Robert Gilbert Vansittart, 1st Baron Vansittart, GCB, GCMG, MVO, PC (25 June 1881 – 14 February 1957), known as Sir Robert Vansittart between 1929 and 1941, was Principal Private Secretary to two Prime Ministers of Great Britain from 1928 to 1930, Permanent Under-Secretary at the British Foreign Office from 1930 to 1938, and Chief Diplomatic Adviser to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. He is best remembered for his hatred towards Germany before, during, and after the Second World War.
Paternally his family are of Dutch ancestry. Vansittart joined the British Foreign Office as a clerk in 1902 and 'rose through the ranks'. A privileged employment, he was exempted from service in The Great War.
In May 1938 Vansittart was engaged in the British negotiations for a treaty, aimed specifically at Germany, with the Soviet Union, and in this respect met with the Jewish Soviet Ambassador, the Ivan Mikhailovich Maisky, several times.
In 1940, Vansittart sued the famous American historian Harry Elmer Barnes for libel, for an article written by Barnes in 1939 accusing him of then plotting aggression against Germany. It is possible this was based upon several well-known incidents, including Field-Marshal Göring's conversation with the British Ambassador in Berlin, Sir Neville Henderson, on 8th June 1939, when Göring said that it was common knowledge that there "was a clique in London, and particularly at the Foreign Office, which wanted war at any price". Vansittart was specifically named. Göring stated again, to the Swedish diplomat Birger Dahlerus, on July 6th at 'Karinhall', that "Sir Robert Vansittart was prejudiced against Germany and very pro-French". Göring always made certain that he was meticulously informed, and on August 8th he had a further conversation with Dahlerus in which he said that "whenever Vansittart saw the Poles, trouble arose shortly after, and he cited an occasion when Vansittart had seen the Polish Ambassador in London and the Ambassador then flew to Warsaw. The British Foreign Office's diplomat, Charles Spencer, said in a memorandum dated August 10th that Vansittart was reported to have said that "Germany is our greatest enemy". In July 1939 The Foreign Office proposed sending their diplomat Frank Ashton-Gwatkin to Switzerland to hold private talks with Dr. Hjalmar Schacht, the famous and highly respected economist who in January had stood down as President of the Reichsbank (State Bank). The Governor of the Bank of England had told the Prime Minister that Schacht was a "very good German" and not in sympathy with the National Socialist Party. It was hoped that Schacht could be persuaded to use his influence in Germany towards a pro-British policy which he had always said he wanted. Upon hearing of this, Sir Robert Vansittart sent a Minute to the Foreign Minister, Lord Halifax, on July 16th, saying "This seems to me a fantastic and dangerous idea. I hope it will not be pursued. It will rightly alarm everyone. How can we possibly trust Dr. Schacht?" Ashton-Gwatkin nevertheless went ahead with his mission. (Dr.Schacht was acquitted at the Nuremburg Show trials.)
During the war, Vansittart became a prominent advocate of a very anti-German line. His earlier worries about Germany were reformulated into an argument that Germany was intrinsically militaristic and aggressive. In his book Black Record: Germans Past and Present (1941), Vansittart portrayed National Socialism as just the latest manifestation of Germany's continuous record of aggression from the time of the Roman Empire. Therefore, after Germany was defeated, he said, it must be stripped of all military capacity, including its heavy industries. His proposal pre-dated the post-war Morgenthau Plan proposed by Jewish-American Henry Morgenthau, Jr.. Vansittart continued, that the German people enthusiastically supported Hitler's "wars of aggression", just as they supported the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, and World War I in 1914. They must be thoroughly re-educated under strict Allied supervision for at least a generation. De-nazification was not enough. The German military elite was the real cause of war, especially the "Prussian" officer corps and the German General Staff: both must be destroyed. In 1943 he wrote further:
In the opinion of the author, it is an illusion to differentiate between the German right, centre, or left, or the German Catholics or Protestants, or the German workers or capitalists. They are all alike, and the only hope for a peaceful Europe is a crushing and violent military defeat followed by a couple of generations of re-education controlled by the United Nations.
He also wrote that "the other Germany has never existed save in a small and ineffective minority". On other occasions, he made similar remarks:
We didn't go to war in 1939 to save Germany from Hitler or the continent from fascism. As in 1914 we went to war for the not lesser noble cause that we couldn't accept a German hegemony over Europe.
Equally jaundiced British historian Robert McCallum, who had served two years on the Western Front in The Great War, seemed to agree when he wrote in 1944: "To some, such as Lord Vansittart, the main problem of policy was to watch Germany and prevent her power reviving. No one can refuse him a tribute for his foresight in this matter."
- Documents on British Foreign Policy 1919-1939 edited by Rohan Butler, M.A., J.P.T. Bury, M.A., and I. Bains, M.A., 3rd Series, vol.x, Index, H.M.S.O. London, 1961, p.98.
- Documents on British Foreign Policy 1919-1939 edited by Professor E.L. Woodward, M.A., F.B.A., Rohan Butler, M.A., and Anne Orde, M.A., 3rd series, vol.v, 1939, H.M.S.O., London, 1952, p.564, et al.
- Lipstadt, Deborah Denying the Holocaust (New York: Free Press, 1993), p.80.
- Documents on British Foreign Policy 1919-1939 edited by Professor E.L. Woodward, M.A., F.B.A., Rohan Butler, M.A., and Anne Orde, M.A., 3rd series, vol.vi, 1939, H.M.S.O., London, 1953, pps:14,745,754, et al.
- Documents on British Foreign Policy 1919-1939 edited by Professor E.L. Woodward, M.A., F.B.A.,& Rohan Butler, M.A., 3rd series, vol.ix, 1939, H.M.S.O., London, 1955, p.272.
- Vansittart, Robert, Lessons of My Life, London, 1943.
- Vansittart, 1943, p.146.
- Sunday Correspondent, London, 17 September 1989.
- McCallum, Robert Buchanan, Public Opinion and the Last Peace, Oxford University Press, 1944, p.147.