Dialogue and controversy
At a time when few women were involved in public life, Amy Buller’s story is unusual and intriguing. Through sheer force of personality and will she gathered a circle of distinguished people around her and used it to forward her philanthropic ambitions.
As a young woman she spent several years in Germany and it was that experience that led to her life-long association with the country. After graduating in German from Birkbeck College, London, in 1917, she embarked on a career as a secretary of the Student Christian Movement in Manchester and London universities, before becoming Warden of a hall of residence at Liverpool University in the 1930s. During this time, she established a reputation as a formidable organiser, networker and intellectual, with a deep concern for the welfare and personal development of students.
Against this backdrop, and amidst intrigue and concerns in Britain about the rapid rise of Nazism, Buller was invited by her good friend William Temple to lead the groups of British intelligentsia to Germany. In doing so, she defied her critics and social norms. She was personally convinced that the best way to discuss difficult issues was for people to live and work together, to build relationships and better understand each other.
The dialogue she pursued was particularly controversial, as it involved figures such as Alfred Rosenburg, one of the leading ideologues behind National Socialism. Buller’s association with people such as Rosenburg and von Ribbentrop, and her insistence on persisting with travel to Germany and cross-cultural discussions as war loomed large, almost certainly led to her attracting the attentions of MI5.
After the outbreak of war, Buller shared her experiences in Germany with her students in Liverpool and encouraged them to think critically about the threat and appeal of Nazism to young people. She was encouraged to write a book about it and in 1943, Darkness over Germany was published.
Darkness over Germany was recommended to Queen Elizabeth (The Queen Mother) by the Bishop of Lichfield, Edward Woods. She was so impressed that she invited Amy Buller to Buckingham Palace in March 1944 to discuss it. As a result, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (The Queen Mother) became involved in bringing to life Buller's vision of an institution where students could meet to explore the moral issues of the day.
In 1947, the King offered Buller the use of Cumberland Lodge, a royal residence in Windsor Great Park, to set up an educational foundation known initially as the St Catharine’s Foundation. Today, under the Patronage of Her Majesty The Queen, Cumberland Lodge (as we are now known) continues to provide a safe space for ‘unsafe’ discussions, to foster learning and critical thinking.