free world, before the Nazi-Soviet Pact dissolved into NaziSoviet conflict — Communists in the United States, as in Britain and Canada, switching back like automatons to Britain's side. Trott departed from the United States six months before the surrender of France. It had been his business to see the State Department first of all. But his natural allies, powerful isolationist opinion-makers who might have put his case to more adequate use, he seemed to have missed.

Throughout, Adam had been torn between national grievances against the West and ideals he cherished with it. After World War I the 1919 settlement did at least allow for a unified German Reich while it also embodied, for the liberated countries of Eastern Europe, the principle of self-determination. Nowadays the Bonn Republic cannot have the one or urge the other if Ostpoiitik is to prevail. But since his Oxford days Trott had been preaching a theory to which Nazis and non-Nazis subscribed — namely, that others and not Germans themselves were responsible for the ills by which their country was beset.

The brief postwar French occupation of the Ruhr, for example, had been child's play as compared with the vast tracts of Belgium and France ravaged by German forces from 1914 to 1918. Postwar inflation, however, had ruined the German middle classes and this was attributed to reparations imposed by the victors under the Treaty of Versailles. Forgotten was the onerous wartime strain the German economy had inflicted upon itself in a war neutral Belgians, at least, did nothing to provoke. Shrugged off, too, were the inflationary methods adopted for evading the payment of reparations by which the vanquished had further impoverished themselves. And during the late 'twenties there was something else that is still ignored. American investment in the German economy surpassed whatever payments Germany did make under "the servitudes of Versailles." And so there was another unrecompensed item that brought on the world-wide slump of the 'thirties. Mass unemployment in the lands of the West did not produce Hitlers everywhere. But for resuming the war of 191418, Hitler himself could utilige a brand-new industrial plant with which, through unrepaid American investment, the West had endowed the resurgent Germans — a military advantage neither Britain nor France was to enjoy.

The clouds were gathering when Trott arrived at Oxford. To reverse the verdict of 1918 was as much his objective as that of compatriots from whom otherwise he dissented so completely. His dilemma, like that of many in the West, was to shun war while supporting German territorial demands that only war could achieve.

Trott was in his second year at Balliol College and I was in my third when Hitler, on becoming Chancellor, ushered in the Third Reich. With a concept of overriding German claims as advocated by so amiable a zealot as Adam few Oxonians were disposed temperamentally, and fewer equipped intellectually, to quarrel. The West had cardinal interests of its own to preserve. Any counter-assertion of these in Oxford, as elsewhere among the avantgarde of the English-speaking world, generally evoked ridicule.

Lord Lothian, the former Philip Kerr, was then Secretary of the Rhodes Trust and, though he had his headquarters in London, he was, during the early 'thirties, a frequent guest at parties given in Oxford for Rhodes Scholars at Rhodes House. The clue to everything was the friendship that sprang up afterwards between him and Trott as well as between Trott and the parents of David Astor, another Balliol undergraduate, with whom Lothian himself was so close. In those circles the exceptional charm of this dynamic Rhodes Scholar could have been no handicap. But they also shared the same preconceptions on the subject of Germany and without these he might never have got far.

It was a subject, furthermore, over which Lothian, who had been Secretary to Lloyd George at No 10 Downing Street and held ministerial posts in our own day, may have swung from one extreme to the other. On the origins of World War I most Germans, with encouragement from revisionist historians in the West, had always rejected the 'guilt clause' in the Treaty of Versailles. As a draftsman of that clause, Lothian may have been haunted by unadmitted guilt feelings of his own. When he died at the Washington Embassy in December 1940, he had been there a year and a half. After the Public Record Office releases some of his correspondence for examination a dispassionate study of his record, long overdue, should be done.

As for Trott's friendship with Sir Stafford Cripps, the latter's son, John Cripps, was also with us at Balliol. But in that radical company the emphasis may have been on the domestic sector. About what else, early in the nineteen-thirties, could one who had been Solicitor-General and a dissident member of the Labour Opposition, agree with Adam? Cripps might have concurred that the 1919 settlement was a wrong which still had to be rectified in Germany's favour. And yet if it had been thus rectified the domination of Europe would have passed to Germany without a shot being fired — a state of affairs that could have been countered only by the sort of arms build-up against which the Labour Party clamoured during the nineteen-thirties so insistently. At the Centre there had been Lord Robert Cecil with his peace ballot. For the subsequent plight of the nation, the Conservative Party, having held the reins at Westminster, was the more culpable. Pacifist fervours on the Left were only less to blame.

His Oxford career had thus been the indispensable prelude for activities as unique as Trott's. Without the high-level connections he forged during his two years at Balliol there were political thresholds in Britain and America he could never have crossed, doors he could never have opened.

I was in Toronto when I heard of his trip to the United States during the autumn of 1939. There was nothing political about the postcard that, with others, he sent me from New York. But from Virginia, where he had been at a conference of the Institute for Pacific Relations, Canadian delegates bore further salutations and, when they did so, observed how splendid a job Adam had done for Hitler.

Expediency rather than conviction was, I surmised, what had impelled him. I had long anticipated his search for leverage against the Nazi regime from a niche within it — these were tactics we had canvassed at Balliol six years before. It was, nevertheless, just as well that I' did not go down to New York or Washington during his American pilgrimage and learn that he was seeking a compromise peace which required from the United States the strictest kind of neutrality. I was one of those who long feared that without American intervention all would be lost. After Oxford and during the appeasement years I had lived in London. Before the fall of Austria, when an article of Mine had Warned against a Nazi-Soviet Pact, I had also written (The Fortnightly Review, March 1, 1938) that the United States would be aligned with Britain in any final crisis. In London, too, my book The Rise of Anglo-American Friendship had been published two days before Munich and, when an American edition followed, one review not only stated, among other' things, that my purpose was to get the United States into the war on the side of Britain but it appeared (The American Historical Review, October 1939) just when Adam arrived to keep her out. This was a coincidence and a profoundly disquieting contrast of which I had no inkling for many years. But it did illustrate, as far as Trott was concerned, that one could be a foe of the Nazis without being an ally of the West.

In this crucial respect Adam might have drawn away, towards the end, from his chief British patron. Necessarily different, at any rate, was Lothian's tone after he went to the Washington Embassy (he visited Toronto on one occasion during that period) from all he had said and done during the preceding decade. It was not until Churchill replaced Chamberlain, as is indicated by the papers at the Public Record Office, that the idea of a peace with Hitler himself had been dispelled. Yet neither was Adam's thesis — a compromise peace expedited by an uncompromising American abstention — one that a British envoy in Washington could endorse. There was a secret encounter at the Mayflower Hotel, Washington, between Lothian and his German protege. With the Gestapo on the prowl, their talk could not be divulged. But Edward Carter, Director of the Insti tute for Pacific Relations, had arranged the Lothian-Trott rendezvous and, as he soon informed me about it, he must have informed others. No harm was done. It had been through Lothian himself that, according to Trott's biographer, Adam first met Carter before the war and that a prewar grant from the Rhodes Trust had provided funds for Adam's attendance at the conference of the Institute for Pacific Relations during the autumn of 1939. Not even that meagre British expenditure, in the light of Adam's quest for American neutrality and Britain's own imminent struggle to survive, was devoid of irony.

At once selfless and self-willed, he had striven to exploit Nazism as well as to wipe it out. Eager to save Germany from Hitler he risked everything. But less than eager to save Europe from Germany he had, on that more fundamental issue, leaned towards the Nazis rather than the West.

Were there hints of such ambivalence in Trott before it manifested itself at major turning-points? Symptomatic may be one episode, noted by his biographer, of how he refused to see Churchill when he strove on the eve of the war to elicit the further appeasement of Hitler from Chamberlain and Halifax. Did he exhibit the same schizoid mentality, intellectual escapism tempered later on by. the utmost in compassion and courage, during pivotal experiences at Balliol from 1931 to 1933? Minor recollections suggest that he might have done so.

Certainly he was still rather selective in the kind of response he made to critiques of Germany and Germans. "You Germans are all alike," I charged with mockindignation when, from published correspondence, I discovered how, before the 1914 War, German Rhodes Scholars, on getting drunk, threatened British fellow Oxonians With invasion; how the Kaiser had had one sent down after he shot a deer in the lovely park of Magdalen College. Adam Was not amused. Among the offenders may have been Wilhelm von Schweinitz, a Balliol man who was his own uncle. Nor did it please Adam to learn how bellicose in behaviour German undergraduates had been prior to the war of 1914. Such mischief detracted from any assumption of relative German innocence upon which, With most Germans and with so many in the English-speaking world, he predicated the case against the 1919 settlement a line which was to be Trott's own political stock-in-trade until the conspiracy of July 1944 fizzled out and the Nazis hanged him.

Adam covered a lot of ground. He consorted with heads of colleges, dons of all ages and many breeds of undergraduate — Communists of the October Club, younger Pillars of the Establishment on the Right, heirs to the anti-Establishment EstablishMent which had flourished after World War I on the Left. Yet in political discussion two names that should have mattered as much aS any to Adam were simply not mentioned in the Sykes biography. They are those of Alfred Zimmern, first occupant of the Oxford Chair in International Relations, a celebrated scholar who conducted a group to Which Trott belonged, together with that of Reginald Coupland, Zimmern's counterpart in Commonwealth affairs — an Oxford figure whom Trott must have run across at All Souls and who, as doyen •of the Ralegh Club, limited though it was to members from Britain and other Commonwealth countries, exerted much influence upon many generations and varieties of Oxford men. Zimmern and Coupland had been less well disposed than most of Oxford towards German demands. Trott fell out with A. L. Rowse, another sceptic.

One does not remember, alas, the impression made upon Adam by that notorious episode, also unmentioned by his biographer, when the Oxford Union twice decided that it would not fight for King and Country. Such antics might not have persuaded him, as it may have persuaded Nazis, young and old, that they could defy Britain, still leader of the West, with impunity; his goal always was peace by agreement even if its consequences were more inequitable than the status quo. Nor is there any evidence of how another episode impressed Trott — a conference assembled at Rhodes House between a representative group of Oxford students and a German delegation composed ostensibly of student Nazis.

If it was through Oxford that he got out of his depth, it would have been better for him, in the long run, if he had never gone up. In the short run he gave the University more than it gave him. When Adam waltzed at balls in London as well as Oxford, this tall magnetic creature swept all before him: he would have been a hit even if he had not been a man with a mission. The Commonwealth and American presence had done much, since the turn of the century, to render Oxford less ingrown. But this did not put it socially and intellectually on its mettle. Trott did. For he embodied a degree of upper-class European sophistication that attracted — and even flattered — native British sophisticates, most of humbler birth.

Trott stood out. So did two other German Oxonians of patrician vintage whom Nazi furies consumed. Albrecht von Bernstorff, an older man, was already a friend of Adam's while Helmuth von Moltke organised the resistance group on whose behalf Adam negotiated, during the war, with the West. Bernstorff was still Counsellor of the German Embassy, then on Carlton House Terrace, when, with Count Montgelas, he sat in my rooms at Balliol and warned, seven or eight months before Hitler attained office, of the wrath to come. And those very cottage rooms (now demolished) were the ones in which Trott himself was to dwell during his second year at Oxford.

The resistance group that Adam joined was to rely, for the overthrow of the Nazi regime, on some of the Army High Command and in him the General Staff had had an admirer dating from before the demise of the Weimar Republic — in fact, since the days of General Schleicher. A job on it, Trott remarked to me, was the route to power and, as we walked around the garden quadrangle at Balliol, I half expected him to wind up with one.

Nor was this the only way in which he never changed. "One must have roots," he used to say to me — a dictum to which may be traced back his rejection of exile because such a move might have jeopardised some he would have left behind.

The Easter vacation of 1933 offered the first opportunity for Adam to see Nazi Germany with his own eyes and for Berthold Krupp, another Balliol contemporary of ours, also to pay it a visit. No two accounts, when they returned, could have been as dissimilar. "She wept," was how, according to Trott, his mother received news of early excesses against German Jews. "She is," he explained to me, "a Christian." Such was the code he inherited and he never hesitated, despite grave hazards, to reaffirm it.

Trott had moral force. But his political ideas were a baffling Hegelian jumble — some derived from the Left, some from the Right, liberal and illiberal, nationalist and internationalist, which he never contrived to sort out. Whenever I teased him about their abstract character he retorted that, as a descendant of John Jay, first Chief Justice of the United States, he also had a stake in the more pragmatic heritage of Anglo-American public affairs. And there, too, a hint of irony might be discerned.

Tradition, at any rate, may be what Adam had in mind when he set sail for the United States upon the outbreak of war. The United States reverted, after 1914-18, to George Washington's counsel against entangling alliances and it was for strict American neutrality that Trott contended during the autumn of 1939. Did he invoke the name of his own eminent American ancestor, an appointee of the first President, when he pleaded at the State Department for the resurrection of outmoded policies? He might well have done so. The Public Record Office has no relevant papers, however, and neither does the Sykes biography raise the point. The main segment of the West did not mobilise until Japan strait more than two years later. Yet the West had not been wholly self-immobilised and in part that was because, by another wry twist of history, the scion of an old Knickerbocker family, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, acted as he did.