Carlton House Terrace, in the heart of London, has had a major impact on the city’s environment and on world history. Soul City Wanderer invites you to read more of its fascinating story in the second instalment of a five-part article running this week.
When the incumbent German ambassador to the UK died at the London embassy at number 9 Carlton House Terrace in 1936, his replacement was one of Hitler’s closest aides. He would also become one of London’s most notorious residents.
Ulrich Friedrich Wilhelm Joachim von Ribbentrop was a major figure in the establishment of the Third Reich. Before World War One, he had lived and worked as a businessman, banker and journalist in Paris, London, Montreal, New York and Boston. During the war he served with distinction on the Eastern and Western Fronts and was awarded the Iron Cross.
In the late 1920s, he was introduced to Adolf Hitler. As a well-travelled businessman, Ribbentrop’s ‘inside knowledge’ of the workings of France, Britain, Canada and the USA impressed Hitler, and he became his trusted confidant and foreign-policy adviser.
In 1934, a few months after Hitler had taken power, Ribbentrop was appointed ‘Reich Commissioner for Disarmament’. A misnomer if ever there was one, as he immediately set about plans for German rearmament.
He revelled in his role, and from 1934-36, he undertook frequent cordiality trips to Britain, intending to cement the Anglo-German alliance which Hitler desired.
As the British policy of German appeasement continued, Ribbentrop’s position began to carry some clout in British political circles. With government approval, he was wined, dined and feted by the influential movers and shakers. Former British Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George was particularly receptive, and Ribbentrop arranged for him to meet Adolf Hitler.
The British elite, both right and left, welcomed Ribbentrop with open arms. The cream of the aristocracy, the so called ‘Cliveden Set’, blithely indulged him at afternoon pool parties. The socialist left ‘intelligentsia’, the so called ‘Bloomsbury Set’, including George Bernard Shaw, and members of Fabian Society, naively fawned over him during evening soirees. He was even accepted as a member of the prestigious Travellers Club.
But he was most interested in the couple at the very top of the society tree, Edward, Prince of Wales, and his married mistress Wallis Simpson. Once he had been introduced, he cultivated the pair furiously. Edward, having witnessed at first hand the butchery of the First World War, was certainly an appeaser, but was there a more sympathetic button to be pushed? And Simpson? Ribbentrop had her number. He had made contact with the Nazi spy Princess von Hohenlohe who shared a London apartment building with her.
All the while, Ribbentrop listened, watched, and waited.
Then two events in early 1936 elevated Ribbentrop to an even more influential sphere. First, in January, George V died, making the Prince of Wales, Ribbentrop’s close acquaintance, the new king. Then, in April, the German ambassador von Hoesch died. Within a few months, Ribbentrop was settling in at Carlton House Terrace as the new incumbent.
If Hitler believed he had made a wise appointment, he was very much mistaken. Apart from proving an incompetent and ineffectual manager of his staff, Ribbentrop as a statesman was a walking disaster. Indeed, he was possibly the least diplomatic diplomat on the world circuit at that time (with some competition).
Within a few weeks of his appointment, he was universally regarded within Whitehall as a pompous, conceited second-rater with delusions of grandeur. In his arsenal, he may have possessed a high IQ, an ability to negotiate, and the gift to bend a receptive ear. But he lacked the subtlety and discretion required for statecraft. His multiple gaffes and blunders earned him the nickname ‘von Brickendrop’.
On top of all that. he was a real creep. No-one liked him, not even his own side. Some called him “the Nazi almost all the other leading Nazis hated“. His critics in the German high command saw him as a chancer who had swindled his way into office. Göring called him a “dirty little champagne salesman” to his face. All-in-all, Hitler couldn’t have picked a more charmless, tactless candidate to be the German ambassador to Britain. Perhaps that’s why he picked him.
Ribbentrop’s first task was to press home the advantage of his relationship with Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. She already had dinner at Carlton House Terrace embassy with the late von Hoesch, where she was more than happy to let slip that Edward understood Nazi Germany well, and these sympathies were made known to Ribbentrop, who reported to Berlin that the new king and his mistress showed the potential to be strong supporters of the Führer.
Simpson then became a regular attendee at the Carlton House Terrace embassy’s social gatherings. Indeed, so regular, there is strong evidence that she was having an affair with Ribbentrop himself. In the short period that Edward VIII was king, Simpson regularly passed to Carlton House Terrace confidential British government documents taken from Edward’s private Buckingham Palace despatch box.
In the autumn of 1936, Edward told the government that he intended to marry Wallis Simpson, and was prepared to abdicate the throne in order to do so. During this crisis, desperate efforts were made at the Carlton House Terrace embassy to find a means of keeping Edward and Wallis in power in Buckingham Palace.
Ribbentrop over-reacted. Yes, the situation was indeed a crisis constitutionally, and it was turned into a huge drama by the world’s press. But Ribbentrop was convinced it would lead to an all-out civil war in Britain. Of course, he was hoping to take advantage by maintaining a wedge between the two sides. He fed his predictions back to Berlin. However, Ribbentrop had completely misread the situation, and more to the point, had misjudged the British character. To the public on the whole, the ‘crisis’ was nothing more than a riveting royal scandal.
In December 1936, the government accepted Edward’s resignation, and the abdication was announced. After hopes of a pro-German king & queen on the British throne were lost, Ribbentrop floundered. Then he changed tack. From the Carlton House Terrace embassy, this Nazi Iago began a spiteful campaign of misinformation, pouring pure poison into the ears of the Third Reich’s regime.
Part 3 of Soul City Wanderer’s ‘The Carlton Conspiracy’ tomorrow.
Blakeway, Denys. The Last Dance. John Murray, 2010
Clow, Don. ‘From Macadam to Asphalt’ (part 1). Accessed online May 2018: glias.org.uk/journals/8-a.html
Lukacs, John. Five Days in London – May 1940. Yale, 1999.
Shepley, Nick. Hitler, Ribbentrop and Britain. Andrews UK, 2013.