LONDON — When Adolf Hitler entered the Reich Chancellery on January 30, 1933, the cheers of the Nazi stormtroopers in Berlin were echoed in Northcliffe House, the home of Britain’s then highest-selling newspaper.
The Daily Mail was not the only national daily to adopt an overly tolerant attitude towards Hitler during the 1930s, a position which reflected widespread public support for the government’s appeasement policy.
But it went far further than any other newspaper in sympathizing with the Nazis and it did so at the insistence of its overweening proprietor, Harold Harmsworth, the first Viscount Rothermere.
Lord Rothermere was a staunch admirer of Hitler and Mussolini, who also briefly flirted with fascism in Britain. Born 150 years ago this summer, Rothermere was also, alongside Lord Beaverbrook, the most powerful press baron during the interwar years.
As historian Piers Brendon has suggested, the two were “mad, bad, dangerous-to-know beasts in the newspaper jungle who did what they wanted.”
Stanley Baldwin, the Conservative prime minister with whom the two men frequently tangled, publicly accused them of seeking “power without responsibility — the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.”
Rothermere launched the Daily Mail in 1896 with his elder brother, Alfred Harmsworth, who was later named Lord Northcliffe. By 1930, they owned 14 daily and Sunday newspapers, and a substantial share in three more.
With Northcliffe’s death in 1922, Rothermere’s writ ran across his newspaper stable unchallenged. The peer, a 1938 study concluded, issued “general instructions to his editors and [gave] massive broadsides in the form of articles in the Daily Mail, which [were] duly reproduced by other papers in the group.”
Thus, as Martin Pugh suggests in his history of British interwar fascism, Rothermere was “perhaps the most influential single propagandist for fascism between the wars.”
Rothermere’s support for Hitler and Mussolini stemmed from his deep fear and loathing of Bolshevism and the Soviet Union, against which he saw the dictators as a critical bulwark.
Shortly after Mussolini came to power, Rothermere laid his cards on the table. In an article in the Mail entitled “What Europe Owes to Mussolini,” he expressed his “profound admiration” for Italy’s new leader.
“In saving Italy he stopped the inroads of Bolshevism which would have left Europe in ruins… in my judgment he saved the whole Western world,” Rothermere declared.
His frequent visits to Italy seemed only to further stoke Rothermere’s enthusiasm for the Duce.
“He is the greatest figure of the age,” Rothermere proclaimed in 1928. “Mussolini will probably dominate the history of the 20th century as Napoleon dominated that of the early 19th.”
Rothermere initially believed that Britain was “not suited” to fascism, but a general strike in 1926 and a fear that Baldwin was displaying “the feebleness which tries to placate opposition by being more socialist than the Socialists,” led him to reappraise this view as a new decade dawned.
The Mail’s first portrayal of Hitler was not an altogether flattering one. Interviewing the Nazi leader in 1923, the paper’s Berlin correspondent, Rothay Reynolds, was distinctly underwhelmed. Hitler did not possess the “genius” of Mussolini, he wrote. “When I left the headquarters I felt as if I had left a madhouse.”
But, as Will Wainewright describes in his book “Reporting Hitler: Rothay Reynolds and the British Press in Nazi Germany,” the Mail’s enthusiasm for the Nazis would grow as their support in Germany surged.
By the 1930 election, when the Nazis’ seats in the Reichstag jumped from 12 to 107, Rothermere was a convert.
“[The Nazis] represent the rebirth of Germany as a nation,” Rothermere wrote in the Mail. The election, he correctly prophesied, would come to be seen as “a landmark of this time.”
Grateful for this unusual support from the foreign press, Hitler granted Reynolds an exclusive interview, and showered his proprietor with praise for his “intuitive statesmanship.”
Rothermere responded with further warm words. His backing for the Nazis, he dismissively wrote, “had shocked the old women of three countries — France, Germany, and our own.”
Nonetheless, he also sounded a note of caution which suggested he did not fully understand the nature of the beast with which his newspaper had got into bed.
The Nazis’ “Jew-baiting,” Rothermere warned, was “a stupid survival of medieval prejudice.” Of course, he also added, the Jews had brought the Nazis’ displeasure on themselves, having shown “conspicuous political unwisdom since the war.”
These softly expressed qualms did not, however, curb Rothermere’s enthusiasm. Returning from Germany in July 1933, when Hitler’s consolidation of power was complete and democracy had been extinguished, Rothermere published an article in the Mail under the headline “Youth Triumphant.”
“Under Herr Hitler’s control,” he suggested, “the youth of Germany is effectively organized against the corruption of Communism.”
He contrasted Hitler’s fortitude with Baldwin’s weakness: “No strong anti-Socialist policy can be expected from a Conservative party whose leaders are themselves tainted with semi-socialist doctrines.”
Despite his former mild reservations, the press baron was also now parroting the Nazis’ anti-Semitic slurs.
Germany had been “falling under the control of alien elements,” Rothermere argued. There were 20 times as many Jews in government positions than there had been before the war.
“Israelites of international attachments were insinuating themselves into key positions in the German administrative machine,” he noted darkly. “It is from such abuses that Hitler has freed Germany.”
The Jews were not just a problem in Germany. The menace they posed was much more widespread, he felt.
“The Jews are everywhere, controlling everything,” Rothermere wrote in private correspondence.
Unsurprisingly, given its proprietor’s naked anti-Semitism, the Mail did not delve too deeply when it came to reporting the Nazis’ growing threat to Germany’s Jews. Its report of the boycott of Jewish businesses in April 1933 even contained a statement from Hitler’s spokesman arguing that allegations of “the mishandling of Jews” were “barefaced lies.”
Reynolds, who did not share Rothermere’s adoration of Hitler, was increasingly sidelined by G. Ward Price, a correspondent more ideologically in tune with his proprietor’s Nazi sympathies and more willing to do his bidding. Price soon became a favorite of Hitler and Goebbels.
It wasn’t hard to see why the Mail’s fawning coverage of the Nazis so delighted the Fuhrer — the paper uncritically reported the butchery of the Night of the Long Knives.
“Herr Adolf Hitler, the German Chancellor, has saved his country,” began its story on the frenzy of extrajudicial killings, and cheered the Nazis on as they trampled the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles.
When German troops marched into the Rhineland in March 1936, the Mail suggested Hitler had “cleared the air” and warned against “Bolshevik troublemakers.” It offered a glowing report of the Anschluss two years later — penned by Price, who had hitched a ride in Hitler’s convoy as it sped towards Vienna.
And the Mail showed no sympathy for the Czechs as the Nazis dismembered their country shortly thereafter.
“Czechoslovakia is not of the remotest concern to us,” Rothermere told the paper’s readers as Hitler hungrily eyed the Sudetenland. When Britain and France caved in to Hitler’s demands at Munich in September 1938, the Mail said the agreement they had struck with Germany “brings to Europe the blessed prospect of peace.”
The Mail’s support for appeasement was by no means unique in the British press. The Times, for instance, was unwavering in its support of Neville Chamberlain’s policy. And other newspapers ran headlines and pieces that today cause red faces: “Judea declares war on Germany: Jews of all the world unite in action,” Beaverbook’s Daily Express headlined a story about a 1933 boycott of German goods organized by the Nazis’ overseas opponents.
But only the Mail and its owner were so consistently and avowedly pro-Nazi. Rothermere met Hitler for the first time in 1933 and they met several more times and struck up a warm correspondence.
Following his meetings, Rothermere believed Hitler — a “simple and unaffected man” and a “perfect gentleman” — to be “obviously sincere” in his desire for peace. “There is no man living whose promise given in regard to something of real moment I would sooner take,” he later argued.
It is impossible to know whether Hitler regarded Rothermere as anything other than a useful idiot. Still, he did his best to appear sincere in his gratitude for the press magnate’s backing.
When Rothermere applauded Germany’s withdrawal from the League of Nations, Hitler wrote of his appreciation — and that of “countless Germans” for his “wise and beneficial” public support. But he could never quite match Rothermere’s penchant for flattery.
After the Munich agreement, Rothermere wrote to thank Hitler for the “bloodless solution” which had been reached.
“Frederick the Great was a great popular figure,” Rothermere wrote. “I salute your excellency’s star which rises higher and higher.”
However, perhaps helped by Rothermere’s son, Esmond, assuming control of the paper, the Mail’s ardor for the Nazis was about to cool. It made no attempt to disguise the horror of Kristallnacht and its editorial column flailed the Nazis’ “wholesale oppression” of a “helpless minority” and urged the regime to show “moderation and mercy.”
When Hitler consumed the rump of Czechoslovakia four months later, the paper’s patience finally snapped. “He has no sanction either in law or morality for this subjugation of a free and sovereign people,” it declared.
Rothermere himself had no such concerns. In a letter intercepted by the British intelligence services — politely characterized by the spooks in their report as “very indiscreet” — he congratulated Hitler on the annexation of Czechoslovakia and urged him to invade Romania.
Moreover, Rothermere did not abandon his hope that war might be avoided.
In June 1939, he wrote gushingly to Hitler: “My Dear Führer, I have watched with understanding and interest the progress of your great and superhuman work in regenerating your country.” He pleaded with Hitler that there was “no problem between our two countries which cannot be settled by consultation and negotiation,” and concluded, “I have always felt that you are essentially one who hates war and desires peace.”
There were, perhaps, at least two peculiarities about Britain’s Nazi press baron. First was the schizophrenia evident in his reassurances about Hitler’s peace-loving intentions and his constant warnings that Britain must rearm.
In typically strident tones, the Mail argued that it was “madness” that Britain remained unarmed while Germany and Italy were “armed to the teeth.” Rothermere felt so strongly that he commissioned the construction of an airplane — the Britain First — which he donated to the air force.
Indeed, behind closed doors, Rothermere was also warning Britain’s leaders that Hitler may not be quite the gentle giant his newspapers proclaimed him to be. As Wainewright argues, this may simply have been a clever strategy, “a way of covering his back in case it transpired his Nazi friends harbored malicious intentions.”
Similarly mysterious is the manner in which Rothermere’s support for Britain’s homegrown Nazis — Sir Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts — proved so short-lived.
In January 1934 the Mail published an article under his byline entitled “Hurrah for the Blackshirts,” lauding Mosley’s aim of bringing Britain “up to date” by following in the footsteps of Europe’s “best governed” nations, Italy and Nazi Germany. The article urged a similar “revival of national strength and spirit.” Following their proprietor’s cue, staff at the paper began showing up for work wearing black shirts.
Rothermere’s other newspapers also threw their support behind the effort. The Mirror urged its readers to “Give the Blackshirts a helping hand,” and printed the addresses of Mosley’s local recruiting offices. A visit to Germany or Italy, Rothermere assured readers, showed that “the mood of the vast majority of the inhabitants was not cowed submission, but confident enthusiasm.”
The Sunday Dispatch offered free tickets to Mosley’s rallies, prizes for readers who submitted letters on why they liked the Blackshirts, and regular features on attractive female fascists, under headlines such as “Beauty joins the Blackshirts.”
But Rothermere’s backing for Mosley fizzled out after six months of frenetic activity on the Blackshirts’ behalf.
Some have suggested that violence at a large fascist rally at Earls Court in June 1934 unsettled Rothermere. But, as Pugh argues, this seems improbable.
More likely, favor was withdrawn from Mosley for commercial reasons. Engaged in a fierce circulation battle with Beaverbrook’s Express, Rothemere feared the loss of advertising revenue from Jewish-owned businesses such as the catering firm J. Lyons and Co.
While fascists at home fell out of Rothermere’s affections, he never shook the belief that Germany and Britain were natural allies.
Even once war was declared in September 1939, Rothermere was appalled by the potential consequences. In an unsent letter to Chamberlain, he warned that Britain’s “social and economic fabric” would be destroyed by the conflict, hastening “a revolution of the Left in these islands, which might be more deadly than the war itself.”
Rothermere, believes Chris Horrie, author of a book on Britain’s tabloids, was lucky to escape internment given his Nazi sympathies. Instead, the government bundled him out of the country on a “meaningless” mission to Canada. He died as the war was entering its second year and much of Europe was under his hero’s jackboot.
Rothermere’s reputation may have been irreparably damaged. But his beloved newspaper — still a high-circulation right-wing tabloid much beloved by “Middle England” — easily weathers the occasional barbs about its disreputable past.