Noble Endeavours

Why would a literary biographer write a history of the friendship between England and Germany

It happened - as all my books do - somewhat by accident. I first got interested after I persuaded my former father-in-law - after years of reticence - to tell me about the experience of coming to England, just before the War, as a Kindertransport child. The first book (so he told me) that he read in English was Dickens's The Pickwick Papers.  When a doodlebug burnt down his London lodging house in 1942, the thing that devastated Felix Gottlieb most was the loss of his cherished copy of that beloved book.  How strange, I thought, that this quiet, precise old gentleman should still today - aged 91- believe, with quiet but stalwart conviction, in the values of an England described by Dickens back in 1836.

My own family's connections with this Germany added a further stimulus to my impulse to write. The story is well-known ( and has been brilliantly used by Craig Brown in his One on One to start and end a chain of improbable human conections) of how my mother's older brother, John Howard de Walden, went out to Munich as a young man in 1931 and almost ended Hitler's career, there and then, by accidentally knocking him down with his car.  (Would that he had succeeded.)

What is less well-known is that my Uncle John fell in love with a beautiful Munich girl, the daughter of a sculptor, and that he married her there in Munich, with my entire English family present, just one month after the massacres in that city known today as the Night of the Long Knives. (My mother, a member of the wedding  - aged eleven - still remembers the megaphones strapped to lamp-posts, endlessly broadcasting Hitler's explanation of those recent, vicious events.) 

The photographs of the wedding tellingly reveal no sign of a Nazi insignia or uniform.  The Harrachs were no supporters of that vile regime, and yet, throughout all my early life, I never heard those German relations talked about.  My brother, visiting Germany as a young man, came home with stories of wonderful cousins, full of friendship. If they ever visited England, I never heard about that event.  It was only last year, uncovering my German aunt's hidden collection of German records (Night and Day, sung in broken English by the German Comedian Harmonists, a group of mixed ethnicity - until Hitler broke them up - haunts me still) that I glimpsed the sacrifices that would have been required of a German woman, living in England, during and after the War. The need for absolutel discretion was paramount. Even now, when I ask her children for their memories, they stress, above all, the fact that she spoke impeccable English. Her German background was buried. Only by burying it, could she survive.

I began by trying to write about that curious group we call the appeasers, men and women who aredently believed that England's role in constructing the Treaty of Versailles debarred her from the right to interfere  in Germany's politics.  ('It wasn't our affair,' were the words I encountered over and over again during my researches: from handsome, young Tom Mitford, embracing Nazism as early as 1929; from Ernest Tennant, the well-meaning Secretary to one of England's leading Anglo-German societies; from - even - as improbable a figure as Winston Churchill, who was ready to state, well before the War, that England, if ever in dire trouble, could hope for nothing better than a man like Hitler to lead her.

The more that I read about the appeasers, the clearer it became that I  needed to look more deeply, and to look further back.  It wasn't enough (I realised) to examine the guilt that the English felt about Germany's suffering from the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles. (The terms were, actually, no harsher than those that Germany had inflicted upon the French after the Franco-Prussian War - as France, in 1919, did not forget). 

But then what was it I DID want to achieve?  What was it that was so disturbing me?

The answer lay before my eyes.  Germany and England had once been two great Protestant powers, linked by a marriage, back in 1613, between a beautiful Stuart princess and the young Elector Palatine.  England, in 1613, badly needed a Protestant ally.  In Germany - a country still comprised then of tiny duchies, mostly very impoverished - she found one. The friendship was given symbolic form when, at Heidelberg, the Elector created a home-gown version of London's Globe Theatre and turned a German court into the setting for Shakespeare's plays. 

For over two hundred and fifty years, the friendship between our two countries grew and prospered, exemplified in my book in the rich and diverse stories of travellers, artists, writers and diplomats. Hanoverian monarchs had presided over England - not always with great popularity - since the arrival at Dover of non-English speaking George I. The union was consolidated when a young Queen Victoria married a high-minded and handsome young German prince. Victoria and Albert transformed the face of royal and international politics.  Researching the extraordinary influence of Albert upon his devoted consort's nation - before an untimely death cut short that benign and progressive influence - brought home to me just how much Germany has helped to transform and shape our country.  Not just in the sphere of music (which no one argues), but in architecture, science, education and social welfare: one of my most revealing discoveries was the history of London's wonderful German Hospital, built to serve the poor of both countries and soldiering on, all through the First War, until a tragic error led to the arrest and internment of its staff of nursing nuns in 1940.

The stories enthralled me. Who could resist the swashbuckling Sir Hubert Herkomer, a Bavarian who became one of England's most beloved artists and even founded our first film school (as well as building England's strangest house, a Bavarian schloss, in Hertfordshire, while sponsoring Germany's first motor race in his native Bavaria)?  I was thrilled to discover that my German aunt was the niece of Prince Karl Max Lichnowsky, the Anglophile German diplomat with whom Asquith and Grey shed tears in London on the eve of War. I never expected to learn that Lichnowsky's spirited and brilliant wife had been a patron of Picasso, painted by Kokoshka, and so admired by the Bloomsbury set that a special Omega fabric was named 'Mechtilde' in her honour.  In Vienna, the writer Karl Kraus hailed Mechtilde as the most brilliant spirit of her time in German writing: her second husband was an Englishman, but here, in the country to which she gave her heart, Mechtilde Lichnowsky's name is utterly unknown.

Everybody - so I felt as I listened to her son Hansel's privately recorded memories - should know about wonderful Daisy Pless, the beautiful and dazzlingly unconventional young English girl who used her marriage to a German coal magnate to reform Prussia's social welfare system and who worked, behind the scenes, to influence both Edward VII (who adored her), and the Kaiser (who always put Daisy next to him at meals) to work for peace.  What cruel irony dictated that Daisy, paralysed by MS, should die of poverty in Germany, while her son Hansel, a man who had personally advised Winston Churchill about Poland in September 1939, served time in Brixton prison for three long years on false charges of treason?  Emerging, remarkably unembittered, with only a green bicycle he called The Green Steed to his name, Prince Hansel immediately enlisted in the British forces to fight for England (before ultimately marrying an Irish wife, whom 'Mr Henry Pless' swept joyously off on a honeymoon he could scarcely afford, in a brand new bubble-car...)

I've spent four years inhabiting a world that was once populated by these courageous and honourable people. I've thought, every day, of the pathos of a member of the English Schroder family who, when ordered to declare his allegiance in 1916, following the death of a son who'd been ordered to fight for Germany, said that he couldn't choose.  It felt, Bruno Schroder piteously declared, as though his mother and father had quarrelled.

Our countries were once that close.  Many noble endeavours have been and are still being made to banish the tragic mistrust shaped by twelve unforgivable years of Nazi rule.  But the evidence that it survives is with us still.  The distrust lingers and festers: in 2010, 830 books about the third Reich were published in the UK. We seem unable to let the past - the very worst of the past - take its place as a part of history.

My own endeavour has been to write a book that might, with its diverse stories from a long and noble history between these two great nations, help us to rethink our attitude.

Prince Pückler-Muskau goes courting for a rich English bride

No Entente Cordiale apparent here between Edward VII and his bumptious nephew, Wilhelm II

Heroic Daisy Pless in her Red Cross uniform

Modern art patron Mechtilde Lichnowsky stands in front of 'Mechtilde', an Omega fabric designed to honour her in 1913

   Added: Thursday 22 August 2013