Hitler's Aristocrats: The Secret Power Players in Britain and America Who Supported the Nazis, 1923-1941
By Susan Ronald
St. Martin's Press; hardcover, 464 pages; $32.50
Susan Ronald is a British-American biographer and historian of more than half a dozen books, including Conde Nast, The Ambassador, A Dangerous Woman, Hitler's Art Thief, and Heretic Queen.
In the new, deeply researched and engrossing book, Hitler's Aristocrats, Ronald explores the shadowy world of the aristocrats and business leaders on both sides of the Atlantic who secretly aided Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.
"I am convinced that propaganda is an essential means to achieve one's aims," Hitler said. He enlisted Europe's aristocracy, international industrialists, and the political elite in Britain and America to help him spin a tale that everyone wanted to believe, that he was a man of peace.
At the center of this great deception was an international high society Black Widow, Princess Stephanie Hohenlohe-Waldenburg-Schillingsfurst, who was called "his dear princess" by Hitler. She was one of many at the highest levels of the British aristocracy to conspire for Hitler and bring America's wealthy powerbrokers into their network of support.
These aristocrats, in essence, were working for Hitler, and became his eyes, listening posts, and mouthpieces in the drawing rooms, cocktail parties, and weekend retreats of the United States and Europe.
Some of the "gentleman spies" and "ladies of mystery," who were famous names of the time and still known today, were the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Lady Nancy Astor, Charles Lindbergh, and two of the Mitford sisters. The index in the start of the book of the full list of people who supported Hiter is astonishing, and one you'll be going back to as you read this book.
They were the trusted voices disseminating the political and cultural propaganda about the "New Germany," brushing aside the Nazis' atrocities. One important note about this book is that this is pre-World War II, but it was known long before then what Hitler's aims were.
Hitler was distrustful of his own Foreign Ministry and he used his aristocrats to open the right doors in the United States and Great Britain to create a formidable fifth column within government and financial circles. They did face many who heroically opposed them, adding to the drama and intrigue of this story.
In this excerpt, Ronald writes: "The world of the 1930s is an unrecognizable 'other country' to us today. The Great Depression, caused by the 1929 Wall Street stock market crash, wreaked economic, social, and political devastation. It was felt around the world, save (annoyingly to capitalists) in the Soviet Union, then called USSR - the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics - now called the Russian Federation. Then, too, the crash was a decade after the end of the carnage of the Great War. (It could hardly be called the First World War until the sequel had begun, could it?) The 'Spanish flu' - bred in the trenches of Flanders fields - became the 1918-20 pandemic, killing another estimated fifty million people. Hitting as it did when the world's populations were already deeply scarred by the trench warfare of 1914-18, during which million of young men died, it was seen as an interminable plague. The cry of never again! among the Allied nations was sung as a magnificent obsession before becoming a propaganda tool to be wielded by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. But how? That is the first point of this book.
Writing in 1953, the novelist L.P. Hartley began his seminal work The Go-Between with: 'The past is another century: they do things differently there.' Agreed, all our modern conveniences that we consider essential, from cars to electricity to refrigeration, were rare. Of course there was no internet and all the joys and problems it brings either. But as far as the use and purpose of propaganda is concerned, things were remarkably similar, only the means of communication was different. Hadn't Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis eerily foretold, in his devastating political novel It Can't Happen Here in 1955, the story of a presidential insurrection against democracy? Haven't we all seen what accomplices, enablers, and influencers can do today? Haven't we seen those in power, or people aiming to grab power, do as they wish with the aid of 'spin,' or as I prefer to call it by its original name, propaganda? Power and propaganda. Two mighty forces.
And that is the second point of this book. Hitler's sales pitch to the German people was to vote for dictatorship. Just imagine - voting to lose your rights. And because the chaos was so extreme in Germany, they did - never realizing that Hitler's plan to annihilate and conquer would soon wreak a more deadly havoc. Hitler laid the blame for all Germany's ills on his political enemies, the church, and especially the Jews. It is one thing for a leader - any leader - to declare himself above the rule of law. However, for demagoguery to succeed, the very first step requires garnering a following through indoctrination, not only of the masses but also of the politically motivated, business leaders, and money men (and today, women). Any rise to power is foreshadowed by persuasive voices whispering, then chattering loudly behind the scenes. As the movement gathers pace, metaphoric microphones are put under the enablers' noses, and their words bleat out at us through megaphones of one ilk or another, before their messages are finally transformed into print or broadcast media - more readily today - across social media. There are many analogues in history."