Kathryn S. Olmsted

The author of a new book on newspaper barons in the 1930s describes the journey from appeasement to enthusiastic supporter of the war for the most prominent.
Lord Beaverbrook in 1947

Throughout the 1930s, Lord Max Beaverbrook, owner of the London Daily Express, Sunday Express, and Evening Standard, used his best-selling newspapers to encourage British policy makers to dismiss or appease the Nazi dictator, Adolf Hitler. He believed in ‘splendid isolation’: protecting the British Empire while ignoring conflicts on the European continent. Beaverbrook even fired his long-time friend, the Tory MP Winston Churchill, as his columnist in 1938 because he disapproved of Churchill’s anti-fascist views. Yet two years later, the Canadian-born press lord undertook a remarkable journey from prominent appeaser to heroic defender of his adopted homeland during the Battle of Britain. The man who had repeatedly urged his readers to ignore the fascists became one of Britain’s most important leaders in defeating them.

Beaverbrook’s story began on another continent. Max Aitken was born in 1879 in Ontario at a time when Canada was a self-governing dominion of the British Empire. One of ten children born to a farmer’s daughter and a Presbyterian pastor, Aitken decided early on that he would never be poor like his father. ‘I resolved, on account of his penury,’ he wrote later, ‘that I would have money in my pocket and more money in the bank.’ He made a fortune by engineering the consolidation of the Canadian cement industry, and then moved to Britain.

At age thirty-one, Aitken — a Presbyterian Canadian of modest birth who had never finished university — arrived in England at a time when a distinguished family tree, Anglican baptism, and an Oxbridge degree often seemed essential to political and social success. Yet, thanks to his money, charm, and talent for manipulating others, he managed to join the British ruling class and to captivate many of its members. He entered Tory Party politics and in 1910 won a seat in the House of Commons, where he soon developed a reputation as a ruthless and devious political infighter. In 1917, Prime Minister David Lloyd George recognised Aitken’s growing prominence in British politics and society by convincing the king to give him a peerage. Aitken chose the name Lord Beaverbrook after a small community in New Brunswick.

While in Parliament, Beaverbrook invested in a failing newspaper, the London Daily Express, and soon discovered a passion for political journalism. He began acquiring more newspapers and plunged into the battle for circulation supremacy with the other press lords. By the 1930s, the Daily Express sold more copies than any other paper in the world.

Beaverbrook had many admirers who quarrelled with his politics but appreciated his conviviality. Though he was something of a dilettante — hobbies like horse racing would come and go — he never wavered in his commitment to having fun, whether he was sailing, gambling, drinking, or romancing other men’s wives. He was not physically imposing: of medium height and slight build, he had a receding hairline, broad forehead, wide nose, and ‘the face of a sad goblin,’ as Life magazine described him.

Not everyone found him endearing. He could be a very demanding boss. Beaverbrook insisted on installing telephones in nearly every room of his two mansions as well as in their gardens, so that he could call his reporters and editors at any moment. Though he gave the staff at his evening paper, the Evening Standard, and his Sunday paper, the Sunday Express, a little freedom, he exercised tight control over the Daily Express, especially over its political coverage. After the war, he famously testified to a royal commission that he had acquired his media empire ‘purely for the purpose of making propaganda and with no other object.’

Beaverbrook particularly loved ‘making propaganda’ for the cause of splendid isolation, which he believed would strengthen the bonds of empire. ‘Isolation for Britain,’ he proclaimed, was ‘isolation splendid and secure through our closer relations with the Empire.’ In this formulation, the British Empire was no longer an expansive project; instead, its existing territory needed to be consolidated and protected. It might seem strange to us today, but in the 1930s British imperialists believed they could best defend the empire through what they called isolationism.

Because he saw Britain as a self-contained empire and not part of Europe, Beaverbrook showed little concern about Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. Indeed, in the mid-1930s, Beaverbrook believed that the League of Nations posed a greater danger to the empire than Germany. Beaverbrook worried that the League would force Britain to protect member nations whose defence was not in the empire’s interest. When Italian dictator Benito Mussolini invaded Italy, he opposed the imposition of sanctions. ‘We cannot, we will not, we must not police the world alone,’ he insisted. He worried that anti-fascist Britons would stampede the government into using the military to enforce the League’s decisions. ‘Do not be led into warlike courses by hatred of dictators,’ he wrote. As the crisis in Europe deepened, Beaverbrook continued to preach the gospel of isolationism. When Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936, the Daily Express asked, ‘What does that mean to us?’ In 1938, as Nazi Germany threatened to annex Austria, the Express counselled the British government not to ‘infuriate’ the Nazis by protesting a German invasion. ‘It is we who should get out and stay out,’ the Express proclaimed. ‘We have no business whatever to forbid the German peoples to unite. Our business is to unite our own peoples in our own commonwealth by a policy of Empire Free Trade and Splendid Isolation.’

Beaverbrook’s position as an appeaser strained his friendship with Winston Churchill, whom he had met in the 1910s while serving in Parliament. Churchill served as a popular columnist for Beaverbrook’s most independent publication, the Evening Standard.

Churchill disagreed with the Standard’s proprietor: He believed Hitler posed an existential threat to the British Empire. In a dramatic speech in the House of Commons after Hitler’s drive into Austria, Churchill made clear his opposition to appeasement. ‘If we do not stand up to the dictators now,’ Churchill declared, ‘we shall only prepare the day when we have to stand up to them in far more adverse conditions.’ On the day of the speech, the Evening Standard’s editor, R. J. Thompson, informed its famous columnist that the paper would no longer need his services. Privately, Beaverbrook told one of his reporters that Churchill was ‘the enemy of the British Empire.’

During the Sudeten crisis of September 1938, Beaverbrook’s Daily Express provided consistent and enthusiastic support for Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policies. On September 1st, 1938, a front-page leader signed by Beaverbrook himself carried the headline ‘THERE WILL BE NO WAR’ — a phrase the paper would repeat often over the next year, right up to the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. The press lord argued that the Nazi dictator was simply too reasonable to opt for war. ‘Hitler has shown himself throughout his career to be a man of exceptional astuteness,’ Beaverbrook opined. After Chamberlain signed the Munich agreement with Hitler, allowing the Nazis to take the Sudetenland, the Daily Express announced its approval of the agreement with a one-word headline across five columns, set in the biggest type ever used by a British newspaper up to that time: ‘PEACE.’ The typesetters did not have large enough blocks and had to ask for help from the photography processing department. Above the headline ran this emphatic sentence: ‘The Daily Express declares that Britain will not be involved in a European war this year, or next year either.’ Beaverbrook continued to predict peace throughout the rest of 1938 and most of 1939. The most infamous Daily Express story appeared just weeks before the war began, under the headline ‘NO WAR THIS YEAR.’

Beaverbrook did not immediately become a booster of the war effort. For its first six months, his newspapers criticised the government’s strategy for winning it: ‘Too much regimentation! Too much rationing! Too many troops! The Government plan a mighty Army. Millions of men in khaki. What for? To please the French,’ the Express claimed in one typical leader. Indeed, Beaverbrook kept slamming the British war effort until suddenly he found himself in charge of producing enough aeroplanes to win it.

After the Nazis took Norway in the spring of 1940, Winston Churchill became Britain’s prime minister. Churchill’s ascension to the premiership signalled a dramatic change in British foreign policy; it also marked an astonishing turning point in Beaverbrook’s career — the start of what he called ‘the most glittering, glorious, glamorous era of my whole life.’ The Daily Express publisher had done all he could to undermine Churchill’s efforts to awaken the country to the Nazi threat. Yet Beaverbrook controlled the biggest daily in the country, along with a major Sunday paper and a hugely popular evening one. And despite their conflicts over the last few years, Churchill regarded him as his friend at a time when he had few others in high political circles.

Churchill had long recognised the need to build planes faster, particularly the fighters that would defend Britain against a potential Nazi blitz. Now that he was prime minister, he carved out of the Air Ministry a new agency specifically for production and placed his friend in charge.

Beaverbrook’s legendary service as minister of aircraft production during the Battle of Britain helped his nation resist conquest by the Nazis. He worked eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, from his headquarters at his mansion overlooking Green Park, constantly hectoring, cajoling, and charming military men, workers, and businessmen into doing his bidding. Sir Hugh Dowding, air chief marshal and head of fighter command, credited Beaverbrook’s ‘dramatic irruption into the field of aircraft production’ with saving Britain. ‘We had the organization, we had the men, and we had the spirit which could bring us victory in the air, but we had not the supply of machines necessary to withstand the drain of continuous battle,’ he wrote in the London Times soon after the German surrender. ‘Lord Beaverbrook gave us those machines, and I do not believe that I exaggerate when I say that no other man in England could have done so.’

Beaverbrook managed the ministry the way he ran his newspapers: with abundant energy and disdain for protocol. He could be petulant — he threatened to resign fourteen times in eleven months, though Churchill refused to take these threats seriously. But his approach worked. His talent for public relations made everyone ‘aircraft-production-conscious to an unprecedented degree,’ as one historian of the RAF has written; higher morale translated into more Britons working more shifts for longer hours for the good of the nation. The official history of the RAF summed up his contribution this way: ‘In the long run his method — the reliance on personal inspiration and “hunches,” the utter rejection not only of red tape but of all closely planned programmes—might lead to confusion or even loss of production. But just now it was not the long run which counted.’

Kathryn S. Olmsted is a professor of history at the University of California and author of The Newspaper Axis: Six Press Barons Who Enabled Hitler, published by Yale University Press.