Would finding out Grandma was Jewish make you a Nazi? (The case of John Amery)

“The atmosphere was understandably tense in the magnificent drawing-room. The year was 1942, and the horrified Amery family gathered round their wireless at No. 112 Eaton Square, Belgravia.
They were waiting in disbelief to hear their beloved son, John, make a Nazi propaganda broadcast from behind enemy lines.
As the radio crackled to life declaring: “Germany calling, Germany calling!” the presenter announced that John, the son of a British government minister, was about to speak to his countrymen from Berlin.

We can only imagine the shame felt by Leo and Bryddie Amery as they heard their Harrow-educated first-born address “Mr Brown, Mr Jones, you Mrs Smith” with a fascist diatribe, just as the infamous traitor Lord Haw-Haw had done before him.

This is quoted from Ronald Harwood, who wrote a play about it. It’s interesting how his explanation deviates from my instinctive explanation.

Leopold Amery was in Winston Churchill’s Cabinet, he was also very pro-Zionist, but he had hidden from society the fact that his mother was Jewish.
His son, John, was bad from the very beginning, which is what sets off my own instinctive explanation.

Here Harwood lists the path John took:

From an early age, young John was a worry to his parents, however. When he was two, one nanny told them he was “a very hard child”, who suffered terrible tantrums.
At the age of five, his teacher described him as “an extremely abnormal boy, with a fixed attitude of an abnormal type and a tendency to live inside himself”.
He appalled his nannies by drawing obscene images of naked women and leaving them around the house. When John was ten, his father – by this time a Conservative MP – became First Lord of the Admiralty, and the family moved into Admiralty House on Whitehall.
John was sent to Harrow public school where his rebellious nature marked him out. He took to climbing out of his house at night to visit London nightclubs, losing his virginity at 14.
The 1926 Punishment Book at Harrow records that he was sanctioned for “shop stealing and moral breakdown”.
His distraught parents took him in the family Daimler to a psychologist, Dr Maurice Wright, who concluded that John had “no moral sense of right and wrong”.
He was eventually sent to a school for English boys in Switzerland but returned having contracted syphilis, which was to plague him for years. He told his tutor that he had caught it by prostituting himself to men.

John Amery and his prostitute wife Una
John Amery and his prostitute wife Una

[When he reached marriage age], he announced that he was to marry Una Eveline Wing, an actress, and hoped that he would “give his creditors confidence at having married a rich woman”.
In fact, she was known to police as a common prostitute. Being under 21, Amery was unable to marry without parental consent.
Instead, he and Una fled to Europe, hotly pursued by the Press, who were revelling in this society scandal.
The pair settled in Paris, financing an extravagant lifestyle by pawning possessions or cadging money from family friends.
Neville Chamberlain wrote to his sister: “If you had ever set eyes on that little gutter-snipe, you would feel no surprise at anything he might do.”
Amery and Una eventually married in Greece. Six weeks later, his parents received yet more bad news. A warrant had been issued for John’s arrest in Athens over the fraudulent purchase of diamonds using a dud cheque.
…Una reported that he was still earning money as a male prostitute and also liked to indulge in masochistic sex with female prostitutes.

Then his life took a strange direction indeed:

In 1936 he was declared bankrupt, owing nearly £6,000 (£294,000 at today’s prices), and might have settled into life as a petty scoundrel were it not for his increasing fascination with the Nazi cause. He believed that Communism was a plague carried by Jews.
Amery left his wife in London and traveled to Spain, where he fought for the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, gun-running for Franco and in active combat. He told his father that he had seen Communist torture chambers in Barcelona which fuelled his increasing hatred of them.
At some point around this time, John – who was by this time dealing in the black market across Europe – came under the spell of French fascist Jacques Doriot and his newly-formed Parti Populaire Francais.
When war was declared, John was in Spain. He returned to Paris where he had a new prostitute girlfriend, Jeanine Barde, and announced his support for the German invasion of Russia on the basis that Europe was under threat from Communism and Judaism.
…after writing a letter critical of early British bombing raids to a French newspaper, Amery came to the attention of the German High Command. Fatefully, he was invited to Germany by Hitler.
Travelling with his girlfriend, under the names Mr and Mrs Brown, Amery was greeted in Berlin as “a guest of the Reich”.
As the son of a serving British Cabinet minister, he was feted as the Fuhrer’s glittering prize, and arrangements were put in place for him to broadcast to Britain. He was installed in a hotel in some splendour, alongside his pet dog, Sammy…
On November 19, 1942, he made his first broadcast, declaring: “Listeners will wonder what an Englishman is doing on the German radio tonight. I come forward without any bias, but just simply as an Englishman-to say to you: a crime is being committed against civilisation!
“You are being lied to, your patriotism, your love for our England is being exploited by people who for the most part hardly have any right to be English. Between you and peace lies only the Jew and his puppets.”
…Over the following weeks, John made a further nine propaganda speeches. The last was recorded on New Year’s Eve 1942, at which point the Germans sent him back to Paris because they felt he had fulfilled his usefulness.
In Paris – and now with a second wife, yet another prostitute, Michelle Thomas – he began to work on plans for a British legion formed by British prisoners of war who would fight for the Germans against Russia. ….

My instinctive explanation for his trajectory (very different from Harwood’s) is that there was something missing in his brain – something that if we knew what it was, would explain to us not just some, but most of this behavior. Of course all sorts of people became Nazi sympathizers (including Diana Mitford in the U.K., and to some extent Henry Ford in the U.S), but maybe in addition – having certain parts of a normal conscience missing might lead you in that direction. So that would be the direction I would go. But not Harwood.

Here is what he says:

Now, however, I believe I have uncovered a secret that casts a whole new light on his treachery and the disgrace he brought upon his Establishment family.
My play, An English Tragedy, is based on Amery’s extraordinary story of adventure, wartime derring-do and betrayal, and his struggle with his own identity….one startling fact revealed in recently released papers which I believe helps explain Amery’s extraordinary life: the Amery family was Jewish.
Leo’s mother was born in the Jewish quarter of Budapest and came from an intellectual Jewish-Hungarian family. But Leo chose to hide his background, probably because he feared it could jeopardise his ascent through the ranks of the Conservative Party.
Today we tend to forget how savage anti-Semitism was throughout Europe – even in Britain – during the 1930s, and it appears that John Amery, like many at the time, became caught in its grip. He had been raised believing himself to be an upper-class Englishman, complete with private education and a father who was a Cabinet minister.
To discover that he was of Jewish descent struck at the very heart of his personal identity.
Was his adoption of the Nazi cause the ultimate in self-denial; the proof that – at least to himself – he could not possibly be Jewish?
In his radio broadcasts he claimed the German army was preventing “world domination by Jewry”.
Or did the discovery turn his feelings for his father into a passionate loathing for the man who had hidden the truth from him and a desire to get revenge by espousing an openly anti-semitic cause?

So this is quite interesting. Is Harwood correct? And am I (the blogger) so biologically oriented that I miss the human side of John Amery?  My problem with Harwood’s explanation is that some people who find out they have Jewish ancestry, even if they are very anti-semitic, become philo-semitic – I’m thinking of Csanad Szegedi who was one of the founders of the Jobbik party in Hungary.  It’s interesting that in his case too, anti-communism led him to his original radicalism.
Disgusting as John’s life was, he believed in something bigger than himself. Of course his father, mother, and brother believed in something bigger than themselves, that is the cause of the democracies. (In fact his father stood by Winston Churchill in a period when only a few people did.) As for John – did he really believe that National-Socialism was simply an anti-Communist movement, and that all Jews were Communists?  Or maybe there is something about totalitarian absolute ideologies that attract defective people?



One thought on “Would finding out Grandma was Jewish make you a Nazi? (The case of John Amery)

  1. I agree with your assessment, that Amery was clearly mentally impaired from the earliest stages of his life. As Harwood is a playwright, he is inevitably going to focus on some familial conflicts that might have caused Amery to behave as he did.

    I also agree that totalitarian ideologies attract people like this. There is a recent example in the UK where a lad, Thomas Evans, from a broken family, turned to drugs and drink and was allowed by his mother to turn their garden shed into a drugs den. After being converted to Islam (i.e. the Islamist version) he adopted the name Abdul Hakim, travelled to Somalia, and committed horrendous atrocities in Kenya (including beheading Christians and setting fire to churches) before he was killed by the Kenyan military. His mother declared she was glad he was dead, and would now be burning in hell…

    You will find people like this attracted to any ideology or cult that sanctions their pre-existing tendencies or exploits them for its own ends. The crusaders of the middle ages were mostly the same type. On one occasion when they were delayed in their journey to the Holy Land, they decided to sack (I think) Constantinople instead…

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