A group of rebel Conservative MPs who saw through the Nazis

Without these queer MPs, the UK would never have gone to war with Hitler

Labour MP and former minister Chris Bryant’s new book shows how the ‘Glamour Boys’ faced their own government’s dirty tactics as they fought anti-Semitism, cooperation with Germany

Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and the author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”

Clockwise from top left: Philip Sassoon; both gay and anti-Semitic, SA head Ernst Röhm, left, and his deputy Edmund Heines, right; Ronald Cartland; Victor Cazalet; Berlin gay club Eldorado; Robert Bernays. (Public domain; Bundesarchiv Bild)
Clockwise from top left: Philip Sassoon; both gay and anti-Semitic, SA head Ernst Röhm, left, and his deputy Edmund Heines, right; Ronald Cartland; Victor Cazalet; Berlin gay club Eldorado; Robert Bernays. (Public domain; Bundesarchiv Bild)

LONDON — For gay men in the interwar years, there was no city on earth quite like Berlin. Dozens of queer bars, clubs, restaurants and saunas provided a freedom that, beyond the famously liberal Weimar Republic, few could imagine and fewer still enjoy. “In the dimly lit bars,” wrote the Austrian Jewish novelist Stefan Zweig, “one might see government officials and men of the world of finance tenderly courting drunken sailors without any shame.”

But, among the well-to-do gay and bisexual visitors from the UK who came to Berlin to sample the pleasures and delights denied them at home were a crop of aspiring and upcoming young politicians who, a recently published book claims, were later to play a critical role in Britain’s decision to go to war with Germany.

“The Glamour Boys: The Secret Story of the Rebels who Fought for Britain to Defeat Hitler” tells the story of a small, loosely-knit group of rebel Conservative MPs who, from the mid-1930s onward, repeatedly warned of the dangers posed by Nazism, highlighted the plight of the Jews and vigorously opposed the appeasement policy of their own party’s prime minister, Neville Chamberlain.

“Without them we would never have gone to war with Hitler, Churchill would never have become prime minister and Nazism would never have been defeated,” writes the author, Labour MP and former minister Chris Bryant, in his introduction.

Of course, not all of the “Glamour Boys” were gay: their numbers included Winston Churchill’s son-in-law Duncan Sandys, and Harold Macmillan, who went on to serve as prime minister in the 1950s. But of the 17 to 40 MPs estimated to have been among their ranks, roughly a quarter were, as Bryant terms them, “queer or nearly queer” and, at key moments, they were the most outspoken of those who wanted Britain to rearm and stand firm against Hitler.

Berlin gay bar the Eldorado in 1932. (Bundesarchiv Bild)

The sexuality of the now long-forgotten MPs such as Robert Bernays, Jack Macnamara, Ronald Cartland and Victor Cazalet who are the focus of the book was, Bryant argues, “an essential aspect of their bravery.” Their regular visits to Berlin, their familiarity with Germany — and their many German friends and contacts — meant that the “insurgents,” as government loyalists dubbed them, were keenly and personally aware of the danger Hitler posed.

Sexuality of the MPs ‘an essential aspect of their bravery’

Indeed, some had met leading gay Nazis, such SA chief Ernst Röhm, who were murdered in the 1934 “Night of the Long Knives.” Those bloody events, and the crackdown on homosexuality which then ensued, were to solidify the Glamour Boys’ opposition to the Third Reich.

The Glamour Boys’ campaign against Chamberlain’s “softly, softly” approach towards Hitler was politically risky — they swam against the tide of both public and parliamentary opinion — and personally perilous.

Der Eiegene was the first gay journal in the world, and ran from 1896 to 1932. (Public domain)

Despite discreet and clandestine gay venues in London, Britain’s harsh anti-gay laws were rigorously applied and prosecutions rose sharply through the 1920s and 1930s. Exposure risked imprisonment and ruin. Moreover, particularly after the resignation in early 1938 of Anthony Eden, Chamberlain’s anti-appeasement foreign secretary, the Glamour Boys faced a highly organized and ruthless dirty tricks campaign.

The campaign was sanctioned by prime minister Chamberlain himself and run by Joseph Ball, a shadowy Conservative Party operative with close links to the security services. Indeed, the very term Glamour Boys, which Ball coined and propagated, was designed to not-so-subtly hint at the MPs’ sexuality.

“One of my favorite invented words is ‘insinuendo’ because it insinuates an innuendo,” Bryant tells The Times of Israel. The label “Glamour Boys” — which to contemporary ears suggested “something essentially effeminate and feminine and alluring and evil” — was “subtle enough not to get you into the libel courts but the dart is well aimed.”

One of my favorite invented words is ‘insinuendo’ because it insinuates an innuendo

“It’s interesting in the book there are two streams that divide during this period, both in Germany and in the UK, which is the gays and the Jews on the one side and the homophobes and the anti-Semites on the other,” he believes.

My gay hero uncle

The private lives of the men — whose ranks also included Philip Sassoon, who hailed from the extended Rothschild family and served as the Air Minister inside Chamberlain’s government — took some digging for Bryant to uncover. None of the men would have defined themselves as gay and few personal records remain as, at the time of their deaths, families often destroyed papers which might have indicated their sexuality. Today, though, many of their descendants gladly assisted Bryant in his research.

Labour MP and former minister Chris Bryant, author of ‘Glamour Boys.’ (Chris McAndrew/ CC BY 3.0 /via Wikimedia Commons)

“It’s been a real delight to be able to shine a light into bits of history that have been forgotten,” says Bryant, who is gay himself.

“Even 20 years ago people didn’t really want to know about their great uncle’s shenanigans,” he says. “But now it’s a kind of badge of honor to have had a gay hero in the 1930s in the family.”

While all of the Glamour Boys came to oppose appeasement, Bryant says, “each of them had their own different journey.” Bernays, he writes, was “the most ardent, frequent and courageous critic of Nazi Germany.” His perspective was an unusual one. The son of a clergyman, he was also highly conscious of his family’s Jewish ancestry. His great-grandfather, Adolphus, who was Jewish, was born in Germany and converted to Christianity after he married and moved to England in the early 19th century, while his great-granduncle Isaac was the former chief rabbi of Hamburg. Two of Isaac’s granddaughters, Martha and Minna Bernays, were respectively wife and mistress to Sigmund Freud.

A former journalist who came into Parliament in 1931, Bernays was a member of the Liberal Party, an ally of the Conservatives in the National Government which governed Britain throughout the decade. Bernays visited Germany during the second of its two general elections in 1932 and, as well as sampling Berlin’s gay nightlife, quickly grasped both the Nazis’ appeal and the danger they posed.

The moment [Hitler] began to speak, he was transformed from a vulgar, self-advertising politician to an orator, a prophet with a flaming mission to his people

“The moment he began to speak,” Bernays wrote of Hitler in an article for his former employer, the News Chronicle, “he was transformed from a vulgar, self-advertising politician to an orator, a prophet with a flaming mission to his people.” Back in Britain, he warned: “In Germany today, there are all the elements of a resurgent militarism.”

Months later, Hitler was Chancellor and Bernays joined a steady trail of curious British politicians visiting Germany to see the impact of the Nazis’ tumultuous first weeks in power first hand. In June 1933, Bernays spent the day in the company of Edmund Heines, Röhm’s deputy as leader of the SA and a violent anti-Semite.

SA head Ernst Röhm, front left, and deputy Edmund Heines, front right. (Bundesarchiv Bild)

Despite the Nazis’ virulent opposition to homosexuality, Heines was, like his boss, gay. He took Bernays to a concentration camp in Breslau, today known as Wroclaw, Poland, but part of Germany at the time. The young MP had no illusions as to what was going on there.

“We had seen no actual evidence of cruelty,” he wrote, “and yet had the haunting sensation of nameless evils in the camp. What abominations were hidden behind that barbed wire?”

Throughout 1933, Bernays issued a string of extraordinarily prescient warnings: that Germany was already rearming; that attacks on Jews and the Nazis’ political opponents were becoming “more calculated and systematic”; and that, while Britain’s politicians argued about domestic matters, a new threat was emerging unchecked in central Europe. It was like, he told a meeting, “the sailors of the doomed Titanic … decorating the saloon as the ship was sinking.” “If this spirit is allowed to continue,” he argued, “it means war in 10 years.”

Bernays considered himself to be “not a Jew by religion — and only remotely by race.” The Nazis, however, were uninterested in such distinctions; in their eyes, he was a Jew, a fact which trumped their desire to impress visiting British politicians. Thus when Bernays asked Putzi Hanfstaengl, a longtime confidant of Hitler’s, for a meeting with the Fuhrer, he replied: “Do you think I am going to get an interview for a sow of a Jew?” Hanfstaengl also bluntly told a fellow MP traveling with him that Bernays was “a Bolshevik Jew” who ought to be deported.

‘The foremost Jew in society’

Bernays was refused a meeting with Hitler, but, shortly after the Nazis came to power, Hermann Goring agreed to meet with Sassoon. One of the country’s wealthiest MPs, he was described at the time of his premature death in 1939 as “the foremost Jew in society.”

Robert Bernays. (Public domain)

At Sassoon’s home in London’s exclusive Park Lane, his country house at Trent Park on the northern outskirts of the capital, and Italianate and Moorish-style mansion, Port Lympne, in Kent, Sassoon entertained a cast of the country’s political and social elite. His guests included former prime minister David Lloyd George, Churchill, Eden and Noel Coward, as well as fellow Glamour Boys such as Cazalet and Tory MP Bob Boothby, with whom he was especially close.

“The guest list at Christmas and Easter read like a Who’s Who of queer society,” writes Bryant.

An aviation fanatic, Sassoon likely flew himself and Boothby to Germany for their meeting with Goring. Their visit remains something of a mystery — no records exist of it because the two men, says Bryant, were convinced of the need for Britain to rearm and deliberately chose to keep the Foreign Office in the dark.

Philip Sassoon, left, with King Edward VIII, center, and Winston Churchill, right, on August 1, 1936. (Public domain)

But other “insurgents” took somewhat longer to become fully aware of the threat of Nazism. Cazalet, who wasn’t Jewish, was a Zionist and friend of Chaim Weizmann. “His Huguenot ancestry and his grandfather Edward’s revulsion at the Tsarist pogroms in Russia in the 1870s gave him a sympathy with refugees, especially the Jews,” writes Bryant.

I visit[ed] the Concentration Camp. It was not very interesting. Quite well run, no undue misery or discomfort

Yet on Cazalet’s first visit to Germany after Hitler came to power, he adopted a jocular tone after visiting Dachau. “Great fun. I visit [sic] the ‘Concentration Camp,’” he wrote in his diary. “It was not very interesting. Quite well run, no undue misery or discomfort.” On being told by a camp official that most prisoners were communists, Cazalet added, “If that is the case, then they can stay there for all I care.” He was, however, disturbed by Hanfstaengl’s “incredible … anti-Jew complex.”

A former officer in the British army, Macnamara did not become an MP until 1935 but made frequent trips to Germany in the early 1930s with a close male friend. As well as visiting Berlin’s gay hot spots, writes Bryant, the pair “struck up friendships with Stormtroopers, they attended party rallies and they met all the leading lights of the NSDAP.”

Undated photo of Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of propaganda, delivering a speech. (Bengt von zur Muehlen/Yad Vashem Photo Archive)

Macnamara’s involvement with the Anglo-German Club led the Nazis to roll out the red carpet when he visited in late 1933, with propaganda minister Josef Goebbels ensuring that a speech was broadcast in which the aspiring MP proclaimed: “Give us time to adjust ourselves to the change in Germany and Hitler will be able to do nothing wrong for us.”

‘Herr Hitler… has saved his country’

The June 1934 Night of the Long Knives — in which Röhm and Heines were among the high-profile casualties — unleashed a sustained attack by the Nazis on homosexuality which, Bryant argues, helped crystalize the thinking of this small group of MPs.

One thing, we all agreed, had emerged from the shocking and squalid events of the day. The Nazis had shown themselves for what they in fact were — unscrupulous and bloodthirsty gangsters

As Boothby wrote after a party at Sassoon’s during which the news of the killings broke: “One thing, we all agreed, had emerged from the shocking and squalid events of the day. The Nazis had shown themselves for what they in fact were — unscrupulous and bloodthirsty gangsters. In future they should be treated as such.”

“From then on,” Bryant says, the Glamour Boys knew that “the Nazi attacks on Jews, homosexuals and socialists were all of a piece with Hitler’s militaristic and territorial ambitions.”

But this was by no means conventional wisdom throughout Britain. The Times newspaper applauded the fact that “the Fuhrer has started cleaning up,” although it questioned why, since “the offenses of Rohm and his associates were admittedly known for years, the ‘clean up’ was not undertaken long ago.” Not to be outdone, the Daily Mail proclaimed: “Herr Hitler … has saved his country.”

Illustrative: Neville Chamberlain, left, and Hitler sealing the Munich pact in September 1938. (Public Domain)

Such sentiments complemented more widespread anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi views which found their expression both on the streets and in Parliament itself. In the chamber of the House of Commons, Tory MP Sir Robert Bower told a Jewish Labour MP to “go back to Poland.”

As a senior Jewish minister, Sassoon was a target for such attacks and his home was placed under guard after the anti-Semitic slogan “Perish Judah” was daubed on it. During a Commons exchange a Labour MP shouted at the minister that he wasn’t British, but “a foreigner.”

Philip Sassoon. (Public domain)

His role as Air Minister placed Sassoon at the center of the increasingly contentious debate over rearmament, as some MPs pushed for greater spending on the air force, while others remained fiercely opposed. After Sassoon announced one modest increase, a pro-appeasement Tory MP accused him of putting “a glamour over a sorry story with regularity which is almost a danger to the community.”

“It sounded like a compliment,” writes Bryant, but it was in reality “a calculated but subtle insinuation that [Sassoon] was a seductive liar, a spellbinding foreigner and a rank effeminate.”

“I was struck by the phenomenal anti-Semitism in the UK,” Bryant remarks. “The vast majority of people did not think Britain was going to go to war for ‘the Jews.’ Quite the reverse. Lots of people would say, in a profoundly anti-Semitic way, ‘the Jews want this war and we’re not going to let them have it’ and they didn’t care [about] what Hitler was doing to the Jews and you could replicate all of that in terms of what Hitler was doing to the gays.”

A common battle

‘Glamour Boy’ Ronald Cartland. (Public domain)

The Glamour Boys, however, helped to challenge this tide of opinion. Shortly before his election in 1935, Cartland and his sister, the best-selling author Barbara, visited Germany. Disgusted by the anti-Jewish posters in the streets, he refused an invitation later that year to the Nuremberg Rally and, once in parliament, became a prime mover in the anti-appeasement faction on the Tory benches.

A visit to Dachau — as Bryant says, it’s difficult to understand quite why the Nazis were so keen to take British visitors there — left Macnamara appalled.

“I have never seen human beings so cowed,” Macnamara said. His views on Nazism, increasingly critical after 1934, hardened into unyielding opposition and with his election to Parliament in 1935 he had a greater platform from which to express them. “We do not want Germany to dominate,” he said. “Herr Hitler’s methods may finally smash our civilization beyond repair and leave us an exhausted wreck, an easy prey to the vultures of the East.”

“Dachau brought another change in [Macnamara],” writes Bryant. “The Nazis were throwing Jews and homosexuals into Dachau, so the battle against anti-Semitism was his battle too.”

The Dachau concentration camp in 1933. (photo credit: Vintage Everyday)

During a Commons debate, Macnamara attacked the rise of “Jew-baiting” in Britain, labeling it “ungentlemanly and very un-English.” His thoughts, however, also seemed to be about developments beyond Britain’s shores, as he expressed the hope that “we shall all be able to use our influence, and, if necessary, our force to stop a very horrid evil that seems to be creeping in.”

A very horrid evil seems to be creeping in

Just one fellow Conservative supported his contribution and he was spat at and called a “Jew lover” when he later went to the Carlton Club. He never returned to the Tory private member club again.

Personal experience of the brutality of Nazism was also a recurring theme in the opposition of the Glamour Boys to appeasement. Despite his earlier jocular references to Dachau, Cazalet was made keenly aware of the dangers faced by the regime’s opponents when his friend, the international tennis star Gottfried von Cramm, approached him for help in 1935.

A 19th-century photo of the exterior of the Carlton Club on Pall Mall, where the club was located until it suffered a direct hit during a German Blitzkrieg in World War II. (Public domain)

Although married, von Cramm was having a relationship with Jewish actor Manfred (formerly Manasseh) Herbst. The sportsman’s steadfast refusal to join the party had also caught the Nazis’ eye. In early 1936, at von Cramm’s request, Cazalet helped Herbst to flee to Portugal and then on to Palestine. The Nazis later arrested von Cramm for “sex perversion” and he spent time in prison.

Cazalet, who in 1937 established a bipartisan group with Macnamara focused on anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, was deeply affected too by the plight of Jewish friends he met in Vienna at the time of the Anschluss. Numerous Jews, he said, had asked him to take them on as “a gardener, valet, anything” in order to get out of Austria.

“It is inconceivable,” Cazalet wrote to The Times, “that the world can look on much longer and see what amounts to the extermination of the European Jews without finding among the empty spaces of the earth asylum for them.” In the House of Commons, he pleaded again for Britain to drop its closed-door policy and admit Jewish refugees. The government’s determination to avoid war, he said, should not blind it to “one of the horrors of peace — the persecution of the Jews in Central Europe.”

Playing dirty to quash dissent

But Cazalet and the “insurgents” were hardly representative of wider feelings on the government benches. In June 1938, for instance, the pro-Nazi Tory MP Captain Archibald Maule Ramsay proposed a bill banning “godless aliens” which was carried by a majority of 30.

It is inconceivable that the world can look on much longer and see what amounts to the extermination of the European Jews without finding among the empty spaces of the earth asylum for them

By the time of Munich, the Conservative party in parliament remained, in the words of one civil servant, “hysterically behind the PM.” Chamberlain, however, could not stomach dissent. He turned to Ball — a former military intelligence officer who went to work for the Conservative Party and turned his skills to attacking its opponents — to help quash it.

From his perch in Downing Street, Ball worked his network of friendly journalists and, having coined the phrase, ensured that attacks on the Glamour Boys regularly found their way into the newspapers. Soon — together with barbs at “timid panic-mongers” and “spineless scaremongers” — pro-Chamberlain Cabinet ministers, MPs and journalists were all singing from the same Ball-composed hymn sheet. The campaign against the “insurgents” was buttressed by phone-tapping and threats to deselect those who refused to fall into line. The “powers that be,” Macnamara was warned, were obsessed with rebels and their secret plotting.

Ball also secretly secured the ownership of the weekly magazine “Truth” and used it ruthlessly on behalf of the prime minister. The magazine downplayed the Nazi threat, praised Hitler’s “flair for the right moment” at the time of the Anschluss and claimed any rise in anti-Semitism at home would be “the Jews’ own fault.” The magazine’s stance, believes Bryant, reflected Chamberlain’s private views.

Illustrative. From left to right: Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini, and Ciano pictured before signing the Munich Agreement, which gave the Sudetenland to Germany. (photo credit: German Federal Archives / Wikipedia)

The Glamour Boys countered with a weekly newspaper of their own — the Whitehall News — which campaigned for rearmament, accused Chamberlain of having “left his soul and his county’s honour in Munich” and, in the wake of Kristallnacht, denounced the “Jewish Pogrom” in Germany.

As the countdown to war intensified throughout 1939, the attacks on the Glamour Boys showed no signs of abating. With the failure of appeasement all too evident, their numbers in parliament began to grow, although they remained a small minority. Nonetheless, they maintained the pressure on Chamberlain — who they feared would renege on Britain’s pledge to Poland — and, when war came, attacked what Macnamara termed “the complacency” with which it was initially waged. As Chamberlain battled to remain in office following the disastrous Norway campaign in May 1940, the “insurgents” were at the forefront of the ultimately successful effort to oust him in favor of Churchill.

Death on the battlefield

When war came, too, a number of the Glamour Boys saw active service. Cartland, who had joined the army’s volunteer reserve force in 1937, died aged 33 in May 1940 as British forces retreated to Dunkirk. Days before, he had led the defense of Cassel, which is credited with slowing the German advance and allowing thousands of Allied soldiers to escape back to safety in the UK.

Victor Cazalet. (Public domain)

Macnamara, a professional soldier who was already a member of the volunteer territorial army at the time of his election to parliament, badgered Churchill relentlessly throughout the war to be deployed overseas. “No one is more anxious to go and lead troops in battle than myself,” he pleaded in June 1943.

A year later he was eventually granted his wish. He was, however, killed in a German mortar bombardment in Italy three days before Christmas 1944. “I grieve for him greatly. He was all that a man [should] be,” the prime minister wrote in a note to Macnamara’s mother.

Despite being over the age for conscription, Cazalet, too, volunteered and commanded an anti-aircraft battery. He was later appointed the liaison with the Free Polish Army and died with its leader, General Władysław Sikorski, in mysterious circumstances in a plane crash in July 1943.

Bernays joined the army in 1942; in January 1945, a plane he was traveling in while on a parliamentary delegation visiting troops in the Mediterranean went missing off Brindisi. The Speaker of the House of Commons formally announced his death two months later.

Bernays, Cartland, Macnamara and Cazalet may all lost their lives during the war but they had no doubts about why they were fighting it. In one of his final Commons speeches, Cazalet spoke of the “horrors of the massacres at a camp called Treblinka,” argued passionately for a Jewish homeland and declared: “Unless our final victory includes the defeat of anti-Semitism it will be a sham victory.”

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