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The Man Who Shouted at Hitler: Sir Nevile Henderson in Berlin

In the first of our new series of brief biographical sketches, Peter Neville defends Britain's ambassador in Berlin during the years before the Second World War.

At nine a.m. on Sunday 3 September 1939, the British Ambassador in Berlin, Sir Nevile Meyrick Henderson, went to the German Foreign Ministry building in Berlin. He had done this on many occasions in the past, but this time his message was especially ominous. Unless the German Government withdrew its troops from Poland or began that process by eleven a.m. that day, a state of war would exist between Britain and Germany. Henderson was not greeted by Hitler's inept Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, but by his interpreter, Paul Schmidt. The two men exchanged pleasantries and Schmidt expressed his regret about the circumstances surrounding their interview as he had 'always had the highest regard for the British ambassador'. Henderson returned to his Embassy, but no reply was ever received to the British ultimatum. Two hours later, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was telling the British people on the radio that Britain and Germany were at war. It was a bitter personal blow for Nevile Henderson who entitled his memoir about his time in Berlin Failure of A Mission. The war marked the end of his diplomatic career.

Henderson the Scapegoat

Henderson has had a very bad press in the years since the Second World War. This was partly because, in the immediate postwar years, appeasement was a dirty word and Henderson, like Chamberlain, was closely associated with the failed attempt to prevent war by reaching some sort of accommodation with Nazi Germany. An anti-appeasement historian, Lewis Namier, called Henderson an 'ill-starred man' and the 'Beau Brummel of Diplomacy' in the late 40s, and in the early 60s the historians Gilbert and Gott were still calling Henderson 'our Nazi Ambassador in Berlin'. Little changed in the years that followed. Why then did Henderson attract such animosity and was it justified?

The Emergent Diplomat

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