Nevile Henderson

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Sir Nevile Henderson
Ambassador Henderson
Ambassador Henderson in office, May 1937
Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia
In office
21 November 1929 – 1935
Monarch George V
Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald
Preceded by Sir Howard William Kennard
Succeeded by Sir Ronald Ian Campbell (1939)
Ambassador to Argentina
In office
Monarch George V (1935–36)
Edward VIII (1936)
George VI (1936–37)
Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin
Preceded by Sir Henry Chilton
Succeeded by Sir Esmond Ovey
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Germany
In office
28 May 1937 – 7 September 1939
Monarch George VI
Prime Minister
Preceded by Sir Eric Phipps
Succeeded by General Sir Brian Robertson (1949)
Personal details
Born (1882-04-10)10 April 1882
Sedgwick, Sussex, England

30 December 1942(1942-12-30) (aged 60)
London, England

Nationality British
Political party Conservative
Education Eton College

Sir Nevile Meyrick Henderson GCMG (10 June 1882 – 30 December 1942) was a British diplomat and Ambassador of the United Kingdom to Nazi Germany from 1937 to 1939.

Life and career[edit]

He was born at Sedgwick Park near Horsham, Sussex, the third child of Robert and Emma Henderson.[1] His uncle was Reginald Hargreaves, who married Alice Liddell, the original of Alice in Wonderland. [2]

He was educated at Eton and joined the Diplomatic Service in 1905. He served as an envoy to France in 1928/29 and as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia between 1929 and 1935,[3] where he was in close confidence with King Alexander and Prince Paul. In 1935 he became Ambassador to Argentina before on 28 May 1937 the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, appointed him Ambassador in Berlin. A subsequent Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, wrote:

Why he did so is difficult to understand ….... Henderson proved a complete disaster; hysterical, self-opinionated and unreliable. Eden later realised what a terrible mistake he had made.[4]

A believer in appeasement policies, Henderson thought Adolf Hitler could be controlled and pushed toward peace and cooperation with the Western powers. In February 1939, he cabled the FCO in London:

If we handle him (Hitler) right, my belief is that he will become gradually more pacific. But if we treat him as a pariah or mad dog we shall turn him finally and irrevocably into one.[5]

Ambassador Henderson (centre) with Neville Chamberlain and Joachim von Ribbentrop at Bad Godesberg, September 1938

Henderson was ambassador at the time of the 1938 Munich Agreement, and counselled Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to enter into it. Shortly thereafter, he returned to London for medical treatment, returning to Berlin in ill-health in February 1939 (he would die of cancer less than four years later).[6]

After Wehrmacht troops on 15/16 March 1939 occupied the remaining territory of the Czechoslovak Republic in defiance of the Agreement, Chamberlain spoke of a betrayal of confidence and decided to withstand German aggression. Henderson handed over a protest note and was intermittently recalled to London.

On 29 April 1939, the French ambassador in Berlin, Robert Coulondre reported to Paris that when Germany occupied the Czech part of Czecho-Slovakia on 15 March 1939, that Henderson, "always an admirer of the National Socialist regime, careful to protect Mr. Hitler's prestige, was convinced that Great Britain and Germany could divide the world between them" was very angry when he learned that the Reich had just violated the Munich Agreement as it "wounded him in his pride".[7] Coulondre went on to write: "Yesterday, I found him exactly as I knew him in February".[7] Coulondre added that Henderson had told to that the German demand that the Free City of Danzig be allowed to rejoin Germany was justified in his view and the introduction of conscription in Britain did not mean that British policies towards Germany were changing.[7] Coulondre concluded "it appears that events barely touched Sir Nevile Henderson, like water over a mirror...It would seem that he forgot everything and failed to learn anything".[7]

On the eve of the Second World War, Henderson came into frequent conflict with Sir Alexander Cadogan, Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Henderson argued that Britain should go about rearmament in secret, as a public rearmament would encourage the belief that Britain planned to go to war with Germany. Cadogan and the Foreign Office disagreed.[citation needed]

With the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact on 23 August 1939 and the Anglo-Polish military alliance two days later, war became imminent. On the night of 30 August, Ambassador Henderson had an extremely tense meeting with German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. Ribbentrop presented the German "final offer" to Poland at midnight, and warned Henderson that if he received no reply by dawn, the "final offer" would be considered rejected. The American historian Gerhard Weinberg described the scene: "When Ribbentrop refused to give a copy of the German demands to the British Ambassador at midnight of 30–31 August 1939, the two almost came to blows. Ambassador Henderson, who had long advocated concessions to Germany, recognised that here was a deliberately conceived alibi the German government had prepared for a war it was determined to start. No wonder Henderson was angry; von Ribbentrop on the other hand could see war ahead and went home beaming."[8]

Henderson leaves for Berlin, Croydon Airport, August 1939

While negotiating with the Polish ambassador Józef Lipski and advising accommodation over Germany's territorial ambitions – as he had during the Austrian Anschluss and the occupation of Czechoslovakia – the Nazis staged the Gleiwitz incident and the Invasion of Poland began on 1 September. It was Henderson who had to deliver Britain's final ultimatum on the morning of 3 September 1939 to Minister Ribbentrop, stating that if hostilities between Germany and Poland did not cease by 11 a.m. that day, a state of war would exist. Germany did not respond, and Prime Minister Chamberlain declared war at 11:15 a.m. Henderson and his staff were briefly interned by the Gestapo before finally returning to Britain on 7 September.

Henderson's memorial in St Andrew's Church, Nuthurst

After returning to London, Henderson asked for another ambassadorship, but was denied. He wrote Failure of a Mission: Berlin 1937–1939, which was published in 1940, in which he spoke highly of some members of the Nazi regime, including Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, but not von Ribbentrop. He had been on friendly terms with members of the Astors' Cliveden set, which also supported appeasement. Henderson wrote in his memoirs how eager Prince Paul had been to illustrate his military plans to counter Mussolini's projected assault on Dalmatia, when the main body of the Italian Royal Army had been sent overseas.[9] The historian A. L. Rowse described Failure of a Mission as "an appalling revelation of fatuity in high place".[10]


He died on 30 December 1942 from cancer which he had been suffering from since 1938. He was staying at the Dorchester Hotel in London at the time. He never married.[11] Informed by his doctors that he had around six months left to live, he wrote an anecdote-filled diplomatic memoir, Water Under the Bridges, posthumously published in 1945. Its final chapter defends his work in Berlin and the policy of "appeasement," praises the late Prime Minister Chamberlain for being "an honest and brave man," and argues on behalf of the Munich Agreement on the grounds that Britain was too weak militarily in 1938 to have stood up to Hitler; it also argues that if Germany had invaded Czechoslovakia, that nation would have fallen in, at most, a few months.[12]


  1. ^ Appeasing Hitler: The Diplomacy of Sir Nevile Henderson, 1937–39, Peter Neville, Palgrave Macmillan, 1999, ISBN 978-0333739877 p. 1.
  2. ^ Sir Nevile Henderson, Water Under the Bridges, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1945, p. 10.
  3. ^ "No. 33573". The London Gazette. 24 January 1930. p. 494. 
  4. ^ Macmillan, Harold (1966), Winds of Change 1914-1939, London: Macmillan, p. 530  citing Avon, The Earl of, The Eden Memoirs: Facing the Dictators, p. 504 
  5. ^ Appeasing Hitler. The Diplomacy of Sir Nevile Henderson. 1937–39. Peter Neville. Palgrave 2000.
  6. ^ Appeasing Hitler: The Diplomacy of Sir Nevile Henderson, 1937–39,; accessed 2 October 2014.
  7. ^ a b c d Duroselle 2004, p. 337.
  8. ^ A World At Arms by Gerhard Weinberg, p. 43.
  9. ^ Jukic, Ilija, The Fall of Yugoslavia, New York and London, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974, pp. 14-15.
  10. ^ Rowse, A. L. (1975) [1942]. A Cornish Childhood (Reprinted ed.). Cardinal. p. 109. ISBN 0351-18069-9. 
  11. ^ Peter Neville: ‘Henderson, Sir Nevile Meyrick (1882–1942)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011, accessed 1 Nov 2014
  12. ^ Sir Nevile Henderson, Water Under the Bridges, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1945, p. 5; pp. 209-221.

Primary sources[edit]

  • Henderson, Sir Neville (1940). Failure of a Mission 1937-9. 
  • Henderson, Sir Neville (1945). Water Under the Bridges. 
  • Henderson, Sir Neville (20 September 1939). "Final Report on the Circumstances Leading to the Termination of his Mission to Berlin". (Cmd 6115) Pamphlet. 
Secondary sources
  • Gilbert, Martin (2014). The Second World War: A Complete History. RosettaBooks. 
  • Jukic, Ilija (1974). The Fall of Yugoslavia. New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 
  • McDonogh, Frank (2010). Neville Chamberlain, Appeasement and the road to war. Manchester. 
  • Henderson, Sir Neville (25 March 1940). "War's First Memoirs". Life Magazine. 
  • Neville, Peter (2000). "Appeasing Hitler: The Diplomacy of Sir Nevile Henderson 1937–39". Studies in Diplomacy and International Relations. Palgrave. 
  • Neville, Peter (2004). Henderson, Sir Nevile Meyrick (1882–1942). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online edn, Jan 2011 ed.). Oxford University Press. Retrieved 1 Nov 2014. 
  • Gerhard Weinberg (2005). A World At Arms: Global History of World War II. Cambridge. 

External links[edit]

Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Howard William Kennard
Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary
to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia

Succeeded by
Ronald Ian Campbell
Preceded by
Eric Phipps
Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador to the Third Reich
Succeeded by
No representation until 1950
Ivone Kirkpatrick