Sir Norman Angell

angell-12986-content-portrait-mobile-tinySir Norman Angell, 62, (1872-1967) was the “author of the international best-seller The Great Illusion and forty other books, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, MP, activist in the principal peace associations of his time and one of the 20th century’s leading internationalists”. Yet “his indisputable achievements and qualities were accompanied to a remarkable degree by confusions and errors…. Only a man of obvious merit, sincerity, and charm could have got away with so many of these”. His Martin Ceadel biography was aptly entitled “Living the Great Illusion”.[1] Not many people perhaps could claim to have been publicly admired by Einstein, Churchill and Keynes.[2] In terms of his mistakes, the most curious was that he only discovered in his late 80s that he had always been wrong about his date of birth and age – and he was also wrong about his precise name. Indeed he was often sloppy about dates.

Angell, also a one-time US rancher for good measure, wrestled all his long life between isolationism and internationalism, and of all the people in the room on that warm evening of 23rd March 1933, as Hitler continued his march towards absolute power, the way events were turning couldn’t have been more intellectually and emotionally challenging. “In 1933 he defended the legitimacy of international force against aggression, while insisting that personally he remained a pacifist”.[3] 

At this time his friends were proposing him for the 1933 Nobel Peace Prize, but opposition to his candidacy meant the Nobel Institute postponed the award and finally granted it to him (still as the 1933 Prize) in 1934, concurrently with the 1934 Prize (which went to Arthur Henderson – see below).

Sir Norman had been recently knighted, in 1931, the same year as his publication Foreign Affairs was incorporated into Time and Tide “as a monthly supplement of world politics”. He was one of the eight speakers at the dinner: “not much over 5 feet tall, with a spare frame, broad forehead, penetrating blue-grey eyes, and a high-pitched voice”.[4]  

Seated Beside …

Sir Norman was seated to the right of the guest of honour Lady Rhondda and on the left of Lady Berry. They might have talked about anything under the sun. She may have commented on his recent speech and Foreign Affairs piece urging support for the League of Nations. Or perhaps she asked how it was going with his revision of The Great Illusion, or perhaps less tactfully, his bid for the Nobel Peace Prize. Perhaps he commented on her autobiography. Or given the occasion, they avoided talking shop and instead just had a good old natter, reflecting on the things they had done together and their each quite remarkable life stories.  Or maybe not.

Lady Berry we know had an astute business mind and guided her husband Sir Gomer Berry in the right direction on a number of occasions as he managed his newspaper empire. She had only married Sir Gomer two years earlier (2nd marriage for both) and they led an active social life in the years to come. I can envisage an interesting evening’s conversation between this astute well-travelled socialite and the serious writer with his mind full of tricky choices. I would hope she got him to relax and enjoy the evening.

Angell’s 22 year old personal assistant and “niece” Barbara Hayes was also at the dinner, on Table 11.

What’s on his mind?

© Nobel Foundation

March 1933 was a busy time for him: revising his magnum opus as The Great Illusion 1933 – which meant trying to clarify where he stood as the world lurched further into the dark; watching the rapid ascent of the Fuhrer to absolute power; and monitoring the ongoing Geneva Disarmament Conference, being chaired by Arthur Henderson, the British Labour leader who was awarded the 1934 Nobel Peace Prize. In addition Sir Norman was editing his notes from Halley lectures he had delivered in January into a short book From Chaos to Control.

Aside for those intellectual challenges, he may also have been thinking about what he would say in honour of Lady Rhondda. Of that at least we do know a little: press reports tell us that he spoke of “the great service that Lady Rhondda was rendering by using her influence through the weekly press to give expression to a considered civilised opinion that counterbalanced the hasty and less civilised opinions of the daily press. Her journal was keeping alive independence of thought and making possible the sort of thing Swift as a pamphleteer did in his time”.

A cause of stress to Sir Norman at the time would have been the unexpected obstacle that had surfaced in January to his Peace Prize bid. Two days before the dinner, on 21st March, Sir Norman wrote to Professor John Mez, a German emigré in the US helping with his campaign, “I can’t tell you how grateful I am to you about the Oslo matter although I doubt very much whether anything will come of it. Moe, of the Nobel Institute, thinks I am no “savant”, but a mere speculator and not consequently entitled to these plums“.[5]  Which may explain why his published remarks at the dinner do not refer to the peace process but focus on his relationship with Lady Rhondda and Time and Tide, as befitting the occasion.

On the day of the dinner itself, 23rd March, Philip Noel Baker – an equally distinguished politician, disarmament campaigner, closely included in building the League of Nations – was penning a letter to him urging him to join a study group on international sanctions at Chatham House.

Norman’s story so far

Sir Norman was born Ralph Norman Angell Lane on 26th December 1872 in the Mansion House, Holbeach, Lincolnshire, the sixth of seven children of Mary Ann Abbot née Brittain and the JP Thomas Angell Lane, owner of a small chain of shops. He misstated his date of birth almost throughout his life, believing himself two years younger. He had an unsettled education: unhappy at prep school, then at a local school run by an Anglican clergyman, and finally in France at the Lycée de St Omer – which did at least make him proficient in French. There, he claimed, reading John Stuart Mill’s Essay on Liberty influenced him in a rationalist direction. After attending a business course in London he started as a journalist, in Weymouth, in London and then Geneva and then had a spell as a rancher in the US (failing to get naturalization after being cheated out of a homestead claim). By 1898 he was back in Europe, as a journalist in Paris for about fourteen years, part of the time living with his wife Beatrice Cuvellier, daughter of a New Orleans lawyer whom he had married in the US or in Paris. It seems he regarded his marriage as a disastrous mistake. Beatrice is not mentioned in his biography and he did not legally separate from her until 1932 (the year before the dinner). He supported her until her death in 1955. Thereon he lived alone “a confirmed bachelor”.

During the early 1900s he started to become a peace pundit, eventually writing under his middle names (Norman Angell) rather than Ralph Lane to conceal his identity as an employee of Northcliffe’s Daily Mail. This eventually led to his most famous book The Great Illusion, and his income from writing allowed him to leave employment in 1912. He was the (Labour) MP for Bradford North from 1929 to 1931 (at his third attempt) but he stood down on the formation of the National Government in 1931. At the time of the dinner Angell was a member of the Executive Committee of the League of Nations and of National Peace Council. In 1923 he bought the uninhabited Northey Island, an island in the estuary of the River Blackwater, Essex, where there was one farm and a cottage. He built a house there, practised his farming skills learnt in the US – his “funk hole” which was passed on to the National Trust after his death.[6]

In the months before the dinner, aside from his writing, reporting and speaking, he was riding the rollercoaster of his bid for the 1933 Nobel Peace Prize, (this was not his first attempt), important to him as he steadily rebuilt his reputation. But he was shocked when, rather out of the blue, in January 1933, Ragnvald Moe, the director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, in a chapter on Angell’s ideas, had written in his own book: “The ideas of Norman Angell… are not  founded upon fact, but depend, on the contrary, upon theories which are themselves in part illusions, or rather sophisms.  …. he is an eloquent popular propagandist.”[7] By February 1st, the deadline for the application, he hoped he had smoothed things over, but at the time of the dinner all would have been still very uncertain.[8]

Perhaps the best summary of the state of Angell’s thinking on the peace process at this juncture can be found in the report on page 9 of the Daily Herald of Thursday 16th March 1933 [9]

Sir Norman Angell says “Stand by League”

A grave warning against British “isolationism” is sounded by Sir Norman Angell in a letter to the Daily Herald. “Today ” he writes, “organs of public opinion which for so long held up German militarism as a deadly menace, and the protection of France indispensable to our national security are urging Isolationism”. Not merely do these counsellors tell us that we are to avoid all military commitments or entanglements but we are to bring both the League and the Disarmament Conference to end. “Keep out” is to be our slogan: complete isolationism; purest do-nothingness our policy”.

“If anything good is to come out of the War at all, we must today stand by the principle that the Treaty is not to be torn up by the action of one party, nor frontiers to be changed by war”.

“We must be prepared defend not France, but the law: or to defend France, if you will, through the defence of the law. To Germany we must be prepared to offer as much, and the weight of our influence on Treaty revision”.

“To both we must make plain that while there is no question of new commitments, the commitments already undertaken (particularly those of disarmament) will be fulfilled”.

“Indecision during the next few weeks may mean reversion to a political situation similar to that of 1914, with, ultimately, a similar outcome”.

What Norman did next

Although, at 62, Angell was one of the more senior dinner guests, he had another third of his life to live. In June of 1933 the revised version of The Great Illusion was published, but in November the Nobel Committee announced that “none of the nominations met the criteria set out in the will of Sir Alfred Nobel”. Hopes not completely dashed, he dusted off his application in January 1934 and on Armistice Day 1934 he and Arthur Henderson were announced as the Nobel Peace Prize Laureates for 1933 and 1934 respectively.[10] But neither, I’m sure, will have been feeling that positive about the prospects for world peace, Hitler having withdrawn from the League of Nations and the Disarmament Conference on 14th October 1933. A week later he left for a pre-planned speaking tour of the US and Canada, accompanied by Barbara Hayes, building on a visit to John Buchan, then Viscount Tweedsmuir and Governor General of Canada. Unable to attend the Prize ceremony in Oslo, Angell finally delivered his Nobel Lecture in June 1935, with speech regarded by one observer as “one of the best given by the peace laureates”. [11] [12]

Though his public profile continued to grow (in 1937 a question about what was his real name was even the subject of a Christmas quiz), he continued to wrestle with the war and peace dilemmas. [13] Alarmed by Hitler’s rise Angell even began to support the idea of colonies (which he had previously opposed) in the cause of strengthening the Empire. He worked together with fellow dinner guest Harold Macmillan (who was half Angell’s age) from July 1934 on the so-called Next Five Years Manifesto, a cross-party initiative. [14]

In 1938 Foreign Affairs was fully absorbed into Time and Tide, rather than as a Supplement. [15] In 1940 he left for New York, returning only in 1951 when he published his memoirs and lived in Sussex. In 1955 Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan recollected the impact of “The Great Illusion … ahead of its time” had made on him when he, Macmillan, was a boy. [16] As Prime Minister in 1963, Macmillan toasted Angell at the United Nations Association luncheon in honour of Angell’s 90th birthday at the House of Commons. [17] Angell died on 7th October 1967, five years short of his centenary – a third of a century on from the dinner itself, and quite an achievement for a man who worried about his health all his life.

The Great Illusion is probably little remembered today, but many may be still familiar with the classic Jean Renoir French war film of 1937, starring amongst others Jean Gabin and Eric Von Stroheim, La Grande Illusion, named after Angell’s classic. But for the real thing, a video of Angell allows us to hear this slight man, speaking in his highish register, on the subject of war and peace.



[1] Ceadel, Martin, Living the Great Illusion, Sir Norman Angell, 1872 – 1967, OUP, 2009 p1

[2] Ceadel, Martin, Living the Great Illusion, Sir Norman Angell, 1872 – 1967, OUP, 2009 p329

[3] Ceadel, Martin, Norman Angell Oxford Dictionary for National Biography, 28th September 2006

[4] Ceadel, Martin, Norman Angell Oxford Dictionary for National Biography, 28.9.2006

[5] Angell to Metz, 21.3.1933, cited in Bisceglia, Louis, The Politics of a Peace Prize, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol.17, No.3/4 (Jul-Oct 1972) p269

[6] Ceadel, Martin, Living the Great Illusion, Sir Norman Angell, 1872 – 1967, OUP, 2009 pp225, 412

[7] Moe, Ragnvald, Le Prix de la Paix et l’Institut Nobel Norvégien, pp169-70 cited in Bisceglia, Louis, The Politics of a Peace Prize, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol.17, No.3/4 (Jul-Oct 1972) p267

[8] Ceadel, Martin, Living the Great Illusion, Sir Norman Angell, 1872 – 1967, OUP, 2009 p309

[9] Daily Herald Thursday 16.3.1933, p9

[10] Adams, Irwin, The Nobel Peace Prize and the Laureates: An Illustrated Biographical History, 1901-2001, Science History Publications/USA, 2001, pp129-130

[11] Angell, Norman, Peace and the Public Mind, 12.6.1935, accessed 7.1.2019 on The Nobel Prize website

[12] Haberman, F.W, Nobel Lectures – Peace 1926-1950, Vol 2, Elsevier, Amsterdam 1972. Cited in Adams, Irwin, The Nobel Peace Prize and the Laureates: An Illustrated Biographical History, 1901-2001, Science History Publications/USA, 2001, pp129-130

[13] Ceadel, Martin, Living the Great Illusion, Sir Norman Angell, 1872 – 1967, OUP, 2009 p335

[14] Ceadel, Martin, Living the Great Illusion, Sir Norman Angell, 1872 – 1967, OUP, 2009 p319

[15] Ceadel, Martin, Living the Great Illusion, Sir Norman Angell, 1872 – 1967, OUP, 2009 p336

[16] Ceadel, Martin, Living the Great Illusion, Sir Norman Angell, 1872 – 1967, OUP, 2009 p392

[17] Ceadel, Martin, Living the Great Illusion, Sir Norman Angell, 1872 – 1967, OUP, 2009 p399

Can you tell us more?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s