Amid all the talk today about the need to stand up to dictators at all costs rather than repeat the mistakes of the 1930s, there is little serious thinking about what that means, either then or now. Ian Kershaw's latest book examines the problem through the eyes of one of a coterie of British establishment figures who, before 1939, believed that Hitler could be tamed by friendship. The result is a thorough and intelligent account of the complex twists and turns in British attitudes to Hitler's dictatorship. Standing up to dictators in pre-war Europe was a new problem, and one that Britain's political leaders were poorly equipped to understand.
The pair of eyes in question belonged to the 7th Marquess of Londonderry, scion of one of the "grand families" of the land, immensely rich, privileged in every pore, married to the leading society hostess of her day. Silver spoon firmly wedged between his lips, Londonderry proceeded from Eton via Sandhurst, the Horse Guards and the Commons to the House of Lords where, from 1931, he briefly held the only significant office of his career, as secretary of state for air.
He is chiefly remembered for two reasons: as the minister who failed to arm Britain in the air in time to deter Hitler; and as one of an outer ring of British upper-class conservatives who thought that collaborating with Hitler was better than fighting him. Neither accusation was entirely justified, but there was no smoke without fire. From the late 1930s until his death in 1949, Londonderry was a political outcast. The man who once thought that being prime minister would best reflect his talents ended up, in his own words, "a miserable failure".
It is clear that Londonderry was never prime ministerial material. His ambition and conceit far exceeded his intelligence and political instincts. He was, for all his brief notoriety in the 1930s, a man of limited vision whose personal decline reflected the slow but inexorable descent of Britain's aristocracy. Londonderry belonged to that class which still believed it was born to rule, regardless of competence. When he was sacked as air minister in 1935, his bitterness expressed itself in the deluded belief that, as a senior peer, he could simply carry on indulging in politics and diplomacy regardless of lack of office.
His bitterness was not entirely misplaced. Kershaw explains that important technical breakthroughs were made under his stewardship - including early development of the Spitfire and Hurricane, and of radar. Moreover, as air minister, Londonderry argued for more spending and a larger air force. The real problem was his limp political persona and patrician style; he fitted oddly with the more ascetic Neville Chamberlain and the genially middle-class Stanley Baldwin, who together dominated Conservative politics during the mid-1930s. Londonderry's claim that air-force expansion after 1934 was more or less consistent with what he was being told by air intelligence about German plans has been proved correct by German records, a point Kershaw might have looked at in greater depth. In the early years of expansion, half of German " military" aircraft were trainers, not bombers.
In dealing with the accusation that Londonderry was an apologist for Nazism, Kershaw is equally even-handed. It is true that Londonderry was flattered by the attention lavished on him during visits to Germany, and that he believed bringing Germany into active collaboration with Britain was the most sensible diplomatic route available, given the threat of communism and the "unreliability" of France (a prejudice that he and thousands of his countrymen picked up during the Great War). Londonderry shared the reflex anti-Semitism of his class (as he put it, he had "no great affection for the Jews"), hated the left, and suffered from a disastrous lack of judgement - as is clear from his verdict of 1937 that Hitler "dreads war".
Yet he was scarcely a fellow-traveller. He did not belong to the fascist or philo-fascist fringe. He was anxious to achieve a stable and lasting peace in Europe, but saw this as something that would require not only a heavily armed Britain speaking from a position of strength, but also German goodwill. An intransigent, violent and unappeasable Hitler, Londonderry believed, would result in the Germans revealing their true colours, leading in all likelihood to war. Londonderry deplored this prospect and longed for peace, but he was not instinctively pro-Nazi, nor even pro-German.
As Kershaw shows, there existed a wide spectrum of attitudes to Hitler in pre-war Britain. There were illusions of German goodwill and peaceableness, illusions that Hitler was a tool of conservative forces that would tame him with power, and illusions that the German people's appetite for treaty revision could be easily assuaged and stability restored. But most of those who mattered in the politics of the road to war recognised that Hitler had introduced a dimension into the crumbling world order distinct from the threat posed by Japan or by Mussolini's Italy, or even by Stalin's Soviet Union. Chamberlain, for one, hoped for a general settlement in which treaty revision or the return of German colonies could feature, but only on condition that Germany enter the international community with promises of good behaviour and a willingness to engage in genuine multilateral collaboration. Even this vision had very clear limits. For all the talk of appeasement, the German leadership was consistently puzzled by the lack of concrete proposals from those who were supposed to be doing the appeasing.
Kershaw makes it clear how little Londonderry really mattered in the events surrounding the Munich Agreement and the outbreak of war. On almost every count he was hoodwinked by Hitler; and his willingness to curry favour in Berlin made him an easy target for disingenuous attempts by the German leadership to placate Britain and to separate her from France. Kershaw asks what else might have been done to avert war, and he comes close to Winston Churchill's view that more arms and a firm voice early enough in the 1930s would have deterred Hitler.
I am not convinced. Kershaw's outstanding biography of the German dictator carried us into a political world extraordinarily different from the milieu that nourished Chamberlain and Londonderry. Hitler the imperialist would have liked Britain to abandon Europe to him, but there was little Britain could have done in the 1930s that would have assu-aged his appetite for empire, to be sated at Soviet expense. The British empire, like its patrician ruling class, was also in terminal decline. In confronting dictators, there is a crucial difference between then and now. Today, half the world's military spending is concentrated in the hands of a single superpower. In 1938, more than half the world's military spending was undertaken by dictatorships.
Richard Overy's latest book is The Dictators: Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia (Allen Lane, the Penguin Press)