On May 12, 1915, as World War I raged, a young, unmarried woman of 28 wrote a brief missive to a 63-year-old man, a married father of seven with whom she was involved in an intense love affair. During the course of their relationship, the two had exchanged hundreds of love letters, but now she was informing him that she’d decided to marry one of his younger friends, and that their affair had to come to an end. The impact of this letter went far beyond the romance; it affected the course of history, and the history of Zionism in particular.
The man in question was the prime minister of England. The surprise announcement from his longtime paramour left him both stunned and thrown off-kilter. He soon lost his ability to govern and was forced to resign. Ultimately, that resignation paved the way for England to issue the Balfour Declaration. If Henry Herbert Asquith had remained in power, that seminal document of Zionist history would probably not have come into being.
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The Balfour Declaration, which on November 2, 2017, will mark its centennial, was included in a letter sent by British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild, a leader of the Jewish community in England. It said, in part, that, “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
The British promise to establish a “national home” for the Jewish people in Palestine is one of the formative events in modern Jewish history. Much has been written about it and about the decisive role played by Chaim Weizmann in its being issued. Weizmann was just 43 at the time and not yet a Jewish leader of international stature. But in all that has been said and written about the Declaration, from the Jewish side at least, not enough attention has been given to certain events that occurred on the British side that propelled the whole process. This is where the stormy love triangle alluded to above comes in: British Prime Minister Henry Herbert Asquith and a senior minister in his Liberal government, Edwin Montagu, were both head over heels in love with the same woman.
Natural brilliance and sharp wit
The truly decisive moment in paving the way to the Balfour Declaration took place nearly a year before it was released, on December 6, 1916. That is the day that Prime Minister Asquith was compelled to resign, and was replaced by David Lloyd George. One reason the document would not have been issued under Asquith is that he had no interest in Zionism and did not support the Zionist aspirations. Additionally, however, is the fact that Asquith’s rival for the love of young Venetia Stanley was the Jewish but anti-Zionist minister Edwin Samuel Montagu. Montagu (1879-1924) was the most active and influential objector to the Balfour Declaration, and once Asquith was out, Montagu, though still a cabinet member, lost his political standing.
Venetia Stanley (1887-1948) was from a well-known and well-connected family. Her father held the title of Lord Sheffield and was active in British politics. Numerous other relatives were also part of the British nobility. In keeping with the custom at the time, Venetia did not receive a formal education, but she was an avid reader, and through her father she met many of the country’s top politicians and became quite familiar with the ins and outs of British politics. With her natural brilliance and sharp wit, she charmed and befriended many others in the British upper class.
One of Stanley’s closest friends was Violet Asquith, Herbert Henry Asquith’s daughter from his first marriage. In 1908, when Asquith, a man renowned for his skill at political maneuvering, was appointed prime minister, he moved into 10 Downing Street together with his second wife, Margot, and some of his seven children from his two marriages. Violet was among them. She soon became friends with Venetia Stanley, who, like her, was 21. It was through his daughter, then, that Asquith, 56, met Venetia and fell in love with her. Incidentally, British actress Helena Bonham-Carter (“A Room with a View,” “The King’s Speech”) is a granddaughter of Violet Asquith.
A lesbian relationship?
Asquith was a known skirt-chaser, but he was adept at coming up with different ploys to enable him to be with his lovers without arousing suspicion. A number of eminent women from the cream of British society, Winston Churchill’s wife Clementine among them, claimed that Asquith pursued them, and not only verbally. He would write them long letters, often filled with not only declarations of love, but also obscene proposals. None of this did anything to hurt his popularity as prime minister, for one thing, because in those days, the British press wouldn’t dare get into such matters. (As late as 1936, the press stayed silent for months about the relationship between King Edward VIII and the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Only when the king chose to abdicate did the story become a major sensation.)
The relationship between Asquith and Stanley began in 1910, when she and Violet were accompanying Asquith during an election campaign. Asquith was accustomed to treating women as temporary playthings, but he was struck with awe and admiration for Venetia. The sophisticated and self-assured man who so easily outsmarted all his political rivals became totally dependent upon her and obsessed with their relationship. He wrote to her nearly every day, often in multiple letters. These communications also contained detailed reports on delicate affairs of state, and even security secrets. Asquith consulted with Stanley on practically every issue, and closely heeded her advice.
Venetia Stanley was what would have been called a “liberated woman” for her era. She frequently kept male company, sometimes with married men, and there were times when she was having affairs with more than one powerful man at a time. There are scholars who say Venetia’s most sincere love affair was a lesbian relationship with Violet Asquith, one that went on over several years, only coming to a sudden end as a consequence of the events described below.
The British upper class comported itself during World War I with some remove from the gruesome events taking place in Europe, and went on enjoying its usual amusements. This feeling even affected the prime minister himself. Chaim Weizmann and other observers noted that Asquith’s handling of war-related affairs and other serious matters was somehow superficial and not sufficiently serious.
This attitude is illustrated by an excerpt from a letter that Asquith sent to Venetia from Downing Street in the summer of 1914, in the tense lead-up to the outbreak of war:
[24 July 1914] As Margot was tired and in bed, I improvised a little dinner here, consisting of two Mckennae and we played some really amusing Bridge. Afterwards I went with Pamela to supper at the Assyrian,” a reference to Asquith’s favorite minister, Edwin Montagu, whom he called “The Assyrian” as a way of underscoring his Jewish heritage.
A bit of background is in order here. Reginald McKenna (1863-1943), a banker and politician, was a major Asquith supporter and served as home secretary in his government. McKenna’s 25-year-old wife, Pamela was 26 years his junior. She was very beautiful and bright – just Asquith’s type, in other words. That evening, after they finished playing bridge, Pamela McKenna stayed behind with Asquith after her husband left for home. As was often the case with other Asquith dalliances, the husbands were probably aware of what was going on, but looked the other way in order to strengthen their personal connection with the all-powerful prime minister. All of this was happening about a month after the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Fedrinand, in Sarajevo, on June 28, as the clouds of war were darkening the skies over Europe.
Then, in mid-May 1915, Asquith’s life was turned upside down: His beloved Venetia informed him that she’d decided to marry Edwin Montagu, a junior minister in his government. There are surviving letters written by both men that day, during the same cabinet meeting – as they sat on opposite sides of the large table in the cabinet room on the second floor of the prime minister’s residence in Westminster.
One government minister who never supplied any juicy gossip of the type described above was Arthur Balfour. In truth, Balfour’s sexual identity is not entirely clear. But he was man of very impressive political achievements. He was prime minister from 1902 to 1905 and held other important posts including secretary of the navy and foreign secretary.
Back to Asquith. On May 12, 1915, after receiving the devastating news from Venetia, he responded with two short letters, in which his emotional turmoil is plain. In the first he wrote: “Most loved... As you know well this breaks my heart.... I couldn’t bear to come and see you.... I can only pray God to bless you – and help me.” In the second letter he wrote: “This is too terrible.... No hell can be so bad. Cannot you send me one word?... It is so unnatural.... Only one word?”
Venetia Stanley had to convert to Judaism before marrying Montagu, whose father had stipulated in his will that his son would only inherit his property if he married a Jew. With the help of London rabbis, the conversion process was completed very quickly, and two months after she dumped Asquith, on July 26, 2015, Venetia married Montagu in a proper Jewish wedding ceremony. (There is, by the way, at least one study that asserts that Montagu was homosexual and that his marriage to Venetia was one of utility, intended to allow them to continue their extramarital relationships unhindered.)
On December 6, 1916, David Lloyd George took over as prime minister, following Asquith’s resignation. It was Lloyd George who led England to victory over Germany and played a key role in the formulation and passage of the Balfour Declaration.
One might think that a Jewish minister – the only one in the government at the time – would support a proposal on behalf of the Jews and Zionism, but the opposite turned out to be the case. Edwin Samuel Montagu, however, was vociferously opposed to Zionism and anything connected to it.
These were Montagu’s main reasons for opposing the Balfour Declaration:
“I assert that there is not a Jewish nation. The members of my family, for instance, who have been in this country for generations, have no sort or kind of community of view or of desire with any Jewish family in any other country beyond the fact that they profess to a greater or less degree the same religion It is no more true to say that a Christian Englishman and a Christian Frenchman are of the same nation.
“When the Jews are told that Palestine is their national home, every country will immediately desire to get rid of its Jewish citizens, and you will find a population in Palestine driving out its present inhabitants”.
His concern was also for his own political future: “If Palestine will be the National Home of the Jews – all the voters in my constituency will tell me: “Go Home!!!”.
According to Weizmann, Montagu waged an all-out war against the declaration and gave fiery speeches about it in cabinet meetings. The future first president of the State of Israel wrote in his memoirs about Montagu that, “There was nothing new in what he had to say, but the vehemence with which he urged his views, the implacability of his opposition, astonished the cabinet. I understand the man almost wept.”
In 1917, however, when the British cabinet was discussing the possibility of the Declaration, Montagu’s political standing was at a nadir. In Lloyd George’s government, he served as secretary of state for India, and the long letters and memos he composed regarding Palestine ultimately did not have any influence on the decision makers.
In the 1922 election, Montagu lost his seat in the House of Commons along with his cabinet position, and found himself out of government altogether. Two years later, on November 15, 1924, he died of a mysterious illness, said to be “blood poisoning.” He was 45 years old.
Dr. Nathan Brun teaches in the law faculties of both the Hebrew University and Bar-Ilan University. He is the recipient of the Jabotinsky Prize for Literature and Research for 2017.
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