The financial meltdown on Wall Street in 1929 started a worldwide economic depression that was to last throughout the thirties. Germany was hit hard as millions of Germans were still out of work following the country’s humiliating defeat in the Great War, and the population lacked confidence in the weak policies of the government’s politicians. The time was ripe for a new leader and Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Workers’ Party rose in popularity. Hitler was a powerful orator who attracted a wide following of Germans desperate for change and promised the disenchanted a far better life in a new and glorious Germany. In 1933, Hitler became the new Chancellor of Germany. Under his leadership, the country began re-arming and flexing its muscles in a war-like manner, with an eye turned towards winning back its former lands annexed by the war.
Britain did not fare much better during this period, as the country was over £900 million in debt to America for war loans, which America now wanted repaid. The depression wiped out Britain’s enviable worldwide investments and the coal and cotton export markets at home collapsed. Her standing in the world as a great imperial power for over 200 years diminished and unemployment soared to levels the country had never experienced before. The British government’s foreign policy was one of appeasement, the pacifying of an aggrieved nation through negotiation to prevent war. The prime example of this was Britain’s policy towards Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany in the 1930s, when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain sought to accommodate Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 by taking no action.
Many politicians in high office supported Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement as the best course of action for Britain, including Lord Halifax, the Leader of the House of Lords and his good friend Lord Thomas William Barker, Chairman of Cinque Ports. Lord Barker had been spending less time in his manor house at Westcliffe on the clifftops overlooking Dover and more time at Westminster and had purchased a town house in Great Smith Street just a stone’s throw away from Parliament. He had cultivated a friendship with Geoffrey Dawson, the editor of the Times newspaper and counted among his friends the American, Waldorf Astor and his wife, the politician Viscountess Nancy Astor. The Astor’s often hosted their close circle of friends at their country residence, Cliveden, on the banks of the River Thames in Buckinghamshire. The Set, as they became known, began using their close political connections and the Observer newspaper, owned by Waldorf, together with The Times edited by Dawson, to influence the British government to continue its policy of appeasement with Nazi Germany.
Lord Barker, an ardent right-winger, not satisfied that this was going far enough met with similarly minded colleagues and founded a secret society whose aim was to forge stronger connections with the Nazi Party in Germany. The society’s goal was to topple the British Government and replace it with a fascist dictatorship.