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Authors: Jim Wilson

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Rothermere pointed out that the great majority of those who had voted for the National Socialists were between the ages of 20 and 30. He welcomed the fact that the new trend represented the values and the resurgence of youth. Whatever his views on Hitler and his Nazi Party, as a press proprietor and journalist he was uncannily prophetic. When the majority in Britain, including those in government, were indifferent to or ignorant of it, he realised the crucial significance of what was happening in Germany.

In September 1930 the
New York Times
was reporting on Rothermere’s pro-German views, saying that the newspaper proprietor was urging the British government to ‘examine diligently the potential sources of conflagration which are smouldering beneath the present peaceful surface of Europe’; it warned that to make enemies of the younger generation in Germany would mean that sooner or later there would be another terrible awakening facing the European nations.
2
So when Hitler swept to power in 1933, Rothermere wanted to meet and get the measure of the man who was now Germany’s chancellor. He gave the task of engineering that meeting to Princess Stephanie. Surprisingly, he was aware that she had been publicly accused of being a spy, as he certainly had not been when he commissioned her to undertake assignments for him. But Rothermere refused to believe the slurs about her activities in the Continental press; indeed, he thought he had sound reasons not to believe them.

In December 1932 a number of European newspapers had carried allegations of espionage against her. One published the sensational headline: ‘Princess Stephanie Hohenlohe arrested as a spy in Biarritz.’ It transpired that the story had originated in the French newspaper
La Liberté
. The following day, Christmas Day, the same newspaper carried a further report: ‘Le Mystère de Biarritz.’
3
Other European newspapers followed with reports referring to her as a ‘political adventuress’, even ‘the vamp of European politics’.
4
La Liberté
asked, ‘Is a sensational affair about to unfold?’, alleging that she had been arrested by agents of the Sûreté Nationale because of political activities harmful to France.
5
But as Stephanie had not spent a single day in Biarritz during 1932, had given up her villa there and had sailed for New York at the time she was alleged to have been arrested in the French resort, it was reasonable for Rothermere to believe there was not a shred of truth in it. It is now clear from declassified British intelligence papers that both the French and British secret services had evidence which pointed to the accuracy of at least some of those allegations, although the facts as presented in the newspapers at the time were wrong. Indeed, British intelligence had had serious suspicions about the princess’ motives and her true allegiance since 1928, and they had been routinely intercepting the princess’ correspondence and tracking her movements in and out of the country from 1928 onwards.
6

The declassified files show clearly that she was a target of British intelligence during the decade from 1928 until war broke out in 1939. Copies of her intercepted letters have been removed from the heavily weeded files, and a number of pages continue to be withheld under a section of the Public Records Act of 1958, invoked as recently as May 2004. But there is enough in the records of the British secret service to show that the monitoring of her communications and movements was extensive. As early as April 1931 the Foreign Office was questioning the condition of the princess’ residence in Britain, as she was suspected of having connections with highly placed Germans, including the Crown Prince, eldest son of the kaiser, who was known to be an ardent Nazi sympathiser. The FBI also suspected her of being a Nazi agent. Those suspicions were summarised in great detail in a lengthy memorandum dated October 1941.
7
French intelligence, the Deuxième Bureau, informed the British secret service in August 1938 that, in their opinion, the princess was in all probability an important German agent. They further commented that they found this curious, since according to their information she was of Jewish origin.
8
Stephanie, against all the evidence, for years robustly contested her Jewish parentage and the claims that she was involved in espionage. On many occasions before and after the Second World War she said she would publish her memoirs and prove these allegations to be entirely false, but she never did.

An indication of how seriously MI5 treated her during the latter half of the 1930s can be gauged from the fact that while MI5 were certainly alert to the potential dangers of Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts, and indeed had infiltrated the British Union of Fascists, at no time were any Home Office warrants issued to monitor Mosley’s correspondence and his movements. In contrast, warrants were repeatedly issued throughout those years, covertly, against Princess Stephanie. What is surprising is that the British government never seem to have warned Rothermere of their suspicions. As a prominent newspaper owner he clearly had contacts in the highest levels of government. Why so influential a person in public life, with powerful organs of the media in his power, was not tipped off by MI5 is a mystery. Presumably they had sound reasons.

Stephanie turned to Rothermere for advice on how she could clear her name over the damaging newspaper reports. Rothermere’s response was it was better for her to do nothing about it. Anything she did would only make matters worse and would lead to people believing there was indeed substance in the stories. He had been in the newspaper business long enough, he said, to realise that a denial usually resulted in merely refreshing the story, and was likely to stir up new rumours. His advice was to let the matter lie. Her friends would know it was untrue after all. Rothermere also appreciated that further publicity could be extremely damaging to him as well. But Stephanie would not let the issue drop. As long after the original publication as July 1936, Rothermere was writing to her to say ‘the libels were of such a preposterous character that my lawyers advised me that you and myself should treat them with the contempt they deserved’.
9
Stephanie remained dissatisfied, although it appears she never considered suing in the French courts to clear her name. Her belief that Rothermere should have done more to squash the 1932 allegations formed part of the notorious court case she pursued in the High Court some weeks after the Second World War had begun.

The story of the princess’ secret life refused to die, however. In January 1933 an article headlined ‘Fairy Tales around Princess Hohenlohe, Franco-Polish Intrigues’ appeared in a major German newspaper. The report stated that the princess, whom some French newspapers had reported had been arrested in Biarritz, had now arrived in Southampton aboard the liner
Europa
and had immediately travelled to London. She had spent the month of December in New York, the paper explained, and was exceedingly put out by the reports that had appeared in the ‘chauvinist’ French press. ‘It would appear that the whole story is an intrigue,’ the article went on, ‘instigated by Poland against the Princess.’ The report added that the princess was being held responsible for the editorial policy of Lord Rothermere who, in a series of articles in the
Daily Mail
, had argued for the return of the Polish corridor to Germany. It went on to allege that during Rothermere’s stay in Berlin, the princess was repeatedly seen in the company of his lordship, with whom she was on ‘close’ terms, and she had also been in the company of leading German politicians. But again, the reports were basically untrue. Rothermere, at that point, had not been in Berlin, nor indeed had Stephanie. But as is so often the case, there was no smoke without fire, even though some of the details of the press reports were inaccurate.

Writing forty years later, her son, Prince Franz Hohenlohe, said that the ugly label ‘spy’ turned out to be a persistent one.
10
The mud stuck, and his mother’s subsequent work for Rothermere did little to help remove it. His account says that the evil wrought by the ‘irresponsible news stories’ pursued his mother for the remaining decades of her life; though the majority of her friends remained steadfastly loyal to her throughout. ‘People remembered the accusation, not the denial,’ he wrote. Had he, or her friends, had access to her British intelligence files, they may not have been quite so unquestioning. Rothermere now realised it was totally unrealistic to believe, as he previously had, that the restoration of any of the old and now defunct monarchies of central Europe could be seen as a way of assuring the integrity of post-war countries and guaranteeing their stability. Instead of placing his faith in a restoration of the old Hapsburg and Hohenzollern thrones, he now turned his attention to the new dictators. They were becoming, he believed, the guarantors of future peace in Europe: Mussolini in Italy, and now with his appointment as chancellor, Hitler and his National Socialists in Germany.

In July 1933 Rothermere wrote probably the most famous of his pro-fascist
Daily Mail
editorials, hailing Hitler’s rise to power in an article headlined ‘Youth Triumphant’, and captioned ‘from somewhere in Naziland’.
11
Rothermere wrote of the Germans: ‘There has been a sudden expansion of their national spirit like that which took place in England under Queen Elizabeth. Youth has taken command.’ His editorial praised the regime for what it had achieved both in ‘spiritual’ and ‘material’ terms. Germany, he wrote in a subsequent article, had been ‘liberated’ by Nazism from ‘the rule of the frowsty, down-at-heel German republic … where fraud and corruption had begun to spread on a large scale’. He continued:

I urge all British young men and women to study closely the progress of the Nazi regime in Germany. They must not be misled by the misrepresentations of its opponents. The most spiteful detractors of the Nazis are to be found in precisely the same sections of the British public and press as are the most vehement in their praises of the Soviet regime in Russia … They have started a clamorous campaign of denunciation against what they call ‘Nazi atrocities’ which, as anyone who visits Germany quickly discovers for himself, consists of a few isolated acts of violence such as are inevitable among a nation half as big as ours, but which have been generalised, multiplied and exaggerated to give the impression that Nazi rule is a bloodthirsty tyranny.

Collin Brooks, at the time one of Rothermere’s editors, later to become his close confidant, wrote in his journal that Rothermere’s mood was one of deep depression over what he saw as Britain’s decline.
12
The country had lost its former militant virtues and was adopting policies that were beginning to sap the traditional self-reliance the British had demonstrated so successfully in the past in its role of empire builder. Rothermere had long been attracted to Germany, its national character and its historic cities. He had travelled widely in the country, had studied its culture and its history, and he owned a superb collection of photographs and postcards of Germany’s towns and cities.

Once Hitler had achieved power Rothermere said there were three possible policies Britain could pursue: negotiate with Hitler and disarm in order to reassure him; give not an inch to Hitler’s demands and rearm at full speed (the line Churchill advocated); or open a dialogue with Germany while steadily rearming. The latter was the view Rothermere took, and there were plenty of others in public life and among the Establishment in Britain who echoed it. One who espoused very similar views was Rothermere’s neighbour and fellow Norfolk landowner Lord Lothian, whose country seat was at Blickling Hall. Lothian later went on to become British ambassador to Washington from 1939–40.

In November 1933 the press baron gave Princess Stephanie the task of establishing personal contact with Hitler. It did not take her long. She was soon reporting that she was making progress through contact with someone who she conspiratorially called ‘my friend in Berlin’. That friend turned out to be none other than Hitler’s personal adjutant, Captain Fritz Wiedemann. The princess, using the female wiles she had so often employed to her advantage, set out to form an intimate relationship with the already married Wiedemann. It was to be a long-lasting liaison that would prove both passionate and productive for many years, continuing well after the start of the Second World War across the Atlantic in the then neutral United States.

Fritz Wiedemann was a handsome, 6ft tall, dark-haired professional soldier who had known Hitler since the First World War. They had served together in the 16th Reserve Infantry Regiment. At that time Wiedemann had been Hitler’s superior officer, a staff adjutant, while Hitler was a mere messenger; a humble soldier in the lower ranks. The future Führer never rose above the rank of lance corporal and was based behind the lines at regimental headquarters. When he was not required to deliver a message, he passed his time painting and talking politics. There was no obvious demonstration to his fellow ‘squaddies’ of the mesmerist qualities that were later to bring him to power. Indeed, it is a mystery how someone so relatively undistinguished managed to gain for himself the award of the Iron Cross. Aside from a brief scribbled entry, Hitler’s army pay book contains no evidence of the incident that led to the award, and Hitler later saw to it that his military records and correspondence were destroyed or falsified. Nazi propagandists in the early 1930s found it difficult to present to the public, in any convincing way, the historical facts about the award. The chances are Wiedemann knew the real background of how Hitler had contrived to gain such a distinction when he was rarely, if ever, close to any front-line action. If so, Hitler must have realised that he needed to ensure his former senior officer remained a close confidant.

Following the Armistice, Wiedemann left the army in the rank of captain and became a farmer in south-west Bavaria. In 1933, suffering financial difficulties, he asked two former army friends to approach Hitler, remind him of their former active service together, and ask whether Hitler would pull strings to get him into the regular army. Hitler went further. He offered him the post of his personal adjutant. So, in a remarkable role reversal, Wiedemann, who once in wartime France had ordered Hitler to paint the unit canteen, was now personal adjutant to the Führer at the Reich Chancellery in Berlin and was one of the most influential men in the new Germany. There was undoubtedly a close bond of friendship between the two men. Hitler trusted Wiedemann implicitly and they enjoyed one another’s company. Wiedemann was at Hitler’s side daily; he attended to the Führer’s private correspondence, acted as his gatekeeper, ensured the smooth running of his office and even accompanied him on important visits abroad to confer, for instance, with Mussolini. Hitler frequently gave his old commander expensive presents, on one occasion a six-seat Mercedes-Benz saloon. For the princess, Wiedemann was to turn out to be an important and influential conquest.

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