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June 19, 2007

William D. Rubinstein asks, did Jack Amery become a Nazi and an anti-Semite because he was ashamed of his own Jewish ancestry? Speaking For England: Leo, Julian, and John Amery and the Tragedy of a Political Family - David Faber

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

Speaking For England: Leo, Julian, and John Amery and the Tragedy of a Political Family
by David Faber
London: Simon & Schuster, 2005; Paperback, 2007
Hardback, £20; Paperback, £9.99

Now available in paperback, David Faber's fine collective biography of the Amery family examines one of the most poignant and extraordinary sagas of twentieth-century British political life. As a reviewer, I have to declare a proprietary interest here, for it was I who discovered that Leopold Amery's mother was Jewish, a fact which he had done his best to conceal all his life and was previously unknown to writers on the Amerys. I discussed what I described as

probably the most remarkable case of concealment of identity in twentieth century British political life
in two article I wrote on this subject in History Today in 1999 and in Historical Research in 2000, and I am glad that the complete story of this saga has been given the full-scale treatment it deserves.

Leopold Amery (1873-1955) was the son of Charles Frederick Amery, a minor official in the Indian Forestry Commission. A brilliant student, he attended Harrow, where he was the cleverest boy in the school (and also pushed his classmate Winston Churchill into a swimming pool), Oxford, where he received Firsts, and All Souls, where he became a Fellow. He was, initially, a journalist who wrote a multivolume history of the Boer War and was offered, and declined, the editorship of The Times.

The defining political moment in Amery's life came in May 1903, in the wake of Joseph Chamberlain's famous speech advocating Imperial Preference, the enactment of a tariff barrier around the whole British Empire, and the abandonment of Free Trade, a policy to which Britain had ubiquitously been wedded since 1846. Chamberlain saw an imperial tariff as an absolute necessity for Britain to remain a great power in the twentieth century, an era which would be dominated by great world powers like America and Russia.

Chamberlain's speech had a profound effect upon a generation of right-wing intellectuals and activists, both in Britain and throughout the Empire. Essentially, Amery went to his grave in 1955 holding the same views to which he had been converted more than half a century before - as were other advocates of imperial unity heavily influenced by Chamberlain like Lord Beaverbrook.

Although he had previously been something of a Fabian socialist, Amery, elected to Parliament in 1911, thenceforth became one of the pillars of the extreme right of the Conservative party, assuming an amazingly larrikin-like role as the "hatchet man" of the Tory party's right wing during the extraordinarily heated Parliamentary sessions just before the First World War which arose over Ireland, the Lords, and other topics. In 1922 he was one of the leaders of the "revolt of the Undersecretaries" which brought down Lloyd George and his Coalition, and made Bonar Law Prime Minister at the head of a purely Conservative government. Amery was rewarded with a series of Cabinet posts during the 1920s, which he performed well.

Excluded from the 1931 National government, he became a leading anti-Appeaser and an ally of Winston Churchill (with whom he had always previously been at odds, despite the seeming similarity of their outlooks). Amery was highly significant in bringing Churchill to power in May 1940, and held the post of Secretary for India during the War.

The great tragedy of his life, and the main subject-matter in this book, is the story of his elder son John ("Jack") Amery (1912-45), who was clearly demented and a constant source of agony to his parents, from his infancy until the time of his death and beyond. In the late 1930s John Amery became an extreme right-wing supporter of fascism, and, during the War, broadcast "Lord Haw Haw"-like propaganda on Nazi radio, denouncing the “Jews and plutocrats” who controlled Britain. Even more seriously, he attempted to organise a "Legion of St. George" among British P.O.W.s to fight for Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union. In 1945 he was arrested for treason, pleaded guilty, and was hanged at Wandsworth Prison.

Leo's younger son Julian (1919-96), an honourable man, became a prominent Tory politician under Macmillan - whose daughter he married - and Heath.

Why did Jack Amery become a Nazi? Given his systematic perversity, one reason almost certainly was the fact that his maternal grandmother was Jewish. Leopold Amery's mother, Elisabeth Leitner, nee Saphir, was born to a prominent Jewish family in Budapest which was converted to Protestantism by Scottish missionaries and moved to London. Leo Amery himself was well-aware of his Jewish origins, although he never mentioned them at any time and did everything possible to conceal his background from the public gaze. In early life he changed his middle name from "Moritz" (the forename of his grandfather) to "Maurice", and, in the first volume of his outstanding autobiography My Political Life (1953), shrouded his maternal ancestors with one of the most accomplished examples of evasion and sleight-of-hand I have ever read.

Yet, although his Jewish background was out of sight, perhaps remarkably they were never out of mind: Amery, remarkably, was the actual author of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and was one of the leading pro-Zionists and philo-semites in British political life.

David Faber, the former Conservative M.P., has done a genuinely excellent job of research, and has produced an informative and admirable work which deserves to be widely known. His research, in particular, on the obscure comings and goings of Jack Amery during the 1930s and 1940s is a remarkable piece of detective work.

Hopefully, however, a full-scale biography of Leo Amery, an important Tory political figure for many years, will eventually appear. Amery was a remarkable man with remarkable gifts - and also many deficiencies. He knew fifteen languages, an ability he inherited from his uncle Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner, who knew fifty.

When I published my articles, I was rung up out of the blue by a Muslim man in London, who told me that, during the Second World War, Amery was called upon, as Secretary for India (which then, of course, encompassed what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh) to speak at the dedication of what is now the Regent's Park Mosque. The audience presumably expected the usual banalities that a Minister would be expected to make at such an occasion. Instead, they were astonished when Amery recited the first book of the Koran from memory in Classical Arabic! This occasion has, apparently, become legendary among British Muslims, and was still remembered sixty years later.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth. He is the author of Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution, (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).


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Muy interesante. The name "Amery" rang a bell from politics as it was when I were a lad, so I looked up all three of them.

Even more fascinating was it to learn, from Andrew Marr's history of Britain, how many of Harold Macmillan's cabinet were related to him by marriage. And they accuse the Sandanistas of nepotism.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at June 29, 2007 10:39 AM
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