Hitler's Aristocrats: The Secret Power Players in Britain and America Who Supported the Nazis, 1923–1941
“The lessons to be learned from Hitler’s rise to power are legion. Among them are the notion that . . . sociopaths ultimately are self-interested and . . . loyalty is a one-way street. That the big lie is just that—a lie. And that if you make a deal with the devil, there’s hell to pay.”
Autocrats may arise to fill a leadership vacuum, but they typically do not, themselves, arise in a vacuum. They require enablers, motivated by self-interest, to either passively look the other way or actively support that rise as they clamber for favor from the power-hungry authoritarian. That principle is no different today than it was a century ago.
In her new book Hitler’s Aristocrats: The Secret Power Players in Britain and America Who Supported the Nazis, 1923–1941, historian Susan Ronald details the names and actions of those who enabled the rise of Adolf Hitler from what should have been no more than a minor footnote to World War I to world-conqueror-wannabe. By subordinating global welfare to their own selfish desires, these short-minded elites helped plunge the entire globe into chaos.
To achieve his rise to power, Hitler convinced the German people that their post-WW I ailments could all be laid at the feet of his political enemies, the church, and the Jews, and he positioned himself as the answer to those problems. As Ronald says in an author’s note, “Hitler’s mastery was not ‘the big lie’ but rather in getting millions to believe it.”
But it took more than merely Hitler perpetrating his lies; it took his appeasers and hangers-on perpetuating those lies to pull the wool over the eyes of the German people and march the world into another global conflict, one that could have, and should have, been avoided. The question is how to avoid a repeat. Therein lies the central truth—make that the central warning—that Ronald delivers in Hitler’s Aristocrats, and it’s as relevant today as it was in the first half of the 20th century.
“Changing history and facts—canceling them as if they did not exist or changing them to suit some twenty-first-century weaponized truism is another form of propaganda and lie. Just as in the days of Hitler’s rise to power, when the powerful preyed on others’ hopes and fears, propaganda and lies can still work their magic on the minds of individuals and nations today.”
Perhaps most frightening from a historical perspective is the fact that those enablers didn’t exist only in Germany, but also in the countries that ultimately became Germany’s enemies in World War II, most notably Britain and the United States.
While Hitler was primarily motivated by a lust for power, his sycophants—the industrialists and business leaders Ronald dubs Hitler’s aristocrats—were often motivated by money. “[T]hey saw financial opportunity in the defeated nations of Europe.” In order to capture that opportunity, they willingly bought into Hitler’s propaganda that he was a man of peace, the central tenet of his “big lie,” because it suited their purposes.
Ronald quotes Hitler as saying, “By the clever and continuous use of propaganda, a people can be made to mistake heaven for hell, and vice versa.” And so, following his own adage, Hitler distorted truth for those aristocrats and lured them into his alternate reality. But it was more than simply turning a blind eye to the big lie that ensnared the unwary aristocrats. Those enablers actually actively paved the way for Hitler’s rise in a misguided hope that they could control him while benefitting themselves.
Among notables the author discusses are Austrian princess Stephanie von Hohenlohe, as well as American aviator and hero Charles Lindbergh. Princess Stephanie moved to London in the 1930s, where she served as a spy for Hitler and earned from him the sobriquet of his liebe Prinzessin—Hitler’s little princess.
As for Lindbergh, well, the author blames the American press for essentially hounding him out of the country and into the arms of Hitler after the kidnapping and murder of his son and the conviction for the crime of Bruno Hauptmann. Ronald writes, “Unwittingly, the American press had conspired to give Hitler his greatest American propaganda coup. . . . Lindbergh was on the path to become the Nazis’ most ardent American admirer.”
Hitler’s Aristocrats offers a blow-by-blow account of Hitler’s seduction of what could be described as “useful idiots,” so many that it is sometimes hard to keep up without a scorecard. The closing chapter is a “whatever happened to” postscript about the characters, which is particularly interesting.
Students of history want to know if these appeasers and enablers were ever held accountable for their roles. Sadly, many were not. For example, Ronald tells us that “[n]one of the American bankers who facilitated Mussolini’s rise to power, like Thomas W. Lamont, were held to account. Nor was Prescott Bush, who invested money on behalf of the Third Reich until the funds were sequestered in 1942.”
On the other hand, Princess Stephanie, who had come to the United States, was arrested after the attack on Pearl Harbor and served out the war in an internment camp. The book tells us that the camp was “for suspect aliens in Sago, Texas,” although there was no such place as Sago, Texas, never mind an internment camp there. She was, however, interned in a camp at Seagoville, near Dallas. One assumes this is merely a transcription error in the manuscript.
The lessons to be learned from Hitler’s rise to power are legion. Among them are the notion that, regardless of what they say, sociopaths ultimately are self-interested and that, for them, loyalty is a one-way street. That the big lie is just that—a lie. And that if you make a deal with the devil, there’s hell to pay.
Let’s not go down that road again.