Here in Special Collections we are always telling students that the power of archives comes from the fact that they were generally not produced with any consideration for how they would be seen in the future. Rather, they were working records produced at a given moment in history for contemporary purposes. I came across a letter recently that reminded me of the truth of that.
Robert Dell wrote to Winifred Gordon Fraser in 1935 from Geneva discussing Nazi Germany and the difficulties facing German refugees. The letter is a prime example of how archival sources put us back in the shoes of those living through the historical events we study, and how they can put a human face on world affairs.
Dell was a journalist, then working as a Foreign Correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, but intriguingly his career had already included co-editing The Burlington Magazine and being an art dealer in Paris. He was involved in Dimitrije Mitrinović’s New Europe Group, and even for a time served as its President. Dell had written a book on Nazi Germany, Germany unmasked: on Germany under the National-Socialist regime (Martin Hopkinson, London, 1934).
From this letter alone, it is clear that Dell understood the real threat that Hitler posed – unlike many in Britain at the time. He talks of German negotiators effectively stalling for time. Dell also writes about his frustration with the British authorities, particularly when it came to immigration. He complains that it is far easier for members of Nazi Party to come to Britain than German refugees, even when those refugees might be demonstrably capable of supporting themselves once in the UK. Dell himself was doing his best to help one Mrs. Brandt, and part of his reason for writing to Gordon Fraser (and Mitrinović) was to try and obtain some work – even unpaid – with the New Europe Group to bolster her case.
I do not know whether or not Mrs. Brandt was successful in her bid to come to England, nor whether or not Winifred Gordon Fraser and the New Europe Group were able to help her. In Robert Dell, however, she at least had an articulate and well-connected advocate. Thanks to his letter, we have an interesting report on what it was like to observe the failure to create a lasting peace in the 1930s at close hand, and a terrible sense of the consequences for people like Mrs. Brandt.