Auberon Herbert: Defender of Eastern Europe (1922-1974)

Waugh Society member Milena Borden has written a commemorative article about Auberon Herbert, brother-in-law of Evelyn Waugh. He died on this date in 1974 and the centenary of his birth on 25 April 1922 will be marked next year. The introduction to her article is posted below. A more detailed version is being prepared for publication in a future issue of Evelyn Waugh Studies:

Auberon Mark Henry Yvo Molyneux Herbert who died on this day, 21 July, in 1974, aged 52, was Evelyn Waugh’s brother-in-law. Waugh disliked him intensely and the hostility between them seems to have been mutual. The writer married Auberon’s sister Laura Herbert in 1937 and as Martin Stannard wrote about Waugh’s wedding, Auberon Herbert was a comical feature of what was otherwise a respectable day: “There was only one faintly ridiculous element to the proceedings: the bride was given away by her sixteen-year-old brother, Auberon, a moon-faced boy Waugh could never like.” (Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years 1903-1939, 1986: 449). Waugh never really forgave him for being against the marriage and some of their common friends later on recalled how awkward it was when circumstances forced them to be together. But according to their contemporary Malcolm Muggeridge, who was a Catholic journalist and broadcaster, Auberon Herbert was able to express a degree of appreciation towards Waugh: “…whenever the subject of Waugh cropped up between us, he never failed to acknowledge Waugh’s qualities…” (Auberon Herbert: A Composite Portrait, 1976:48).

Auberon Herbert was the only son of Aubrey Herbert (1880-1923), a British military and intelligence officer, and a conservative politician from an aristocratic background who strongly supported the Albanian independence of 1912 after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. Although Auberon Herbert did not remember his father who died a year after he was born, he followed into his steps and had a huge commitment to other less fortunate nations of Europe, most notably Poland, Ukraine and Belarus. In 1954, together with a few friends he founded the Anglo-Byelorussian Society and was its chairman until the end of his life. Byelorussian clergy conducted his funeral and requiem mass at the request of his family, underlining the very close bond between him and the Byelorussian community (The Journal of Byelorussian Studies, 1974).

Like Evelyn Waugh, he was a devout Roman Catholic deeply disappointed with the profound changes in the Latin Mass introduced by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). As a result, he frequented the traditional Eastern Liturgy of the Byelorussian Catholics at their church in Finchley, north London. Also, similarly to Evelyn Waugh, initially he couldn’t join the British Army because he was declared not fit on health grounds. Instead he enlisted voluntarily in the Polish Armed Forces in Britain (1940-1947) as a private, later became a second lieutenant and received several military decorations for his services. During his service with the Polish officers in London during the war, Auberon Herbert became a passionate supporter of Poland, a country which was tragically trapped between the German invasion from the west and the Soviet occupation from the east. In the course of the war and after it ended, Poland’s tragic division came to symbolise the historic betrayal of the rest of Eastern Europe which is also one of the major themes in Waugh’s trilogy Sword of Honour (1952-1961).

A very good account of the problems faced by Poland at the end of WWII is currently available on BBC4. This is in a series entitled World War II: Behind Closed Doors. It was originally broadcast in 2008 and is based on documents that became available after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.  The earlier episodes disclose information about the Soviets’ annihilation and later cover-up of the Polish officer corps after their first occupation of Poland during the Nazi-Soviet non-agression pact. The final episodes focus on the inability of the British and Americans to prevent Stalin (now their ally) from imposition of a Soviet-backed government at the end of the war. The Poles had to wait 45 years for the “free elections” Stalin kept promising. Their advocate Auberon Herbert did not live to see that event.  The full six-episode series will be available on BBC iPlayer for the next 11 months. A UK internet connection is required to watch it.

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