Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Harold Nicolson: The War Years, Diaries and Letters 1939-1945

Genre: History
Author:Harold Nicolson, Nigel Nicolson
"To be a good diarist, one must have a snouty, sneaky mind."--the author

This 1967 book comprises a record of the British Parliament from the viewpoint of a cabinet officer and later backbencher Harold Nicolson (1886-1968) during the time he was a witness to many of the backstage workings of the British National Coalition Government until 1941 and later as a witness to secret sessions in the chambers of power and other important meetings.

When the writer/politician was removed from his place as an assistant cabinet (to make way for a Labour party minister) he spent the rest of the war as a backbencher, while still writing histories, doing weekly newspaper columns and giving pro-Allied speeches in neutral nations like Sweden and parts of North Africa recently liberated by the Allies in order to boost the war effort. HIs 1939 book, "Why England is at War" was also a major success.

After Nicolson was asked to leave by Churchill he still was on good terms with the likes of the Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, Harold MacMillan and others who steered the country as well as visiting Americans like influential newsmen Edward R Murrow and William Shirer.

The refreshing thing about reading the diary of an insider to major events is not how often Nicolson got things right--sometimes he didn't as when he predicted that Stalin would keep his promises at the Yalta Conference or when he seemed assured The USA would enter the war after Roosevelt's reelection in 1940. But it is his intelligence and descriptive powers that are on display here.

Nicholson also was a best-selling novelist and biographer, journalist, diplomat (on hand with Lloyd George at the Versailles Conference in 1919), Governor of the BBC and the husband of one of Britain leading poet/novelists Vita Sackville-West. Their "open marriage" and lovers of the same sex is an issue covered by their son, the writer Nigel Nicholson (1918-2004) in his own biography of his parents lives' "Portrait of A Marriage" (1973)

This diary focuses on the Nicolson's public career, his affectionate letters to his wife and his two sons (Nigel and Ben) who are both fighting in Europe and North Africa. There is also his personal doubts about the war effort and flights of enthusiasm he had even in the darkest times about Britain emerging victorious. That he held this spirit despite the long odds that events in 1940-41 (the Fall of France, the evacuation of Dunkirk, The Battle of Britain, et al) held for the Allies and later served as a champion to the cause of the Free French government in exile speaks well to his character. (Although he had misgivings about General DeGaulle, who was a difficult man to handle to put it mildly and gave fits to many a greater contemporary.)

Nicolson has a lot of humor in his writing, at one point describing the Deputy Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, as a singularly unimpressive speaker, rather "like a snipe pretending to be an eagle" and somehow making the news of a British victory in North Africa sound almost as a defeat. His praise of Churchill is higher, although he steers clear of being a hero-worshipper and takes hm to task for being too boastful at times and, later, not supporting the Free French cause with enough vigor. The descriptions of Churchill in the House bring the man and the moment to life. This is as close as we shall get to having a camera view of this era and how its ministers and members behaved in a multi-party government during times of great stress.

There are also Nicolson's concerns that their renovated, partially- Elizabethan home in Kent (Sissinghurst) he shared with his wife will make it through the war and all those involved in the grounds will of course survive.

There's something rather British in the way Nicolson and his wife concern themselves with the garden in a time when one bomb could have taken either one of them out separately or together. Indeed in the darkest time of the war (1940) both husband and wife were prepared to commit suicide by poison rather than fall into the hands of the Gestapo.

The strangest part to me is that, as a governor of the BBC, he argued that he's rather lose a son in battle than lose a great work of architecture like the Monte Cassino monastery in Italy. Other than that I find nothing in Nicolson's diaries presented here that doesn't either inform or delight.

His son Nigel gives an overview of the progress and red-letter events of the war at the beginning of each year to better frame his father's records.


  1. Super review Doug.

    What wonderfully gripping reading Harold Nicholson's diaries make.
    I always felt I would have liked him had I been born earlier and it was possible. I'm not sure about how I'd have taken his snobbishness, but he was on the whole a likable character.

    The time that Harold Nicholson was a diplomat makes interesting reading. He drops names who we have read about in history and old political books.

    One gets a glimpse of private conversations through Nicholson's socialising.

    Lunch with the Russian Ambassador ( Maisky), where Harold asks of him," what would Russia do if Germany pressed on to the Black Sea", part of the reply was," that old Pan Slav feeling is dead, that Russia hasn't any sympathy for the semi fascists systems and that she is disillusioned with Western democracies." However, Stalin was a sly old dog.

    We get many such writings which were never meant for publication, so we get a different slant as to what was going on at that time, more so than people did from the newspapers.

    His son Nigel Nicholson says, we should read the diaries as much for the self they reveal as for the world they reveal. Well, whatever, they sure make interesting reading.

    Thank you.

  2. Thanks Cassandra. And thanks again for reminding me about this book I had kept putting aside to read later and later.

    Yes, the book on lettes between himself and Vita reads like a veritable who's who in politics and the entertainment world. I know at times Harold (and some of his friends) thought he was not as forceful a personality as he wanted to be, but I think it might have been due ot the larger-than-life people around him. And he certainly could drop names! (And I mean that positively.) He reminds me of the popular Anglo-American writer and television host, Alistar Cooke, in that regard, albeit with a more formidible literary resume.

    I see what you mean about wanting to meet Nicolson. He seems so interesting. Personally I think Vita would have been a tougher person to like socially. He seems very harsh on ordinary folks in some of her letters. Her attitude toward the Beveridge Report for post-war England is rather "high hat." Harold seems more sympathetic, which explains why he became a candidate for the Labour Party.

    Yes, its that sense of geting behind-the-closed-door that is so interesting. It puts a human face on the tensions between the Allies--such as when Harold meets with Churchill and asks him about the massacre of Polish officers at Katyn. (An act of Stalin's utter treachery.) The Germans tried to make a propaganda coup out of it when they discovered the grave pits, but the Western Allies couldn't very well publically slam the major ally that was holding down so many German divisions. Anyway, Churchill's replies, sub rosa, "The less said about that business the better." It's a chilling remark but understandable. Roosevelt petty much said the same thing to his advisors.

    The day-to-day records he kept give us a sense of tension about the war effort, matters that couldn't be talked about for fear of morale among the people, like the difficulty initially in countering the V-1 attacks on London. It's leavened a lot with those personal reflections and concerns about home and family that, again, are so often left out of historical overviews.

    There is something about personal letters and diaries. Even if they have been published, one feels a sense of prying into perosnal matters at times, but with an individual so close to important people (and so wonderfully opinionated) that its seductive reading indeed! :-)

  3. You are welcome Doug.

    I am sure that Harold Nicholson didn't take up certain challenges because Vita didn't want him to.
    He cared tremendously about her feelings even though he knew she could be selfish. We also learn about the long hours some ministers put in. They would be sitting around in the houses of parliament and Winston Churchill would arrive just before midnight. I expect dear old Winnie had treated himself to an afternoon nap.

    Harold probably was a bit like Alastair Cooke in the sense he could name drop.

    He mentions the air fights over Sissinghurst. Those must have been with mixed feelings, the excitement on one hand and yet the terrible danger on the other.

    Indeed Vita would have been a tough nut to crack. She never quite forgave her mother for the fact she wasn't born a male. Her love of Knole was sad in a way, because she would have nurtured the place, yet she couldn't inherit it.

    Nicholson could have easily been won over simply by being interested in what he did.

    Harold's time during the Nuremberg trials must have been quite a strain but rivetingly interesting. I wonder how much of the goings on were kept from the public at the time. I bet newspapers were issued with a much censored version on the goings on to print, even thought they sat in on the trials.

    I think Nigel Nicholson would have removed anything from the diaries he found too embarrassing to the younger members of the Nicholson family.

    I loved the 1950 entry about Labour refusing to join the EU. Harold at that point regrets joining the Labour party, *grins.*

  4. I think you're right about Vita's influence on her husband, Cassandra. I know in his diaries the long absences he had from her on various missions did take a toll on him.

    From what I've read Churchill spent a lot f time reading papers in bed in the mornings and catching naps before his dinner so its likely those around him adjusted to these odd hours. At the same time, when he did make a sudden appearance in the House after a long mission abroad, it was clear from the ovations he received he was a revered figure. Certain leaders, whatever their faults and peccadilloes, and Churchill, Lincoln, FDR and George Washington are examples, seem irreplaceable at a given time of crisis.

    Yes I remember watching a film on the Battle of Britain and they showed families picnicking on some hillsides while an RAF squad had a high altitude go at some German fighters. I wasn't sure at first if that really happened but having seen and read more on this period, I'm more sure it did. How surreal--both exciting and terrifying at the same time.

    The strict laws on daughters not being unable to inherit property seem so draconian. I'm surprised these laws extended into the 20th Century. One more reason women agitated so hard for the vote.

    I'll have to look into Nicolson's experiences at Nuremberg. At least in America, coverage on the trials seemed not to touch directly on the full extent of the German crimes. The balance of power was already shifting in Europe and Russia was seen as a new peril.

    I didn't know Britain had a chance to join the EU so early! Might have been a good thing. I do recall DeGaulle did his best to block Britain from EU membership later on, part of his prejudice against Anglo-Saxons he nurtured for many years I gather.

  5. It was Vita's influence that made Harold Nicholson leave the diplomatic service. I'm sure he always regretted it.

    Hahaha, yes, Winnie loved to stay in bed quite late, but if he worked late at night it is understandable, I suppose. He was a very popular character, as you say, so he got away with keeping those ministers late.

    Most people living in Kent at that time have memories of watching dog fights. When one reads about the experiences of children, they didn't appear to be scared, but found the whole thing exciting.

    Vita would have nurtured Knole, she and that house were as one. Vita knew every small corner of it. It is sad that whenever she could, she'd find a place where she'd sit and look over the land surrounding the house, yet knowing it would never be hers.

    The Nuremberg trials must have been a time of much stress. Looking at photos everyone looks terribly ill. Of course, they were people who had just come through a long war.

    To tell you the truth I didn't know we had a chance of joining the EU so early. I only read that in Harold's diaries.

  6. Thanks for posting this review of the diaries and letters of Harold Nicolson.

    He is not a politician I know much about to be honest, but he appears to be very much a man of his time, well connected and wealthy throwing in his lot with Labour, his politics seem to be rather like his sex life, an 'open marriage' rather than a conviction politician, although wedded to the ideals of Fabianism (the political equivalent of an open marriage).

    He appears to have some similarities with people like George Orwell, from privileged backgrounds but choosing to at least notionally to identify with the hoi polloi in a distinctly uncomfortable sort of way.

    Actually it is probably grossly unfair to both men to link them like this, Orwell was certainly never the free love bohemian bourgeois that Nicholson seems to have been, but they do seem to share a distrustful relationship with the proletariat and a detestation of what later came to called (by Zbigniew Brzezinski) 'totalitarianism'.

    A now dead breed of Englishman, the last of the paternalists from the age of empire, liberal exponents of a sort of tory socialism that has been replaced now by the anal retentiveness of 'New Labour' and a much deeper seam of amorality.

    Sounds like a good read for students of British politics during one of its more colourful periods ironically simultaneous with the decline of a disintegrating world power.

    That class has now been replaced by apolitical celebrities from wider social backgrounds, a form of egalitarianism I suppose, but one characterised by a more ostentatious 'Hello' magazine type egotism and self obsessiveness.

    So it appears to me that Nicolson could be described as a man of his time if not a man of the people.
    Thanks for your excellent review and commentary Doug.

  7. I think that's a very good characterization you've made , AA, a writer and politican not of the people per se but I would say sympathetic to them, drawing some comparisons of course to Orwell.

    I would say Harold Nicolson was a very keen witted and observant man of the British intelligensia. Her empire and stand-alone power was tested and found strong enough to survive but only at the price of deevolution of said empire and immense social changes. There's nothing dull about the book, that's for sure even if the story has been told from myriad perspectives.

    He was a man of many talents who had entry to a lot of important figures on both sides of the Atlantic and came to maturity at a very colorful and often tense moment in history.