Winston Churchill did not appreciate being kept waiting. Even worse, he despised being stood up. As this great man sat and looked with irritation at the clock, he realized he was about to be stood up for the second time in as many days. This was confirmed when Churchill received a message, telling him that the person who was to meet with him had been unavoidably detained and would not be able to join him for tea.
History does not record everything that went through Churchill’s mind at that moment. Also unknown is whether history might have played out differently if either of those meetings had taken place. We can only speculate about this because subsequent attempts to reschedule the meeting were rebuffed by Churchill. He would not provide an opportunity to be stood up a third time by Adolf Hitler.
The year was 1932. Churchill was in the midst of what he called his “wilderness years.” Without any significant position of authority within the British government and in his 59th year, it seemed that his best days were behind him.
Hitler, in contrast, was a rising star in the German government. He ran unsuccessfully in January of that year for the presidency of Germany. Although losing to Paul von Hindenburg, his strong second-place showing established him as a powerful force in the country.
Churchill, looking for something to occupy his boundless energy and intellect, was deep into his project of writing a four-volume biography of his ancestor John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough. His research brought him to Germany to inspect the sites of the Battle of Blenheim, and it was there that the opportunity arose for the two future adversaries to meet.
It must be remembered that at this time, the atrocities for which Hitler is remembered and reviled had yet to occur. The aggressive expansion of German borders and the policies that led to World War II exist only in the imagination of the man with the little mustache. By the same token, Churchill was out of power, with no immediate prospects of ever holding any position of significance within the government. It would be largely because of the actions of the former that the latter would rise to power.
Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, Hitler’s foreign press secretary, and acquaintance of Churchill’s son Randolph wrote about the event, recalling, “I landed with Hitler at Munich airport to find a telephone message awaiting me from Randolph. His family was staying with a party at the Hotel … wanted me to join them for dinner, and hoped that I would able to bring Hitler along….” Hanfstaengl passed the invitation along to his boss, who declined the invitation. The Führer’s excuse was, “What on earth would I talk to him about?”
Instead, Hanfstaengl joined Churchill, his wife, their daughter Sarah, Randolph, and Frederick Lindemann, his friend and academic adviser. In his multi-volume set The Second World War, Churchill recalled the occasion:
A gentleman introduced himself to some of my party. He was Herr Hanfstaengl and spoke a great deal about ‘the Fuehrer,’ with whom he appeared to be intimate. As he seemed to be a lively and talkative fellow, speaking excellent English, I asked him to dine. He gave a most interesting account of Hitler’s activities and outlook. He spoke as one under the spell. He had probably been told to get in touch with me. He was evidently most anxious to please. After dinner he went to the piano and played and sang many tunes and songs in such remarkable style that we all enjoyed ourselves immensely. He seemed to know all the English tunes that I liked. He was a great entertainer, and at that time, as is known, a favourite of the Fuehrer. He said I ought to meet him, and that nothing would be easier to arrange. Herr Hitler came every day to the hotel about five o’clock, and would be very glad indeed to see me.
Churchill agreed to let Hanfstaengl arrange the meeting, which was scheduled for 5:00 the next afternoon. In agreeing to the meeting, however, Churchill expressed grave reservations about Hitler’s known antisemitism. He wrote:
I had no national prejudices against Hitler at this time. I knew little of his doctrine or record and nothing of his character. I admire men who stand up for their country in defeat, even though I am on the other side. He had a perfect right to be a patriotic German if he chose. I always wanted England, Germany, and France to be friends. However, in the course of conversation with Hanfstaengl, I happened to say, ‘Why is your chief so violent about the Jews? I can quite understand being angry with Jews who have done wrong or are against the country, and I understand resisting them if they try to monopolise power in any walk of life; but what is the sense of being against a man simply because of his birth? How can any man help how he is born?’
The next day, when the time neared for the appointment, Hanfstaengl went in search of Hitler. Possibly the Führer had been told of Churchill’s disapproval of his antisemitism. Hanfstaengl wrote that he found him in the stairway of his apartment “in a dirty white overcoat, just saying good-bye to a Dutchman… ‘Herr Hitler’ [Hanfstaengl said], ‘don’t you realise the Churchills are sitting in the restaurant?…They are expecting you for coffee and will think this a deliberate insult.’” Hitler said he was unshaven and had too much to do. Hanfstaengl suggested he shave and come anyway but Hitler was unpersuaded and never showed up. Although Churchill remained in Munich for several days, the proposed meeting never took place.
This was the only time the two men came close to meeting each other. Churchill said that in the years to come, Hitler made several overtures to meet, but by that point, Churchill knew enough about the man to know that he had no desire to be in his presence.