Magazine article History Today

The Secret of Leopold Amery

Magazine article History Today

The Secret of Leopold Amery

Article excerpt

William D. Rubinstein investigates the political and personal motivations of a leading Conservative politician, and reveals the truth he sought to keep hidden

Leopold Amery (1873-1955) is remembered as a leading Conservative politician and Cabinet Minister, who was instrumental in bringing down Chamberlain's government in 1940. A product of Harrow, Balliol and All Souls, he is best-known as a lifelong supporter of Joseph Chamberlain's scheme for a high tariff wall around the whole British Empire and of later proposals for `tariff reform'. Amery's younger son, Julian, (1919-96) was a prominent Conservative minister under Macmillan and Heath.

But Leopold Amery was also a man with an extraordinary secret, probably the most remarkable example of concealment of identity in twentieth-century British political history. In his autobiography (My Political Life, 1953-55) he stated that his mother, Elisabeth Leitner Amery, was part of a `stream of Hungarian exiles' who emigrated after the 1848 revolution, fleeing to Constantinople, and eventually to England. That his mother was a `Hungarian' is repeated in every biographical entry on him. This, however, was not the whole truth. She was in fact Jewish. I have been unable to discover a shred of evidence that Amery had any Magyar Hungarian ancestors or relatives. It seems virtually certain that Amery invented this out of the whole cloth to conceal his Jewish origins and that these have remained unknown until now. His real name, given in every source as Leopold Charles Maurice Stennet Amery, was actually Leopold Charles Moritz Stennett Amery.

While hiding his Jewish identity, Amery nevertheless became a lifelong philosemite and pro-Zionist who used his influence on behalf of Jewish causes whenever he could. He was the author of the final draft of the Balfour Declaration which committed Britain to establishing a Jewish `National Home' in Palestine. He was highly significant in helping to create the Jewish Legion, the forerunner of what later became the Israeli army. As Dominions Secretary in the mid-1920s, he sympathetically presided over a seminal period in the peaceful growth of the Jewish community in Palestine.

On December 19th, 1945, Leopold,s eldest son, John Amery (191245) was hanged for treason at Wandsworth Prison as a wartime Nazi.

Leopold's father, Charles Frederick Amery (1833-1901), came from an old West Country family and was serving as an official in the Indian Forestry Commission when Leopold was born in Gorakhpur. The only original published information about Leopold's mother is provided in Amery's autobiography in which he engages in elaborate, but clever, dissimulation about her and her family. Although the reader is told the name of her step-father, Dr Johann Moritz Leitner (1800-61), a Jewish born British subject of Hungarian origin, who together with her brother, Gottlieb, are referred to only by the initials of their forenames, Amery does not disclose his mother's name at birth. He says nothing whatever about her real father or other relatives. While he must, according to this account, have had dozens of Hungarian relatives, they are never mentioned in the three volumes of the autobiography.

Amery's mother, Elisabeth (c. 1841-1908), who married his father in Marylebone in January 1873, was born to a distinguished family of assimilated Hungarian Jews named Saphir who had converted to Protestantism and were remarkable for their intellectual abilities. The man who was either her father or uncle, Moritz (originally Moses) Gottlieb Saphir (1795-1858) -- to whom Leopold bore a startling Resemblance -- was a significant figure in the cultural life of nineteenth-century central Europe whose collected works were published in twenty-six volumes in the late nineteenth century. His nephew Adolph Saphir (1831-91) was converted to Protestantism by the Mission to the Jews of the Free Church of Scotland, and moved to England, where he acquired a theological degree and was a prominent minister at the Presbyterian Church in Notting Hill. …

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