During the first half of the twentieth century, England’s leading independent schools tended to specialise in producing brilliant all-rounders who lived their lives at a feverish pace. All too often, such individuals were plunged into the maelstrom of war and destined to die tragically young. One thinks of the journalist and foreign correspondent Philip Pembroke Stephens, who studied Roman Dutch law at Cambridge before embarking upon a career that took in the movies, foreign diplomacy and journalism. At the age of just thirty four, he was felled by a sniper’s bullet during the Japanese invasion of Shanghai. Philip had ascended a water tower to gain a better view of the invading army. John Simpson writes at length about Stephen’s remarkable life in ‘Unreliable Sources’ and notes that he worked for the League of Nations, travelled to Spain to report on the Civil War, was expelled from Nazi Germany in 1934 for attempting to alert the world to the dangers of fascism, before immersing himself in the Italo-Abyssinian War. He was something of a star and he was so highly valued by the Daily Telegraph that they chartered a plane to fly him to China.
In many ways Robert Hamilton Bernays’ life mirrored that of Philip Pembroke Stephens. The Bernays family were of German Jewish origin and they were dazzlingly successful in a variety of different areas including commerce, politics, public relations, military service and the arts. The son of a clergyman, Robert was distantly related to the Freuds and he was a cousin of Edward Bernays who is considered the ‘father of public relations’ and he was a world expert on propaganda. In the late Twenties, Bernays was best known for his campaign to market cigarettes to women by labelling them ‘torches of freedom’. In 1954, he worked with the CIA to overthrow the democratically elected government of Guatemala. Brilliant, cynical and well-connected, Edward was recently named one of the hundred most influential Americans of the twentieth century.
Robert Bernays attended Rossall School between 1916 and 1921 before going up to Worcester College Oxford. A keen rower, he was elected President of the Worcester College Junior Common Room before going on to become President of the Oxford Union. Past holders of that post include Herbert Asquith, Michael Foot, William Gladstone, William Hague, Boris Johnson and Harold Macmillan and Gyles Brandeth.
Robert left Oxford to become a journalist for the Daily News. He remained with the paper until it was taken over by a competitor in 1930 and, at that point, he was made redundant. The following year he stood as a Liberal candidate in the constituency of Bristol North. Elected with a majority of 13,214, Robert became Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health in the National Government of 1931 led by Ramsay MacDonald. Later on, he would serve as the Parliamentary Secretary to both the Minister of Health and, in 1939, to the Minister of Transport.
Throughout the 1930s, Robert was a fierce critic of Nazism and he was considered something of an expert on Germany. Robert’s 1934 book ‘Special Correspondent’ is a lively travelogue and details his experiences travelling throughout Germany. Although he witnessed Hitler in his role as demagogue, he failed to secure the personal interview that he so desperately desired. This was because Ernst Hanfstaengl, Hitler’s Foreign Press Bureau chief, realised that he was closely associated with the leader of the Liberal Party, Sir Herbert Samuel, who was himself Jewish.
At a time when many of his contemporaries were prepared to give Hitler and the Nazi Party the benefit of the doubt, Robert saw behind the facade of good order, smart uniforms and the veneer of legality. When he visited Breslau Concentration Camp, he conceded that, ‘We had seen no actual evidence of cruelty, and yet we had the haunting sensation of the nameless evils in that camp. Later on during that trip he attended an exhibition which ‘rammed home an ugly message about racial purity with pictures of disfigured Jewish and mixed-race children’. As early as 1933, Robert referred to Germany as an ‘armed camp’ and yet like the prophet Cassandra, nobody listened to his dire warnings.
There has been much speculation about Robert’s sexuality and he was reputedly linked to a scandal involving William Lygon, 7th Earl Beauchamp, who was forced into exile. The Diaries of Chips Channon contain some scurrilous references to Robert’s personal proclivities and the Labour MP Chris Bryant includes Robert in his book ‘Glamour Boys’. This book explores the role of a group of parliamentary rebels, many of whom were gay, who consistently denounced Nazism. After the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, it was perfectly clear to this group that no minorities were to be safe from Nazism. Bryant argues that those who were prepared to speak out demonstrated great courage – especially given that they were despised by the likes of Chamberlain and those committed to a policy of appeasement.
All too often, these politicians had their sexuality weaponised against them. The propagation of vicious rumours and the constant risk of personal exposure was intrusive, personally degrading and demonstrably unkind. It was indicative of a public sphere that was both censorious and intolerant. The Glamour Boys were not only fighting fascism; they were forced to confront prejudice and intolerance much closer to home.
In 1942 Robert married and, soon after, he joined the Royal Engineers as a sapper. He was promoted to Captain and remained a sitting MP. Robert died in a plane crash in January 1945 whilst on his way to visit British troops in Greece as part of a British parliamentary delegation. No trace of the plane has ever been found and Robert is commemorated on the Cassino Memorial in Italy. He is also remembered in the Chapel of Worcester College and here in our own school chapel. Robert left behind a wife and two very young children.
In many ways, Robert’s life was framed by conflict. As a schoolboy here at Rossall, he lived through the incalculable losses of the First World War. He experienced personal prejudice and witnessed firsthand the impact of antisemitism. Robert warned against the dangers of fascism and he lost his own life just before the end of the Second World War. Robert moved within a fast set of brilliant young men who experienced intolerance on account of their own sexuality. Startlingly intelligent, always on the side of truth and acceptance, we should remember Robert as a principled man who stood up for the downtrodden and oppressed. It was his tragedy to live through such turbulent times but it was also, perhaps, the making of him.
Headmaster of Rossall School