(1886–1968), writer, diplomat, and politician, husband of Vita Sackville-West, was Counsellor from 1927 and then chargé d’affaires at the Berlin embassy from 1928 to 1929.
Harold Nicolson (1886–1968) was a writer and diplomat whose unusual marriage to the aristocrat writer Vita Sackville-West was conducted on the basis of both of them having same-sex relationships with other partners. The posting to Berlin was enjoyed more by Nicolson, whose childhood as a diplomat’s younger son had been peripatetic, and abhorred by his wife, who nevertheless spent some months each year in Berlin. Nicolson embraced Berlin more wholeheartedly, in particular its stimulating nightlife and the gay bars and cabarets. Nicolson’s many literary and cultural contacts gladly came to Berlin to visit and to recreate the atmosphere of a student reading party in Berlin. Nicolson was thus able to make the British embassy something of a cultural hub in the late 1920s. One of the highlights was the widely reported visit of H.G. Wells and his lecture on world peace at the Reichstag. Nicolson captures the dual role of writer and diplomat in a piece he published in the German magazine Der Querschnitt, well-known for its international outlook:
‘There are no intermediaries between me and the Reichsbahn. The electric trains soar upwards as they pass me, they are chariots of gold, they are the rockets which carry people, who have been to tea at Rummelsburg, back to supper at Charlottenburg, they are the comets on which the intellectuals of Wilmersdorf are borne enchanted to the no less cultured homes at Weißensee. I look up at them and see a blur of light, the mist upon the windows, a man leaning outwards against the pane. They look down at me and see an English diplomatist (stout and amiable) tying his white tie. They think, if they have time to think “That man is a foreigner and as we passed him he was tying a white tie.” They think, if they have time to think, “What is it that prevents us Germans from being able to tie a white tie?” But I, for my part, who am by then putting on my waistcoat, I think only, “What on earth is it which gives this town its charm?”’
After his return from Berlin – ‘How glad I shall be when the train moves out of the Friedrichstrasse!’ (to Vita, 20 December 1929) – he took up a position as journalist. Nicolson was involved for a time with Oswald Mosley’s New Party, edited the party’s newspaper Action and unsuccessfully stood for parliament for the New Party. Privately, he regretted his resignation from the Foreign Office, without telling Vita, whose hatred of the diplomatic service had threatened his marriage almost as much as her early elopement with another woman. Nicolson withdrew from his involvement with Mosley and the New Party, which turned to fascism in 1932, continued to write, lecture and broadcast, and later on became an MP for the National Labour Party for West Leicester. He pursued his writer’s career, and divided his time between their country seat at Sissinghurst Castle, famous for Vita’s garden, and an active social life in London. The couple’s two sons, who had spent their summer holidays in Berlin in the late 1920s, became a well-known art historian (Benedict) and publisher and writer (Nigel). Gesa Stedman
1—Harold Nicolson, ‘The Charm of Berlin’, in Der Querschnitt 5, (1929) p. 345.
Nicolson, Harold, ‘The Charm of Berlin’, Der Querschnitt, 5 (1929: p. 345)
Nicolson, Harold, Diaries and Letters 1907–1964, ed. Nigel Nicolson (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004)
Nicolson, Nigel Portrait of a Marriage (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973)
Strachey, Nino, Rooms of Their Own (London: Pitkin Publishing, 2018)