The Mist Procession: The Autobiography of Lord Vansittart
“A sure way of seeing ahead is to look back.” A cliché, perhaps, yet coming from a memoir by Lord Robert S. Vansittart, top British diplomat and resolute anti-appeaser of Hitler, it carries a powerful message. Principal Private Secretary at Number Ten from 1928 to 1930 and head of the Foreign Office till the eve of war, then Chief Diplomatic Adviser to the government, his book The Mist Procession, published in 1958, has a lot to tell us not just about the 1930s but about the world today.
The title refers to an incident when, caught in a spreading mist, he imagined famous faces emerging briefly and then disappearing into the gloom of inevitable mortality. Vansittart was to meet many of the great European faces of his day, though his recollections are more sharp than misty. The dominant theme is his premonition that Germany would thrust the world into barbarous wars, and his determination to prevent them. He was also an early and fierce opponent of communism—the “twin barbarians,” he called Stalin and Hitler. As a former diplomat and Cold War specialist on Russia and China, I am reminded by his warnings about German revanchism in the 1930s of the troubling atmosphere in Moscow today.
Scion of a well-established English family of Dutch descent, Vansittart was educated at Eton and knew Germany and France well enough to prefer the latter. In Germany he had encountered anti-British hysteria generated by the South African “Boer” War and was appalled by what he saw as its tradition of militancy and brutalism. “Only Nietzsche had been indisputably mad,” he wrote later, “but so lucid as to be un-German.”
He entered the Foreign Office in 1903, serving in Paris, then Tehran and Cairo, before getting the job he wanted: Predicting as early as 1910 that the crunch with Berlin would come in the Balkans, as the war approached he was transferred to the department handling Germany. When it came he was responsible for prisoners, an experience from which his fears about the country grew.
Churchill’s first impulse after the World War ended was to help the fallen foe, and when he accused Vansittart of being rigid on Germany and communism, the latter took it as a compliment. “One can talk of the skill, the strength of the German army, but not of its honour. . . . I felt my hand on the collars of those German camp-commanders, and of the brutes who had sunk our hospital ships.”
When Germany sought to weaken the Versailles Treaty, and the British government succumbed, Vansittart complained that the British were incapable of sustaining a mood of bitterness. He himself did: An idolized brother had had half his head blown off in 1915, and he had also lost most of his cousins and school friends. He never forgot these things. Impatient with what he saw as a tendency toward national guilt on the liberal left (“Mmc-ism”—Mea maxima culpa—he called it), he was outraged by the charge that, in warning others of Germany’s not-so-covert rearmament, he was seeking war.
After Hitler came to power in 1933 and Britain’s defense estimates were reviewed, Vansittart asked for 23 more air squadrons. He got three. For him, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s talk of armament control was complacency in a teacup. Agreed reductions were possible, if only to provide a breathing space; Vansittart did not trust Hitler to stick to any agreements, and he was proved right.
All this might suggest that Vansittart was a hard man. In fact he was an accomplished author with a sardonic sense of humor who wrote novels and poetry, staged a play he wrote in French in Paris, and, under a pseudonym, composed lyrics for Alexander Korda’s Thief of Baghdad. More cultivated than the average Foreign Service Officer then or today, when frustrated by accusations of Germanophobia, he was tempted to resign and write. But the rise of Hitler kept him at his post.
He worked closely with the intelligence services, nurturing something of a private detective agency. The view of his chief recruit, Wolfgang zu Pulitz, First Secretary at the German Embassy, coincided with his own: that the only way to handle Hitler was to stand firm. The Nazi leader, he wrote, “dished out that boiling swill of militarism, radicalism, and nationalism that best warmed Germans.” As for his treatment of Jews, for Vansittart it was “jealousy pure and simple.” A mere 2 percent of the population, they had cornered many of the top professional jobs from medicine to theaters, which was why “the Herrenfolk”—the “master race”—so loathed them.
Rightly concerned about the flightiness, ignorance, and irresponsibility of the British upper classes about the impending disaster, when the Oxford Union voted in 1933 that “this house will in no circumstances fight for King and Country” he joked that one of the strengths of the British was in never quite growing up. Indeed, he believed that the episode was a symptom of decay. He was equally upset by the thoughtlessly pro-Hitler Edward, Prince of Wales, who privately said it was no business of ours to interfere in Germany’s internal affairs whether it be for the Jews or anyone else, and that “dictators were very popular these days, and we might want one in England.”
These were the years of the smart and frivolous Cliveden set, a time when writers like George Bernard Shaw found indulgent things to say about Mussolini and Hitler, and about Stalin during the man-made Soviet famine of 1933. Rather than continue to push the Germans to comply with Versailles, some said we should disarm them with generosity. David Lloyd George, the British wartime leader in 1914-18, became a leading light among the pro-Germans, and after an interview with Hitler the historian Arnold Toynbee emerged convinced of his sincerity.
The British were not alone in their delusions about dictators. This was the time when the French Communist Party organ L’Humanité defended the Stalinists’ execution of children along with their parents on the grounds that Soviet children matured quickly. And the American Ambassador to Moscow at the time, Joseph E. Davies, defended the 1937 Moscow trials.
It was May 1937 when Neville Chamberlain, appeaser in chief, became Prime Minister. In Vansittart’s tart words he was “a good man, unlucky in appeasement’s sudden change of meaning from virtuous endeavor to craven immorality.” Unsurprisingly the two men didn’t gel. In the words of the historian Norman Rose:
Vansittart’s techniques worked against him. His memoranda, drafted in a convoluted, epigrammatic style, faintly condescending in tone, warning of terrible dangers if his advice went unheeded, all too often irritated his political masters.1
In 1938 he was given the title of Chief Diplomatic Adviser to the government, which is to say he was kicked upstairs.
One of the reasons for reading Vansittart now is that many of his perceptions are so relevant today. In apportioning guilt for the origins and conduct of the war where it belonged, he was an early opponent of what we now call moral equivalence, which recently enjoyed a startling recrudescence in President Trump’s casual comparison of brutal repression by Putin with the United States, where “bad things happen, too.”
A suggestion of “mea maxima culpa” in the theories of John Maynard Keynes about the origins of the war conditioned Vansittart’s view of him (“I liked him, but not much. He smelled of Bloomsbury.”) It wasn’t excessive reparations that had made a second war inevitable, he insisted: Even when Germany went broke it built pocket battleships against the British, who had loaned it the cash to do it. War came because Germany was broken morally and politically, and because of our feeble stance in negotiations, “encouraging the Germans to vindictive recalcitrance.”
Vansittart never met Hitler, which is a pity, but his encounters with Joachim von Ribbentrop revealed his descriptive powers. The vain and vapid German Foreign Minister was “pale and empty as a drum, with the sore vanity of a peacock in permanent moult.” The plausible and elegant but talentless opportunist was as immaculately suited as a champagne salesman, which indeed he had been. Vansittart had few regrets over the Nuremburg executions, though for him Ribbentrop was not even worth hanging.
In 1941 Vansittart got into trouble when he published Black Record: Germans Past and Present, and resigned from public service. Thereafter he continued to vent his anti-German passions in the House of Lords. The Mist Procession was published posthumously, and its final sentence is striking: “Mine is a story of failure, but it throws light on my time which failed too.”
It is impossible to read The Mist Procession without thinking of dangers that confront us today. The threats from Islamism or North Korea are clear and present, yet with Putin’s Russia we continue to talk, complacently it seems to me, about a “reset in relations.” For Vansittart, Stalin and Hitler, “two predatory pariahs,” represented not just malign leaders but the permanent menace of their countries. To his eyes there was “never any mystery about the people or their plans.”
He was not surprised by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 any more than he had been by Germany’s collusion with Lenin’s efforts to get back to Russia during World War I. Berlin was “up to its neck in financing the triumph of communism…not only the most evil but the most short-sighted trick ever played upon mankind. It is less for total absence of scruple than for sheer stupidity that the Germans deserved the world’s animosity.”
Today, though Russian communism has gone, he would doubtless point to the willed paranoia of the Putin regime, its spiraling defense build-up, its re-imposition of controls on a subservient people whose adulation of their leader holds echoes of Stalinist primitivism, and its striving to reconstitute the empire and influence it lost by other means.
As with Germany he would encourage us to look at Russian history, and its image as a kind of perpetually failing state. Here is a largely European country that until a century and a half ago bought and sold serfs publicly, whose progress toward democracy lasted a mere few years before the 1917 revolution, which itself engendered new forms of serfdom. And when communism collapsed in 1991, after a decade of chaotic freedom under Boris Yeltsin the country is again relapsing into a new type of semi-criminal authoritarianism, less total but in some ways more threatening than what went before.
As a diplomat I remember seeing intelligence reports about a KGB operation designed to sow fear and confusion in Britain, which the Politburo shot down on the grounds of how bad it would look for Moscow if its origins were discovered. It was a small but comforting example of how collective leadership functioned, and of how much we owed to the bureaucratic sobriety symbolized by all those homburgs atop the Lenin mausoleum, and by the subordinate status of the KGB.
Today there is no collective leadership, only a single capo di tutti capi who comes from the KGB himself, and whose cult of personality and air of cool, quasi-gangsterish menace commends him to the post-Soviet public. For me the West’s disappointment is personal. In the 1990s I went back to Moscow State University, where I had been a postgraduate in 1961–62, and was encouraged by the ambitious, open-minded students I talked to, who reveled in their new freedoms and looked forward to traveling abroad. Later I was cheered by the transformation of drab and forbidding Moscow into a modern city, the free talk, the bars, the fun.
Now Russian brutalism is back in slightly different forms, which one can detect in the crudely politicized popular culture, the viciousness of the official media, the ubiquitous anti-Westernism and paranoia, and the difficulty of holding a rational conversation. Whether it is the militant sarcasm of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman, the lying machine known as Russia Today, or the government shock-jocks on TV and in the press, as in Soviet times mendacity is the key. Which takes us back to Vansittart’s insistence on the persistence of national characteristics.
Today such talk is frowned on (one mustn’t stereotype), yet for him nations are not composed of men and women without qualities or history: “Countries do have selves in constant flux like the souls who compose them.” In Germany’s case he meant “Hunnery,” namely brutality and a willing submission to authority and militarism, which prepared the ground for Nazism “before Hitler sowed the dragon’s teeth.” Why was it wrong, he asked, “to regard a nation with unalterable suspicion if that nation continues to give unalterable cause?”
The least-attractive aspect of the Russian soul, observers have noted over the years, is a loose association with the truth. This is not the recent phenomenon of “fake news,” in whose manufacture Russia excels, but has been noted for centuries, most glaringly in Gogol, both of whose major works, Dead Souls and The Government Inspector, revolve around surreal fibs.
Mendacity, official or otherwise, exists the world over, but to many visitors to Russia it appeared as a distinctive national trait. In his famous Lettres de Russie, the record of his trip in 1839, the Marquis de Custine had hoped to counteract the success of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America by applauding a benign Czarist autocracy. Instead he was appalled by the blatant and sometimes pointless deceits he encountered wherever he went, as well as by the connivance of the serfs in their own slave-like condition.
The threat from Russia in our day, it appears to me, is that, like interwar Germany, it is becoming a profoundly sick country. It is enough to read the remarkable book by a former Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times, Charles Clover, Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism. It shows how deep-seated xenophobic myths about the country’s unique Eurasian destiny have blended with the resentment of its ideological defeat into a poisoned doctrine of postmodern, quasi-fascistic truth-denial.
The intellectual corruption has penetrated the media, education, the foreign ministry, the army, and the Kremlin itself. To preempt insurrection, secure the power of a mafia-ridden state, stoke nationalism, and erode human rights, Putin manufactures foreign threats. The result is a level of cynicism and mendacity in public affairs without parallel in any developed country.
The reaction to date has been a soaring popularity for Putin and a paucity of opposition, which is not explained by official repression alone. (Vansittart records how he saw a minimum of resistance to Hitler in the German Foreign Ministry and army: The assassination attempt on Hitler came only when the country was headed clearly for defeat.)
I witnessed some of this decline first hand. Having once chaired the English Booker Prize for Fiction, I, as a Russian speaker, was recruited to chair its Russian offshoot, the Russian Booker, now the most prestigious prize for fiction in the country. Going there several times a year could be stimulating and entertaining, though also depressing. I know about the Russian people’s intelligence and talents, but I have also met sophisticated folk with access to the truth, intellectuals included, who applaud and support Putin for old-fashioned “tough guy” reasons, usually with the excuse that in Russia only tough guys can get things done. Resignation to the eclipse of such democracy as exists, in other words, is very widespread.
Of course the West made mistakes after 1991, yet the notion that we could have got on well with Putin had we been more attentive to Moscow’s needs and fears is an illusion. Certainly we should have taken greater account of its feelings amid talk of Ukrainian accession to NATO and the EU—not because Ukraine didn’t have a right to both, but because a beaten Russia remained neurotically resentful, and further humiliated by the rejection of its fellow Slavs.
Russian nervousness about “encirclement,” moreover, goes further. I worked for three years in Beijing (1966–69) during the Cultural Revolution, including the time of Moscow’s near-attack on China over the Damansky Island incident on the Ussuri River. Russian racial contempt for the indigent, Mao-crazed Chinese was something to behold, recalling what I had seen earlier in Moscow University, where Chinese students were sneered at as limonchiki—little lemons, small and sour.
Today they are not so little, economically speaking, and it is Russia’s Eurasian pretensions that are a sour joke. To its West, for all the EU’s disarray, Italy’s GDP is greater than Russia’s, while China’s dwarfs it and the New Silk Road thrusts westward through what used to be Russia’s Central Asia.
The difference between Russia and China, I decided after decades of involvement with each, is that the first is suffering from an inferiority complex and the second from the opposite—both of them with reason. Today Russia’s twin-headed eagle points nowhere. While alienating itself from Western Europe it has nothing more in the east than an alliance with China based not on historic friendship (never forget the hunks of Siberia that Russia stole, for the Chinese won’t) but on anti-U.S. sentiment. Watching the miraculous rise of its eastern neighbor’s wealth and fleet won’t do much for Moscow’s self-confidence.
The implications for the foreign policy of 140 million hard-up Russians sandwiched between an (as of now) 500-million strong EU and more than a billion Chinese are as you would expect. Spleen, mischief-making, and destructiveness are its main drivers, while in China we find optimism and expansion: Beijing works closely with the EU; Moscow strives to smash it. As living standards decline and Russia steps up its compensatory self-assertion abroad, it is clear we should expect problems.
How should we treat this poor, sore-headed and dangerously over-armed giant? Where we went wrong on Russia was a lack of imagination on two questions. The first was the psychological impact of the USSR’s epochal failure. Unlike Germany in 1918, in 1991 Russia didn’t lose a war but something almost worse: It lost its very idea of itself, its philosophical raison d’être and global delusions, not to speak of an empire accounting for half its population. Our second failure, linked to the first, was to underestimate the depth of the corruption, criminality, and impulse for control embedded in the Soviet psyche and transmitted to post-communist Russian security and military organs, along with a desire for revenge.
We ought to have treated Russia with more wariness, yet also more understanding. If a country nursing a centuries-long sense of inferiority emerges deeply wounded and humiliated from an ideological, strategic, philosophical, economic, and cultural defeat—then watch out, for its sake and your own. Instead we advised them to dust themselves down, brisk up, and install democracy and the free market, as we thinned down the ranks of our Russian experts and turned our attention to other matters.
In Weimar Germany a morally and financially bankrupt nation demanded to be treated with the “dignity of a great power.” Today the antipathetic Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pleads angrily for more respect for his country, a respect that its regression to Soviet-type norms and intimidation of its neighbors has failed to earn. Hence the vicious circle in our foreign policy. Talk of re-booting relations, under a know-nothing Donald Trump or somebody smarter, is essentially phony; yet we are obliged to pretend because no alternative Russia is in the offing, and none will emerge as a result of more respectful treatment alone. Of course we can and must deal with Putin, but the idea of trusting him is absurd, which limits any deals.
We will stay where we are not just until Putin goes, but until the entire blockhouse of securocratic politics he embodies goes with him. We can imagine him being edged aside following a failed foreign policy adventure coupled with a financial crisis, to be replaced by a more human face, such as Medvedev or someone similar. But the blockhouse would remain, and the replacement would only be its more genial frontman. What it is hard to imagine is anything like the “color” revolution that so terrifies Putin; the chances of its success are currently nil. So with the best will in the world, also likely to be lacking, it could be decades before this perennially aggrieved nation becomes more amenable.
Where does that leave Western policy? In a nuclear age—and this is where any parallel with the Germany Vansittart knew breaks down—an old-fashioned conventional war followed by a sanitized country is patently no “solution.” So we are in for the long haul. When the Berlin Wall was being built, the joke I heard from Russian students was, “comrade, the situation looks dangerous, will there be a war?” “No,” comes the answer, “no war, but such a struggle for peace there won’t be a stone left standing.”
So it could be with Russian revanchism: its striving for an illusory parity with the United States and China, its nihilistic policy on Europe, the status-seeking schemes in the Middle East it cannot afford, and accumulation of weaponry it can’t afford either. Lamentable as it is, a Cold War style nouveau is close upon us, albeit without any pretense of ideology, and all we can do is what we did during the real Cold War: engage with Moscow stubbornly while keeping our guard up. As Vansittart recommended with Germany: “Tie them up with paper bonds” (as with naval limitations in the 1930s), if only to provide a breathing space, while having no illusions about Russian reliability.
Meanwhile, we should go easy on the mea maxima culpa—our guilt, handwringing, and self-denigration. I am sorry the Russians feel cruelly deceived by Trump in Syria, at least temporarily, but they should have thought of that when they schemed and lied to help secure his election. We could also do with fewer books telling us “how we lost Russia,” and more like Charles Clover’s. With the KGB to ensure continuity at its core, a benign post-communist Russia was never likely to be found. Whatever our sins, ultimately it was the new Russia that lost itself, in cynicism, in thieving, in nationalism, and in neo-autocratic yearnings. With apologies to Gogol, you don’t retrieve 140 million lost souls in a hurry.
1Rose, Vansittart: Study of a Diplomat (Heinemann, 1978).