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April 02nd 2013 print

Hal G.P. Colebatch

The Subtle Besmirching of Leo Amery

I have seldom encountered a piece of leftist propaganda so slimy and dishonest as “The Hide”, the recently re-run episode of the drama Foyle’s War (made in England by ITV and broadcast on February 11 by ABC1).

To understand it properly it is necessary to appreciate a little British history. Following the Second World War, John Amery, son of Leopold Amery, a Conservative politician, wartime British minister and lifelong friend of Winston Churchill, was hanged for treason.

Leo Amery had served in the First World War, reaching senior rank, survived a torpedoing, between the wars served as First Lord of the Admiralty, became a Privy Councillor, and had been one of Churchill’s few parliamentary anti-appeasement supporters in the 1930s. His great speech in the House of Commons in 1940—“terrible words”, Churchill called them—is credited with administering one of the death-blows to the Chamberlain government and clearing the way for Churchill. During the war he had been Secretary for India. He was, in short, a fine and patriotic man.

John Amery also had a brother, Julian Amery, whose war service had been exceptionally heroic and who, after the war, also became a Tory minister. He published an autobiography, Approach March. His first contest for a parliamentary seat had been in partnership with Churchill’s son, Randolph. There was a long and intimate connection between the two families.

There is a strong case that John Amery was insane. My own researches into the matter strongly suggest he was suffering from a severe case of Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, which was not then known about. John Amery had a long history of crazy escapades and bizarre behaviour, and several of his symptoms were typical of Asperger’s.

Further, if the German victory he worked for had come to pass, his own father and brother would certainly have been executed. Furthermore, as what might be taken as the final nail in the coffin of any case for the pro-Nazi John Amery’s sanity, the Amerys were Jewish, though it is unclear whether or not he knew this.

He had been in France when the Germans captured the country in 1940, and after living in Vichy France for some time, after the German invasion of the Soviet Union he went to Germany, apparently inspired by anti-communism, and evidently keeping his Jewishness—if he knew about it—secret. He attempted to persuade other British internees and prisoners-of-war to join a British unit of the German Army, the Britisches Frieikorps. He held out to them the very unattractive proposition that they would fight only on the north Russian front, “At the junction of German and Finnish troops”—a prospect the very thought of which is enough to induce frostbite.

In fact they did very little fighting, though at least one was killed in the final defence of Berlin. Amery’s rambling and barely lucid manifestos have been preserved and indicate a badly disordered mind. The whole enterprise probably actually hindered rather than helped the German war effort, because a number of German officers considered administering this handful of cranks an attractive alternative to fighting at the front. The Britisches Freikorps never numbered more than about twenty or thirty men. Amery himself did no fighting.

Arrested after the war, Amery pleaded guilty to treason and was sentenced to death after a trial lasting only a few minutes. He pleaded guilty and refused to defend himself or have counsel speak in his defence. The question of his sanity was not tested, apart from the judge asking his council if he understood the proceedings. Today a petty burglar facing a few months in prison would probably have his sanity tested more rigorously. The Labour Home Secretary, Chuter Ede, refused to commute the death sentence. No other members of the Freikorps were hanged and some were hardly even punished (one, weirdly, was fined £75). The case left many unanswered questions, including the role of communist pressure—Moscow had been clamouring for John Amery’s hanging, and there are grounds for at least a suspicion that the British Labour government made political capital out of the affair, using it in an attempt to taint the Conservatives and friends of the Churchill family with treason. There is also a possibility of payback, since John Amery and Chuter Ede had been involved on opposite sides in the Spanish Civil War. Attempts by Leo Amery to raise the issue of his son’s sanity were ignored by the government. The King invited Leo Amery and his wife to dine at Buckingham Palace, perhaps a coded indication of where his sympathies lay. John Amery apparently died bravely, even making a joke with the hangman.

This brings us to Foyle’s War. In the relevant episode, the war has just ended. The son of an old and distinguished English family is facing trial for his life for his role in the Britisches Freikorps. To anyone with the slightest knowledge of English politics, this is unmistakably John Amery. Like John Amery, he refuses to defend himself, pleads guilty under the Treason Act, and like John Amery is sentenced to be hanged.

It turns out in this fictional case, however, that he is innocent of treason. He joined the Britisches Freikorps to act as a British spy and send back information in coded letters. However, the reason he does not defend himself is that he wants to die because he is traumatised by the secret knowledge that his father (that is, in real life Leo Amery) is a murderer.

This seems fairly typical of one of the ways the Left works, though this is a little more subtle than some. The figure pointed as a murderer is the calque of a real-life prominent Conservative politician and part of a prominent Conservative political family. I cannot imagine how the same sort of thing would be made around a Labour political family. In point of fact it was only a section of the Tories, of which Leo Amery was part, who made real resistance to the rise of Hitler.

There was never a scintilla of evidence that Leopold Amery was anything but a man of the highest character and a man to whom Britain had reason to be grateful. Under the thinnest fictional disguise this television episode is a disgusting and cowardly piece of political character-assassination.

Hal Colebatch’s book Australia’s Secret War will be published by Quadrant Books this year.