The Nazis and Scotland – little evidence that divide and conquer could undermine Britain

The Nazis and Scotland – little evidence that divide and conquer could undermine Britain

by Alan Sked
article from Monday 14, December, 2020

IN THE COURSE of revising the history of Scotland in my recent series of articles (full list of fourteen chapters at foot here), I noted how several leading Scottish Nationalists during the Second World War were hostile to the British state and positively hoped that a Nazi invasion or victory might free Scotland from England. Clearly this was a complete delusion on their part on all sorts of levels but I thought I might have a quick look at the evidence about what in turn the Nazis thought about Scotland. True, they set up Radio Caledonia to broadcast to dissident Scots but did this reflect any deep thought on their part about the role of Scotland in the United Kingdom or in any future configuration of the Third Reich? 

Apparently not. Scotland always figured as an afterthought in Nazi plans for, or views about, ‘England’. For example, ‘The Ordinance of the German Military Commander Regarding the Legislative and Administrative Power in the Occupied Territories’published in Leipzig in 1941 in both German and English, merely covered Scotland in its very last paragraph. It noted the terms of the Treaty of Union and explained that Scots sat in both Houses of Parliament and could hold any ministerial positions. Its very last sentence ran: “During the passed (sic) sixty years half of the prime ministers have been Scotchmen.” 

The party line on Britain was laid out in 1941 in a book promoted by the Reichsinstitut fur Geschichte des neuen Deutschlands, namely Karl Heinz Pfeffer’s ‘England. Vormacht der burgerlichen Welt’ (‘England. Leading Power of the Bourgeois World’) published in Hamburg. But it had nothing to say on Scotland at all. It explained that given its Anglo-Saxon foundations, Britain like Germany was a Nordic power by race and that the two were united by blood: “What Nature gives to Man, the English and Germans share due to their common blood.” They even shared a common relationship to the Godhead whether they were Lutheran or Anglican, while their common values were apparent from the start in both Beowulf and the Nibelungenlied. Hence the struggle between Germany and England was not like that between Rome and Carthage, as some observers had believed, but like that between Athens and Sparta. 

A better informed and less ideological approach to explaining ‘England’ to the Germans was K.H. Abshagen’s ‘Konig, Lords  und Gentlemen’ (‘King, Lords and Gentlemen’), which was first published in Stuttgart in 1938 and was in its fourth edition by 1939. Abshagen, maintained that Germany had not wanted the war but his point was not race or even the triumph of bourgeois values and leaders. He believed that England was a democracy ruled by public opinion but one of course which for a number of reasons had been led astray.  

His book differed from all other German books of this type however by having, albeit as an afterthought, a short chapter, just before his conclusion, entitled ‘Und die Schotten?’ (‘And the Scots?’) Readers can decide for themselves how shrewd an observer he was – or not.  

In his view the Scots were fundamentally different from the English in character, something which any, not even very bright, observer would notice even after a short stay in Scotland. Yet mutual relations between the two peoples were so close and the influence of Scottishness on all aspects of English life so considerable that it was only right and proper to take the time to describe it.  

For a start, people were not to be fooled by the apparently international atmosphere at football matches between England and Scotland or even by the existence of a Scottish National Party. The latter represented no danger to the Union simply because so many Scots sought their future south of the border. In fact, he had heard the joke that so great was Scottish influence on England that the English themselves might even support Scottish Home Rule.  

He recognised differences between different types of Scots – Highlanders and Lowlanders for example – but Scots as a whole differentiated themselves sharply from the English. For in Scotland there existed a true democracy. To be sure there were Dukes and Earls and Barons but none of the deference that obtained in England was present in Scotland. The Scots knew their history and that included the history of their aristocrats. Indeed, without the Union, he maintained, there would be no aristocracy in Scotland.  

One reason for the lack of deference in Scotland, he argued, was the education system which, unlike England, had no public schools (save a couple of imitations). Boys and girls went to school, were well taught and went home again. As a result, the educational level of a working class or country boy in Scotland compared to his English equivalent was like day to night. The Scottish universities were also much more democratic institutions with students lodged in Spartan accommodation. The sons of Scottish aristocrats, on the other hand, would be educated at boarding schools in England and at Oxbridge.  

Scotland was poor, he accepted, but outside the class hatred felt among the working classes of the West of Scotland for Irish immigrants, the Scots, he claimed did not define themselves by class. However poor a Scot might be he never felt lower class. The old Highland clan system of calling everyone by the same name might have played a part here. But also important was the ambition of Scots to get on and do better. And experience had proved them right. Scots had conquered the world not only as soldiers but as engineers, doctors, colonists and administrators. And they had secured wealth, position and reputation as a result. 

In London, too, there were hundreds of thousands of Scots and he counted no fewer than five prime ministers in the last fifty years – Rosebery, Campbell-Bannerman, Balfour, Bonar Law and MacDonald. Chamberlain’s cabinet was also full of Scots – Walter Elliot, Malcolm MacDonald, William Morrison and John Colville – as were the ranks of junior ministers. The higher ranks of the civil service were also full of Scots as were those of commerce and industry. There was even a joke about a successful Scot returning home and being asked what he thought of the English. To which he replied: ‘I haven’t met any. I only deal with the top people.’ Abshagen believed there was more than a grain of truth to this story and people might indeed conclude that the Scots ran England.  

But, he then added, that this would be wrong. The truth, rather, was that the English had a genius for finding people to work for them. These, they would pay well and grant all honours. They would flatter their vanity and let them believe they were actually in charge. Yet final decisions and ultimate leadership would remain in English hands. Scots might amass fortunes, high positions, social standing and much else but ultimately they could never aspire to the accents, dress, connections or effortless superiority of the English landed classes. Even the most successful Scots would feel inferior and would privately agree that these people, not Scots, ran the country. Abshagen ended his chapter on Scotland by pointing out that Rosebery and Balfour were really English aristocrats and that Bonar Law was a sort of accidental prime minister. Ramsay MacDonald in turn was also a special case. However, he was a prime example of how the English found someone useful to do their work for them.  

There is much in Abshagen to ponder. On the whole he strikes me as a rather shrewd observer of Scotland in 1939. But readers will have different reactions to him.  

Let me finish by looking at whether the Nazis regarded Scotland as fertile ground for collaborators.   

It will come as something of a surprise to discover that whereas the Nazis had a Special Search List of 2,500 enemies to round up once they invaded, they only had a list of about fifty names of possible collaborators and it included not a single well known person or establishment. (Curiously the British intelligence services couldn’t point to any Quislings either. Moseley and his fascist followers, who all claimed they would fight any invading army, were all released after internment, as were any SNP members who had been interned.) As it was, the potential collaborators on the German lists were usually postgraduate students at German universities before the war or language teachers there. Most had probably said some kind things about Germany or had criticised Britain. There is no evidence they were potential traitors. Nor did they have any useful military or political connections or any sexual habits that could lead to blackmail. Almost nothing at all was known about them save their height and appearance.  

One exception was Captain Maule Ramsay the Peebles MP who appeared on a list drawn up by German security services in Luneberg of ‘Critics of Conditions in England’. But he had already been interned under Regulation 18B. Beside him on the list was a cabaret dancer who had supported Moseley, a priest who had criticised Freud for attacking Hitler’s anti-Semitism and a former MP described only as an ‘opponent of Churchill’. Not really solid evidence on potential traitors. 

In the end the ‘White List’ containing ‘Addresses and Short Character Sketches of English people friendly towards Germany’ prepared in the Munich office of the German Security Services and forwarded to Army HQ on 9 September 1940 contained only 39 names. No titled people or manual workers were involved. In fact only one occupation was mentioned – a clergyman. Nor was there anything exceptional about the people listed save expressions of support of some kind for Germany. The list included several Scots. Six of the twenty-two males were Scots. One from Edinburgh had been to Germany as a student and had worked on German farms at weekends. He had liked the new Germany and was opposed to war. Yet Scottishness, to quote Norman Longmate, an expert on German would-be occupation policy, “seems to have made a great appeal to the Germans for most of the entries relating to other Scots from Perthshire, Aberdeen, Dundee and Edinburgh, contain such phrases as “self-evident Scotsman”, “ a true Scot” or, even more approvingly, “a convinced Scot, who often inveighed sharply against the English character”. The Germans particularly liked those Scots who had studied theology yet refused to criticise Nazi philosophy or the persecution of the Protestant Church in Germany. But non-Scots on the list also demonstrated this failing.  

In the end no collaborators seem to have been found. Scotland, like the rest of Britain, contained all sorts of people who might have reacted in different ways had invasion succeeded – who knows how the SNP leadership would have reacted? – but fortunately they were never put to the test. Nazism never got the opportunity to seek or attract collaborators in Scotland.  

Alan Sked was educated at Allan Glen's School in Glasgow, before going on to study Modern and Medieval History at the University of Glasgow, followed by a DPhil in Modern History at Merton College, Oxford. Sked taught at the London School of Economics where he became a leading authority on the history of the Hapsburg Empire, also teaching US and modern intellectual history and the history of sex, race and slavery. Alan Sked is now Emeritus Professor of International History at the London School of Economics. 

Photo of the jacket cover of Kings Lords and Gentlemen by KH Abshagen. 

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