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A warning from history

05 May 2017

Amy Buller chronicled the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. Her books, soon to be republished, are pertinent to the present, argues Edmund Newell

Formidable: Amy Buller wears her characteristic severe expression at Cumberland Lodge

Formidable: Amy Buller wears her characteristic severe expression at Cumberland Lodge

IN MARCH 1944, weeks before doodlebugs were launched on London, an unlikely meeting took place in Buckingham Palace. The meeting, on the part played by young people in the nation’s post-war future, involved just two people: Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother), and Amy Buller, who until recently had been warden of a hall of residence at Liverpool University.

The reason for the meeting was that the Queen was impressed by the book Buller had written, Darkness Over Germany, and wanted to meet its author. Published the previous year, and recommended to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth by their friend and spiritual adviser Edward Woods, Bishop of Lichfield, Darkness over Germany is an account of Buller’s conversations with a range of people during visits to Germany in the 1930s, and her analysis of the rise of National Socialism and its impact on young people.

Buller called the meeting “my miracle”, as it led to the realisation of her vision of establishing a residential educational foundation where young people could discuss ethical and social issues. Three years later, the King granted the foundation the use of Cumberland Lodge, in Windsor Great Park, and the Queen became its active Patron. She remained so until her death in 2002, after which she was succeeded by her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II.


WHILE Cumberland Lodge evolved into a thriving centre for critical thinking and dialogue, Darkness Over Germany lay largely forgotten for more than 70 years — until now. Current concerns over the rise of populism, racism, and extremism, and comparisons with the events of the 1930s, have led to a rekindling of interest in Buller’s observations and analysis.

One of the first to revisit her book was Lord Ramsbotham. Speaking in the House of Lords in 2014, at a debate initiated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, he said, “I have been thinking about the youth of this country. I took from my bookshelf a very remarkable book written by a godmother of mine, Amy Buller. It is called Darkness over Germany, and it was written during the war. It explains the almost religious grip that Nazism had over the youth of Germany.”

Darkness Over Germany is also attracting fresh interest in Germany. The first German edition, Finsternis in Deutschland, was published last year with an introduction by Professor Kurt Barling, which highlights the propensity of populism to fuel the fires of extremism and intolerance. Soon, on 16 May 2017, the first English edition since 1945 will be launched at a public panel discussion about threats to an open society at St Paul’s Cathedral, involving the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams, Baroness Butler-Sloss, and Baron Stern.


IF DARKNESS OVER GERMANY deserves to be better known, so does its pioneering author. Ernestine Amy Buller was born in London in 1891. After moving to South Africa as a child, she returned to Britain in 1911, spent two years in Germany immediately before the First World War, and then read German at Birkbeck College, London.

It was as a student that Buller, who had been brought up a Baptist, turned to Anglo-Catholicism. With a deepening faith she took up the post of secretary of the Student Christian Movement (SCM) at Manchester University in 1918. It was there that she got to know the new Bishop of Manchester, William Temple, who became a close friend and mentor. In 1922, Buller moved to London to continue her work with the SCM, which included arranging the 1927 mission to London University; Temple was the lead missioner.

In 1931, Buller left the SCM and became warden of a hall of residence at Liverpool University. By then, she had gained a reputation as a formidable organiser and networker within the Church and academia, and had developed a considerable interest in the intellectual formation of young people.


BULLER was still a regular visitor to Germany, and was becoming deeply concerned about the rise of National Socialism. She wanted to do something practical in response. Through her association with Temple, and the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, Sandie Lindsay, she arranged for, and led, delegations of British intellectuals (including theologians, economists, political scientists, and educationalists) to go to Germany to meet Nazi leaders face-to-face.

The main purpose of these visits was to gain a better understanding of National Socialism, and to challenge Nazi leaders about their ideologies. Buller also had the opportunity to meet other contacts, and her discussions with clergy, university professors, schoolteachers, and others provided a rich source of additional information for what would become Darkness over Germany.

For a woman operating in a male-dominated environment, and not in a senior position, these interactions were a remarkable achievement. The Nazis that Buller dealt with included Alfred Rosenberg, a leading ideologue behind National Socialism, and Joachim von Ribbentrop, the first Nazi to be hanged after the Nuremberg trials. She appeared unfazed by such people or by the criticism the delegations attracted as the prospect of war increased.

Commenting on her tenacity in his foreword to Darkness over Germany, Lindsay wrote, “I was impressed by the uncanny skill with which Miss Buller prevented the Nazis from exploiting those discussions for their own purposes, but above all I was impressed by her power of understanding in all its various aspects what was going on, how it was coming about that the idealism and devotion of German youth were being enslaved to monstrous things.”


IT WAS this risk of enslavement which made Buller determined to do something positive to help young people in Britain, to avoid a repeat of what had happened in Germany. This was the vision that led her to write her book, and to establish the educational foundation at Cumberland Lodge.

In her analysis of National Socialism, Buller was highly critical of the Treaty of Versailles, both in terms of its impact on the German economy — starving young Germans of opportunities — and on the national German psyche. She understood how Nazis could exploit such conditions, and was horrified by how they managed to influence education and spread anti-Semitism and racist propaganda in schools and universities.

She was also deeply frustrated by the lack of Church resistance to the Nazis. She regarded National Socialism as a false religion that filled a spiritual vacuum, offering a misguided sense of meaning and purpose to disaffected young people.

Interestingly, Buller did not regard Hitler as charismatic. Rather, she saw him as the personification of the aspirations of many ordinary Germans who had lived through years of hardship, suffering, lack of opportunity, and national humiliation. She believed that Hitler had come to be seen as a saviour, whose almost messianic status was enhanced by Nazi rituals and ceremonies, particularly the Nuremberg rallies. Buller had witnessed first-hand the power of these mass, quasi-religious gatherings to bend the minds and wills of those taking part.


BULLER had a complex personality. Recalling the experience of working with her in the early 1950s, one of Buller’s secretaries described it as “the most interesting, frustrating, educative, traumatic, rewarding, exhausting, confidence-destroying, amusing, and unforgettable (not necessarily in that order of degree) period in my working life.”

Buller’s complexity is summed up by her two almost identical portraits that hang in Cumberland Lodge. The one painted first shows her with a severe expression — too severe, according to the trustees, who commissioned the artist to produce something softer, with the hint of a smile. By all accounts, the first portrait was the more accurate of the two.

Some of Buller’s complexity no doubt stemmed from her experiences in Germany. She must have found the fractures between Britain and Germany deeply disturbing: she was torn between loyalties to friends in both countries. There is a suggestion, too, of an academic inferiority complex. Although she had a formidable intellect — and turned down an opportunity to study theology at Oxford, at the personal invitation of the Provost of the Queen’s College, Canon B. H. Streeter — in discussions at Cumberland Lodge she was noticeably reticent about taking part when leading academics were present.

Perhaps, too, her struggles with Christianity had a bearing on her character. She was devout and yet questioning in her faith, which she referred to as “the search”, having been severely put to the test by the experience of war.

The story of Buller, who died in 1974, is remarkable. Driven by a religious quest, and a vision of empowering young people intellectually, morally, and spiritually, she captured the attention and support of church leaders, senior academics, politicians, and the royal family. Through these networks, she saw to it that her vision became a reality at Cumberland Lodge.

With the republication of Darkness over Germany, her influence may yet touch a new generation that seeks to find meaning and purpose in a troubled world. That is why the 2017 edition of Darkness over Germany has a powerful new subtitle: A warning from history.


Canon Edmund Newell is Principal of Cumberland Lodge.

For more information about the event at St Paul’s, visit www.cumberlandlodge.ac.uk/whats-on/open-society-under-threat-warning-history.

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