Esme Howard


Photo: Bain News Service, Library of Congress; LC-B2- 3710-11 [P&P]

British diplomat and politician, considered ­one of the most influential creators of British foreign policy of the first decades of the 20th century. Polyglot – spoke ten languages­. He was born into an aristocratic family – his father (Henry Howard) and two brothers served as MPs in the House of Commons. He received his education at the prestigious Harrow School.

He passed the diplomatic service exam in 1885, and soon began working at the British diplomatic mission in Rome and then in Berlin (1888). He left the civil service in 1892, after which he undertook various activities, including the implementation of an original business and social project to improve the lot of the British working class (to this end, for example, he established a rubber plantation in Togo). In 1898 he married Italian Countess Isabella Giustiniani-Bandini. In 1892 he ran unsuccessfully for the House of Commons on behalf of the Liberal Party.

He resumed his career in diplomacy in 1903, ­becoming Consul General for Crete the same year­, while in 1906 he was given the position of counselor at the embassy in Washington. His career accelerated after Edward Grey – a long-time ­friend of Howard’s – became ­head of British diplomacy. ­In the following years he held posts in Vienna, Budapest, Bern and Stockholm (at the ­last­ two ­with the rank of ambassador). In 1919 he was part of the British delegation to the , as well as the . Among other things, during the negotiations in Paris he was in charge of drafting the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles concerning the Polish question.

As late as 1919, he took up the post of British ambassador in Madrid, while from 1924 to 1930 he again worked at the British embassy in the US, again with the rank of ambassador. After retiring in 1930, he was appointed Baron Penrith (Lord Howard of Penrith). His memoirs of his early years of diplomatic service, entitled Theatre of Life, were published in 1936.


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Paris, May 14, 1924: Esme Howard. Photo: Library of Congress; LC-F8- 30567 [P&P]

There is a good stuff in the country

To Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour

British Mission in Poland, Warsaw, March 26, 1919

[…] I wish to place on record the impressions which I have gained rapidly and naturally somewhat superficially in the short time that I have spent in Poland. Before doing so, however, I should like to give a brief account of the different phases through which I have passed with regard to the Polish question since I first come into close contact with the Poles at the Legation at Stockholm. While there and under the influence of conversations with various Poles from Congress Poland, Galicia and German Poland, I became convince of the strong national feeling existing in the country, and of the great advantages that there would be for the European settlement after the war of a strong and united state of Poland to set as a buffer state between Germany and Russia. […]

It was with these rough impressions that I reached London and began my work in preparing memoranda on the Polish situation of the British Peace Delegation. In London I found a somewhat different atmosphere. There was a strong feeling against the work of the Polish National Committee, which perhaps unfortunately, but owing to circumstances over which Polish people had little or no control, had taken upon itself the representation of Polish interests in the Allied countries, and had been more or less formally recognized as the representatives of the new Polish state that was to be. The Polish National Committee was considered to be working rather in the interests of the reactionary forces in Poland, and of the great landlords rather than of the great masses of the Polish people, and there was a feeling that if Poland was assisted with the supplies she required after the Germans had evacuated the country, that this would be bolstering up a reactionary government, and might be contrary to the interests of the Polish population as a whole and even contrary to their desires. In fact the prevailing opinion which to a great extent influenced me at the time seemed to be that to do anything the Polish committee asked for would be to fasten upon Poland a regime of wicked landlords who spent most of their time in riotous living, and establish there a Chauvinist Government whose object was to acquire territories inhabited by non-Polish populations. At the same time there was undoubtedly a strong desire to see Poland re-established as a united and independent country, both from the point of view of righting and old injustice and of establishing a buffer between Germany and Russia, and a bulwark against Bolshevik invasion from the East. These two conflicting points of view caused a considerable hesitation in forwarding to Poland the supplies of arms and ammunition which were urgently wanted in order to enable the Government to defend itself against the probable invasion of Bolsheviks on the East, and the knowledge that the Polish Government was without these supplies undoubtedly encouraged its various neighbours to take offensive military action against the Poles on different fronts. […]

The situation in Poland during December, January and February was therefore most critical on account of the weakness of the Polish Government and the apparent unwillingness of the Allied Powers to come to its assistance; this critical situation though now rather improved is far from being at an end. It was I further believed in London that the Polish workmen and peasants were to a great extent inclined to Bolshevism, owing to the desire of the peasants like those in Russia to obtain their own land, and owing to the lack of food and clothing, which was the result of four years war and foreign occupation. A certain fear was therefore no doubt entertained lest if help were given to Poland as desired it might only be used against the Allies in the interests of Bolshevism. […]

On arrival in Poland and after hearing the views of almost all classes of the population […] I found that the principal factor which dominated everything else was unquestionable the national spirit which united all in favour of the re-establishment of their country. The Polish workmen have undergone untold hardship […] Nevertheless, in spite of an organized Bolshevik agitation they have hitherto refused to be led astray, and have behaved with astonishing calm and moderation. In the same way I have been convinced that while there is a strong demand amongst the landless peasants, and those who occupy holdings too small to maintain their families, for obtaining suitable holdings to enable them to settle on the land, there is amongst the great majority of them no demand for confiscation of property in their favour, nor any apparent likelihood that they would take the law into their hands as in Russia, and divide the larger properties up amongst themselves. […]

The landlords themselves have seemed of acting without delay, and have resolved at a meeting held in Warsaw to place two million acres, or about 20 per cent of all the holdings in Congress Poland and Galicia exceeding an area of 200 acres, at the disposal of the Government for sale in small lets, the terms of sale to be fixed between the Government and themselves. While there is no doubt a small percentage of large landlords who own enormous estates and were very frequently absentees, the majority of the Polish landlords seemed to have lived on their estates, and in accordance with the economic conditions prevailing to have treated their peasants reasonably well. […] Provided therefore the peasants feel their cause is being favourably considered there would seem to be good hope that any serious peasant rising against the landlords with destruction of life and property, will be avoided in this country. […]

As regards the Jewish question it seems to me that the accounts of persecutions which have appeared in many Allied papers have been grossly exaggerated, if not devoid of all foundation. It is unfortunately impossible to deny that attacks on the Jews have occurred, as for instance in Lemberg and in Kielce and possible in some other laces. Usually owing to the state of disorder generally existing at the time in these places, and to the lack of authority of the central government. Nut Not there is absolutely no proof whatever that the central government at any time encouraged these regrettable proceedings, and indeed latterly since they have become stronger they have done everything in their power to put a stop at any attacks on Jews in the provinces. […]

There are numbers of professional Jews, lawyers, doctors, professors, etc., against whom there is no feeling whatever, and the general views even among the National Democrats is that the Jews should have equal civil and religious rights, but not more than the Poles. So far as I can judge there is every prospect that Poland will become not a revolutionary but a liberal and democratic country, and this being the case so long as the Jews abstain from anti-Polish and anti-national agitation and propaganda and content themselves with receiving the same treatment as other Polish citizens, there is , I am convinced, no fear of any religious or civil persecution. […]

As regards the Jewish question I have only to add that there are several divisions amongst the Jews in Poland. There are first the assimilated Jews who are openly pro-Polish and desire no privileges, these are mostly of the upper and professional classes; then the Orthodox Jews forming nearly on half of the Jewish population, who while they desire special confessional schools do not want any other special privileges lastly come the Zionist and the Party of the Jewish Bund, whose desires range from a sort of educational autonomy down to having their own budget, their own police, and their own militia. It is these latter who have invariably sided with the foreign domination in Poland, and who are now agitating against the re-establishment of Poland as an independent country. […]

My general impression then is that while Poland unfortunately leaks almost altogether the trained men necessary to put her house in order rapidly and satisfactory, the elements of sound political sense and moderation are certainly there, and that if the can be assisted with technical advisers by the Allied countries in her military, financial and economic affairs the Polish State ought certainly to be successfully built up on sound democratic lines within the next few years. No country has ever perhaps been in so difficult or so intolerable a position as Poland during the last few months; the very division of the country into three parts under three different systems of Government gas necessarily made it more difficult to amalgamate the men coming from these different parts of the kingdom into one central scheme, and these difficulties will probably continue for a generation. If we add to this the devastation caused by the war, the chaotic condition of the currency, the problem of hundreds of thousands of destitute refugees suddenly returning home, the question of how to supply the unemployed with the necessaries of life; and finally, the necessity of carrying on some sort of hostilities on no less than four fronts at the same time, if we take all these into consideration, and yet find that during these winter months the people of Poland have remained on the whole quiet, we may I think fairly come to the conclusion that there is a good stuff in the country out of which to build up a solid and prosperous state.

source: The National Archives, London, FO/371/3898.