Troublesome Young Men
The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England

Author: Lynne Olson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York., 2007

Lynne Olson

Lynne Olson

This book is about the character of the British upper classes and conservative parliamentarians facing Hitler's empowerment and aggressions in the 1930 and into the 1940s. There had been a cohesion among the upper classes. British boys went to the same schools – Eton, Harrow, Cambridge and Oxford – where they learned rank and loyalty. Growing into adulthood they partied together. They believed in the preservation of private property and enterprise, in individual freedom and they employed the same etiquette. But as war approached they divided with uncivil bitterness between those who supported Prime Minister Chamberlain and those in the Conservative Party who did not – the troublesome young men.

Those who supported Chamberlain loathed the idea of another war. They were joined by King George V, who, two years before his death in 1936, declared "I will not have another war. I will not."

And there were many who admired Hitler. Lynne Olson writes of the Prince of Wales in 1933 telling a German prince that "it was no business of ours to interfere in Germany's internal affairs either [regarding] Jews or [regarding] anything else," and he added that "dictators are very popular these days and we might want one in England before long." There was a lot of fear and hatred of Bolshevism among the conservatives, with some seeing Hitler as a barrier to Communist expansion or revolution, which contributed to a willingness to appease Hitler. In 1936 Lady Nelly Cecil, sister-in-law of the Marquess of Salisbury, noted that nearly all of her relatives were "tender to the Nazis and idiotic about 'Communism,' which to them means everything not approved by the Conservative Central Office." Harold Nicholson wrote of "People of the governing classes thinking only of their own fortunes, which means hatred of the Reds." This, he added, "creates a perfectly artificial, but at present most effective, secret bond between ourselves and Hitler." In certain upper-class circles, writes Lynne Olson, "it was considered not only politically sound but also the height of fashion to be pro-Nazi." Olson writes of the former prime minister, David Lloyd-George, visiting Germany and comparing Hitler with George Washington and describing him as "a born leader" and wishing that "we had a man of his supreme quality at the head of affairs in our country today."

Olson describes, Lord Rothermere, the owner of the British newspaper the Daily Mail, as "an out-an-out supporter of Hitler's regime." She writes that Rothermere "used his paper to promulgate the importance of giving Hitler a free hand in Eastern Europe so that he could attack and destroy bolshevism." If Hitler did not exist, the Daily Mail once declared, "all Western Europe might soon be clamoring for such a champion."

According to Olson, the Times, Britain's greatest newspaper, was a strong advocate of appeasement. She writes of many journalists considering themselves honorary members of a power establishment and going along with the appeasement of Hitler, with the Chamberlain regime responding to dissident journalists by courting their bosses, the owners and editors, "most of whom were members of the political and social establishment themselves."

Chamberlain was the leader of his party, and he went after those in his party who showed any disloyalty to him and his positions. One of the troublesome young members of parliament was Robert Boothby, twenty-four when he first entered parliament and thirty in 1932 when he met with Hitler in Berlin. Hitler harangued Boothby, "How would you like it," shouted Hitler, "if your colonies and your fleet had been taken from you, and if a corridor had been driven between England and Scotland." Discomforted by Hitler's ranting, Boothby decided to inject a bit of levity. "You forget, Herr Hitler," he replied, "that I come from Scotland. We should have been delighted." Hitler remained stone-faced, and Boothby stopped the jokes. Boothby, writes Olson, "was one of the first politicians in Britain to call attention to the threat posed by Hitler." Returning to Germany in 1933, after Hitler had become chancellor and had taken Germany out of the League of Nations, Boothby was appalled by the increasingly violent anti-Semitism that he witnessed.

Members of parliament opposed to appeasing Hitler in the 1930s were largely veterans of World War I, while "most of the government ministers responsible for appeasement had never been in the trenches." These veterans relished peace, but they believed, in the words of Olson, that it was "necessary to prepare for war in order to maintain that peace."

Dissenting members of the Conservative Party were called "war-mongers," including Winston Churchill, the old man among the dissidents -- age 62 in 1936. It was said that they should be shot or hanged. Into the year 1938 party luncheons or tea gatherings might explode into bitter disputes.

In October 1938 just under 40 percent of Britons answered a Gallop Poll with expressions of dissatisfaction with Prime Minister Chamberlain and his polities, and 72 percent wanted faster rearmament. In November, following the pogroms in Germany called Kristallnacht, "antipathy" toward Germany and Hitler intensified. But into 1939 there were complaints that conservatives were still terrified by the "Communist bogy," with few recognizing the "imminent danger to the country posed by Hitler and the Nazis."

In 1939 the upper classes were enjoying their summer, doing their usual partying and other activities while mention of troubles on the continent were considered an impolite distraction. In September came Germany's invasion of Poland, which caused a "fright" in Britain. While the Poles were under attack on land and from the air and were looking for help from their allies, Britain and France, Chamberlain made his weak speech, while millions of Britons were glued to their radios. Chamberlain announced in a trembling voice his declaration of war and spoke of his profound distress that war could not be averted after all. He said, "You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed." It disgusted the young conservative rebels. Chamberlain was supposed to be calling his nation to battle, they complained, not wallowing in self-pity. One conservative politician, Harold Nicolson, wrote in his diary: "We felt that... he cannot possibly lead us into a great war."

There was little military action in 1939 that helped the Poles. There were a "couple of failed attempts to bomb German warships." The sum total of Britain's defense of Poland in those first few months of the conflict, writes Olson, "was the dropping of millions of propaganda leaflets over Germany." She describes a German directive to generals declaring that the "great danger" to the German war effort was "the vulnerability of the Ruhr," that if German industrial production there were hit "it would lead to the collapse of the German war economy and thus of the capacity to resist." But the Ruhr remained untouched by British bombs. The Chamberlain regime was reluctant to strike at German "private property," anger the Germans or endanger German life -- while the German military was massacring their allies, the Poles.

Britain had military units in France, which had also declared war on Germany. But there a "sitdown" war was taking place. By the end of 1939 only three British soldiers had been killed, while on the homefront more than 4,000 Britons lost their lives because of a useless defensive measure: no lights at night, including street lighting and traffic signals. This "blackout" did nothing to prevent German aircraft, if German aircraft were coming, to find their way to London. According to a Gallop Poll, one in five Britons was involved in a blackout related accident by the end of December. Churchill, now a member of Chamberlain's cabinet, repeatedly urged an easing of the lighting restrictions.

There was also "petty, absurd, tyrannical" press censorship. When the American journalist John Gunther asked for the text of a leaflet that had been dropped on Germany he was told: "We are not allowed to disclose information which might be of value to the enemy."

According to Churchill, civilians were expected to ask no questions, to pay their taxes and to take off their hats when the colors passed by.

Still determined not to anger the Germans, British officials urged the BBC and print media not to broadcast or print reports of widespread Nazi killing of Jews and others in countries under German control.

By April 1940 opposition to Chamberlain among the conservatives and others had increased. Chamberlain spoke of German preparations for war having been "far ahead of our own" when the war started, but since then, he claimed, his administration had been able to "make good and remove our weaknesses." Of Hitler he said, "One thing is certain, Hitler has "missed the bus."

Then came Hitler's invasion and occupation of Norway. The British landed a counter-invasion that was a disaster amid rosy reports in the press. British troops had to be withdrawn from Norway, with Chamberlain admitting his forces had been insufficiently equipped.

Among conservative members of parliament, party loyalty continued to be demanded. Chamberlain said it was "not a time for quarrelling among ourselves," that it was "rather a time for closing our ranks." It did not work. Chamberlain was forced to resign in early May. King George VI accepted his resignation with reluctance, expressing anger toward Chamberlain's political opponents.

Churchill became Prime Minister on May 10, the day that German armies pushed through Belgium and the Netherlands. On June 5 they invaded France.