Skip to Content

The Spectator's Notes

What would Jane Austen say about Debrett's going digital?

20 July 2019

9:00 AM

20 July 2019

9:00 AM

Seventy-five years ago on Saturday, the July plot failed. Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg placed a bomb in a briefcase next to Hitler in the conference room of the Wolf’s Lair, but someone moved the briefcase a little. When the bomb detonated, the heavy conference table shielded Hitler from the blast. Stauffenberg and many other conspirators were caught. He was executed early the next morning. This Friday, in Christ Church, Oxford, a special service will commemorate the plot and all those who resisted Nazism in Germany. It will centre on the altar dedicated to George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, and the main external supporter of German Christian resistance to Hitler. In Sweden in May 1942, Bell met a young German pastor called Hans Schoünfeld and the famous theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who would later be executed in Flossenbürg concentration camp. The former disclosed to him the extent of the resisters’ plot to overthrow Hitler, giving him many of the key names. Charged with this information, Bell went to see Anthony Eden, the foreign secretary. Could the Allies help, with assurances that they would negotiate a settlement with a new German state that renounced aggression and embraced Christian principles? Writing to Eden afterwards, Bell asked: ‘If there are men in Germany also ready to wage war against the monstrous tyranny of the Nazis from within, is it right to discourage or ignore them?’ Eden was suspicious that the moves by the churchmen might be untrustworthy ‘peace-feelers’, which Hitler’s spies were bound to know about. Besides, the Allies were edging towards the doctrine of unconditional surrender. Bell’s efforts came to nothing. The July plotters acted without exterior help. They failed, and died horribly.

 


Controversy about this will never cease. It is easy to sympathise both with the pleading of the Bishop and with the scepticism of the foreign secretary. But one has to be impressed by Bell’s striking way of putting it: ‘Germany was the first country in Europe to be occupied by the Nazis’, and so its people needed liberation as much as any other. At the service will be read out the words of Helmuth James von Moltke, a resister to the Nazis who opposed the assassination of Hitler on the grounds that this would make him a martyr, but was executed for treason all the same. In his farewell letter to his wife, von Moltke wrote: ‘In the last analysis, the dramatic thing about the trial was this … what we had discussed were questions of the practical-ethical demands of Christianity. Nothing more; it is for this, and this alone, that we have been condemned …Your husband … stood … not as a Protestant, not as a landed proprietor, not as a nobleman, not as a Prussian, not as a German — but as a Christian and as nothing else…’

Faithful readers will know that this column has defended Bishop Bell from a charge of child abuse which the Church of England chose to accept as true 70 years after the alleged acts. A full inquiry by Lord Carlile proved that the processes used to investigate this claim had been worthless. The Church was forced to accept this. It refused, however, to pursue the logic of Carlile’s finding and declare Bell innocent until proved guilty. The Archbishop of Canterbury stated that a ‘significant cloud’ still hangs over Bell; but the cloud is not evidenced. By chance, I was in Chichester for a family gathering last weekend. We stayed at 4 Canon Lane, a guesthouse which was, until the accusation, called George Bell House. His name was then painted out. I was sorely tempted to paint it back again, but realised this would upset the blameless staff, so contented myself with expressing my thoughts in the visitors’ book. I also reminded myself of the geography of the Bishop’s Palace. ‘Carol’, Bell’s accuser, alleged that Bell would collect her from his kitchen and take her upstairs to his study, where he abused her. In fact, the kitchen she mentioned belonged to the theological college next door, and Bell had no access. His study was elsewhere.

On the crenellations which surround the cathedral’s impressive Victorian spire, we spotted three peregrines looking dramatic against the evening sun. The return of birds of prey is an attractive feature of modern times. The downside is that more raptors means fewer songbirds.

‘Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one.’ So begins one of the finest novels in the English language. Over the two centuries since Persuasion was published, latter-day Sir Walters have been able to do exactly the same thing. Now, however, I receive a letter (‘Dear Entrant’) from an address in Upper Ground, SE1 which tells me that ‘the 2019 Debrett’s Peerage & Baronetage will be the final printed edition’. Instead, Debrett’s is ‘working on improvements to our database to make this information available digitally’. For much longer than anyone remember, the red volumes of Debrett’s or Burke have been visible in the libraries or drawing-rooms of country houses, and it has often been the case, as it was with Sir Walter, that ‘the page at which the favourite volume always opened’ disclosed the entry for the family in residence. Merely by mentioning this, Jane Austen could deftly lead readers into a particular world and introduce us (unfavourably) to the character of Sir Walter. In modern times, the interest in genealogy has grown and grown. In this week’s pre-publicity about the forthcoming episode of Who Do You Think You Are? Kate Winslet displays her Sir Walter-like self-admiration, prompted by the revelation that she is descended from a ‘slave’ labourer in 19th-century Sweden. The internet — plus DNA — makes it far easier to know where you come from. No doubt the online Debrett’s will be very useful. But the disappearance of the actual book is a definite cultural moment, and a definite loss.


Show comments
Close