The Secret of Leopold Amery
by William D. Rubinstein on 21 Sep 2008 0 Comment

In his Memoirs, David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of Britain, explained why his government made “a contract with Jewry” (the Balfour Declaration) in 1917. Leopold Amery, author of the final draft of that contract, acted for the British side but secretly identified as Jewish. Could he represent both parties simultaneously? If so, why keep his Jewish identity secret? Was a conflict of interest involved?  His son was executed as a Nazi collaborator (History Today, Vol. 49, February 1999). 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 life-long 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 the Jewish community in Palestine.

On 19 December 1945, Leopold’s eldest son, John Amery (1912-45) 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 1773, 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. Elisabeth’s elder brother Gottlieb William Leitner (ne Saphir) (1840-99) showed a remarkable facility for languages and became a professor of Arabic at King’s College, London, at the age of twenty-one. In 1876 Gottlieb provided Disraeli with the famous Hindustani translation of Queen Victoria’s new title, Empress (or Emperor) of India, Kaisir-i-Hind. His obituary was included in the Jewish Chronicle newspaper, and he appears in several standard Jewish reference works.


Elizabeth’s step-father had also converted to Protestantism. Her mother Marie Henriette (c.1812-79) was probably named either Schonberger or Weiss at birth. Although Elisabeth herself was a practicing Anglican, in ethnic terms she was of purely Jewish descent and thus, according to Orthodox Jewish law and tradition, her son Leon was also a Jew. All the evidence suggests that, for Amery, this was no minor genealogical curiosity but one of the central obsessions of his life.

Amery’s mother, moreover, had a much more important formative role in raising her son than was common in most middle-class Victorian households. She was involved, between 1882 and 1885, in a particularly sordid and bitter divorce with her husband, who had committed adultery with a woman named Clara Zupansky ‘at Vienna, at Montreal in Canada and elsewhere’. (The Zupanskys were another family of converted central European Jews: Clara Zupansky may well have been a relative of Elisabeth Amery.) As a result of the divorce, granted in November 1885, Elisabeth Amery gained custody of her three children; and Leopold’s father, who moved to America, played no further role in his life.

Why did Amery decide to bury his Jewish origins so completely? The obvious reason is fear of anti-Semitism, but this needs to be placed in context. Britain was not Germany or Russia, and had little overt anti-Semitism, especially of the violent kind found in much of Europe. Jews were a small, low-profile minority who were, if anything, widely respected, even admired, and often regarded as a legitimate dissenting kind of sect. There was plainly more anti-Catholicism than anti-Semitism in late Victorian Britain, and most opinion-leaders actively deplored anti-Semitic outbursts in Europe such as the pogroms in Tsarist Russia. Between 1909 and 1939 five Jews sat in British Cabinets. It is difficult to see how knowledge of the fact that Leopold Amery’s mother was Jewish could have done any real harm to his subsequent career.

One can point to four reasons why Leopold may have hidden his Jewish origins so completely. By the time he started at Harrow in September 1887 he had already adopted the name ‘Maurice’ in his full name, in place of ‘Moritz’, his legal name at birth. It is likely that he had already taken the decision to do everything possible to bury his Jewish past at this point, or possibly earlier, at boarding school in Folkestone. Harrow may well have had an undercurrent of anti-Semitism, but as an institution it was certainly not overtly anti-Semitic. The Harrow alumni handbook reveals that there at least fifteen Jewish students at Harrow at the same time as Amery, with names like Rothschild, Goldschmidt, Levy, Oppenheim, and Wertheimer.

At Harrow, Amery was the cleverest boy in the school, effortlessly winning prize after prize and three scholarships. While many of his classmates were the sons of Cabinet Ministers, aristocrats, millionaires, bishops, and generals, Amery’s father was a minor official in the Indian Forestry Commission who had deserted his family, wandered around the globe with his mistress and been divorced by his wife. Being Jewish in addition may have seemed to the young Leopold to be one handicap too many and, moreover, the easiest one to discard, by a minor change of name and a combination of terminological inexactitudes and selective amnesia.


Secondly, because of his relatives’ conversions to Protestantism, Amery’s precise religio-ethnic status was deeply confused. If his mother and her family had been practicing Jews, it would seem less likely that he would have hidden this fact. But a family of Jews who had converted to Protestantism (and included among them a Free Church of Scotland minister) made Amery’s status so peculiar, complex, and probably embarrassing that it seemed far easier simply to bury the whole issue.


Thirdly, his mother made enormous sacrifices to send all her sons to Harrow. ‘For her children she was ambitious,’ Amery wrote, and this was especially the case for her clever eldest son. As a foreigner, Elizabeth might well have regarded any hint of alienness as a distinct handicap, and have encouraged Leopold to seem as English as possible.

Finally, when Amery entered political life as a pronounced imperialist and Chamberlain-ite and a super-patriot of Britain and its Empire, it must surely have seemed anomalous for him to have had so much foreign ancestry. Amery’s paternal grandmother, Maria Trist, was ‘a descendant of the old Exeter Huguenot families’. The super-patriot thus had only one authentically British grandparent, and hence joined a long line of strong nationalists, like Charles Parnell and Eamon de Valera, who were highly marginal, in their backgrounds, to the nations they championed. Perhaps, too, Amery might have wanted to hide the fact from Britain’s Jewish community, which could well have viewed him as ‘our man on the Tory front bench’.

What does seem certain, however, is that Amery was well-aware of his Jewish ancestry. He was one of the best-informed and most intellectually sophisticated men in British public life. As a child he had certainly met most of his Jewish relatives who lived in Britain. He was a leading pro-Zionist when he had no obvious reason to be. Whatever the reasons behind his concealment, keeping the secret became an obsession intrinsically more important than the nature of the secret itself.

Most men hiding their Jewish ancestry would surely take pains to distance themselves as far as possible from Jewish issues; some might well have become anti-Semites, but Amery behaved in precisely the opposite manner; it is no exaggeration to describe him as a ‘secret Jew’ who worked tirelessly on behalf of Jewish causes. Because of his increasingly significant political position, he was immensely influential in bringing about the success of the Zionist enterprise which eventually led to the establishment of the State of Israel.

In his autobiography, Amery claimed that ‘beyond a vague knowledge’ of Theordor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, he was ‘completely unaware of the existence of the Zionist movement’ until converted to its programme by Sir Mark Sykes, an enthusiastic gentile Zionist, during the First World War. Amery supported Zionism for two main reasons. He hoped to see the establishment in Palestine of ‘a prosperous (Jewish) community bound to Britain by ties of gratitude and interest.’ Secondly, he believed that the creation of a Jewish state would greatly diminish ... anti-Semitism, which is based, partly on the fear of being swamped by hordes of undesirable aliens from Russia, etc., and partly by an instinctive suspicion against a community which has so many international ramifications...

Amery’s views were close to those of the classical theorists of early Zionism, who believed that anti-Semitism stemmed largely from the wholly ‘abnormal’ socio-economic and political structure of European Jewry. They believed it would greatly diminish once the Jewish people had established a ‘normal’ state and society, which would radically alter the negative perception of Jews by the majority. In this Amery showed a sympathetic affinity for the nationalistic basis of Zionism rare in Britain. While he hailed the “spiritual forces” which have always inspired the Zionist movement, his support had little obvious grounding in any Judaic religious conception, but rather was based on the fact that it was a nationalistic movement which aimed to normalise the status of Jews. He also had little affinity for the ideology of socialist Zionism to which many pioneers of the movement adhered.

Amery’s first and most significant contribution to the Zionist movement came in October 1917 when, as political secretary to the War Cabinet (a post he had been appointed to by Lord Milner the previous year), he redrafted the Balfour Declaration. Milner had given Amery several unsatisfactory early versions of the Declaration out of which he ‘quickly produced’ the celebrated letter sent by Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild. This momentous document was, in effect, the founding charter of the state of Israel, which was established thirty-one years later. The full Cabinet, of which Amery was not at that stage a member, made only two minor amendments to his draft.

Amery’s next contribution to the origins of Israel came with his key role in establishing the Jewish Legion, battalions of Jewish soldiers who served under British supervision in Palestine during the First World War. As Assistant Military Secretary to Lord Derby, the Secretary of State for War, Amery acted as a crucial and sympathetic negotiator between British Zionists like Sir Simon Marks and the War Office. Marks, ‘an old friend from South African War days ... turned to me ... and enlisted my help in conducting the negotiations’, Amery wrote. As a result, three battalions of the Jewish Legion were formed and served in Palestine. The Legion was probably the first explicitly Jewish fighting force since Roman times, and was the forerunner of what later became the Israel Defence Force. Amery took great pride in this, claiming:

I seem to have had my finger in the pie, not only of the Balfour Declaration, but of the genesis of the present Israeli nation.

Amery’s time as Dominions Secretary in the Baldwin government (June 1925-29) saw him in charge of the Palestine Mandate. During this period an amazingly wide range of the infrastructure and characteristic institutions of the future Jewish state came into existence: Palestine was electrified, tens of thousands of wasteland were reclaimed or purchased from the Arabs, roads and railways were extended. Relations between Jews and Arabs were also relatively harmonious, and only became violent shortly after Amery left office in 1929. He became a friend and associate of most of the key Zionist leaders of the time, especially Chaim Weizmann, leader of the international Zionist movement, who paid tribute to Amery is his autobiography Trial and Error (1952) for his ‘unstinted encouragement and support’.

Another long-time friend was Vladimir Jabotinsky, the controversial right-wing Zionist leader who founded what is now Israel’s Likud party. Jabotinsky was regarded as an extremist by most mainstream Zionists, let alone by the British authorities. Amery was among his few friends in British government circles to whom he frequently turned for support and advice. In February 1937, Amery was one of the organisers of a dinner in honour of the wartime Jewish Legion at which Jabotinsky was the guest of honour, just a few days after Jabotinsky presented evidence to the Peel Royal Commission on the future of Palestine. According to Jacob B. Schectman, Jabotinsky’s associate and biographer, the dinner was boycotted by the entire mainstream Zionist movement, with Weizmann sending a letter ‘stating that he was “compelled to leave for Paris” just that very day’.

The Tory government of which Leo Amery was a leading member lost office in 1929. When the National government was formed in August 1931, Amery was one of the most prominent Conservatives excluded from office, and he held no further ministerial position until the formation of Churchill’s wartime coalition in May 1940. He was an increasingly bitter critic of the National government’s policies of whittling down Britain’s commitments to the Jews in Palestine in order to appease the Arabs. In May 1939 he attacked the notorious MacDonald White Paper on Palestine (which set a limit of 75,000 further Jewish immigrants to Palestine over the next five years) in furious terms. ‘I have rarely risen with a greater sense of indignation and shame or made a speech which I am more content to look back on’, he wrote in 1955:

I need not dwell here on the immediate consequences [of the White Paper], on the doors of mercy shut on the hapless refugees from Hitler’s torture chambers, or on the growth, intelligible, though not excusable, of Jewish terrorism after the war.

Following the Munich Agreement, Amery also grew closer to Winston Churchill and the anti-Appeasement Tories. On the face of it, Amery and Churchill would seem to have been the most natural of political allies, and they had known each other since they were contemporaries at Harrow. Yet before Munich they were often at odds. Amery was a passionate advocate of Tariff Reform which, in 1904, had prompted Churchill to leave the Conservative party and join the Liberals specifically because of his opposition to Joseph Chamberlain’s proposals.

Amery made the speech over the conduct of the war, for which he is best remembered, in the historic House of Commons debate of 7 May 1940. Generally credited with bringing down the Chamberlain government and making Winston Churchill prime minister, Amery famously quoted Cromwell’s speech to the Long Parliament, ‘Depart, I say, let us have done with you. In the name of God, go’. On forming his coalition government, Churchill appointed Amery to be Secretary of State for India, outside of the smaller inner War Cabinet, a post he continued to hold as a member of the Cabinet, in the Conservative ‘caretaker’ government of May-July 1945.

Amery was deeply affected by news of the Holocaust, which began to filter back to Britain in the latter part of 1941. His autobiography ends in 1940, but his Diaries, edited by John Barnes and David Nicholson in 1988, contain occasional moving references to the Nazi genocide. On 5 June 1944 Amery recorded that he met Chaim Weizmann:

...who had been informed on Saturday of the monstrous German blackmailing offer to release a million German Jews in return for ten thousand lorries and other equipment, failing which bargain they proposed to exterminate them. He wanted my advice and all I could suggest was that he should write to Winston urging publication of this infamous piece of blackmail and a declaration by him and Roosevelt that if the threat materialised just revenge would be exacted, not only on the actual perpetrators but on all the heads of the German Government.

This entry is the more poignant when it is remembered that the infamous ‘trucks for blood’ deal concerned Hungarian Jewry. One senses here, as in other examples of Amery’s comments on Jewish issues, an unusually emotional involvement and a hint that he was restraining himself from saying more.

The Second World War also brought with it the central tragedy of Amery’s life, and the most appalling and inexplicable part of this extraordinary sage: the defection of his eldest son to Nazi Germany, his subsequent trial for treason, and his execution in December 1945. As with so many aspects of Amery’s hidden life, the full story remains to be written. Leopold Amery was surely the only Cabinet Minister in British history whose son was hanged for treason, yet no complete account of John Amery’s career and execution has ever appeared. The most complete account remains Leopold’s privately-printed pamphlet, John Amery: An Explanation, written early in 1946 and published as an appendix to the second volume of the Diaries.

Everything which is known about John Amery suggests that he was an extremely unpleasant, perverse, and deeply troubled young man, ‘inclined’, according to his father, ‘to revolt against the trend of public opinion... and... curiously indifferent to the consequences of his actions’. Sent to Harrow, from which he ran away at sixteen, he attempted to become a film producer, and went bankrupt at twenty-five. At the time of his death he had already been married three times. A fierce anti-Communist and Fascist sympathiser, John Amery found himself in France when the Third Republic collapsed; he gradually became a part of the Vichyite and collaborationist network, actively recruited by the Nazis.


In 1943 he delivered six radio broadcasts in Germany urging a compromise peace between Britain and the Nazis. More seriously, he also toured prisoner of war camps in an attempt to create an anti-Communist ‘legion of St George’, consisting of interned British soldiers, who would fight with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union. In his preliminary hearing, John Amery stated that he never directly attacked Britain, and was not a Nazi, only an anti-Communist.


Attempts by his brother Julian Amery to prove that he had, in the late 1930s, taken out Spanish citizenship (and thus did not commit treason against his country) failed, as did efforts by his counsel to show that he was mentally ill. To spare his family unnecessary pain, he pleaded ‘guilty’ to the eight charges or treason brought against him at the Central
Criminal Court in October 1945, apparently the only time that someone accused of treason in a British court has pleaded guilty. The Times reported that Amery’s ‘long black hair, curling up at the back, was carefully brushed. He wore a brown overcoat and a black and yellow scarf which was knotted at the neck... [he] appeared most of the time to have a half-smile on his face.’ The Home Secretary, James C Ede, found no grounds for a reprieve, and John Amery was hanged for treason at Wandsworth Prison on 19 December 1945.

John Amery was a convinced and vicious anti-Semite, and anti-Semitism was an important component in his pro-Fascism. It seems clear that Leopold Amery, a qualified barrister, had a fair presentiment of what his son could expect from his trial. His disapproval and disappointment at his son’s actions led Leopold to draw up a new will in January 1943 which left everything to his wife and second son Julian. In his Explanation, Leopold admitted that his son’s...failure in the film world, and his unfortunate experience with money-lenders, similarly inclined him to accept the current Nazi and Fascist doctrine of the Jews as the prime instigators of Communism as well as of the evils of international high finance.

However, it is hard to believe that John Amery needed to resort to backstreet money-lenders, let alone become a Nazi supporter as a result, when he had wealthy relatives to turn to. Instead, John Amery’s anti-Semitism appears to have been purely ideological. In his wartime
Proclamation to interned British soldiers when attempting to form the ‘Legion of St. George’, he appealed all Britons to answer this call of arms in the defence of our homes and children and of all civilization against Asiatic and Jewish bestiality ... [W]e intend giving the world proof that we are not all sold out to the Jew and the plutocrat.

An obvious question is whether John Amery knew of his own Jewish ancestry. There is no direct evidence on this point, but I am fairly sure that he did (Julian Amery, his younger brother, almost certainly did). If so, John’s anti-Semitism must represent part of an Oedipal revolt against his father, though a very unusual one, with the son of a right-wing father moving not to the extreme left (as one might expect) but to the most extreme right. John Amery also found himself, together with everyone in his generation, having to choose sides between murderous extremes, and was, in a sense, a victim of the ‘devil’s decade’ of rival totalitarianisms, although plainly his chosen response was an evil one.

In his last years, Leopold Amery apparently drew even closer to his Jewish roots. He visited Israel with his son Julian in 1950, one of the earliest British notables to travel to the Jewish state after it was diplomatically recognised by Britain the previous year. He frequently addressed Jewish and Zionist bodies, opening, for example, an exhibition on ‘Manchester and Israel’ in 1954, a year before his death. It is arguable that Amery’s autobiography might well have revealed all about his Jewish background, but for the tragedy of John Amery, whose Fascism and anti-Semitism would then seem so bizarre and embarrassing as to overshadow the rest of the book.


Leopold Amery went to his grave in September 1955 keeping the secret he had then maintained for seventy years. It is impossible not to be moved by this story, which touches upon so many of the great events of the twentieth century and which includes such tragedy. Yet through his actions Leopold Amery was also instrumental in shaping a better world, one where it is no longer necessary to choose between violent tyrannies but where it is easier for
men of goodwill to tell the truth.

William D. Rubinstein is Professor of Modern History at the University of Wales, and author of The Myth of Rescue: Why the Democracies Could Not Have Saved More Jews from the Nazis (Routledge, 1997). This material is courtesy

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