Aretas Akers-Douglas (1876-1947)
2nd Viscount Chilston 

Aretas Akers-Douglas, CGMG, PC second Viscount Chilston (1876–1947), diplomatist, was born in London on 17 February 1876, the elder son in the family of two sons and five daughters of Aretas Akers-Douglas, first Viscount Chilston (1851–1926), politician, and his wife, Adeline Mary (d. 1929), daughter of Horatio Austen-Smith, of Hayes, Kent. His father was Conservative MP for East Kent (1880–85) and St Augustine's, Kent (1885–1911), and was home secretary from 1902 to 1905; he assumed the surname Akers-Douglas by royal licence in 1875, under the terms of the will of his cousin, Alexander Douglas of Baads, and was created first Viscount Chilston and Baron Douglas of Baads in 1911.

Akers-Douglas was educated at Eton College from 1889 to 1895, and served briefly in the Royal Scots before entering the diplomatic service in October 1898. (From 1899 to 1907 he served as a captain in the 3rd battalion of the Royal Scots militia.) He was fortunate to be posted to Cairo in October 1899, where he served under Lord Cromer, whom he impressed, and where he showed evidence of a flair for languages which later assisted his diplomatic career. He was promoted third secretary in December 1900, and was employed at Madrid from September to December 1901. In January 1903 he was transferred to Constantinople, returning to London in June 1903. On 6 August that year he married Amy Constance (d. 1962), daughter of John Robert Jennings-Bramly, officer in the Royal Horse Artillery. They had two sons, Aretas (1905–1940) and Eric Alexander (1910–1982).

In September 1904 Akers-Douglas was appointed to Athens, where he was promoted second secretary in April 1905. He was acting agent and consul-general at Sofia from February to April 1907. Already identified as a high-flyer, he then served as head of Chancery in Rome and then in Vienna from May 1909. He was promoted first secretary in April 1912. On three occasions between 1911 and 1914 he was posted to rugged Montenegro, and from March to July 1912 he served as chargé d'affaires at Bucharest; all this at the time of the Balkan wars when the area was highly unstable and communication with London was difficult. He was transferred to Bucharest in April 1914, returning in February 1915 to the Foreign Office, where he remained for the rest of the First World War. He was appointed CMG in 1918.

After the First World War, Akers-Douglas was sent to Paris as a member of the British delegation to the Versailles peace conference. When he returned to London in August 1919 he was appointed diplomatic secretary to the secretary of state, Lord Curzon. He was promoted counsellor the following month. Robert Vansittart, then Curzon's private secretary, wrote later that Curzon ‘underrated my assistants Allen Leeper and Akers-Douglas, later our Ambassador to Moscow and one of those mute Britons whose immobile faces effortlessly belie their shrewdness’ (Vansittart, 274). But Akers-Douglas's merit was recognized by the diplomatic service when he was sent as minister to Vienna in November 1921, thus renewing his pre-war acquaintance with that city.

Akers-Douglas remained in Vienna for almost seven years at a time when the rump Austrian state, all that was left of the old Habsburg empire, was surviving a difficult birth under its clerical chancellor Seipel. While in Vienna, Akers-Douglas became the second Viscount Chilston following his father's death on 15 January 1926. He was promoted KCMG in 1927. From Vienna he was transferred in June 1928 to Budapest, the other half of the old imperial tandem, where he dealt skilfully with Hungarian revisionist claims to Transylvania, and other territories lost under the treaty of Trianon.

In October 1933 Chilston was appointed ambassador to Moscow, capital of what was then a pariah state in Europe. He took the trouble to learn Russian but found the post exacting. ‘It is not what an ambassador can do’, he later remarked, ‘but what he can stand’ (Craig and Gilbert, 657). It was very difficult to get access to the Kremlin, and Neville Chamberlain wrote of him in 1937: ‘He gets no information and the condition of the country is a mystery to him’ (Andrew, 407). His term as ambassador coincided with the infamous Stalinist purges, a process which puzzled many foreign diplomats and journalists. On first meeting Stalin, Chilston remarked to his staff: ‘I think the chap's a gentleman’ (de Jonge, 243), but he soon had cause to revise his opinion. He reported to the Foreign Office in 1937 that the indictment of Old Bolsheviks such as Radek and Piatokov was ‘utterly unworthy of belief’, and he was convinced (rightly) that their false confessions had been extracted by means of ‘unavowable methods’. Nevertheless he was pleased that the trials helped to discredit Stalin's tyranny abroad (Documents on British Foreign Policy, ser. 2A, documents 14, 23, and 31).

It was perhaps surprising, given the dearth of accurate intelligence available to the embassy, that Chilston opposed the appointment of a passport control officer in Moscow, the normal role of such officers being to gather intelligence. However, he did campaign for a new cohort of consular officials who would get an intensive training in Russian before being posted to the Soviet Union. This would have followed the US practice of appointing ‘experts’ to Moscow, but the diplomatic service rejected the proposal and continued to employ ‘generalists’, partly because the Treasury flatly refused to provide the necessary funds. Chilston, whose character has been described as ‘shrewd and sardonic’ (Cameron Watt, 118), left Moscow in December 1938, before the abortive talks with Britain and France for a security pact. He then retired from the service. He was sworn of the privy council on retirement, having been promoted GCMG in 1935.

Chilston lived out his remaining years at the family estate of Chilston Park, Maidstone, Kent. During the war he served as a Home Guard officer. He died at his home on 25 July 1947. He was survived by his wife and his younger son, Eric, who succeeded him as third viscount, his elder son having died in a motor accident in 1940.