Robert Vansittart, 1st Baron Vansittart
|The Right Honourable
The Lord Vansittart
GCB, GCMG, PC, MVO
Vansittart in 1929.
|Permanent Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs|
|Preceded by||Hon. Sir Ronald Lindsay|
|Succeeded by||Hon. Sir Alexander Cadogan|
|Born||25 June 1881
Wilton House, Farnham, Surrey
|Died||14 February 1957|
|Spouse(s)||(1) Gladys Heppenheimer (died 1928) (2) Sarah Enriqueta Ward|
Robert Gilbert Vansittart, 1st Baron Vansittart GCB, GCMG, PC, MVO (25 June 1881 – 14 February 1957), known as Sir Robert Vansittart between 1929 and 1941, was a senior British diplomat in the period before and during the Second World War. He was Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister from 1928 to 1930 and Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office from 1930 to 1938 and later served as Chief Diplomatic Adviser to the British Government. He is best remembered for his opposition to Appeasement and his hardline stance towards Germany during and after the Second World War. Vansittart was also a published poet, novelist, and playwright.
Background and education
Vansittart was born at Wilton House, Farnham, Surrey, the eldest of the three sons of Robert Arnold Vansittart, of Foots Cray Place, Kent, a Captain in the 7th Dragoon Guards, by his wife Susan Alice Blane, daughter of Gilbert James Blane. His younger brother Guy Nicholas (Nick) Vansittart had a successful career with General Motors before and after the war. He was recruited into “Z” Network during the 1930's and served in Special Operations Executive during World War Two. The Vansittart family was of Dutch descent - ancestors included Arthur Vansittart, Member of Parliament for Windsor, and Colonel Arthur Vansittart, Member of Parliament for Berkshire, while Henry Vansittart, Robert Vansittart and Lord Bexley were members of other branches of the family. A female line ancestor was Lord Auckland. Vansittart was also a second cousin of T. E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia). He was educated at Eton.
Vansittart entered the Foreign Office in 1902, starting as a clerk in the Eastern Department, where he was a specialist on Aegean Islands affairs. He was an Attaché at the British Embassy in Paris between 1903 and 1905, when he became Third Secretary. He then served at the embassies in Tehran between 1907 and 1909 and Cairo between 1909 and 1911. From 1911 he was attached to the Foreign Office. During the First World War he was joint head of the contraband department and then head of the Prisoner of War Department under Lord Newton. He took part in the Paris Peace Conference and became an Assistant Secretary at the Foreign Office in 1920. From that year to 1924 he was private secretary to the Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon. From 1928 to 1930, he was Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, firstly Stanley Baldwin and then Ramsay MacDonald. In January 1930 he was appointed Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, where he supervised the work of Britain's diplomatic service.
Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, 1930-1938
Vansittart was suspicious of Hitler from the start; anything Hitler said, he claimed, was "for foreign consumption". He thought Hitler would start another European war as soon as he "felt strong enough". Vansittart supported revising the Versailles Treaty in Germany's favour but not while Hitler was in power. In Vansittart's view, Britain should be firm with Germany, and an alliance between France and the Soviet Union against Germany was essential. Vansittart also urgently advocated rearmament. In the summer of 1936 Vansittart visited Germany and claimed that he found a climate that "the ghost of Barthou would hardly have recognised" and that Britain should negotiate with Germany. He thought that satisfying Hitler's "land hunger" at Russia's expense would be immoral and regarded the Franco-Russian alliance as non-negotiable. It was because he believed Germany had gained equality in Europe that Vansittart favoured facilitating German expansion in Africa. He thought that Hitler was exploiting fears of a "Bolshevist menace" as a cover for "expansion in Central and South-Eastern Europe".
Like Sir Maurice Hankey, Vansittart thought in power politics terms. He thought Hitler could not decide whether to follow Goebbels and Tirpitz in viewing Britain as "the ultimate enemy" or on the other hand adopting the Ribbentrop policy of appeasing Britain in order to engage in military expansion in the East. Vansittart thought that in either case time should be "bought for rearmament" by an economic agreement with Germany and by appeasing "genuine grievance[s]" about colonies. Vansittart wanted to detach Mussolini from Hitler. He thought that the British Empire was an "Incubus" and that the Continent was the central British national interest, but he doubted whether agreement could be had there. This doubt rested on his fear that German attention, if turned eastwards, would result in a military empire between the Baltic, the Adriatic Sea and the Black Sea.
At the Foreign Office in the 1930s, Vansittart was a major figure in the loose group of officials and politicians opposed to appeasement of Germany. In spite of his harsh opposition to appeasement with Germany, Vansittart had been in "very friendly terms with Herr (Konrad) Henlein". Konrad Henlein was the Nazi leader of the separatist Sudeten German Party, who was plotting with Adolf Hitler the partition of Czechoslovakia, which would be agreed at the Munich Agreement (1938). Vansittart, one of the most influential personalities in the British foreign service told Henlein that "no serious intervention in favor of the Czechs was to be feared from Great Britain and probably also from France." This information reached Hitler in the second half of 1937, when he was deciding about his plan to overthrow the Austrian and Czechoslovak republics. Therefore, Hitler's decisions were not any proof of an above average intuition or a brilliant mind but based on dry strategic information received from Vansittart, among other well placed politicians and officers in Britain, like Lord Lothian, Lord Mount Temple, Oliver Vaughan Gurney Hoare (Sir Samuel Hoare's younger brother) and other. It is not known how much Vansittart's opinions shared with Henlein encouraged Hitler to mastermind his aggression plans in Central Europe, but information from such a highly placed British officer could have weighed much on the Nazi leader's decisions that eventually would cause the World War II, to the point that he stated very similar views later: "the Führer believed that almost certainly Britain and probably France as well, had already tacitly written off the Czechs and were reconciled to the fact that this question would be cleared up in due course by Germany." The "real friendship" of Vansittart with Henlein became an embarrassing fact and after the war an effort was made to cover it up. In the late 1930s, Vansittart together with Reginald Leeper, the Foreign Office's Press Secretary often leaked information to a private newspaper The Whitehall Letter edited by Victor Gordon Lennox, the Daily Telegraph's diplomatic editor opposed to appeasement This brought him into conflict with the political leadership at the time and he was removed as Permanent Under-Secretary in 1938. A new post as "Chief Diplomatic Adviser to His Majesty's Government" was instead created ad hoc for him. He continued in this role until 1941.
Strong opposition to Germany
Vansittart was also involved in intelligence work. He was opposed to the appeasement of German aggression. In 1940, Vansittart sued the American historian Harry Elmer Barnes for libel for an article Barnes had written in 1939 accusing Vansittart of plotting aggression against Germany in 1939. During the war, Vansittart became a prominent advocate of an extremely hard line with Germany. His earlier worries about Germany were reformulated into an argument that Germany was intrinsically militaristic and aggressive. In Black Record: Germans Past and Present (1941), Vansittart portrayed German history from the time of ancient Rome as a continuous record of aggression. Nazism was just the latest manifestation. Therefore, after Germany was defeated, it must be stripped of all military capacity, including its heavy industries. The German people enthusiastically supported Hitler's wars of aggression, just as they supported the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 and the First World War in 1914. So they must be thoroughly re-educated under strict Allied supervision for at least a generation. De-Nazification was not enough. The German military elite was the real cause of war, especially the "Prussianist" officer corps and the General Staff: both must be destroyed. In 1943 he wrote:
In the opinion of the author, it is an illusion to differentiate between the German right, centre, or left, or the German Catholics or Protestants, or the German workers or capitalists. They are all alike, and the only hope for a peaceful Europe is a crushing and violent military defeat followed by a couple of generations of re-education controlled by the United Nations.
He also wrote "the other Germany has never existed save in a small and ineffective minority". In other occasions he has also made similar sayings:
We didn't go to war in 1939 to save Germany from Hitler...or the continent from fascism. Like in 1914 we went to war for the not lesser noble cause that we couldn't accept a German hegemony over Europe.
The British historian R. B. McCallum wrote in 1944: "To some, such as Lord Vansittart, the main problem of policy was to watch Germany and prevent her power reviving. No one can refuse him a tribute for his foresight in this matter".
Vansittart was appointed a Member of the Royal Victorian Order (MVO) in 1906, a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) in 1920, a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB) in 1927, a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB) in 1929, a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG) in 1931 and a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (GCB) in 1938. He was sworn in to the Privy Council in 1940 and raised to the peerage as Baron Vansittart, of Denham in the County of Buckingham, in 1941.
Vansittart was also a published poet, novelist, and playwright. This is a partial list of his literary works.
- Les Pariahs (1902)
- The Cap and Bells: a comedy in three acts (1913)
- Dead Heat: a comedy in three acts (1939)
- The Gates: A Study in Prose (1910)
- John Stuart (1912)
- Pity's Kin (1924)
- Black Record: Germans Past and Present (1941)
- Songs & Satires (1909)
- Foolery: a comedy in verse (1912)
- The Singing Caravan, a Sufi Tale (1919)
- Tribute (1926)
- Green and Grey: Collected Poems (1944)
- Lessons of My Life (1943)
Vansittart was a close friend of producer Alexander Korda. He helped Korda with the financing of London Films. His full title, awarded to him after World War II, was Baron Vansittart of Denham, after the town where London Films had its studio. Vansittart contributed to four motion pictures. He wrote the screenplay for Wedding Rehearsal (1933), contributed dialogue to Sixty Glorious Years (1938), and, under the pseudonym "Robert Denham," provided song lyrics for Korda's The Thief of Bagdad (1940), and "The Jungle Book" (1942) in collaboration with the noted Hungarian composer Miklos Rozsa, with whom he also wrote the concert musical work for voices, "Beast of Burden" (1940).
Lord Vansittart married as his first wife Gladys Heppenheimer, daughter of General William C. Heppenheimer, of the United States, in 1921. They had one daughter, the Honourable Cynthia Vansittart (born 1922). Gladys Vansittart died in 1928. Vansittart married as his second wife Sarita Enriqueta Ward, daughter of the explorer and sculptor Herbert Ward, of Paris, and widow of Sir Colville Barclay, on 29 July 1931. He died in February 1957, aged 75, and the barony became extinct.
- Williams, E. T., Palmer, Helen M. The Dictionary of National Biography 1951-1960. Oxford University Press, 1971.
- thepeerage.com Robert Gilbert Vansittart, 1st and last Baron Vansittart
- "T.E. Lawrence Family History".
- Maurice Cowling, The Impact of Hitler. British Policy and British Politics 1933-1940 (Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 156.
- Cowling, p. 156.
- Cowling, p. 157.
- Cowling, p. 158.
- Cowling, pp. 158-159.
- Cowling, p. 159.
- Czechoslovakia Between Stalin and Hitler: the Diplomacy of Edvard Benes in the 1930s, p.89, by Igor Lukes, Oxford University Press, 1996, quoting Vansittarts's own words "I have been on very friendly terms with Herr Henlein for some years past and have seen him frequently during his visits to London." Source: Herr Henlein's conversations in London, May 1938, Note of a Conversation with Sir R. Vansittart. See also Czechoslovakia before Munich, p.212, by J. W. Bruegel, Cambridge University Press, 1973 and Remarks on the Roundtable 'Munich from the Czech Perspective', in East Central Europe-L'Europe du Centre-Est 10, nr. 1-2, 1983, 158-59.
- Czechoslovakia Between Stalin and Hitler: the Diplomacy of Edvard Benes in the 1930s, p.81, by Igor Lukes, Oxford University Press, 1996, from Documents on German Foreign Policy, 1918-1945, series D (1937-45), Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1949, 2:22-23, Minister Ernst Eisenlohr's report to the German Foreign Ministry dated 22 October 1937.
- Czechoslovakia Between Stalin and Hitler: the Diplomacy of Edvard Benes in the 1930s, p.81, by Igor Lukes, Oxford University Press, 1996, from Documents on German Foreign Policy, 1918-1945, series D (1937-45), Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1949, series D, 1:29-39, the (Friedrich) Hossbach Memorandum.
- Czechoslovakia Between Stalin and Hitler: the Diplomacy of Edvard Benes in the 1930s, p.89, by Igor Lukes, Oxford University Press, 1996.
- Watt, Donald Cameron “Rumors as Evidence” pages 276-286 from Russia War, Peace and Diplomacy edited by Ljubica & Mark Erickson, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004 page 278.
- Lipstadt, Deborah Denying the Holocaust (New York: Free Press, 1993), p. 80.
- Robert Vansittart, Lessons of My Life, front dust jacket copy.
- Vansittart, Lessons of My Life, p. 146.
- Sunday Correspondent, London (17.9.1989)
- R. B. McCallum, Public Opinion and the Last Peace (London: Oxford University Press, 1944), p. 147.
- leighrayment.com Privy Counsellors 1915-1968
- The London Gazette: . 11 July 1941.
- Eder, Bruce. "Robert Vansittart: Biography". MSN Movies. Retrieved 5 August 2008.
- Norman Rose, ‘Vansittart, Robert Gilbert, Baron Vansittart (1881–1957)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011.
- Maurice Cowling, The Impact of Hitler. British Policy and British Politics 1933-1940 (Chambridge University Press, 1975), pp. 156–159.
- Sir Robert Vansittart, Lessons of My Life (London, 1943).
- Sir Robert Vansittart, The Mist Procession (London, 1958).
Eric, The Earl of Perth
|Principal Private Secretary
to the Foreign Secretary
Sir Walford Selby
Hon. Sir Ronald Lindsay
for Foreign Affairs
Hon. Sir Alexander Cadogan
Sir Ronald D. Waterhouse
|Principal Private Secretary
to the Prime Minister
|Peerage of the United Kingdom|
|New creation||Baron Vansittart