Russell Wallis seeks to show how and why the Holocaust was initially met with such a muted response in Britain.
Tuesday 3 September 1940 was a quietly auspicious late summer’s day. It was, after all, the first anniversary of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s sombre radio announcement that Britain had no alternative but war with Germany. Winston Churchill had since replaced Chamberlain and after the muted and uneasy first few months, battle had finally been joined in the air. That warm and fine Tuesday marked day 56 of the Battle of Britain. On that day, the RAF had 707 planes. By the end of the day there were 20 less as they fought for supremacy in the skies. It was an exhausting campaign, taking its toll on the lives of pilots and the nerves of the nation. Those nerves were stretched even further as the German bomber assault ominously intensified.
According to the history books, the Blitz, an almost continuous bombing assault on the British mainland, started on 7 September 1940, yet four days before that, American Pulitzer prize-winning reporter H.R. Knickerbocker, was telling the folks back home that Britain was enduring some of the worst air raids in history. Britons faced up to the seemingly relentless march of a Germany flushed with continental victory. The possibility of a German invasion hung over the country like the Sword of Damocles. It was in this climate that Sir Robert Vansittart, Chief Diplomatic Adviser to the government, and a household name to boot, chose to talk to the worried populace in a series of highly publicised broadcasts. He wanted to talk to them about Germany.
Vansittart could feel confident that he would have the ear of the nation. Along with newspapers and cinema newsreels, radio constituted one third of a triumvirate of media through which Britons had access to the world of news and news of the world. 1920s investment in radio infrastructure meant transmissions could be picked up countrywide. It has been estimated that by 1935 some 98 per cent of the population could listen to the BBC, including the working classes. Just as important were the national habits that went with owning or leasing a radio set. This national auditory enterprise was funnelled into the traditionally sacred space of the living room through a sturdy piece of equipment that was literally part of the furniture. BBC broadcasts were not background noise. ‘Listening in’, the colloquialism used to describe this act of mass intimacy, was not something done while doing something else. Of an evening, the typical family would gather round to listen. Vansittart, the outspoken and urbane public servant, knew something else as he sat down in front of the microphone: he was breaching one of the first rules of the Civil Service: never address the people direct.
This was a measure of the man, supremely self-confident to the point of arrogance. His influence on the 1930s British political elite had been immense to the point that it was wildly out of kilter with democratic principles. Then, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden clipped his wings by promoting the former Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office to his newly created but largely vacuous position. But Vansittart still felt he had things to say, especially about Germany. He burned with indignation about the German way of waging wars. He confided to his friend Noel Coward that he had failed to prevent ‘two German-made wars’ but would do his damnedest to prevent a third. This was more than mere bluster. He was also driven by a deep fidelity to suffering humanity. This is why on that balmy September day he wanted to warn Britons about the type of enemy they were facing, to galvanize public opinion in the face of mass atrocities.
Germany, he charged, was a ‘butcher-bird’, one that devoured its neighbours. He reminded his audience that Germans had committed atrocities before: against the Hereros in southwest Africa and against fellow Europeans in the Great War. He proceeded to tell them that a ‘catalogue of horrors’ was being perpetrated against Poles, Czechs and Jews. This was not, he intoned, merely the responsibility of a Nazi clique, but ordinary Germans should take their share of the blame. It was the last point that caused a national controversy lasting for the rest of the war and beyond. Despite the uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the Battle of Britain, despite the increasingly deadly bombing campaign, a significant slice of the public leapt to the defence of ordinary Germans.
The debate split the country, but not along political lines. Anyone who took a view on Germany had to have one on Vansittart. The dispute pervaded all levels of British society. It was contested in Parliament, the press, over the airwaves, on the street and in private. For much of the war Britons could not unite about who they were fighting. Was it the Nazis or the German nation? In August 1941, Harold Nicolson, the debonair ex-diplomat and diarist, wrote that, ‘It may seem strange to foreign observers that the British people should embark upon the third year of the Second German War without having achieved any common or consistent opinion upon the nature of their enemy.’
Because Britain could not make up its mind on who the enemy was, it became impossible to reach a consensus about news of unprecedented atrocities committed against Jews in the name of Germany. They simply could not agree who was to blame. This was anomalous, because Britons were no strangers to foreign atrocity. They had responded with indignation and compassion on behalf of a range of victims since the middle of the nineteenth century. While the British found room in their hearts for suffering Bulgarians, Armenians, Ethiopians, Basques and Chinese, a significant slice of the public preferred to excuse German barbarity and blame the Jews for their own fate. In other words when Jews were victims there was a long-standing reticence to get involved. Such was the strength of the indelible British antipathy towards Jews, they could not be recast as worthy victims as others had been so recently. The British view of ordinary Germans could not have been more different. In their case, admiration, stretching back into the previous century, was too deeply ingrained.
Wartime unity was shattered as the nation divided into separate camps as a result of Vansittart’s broadcast and the pamphlet that followed, Black Record. Supporters, including some big hitters, rallied to his side, despite misgivings over his strident tone. They believed that condemnation of German atrocities, past and present, was the best way to mobilise commitment to the war effort and ultimately secure peace. Public discussion of atrocities would also, they believed, put pressure on the perpetrators to stop and, perhaps most of all, influence the German population under threat of punishment to prevent their government, and agents of it, engaging in more slaughter, brutality, expropriation and other crimes.
However, those ranged against Vansittart were more numerous and more vocal. Senior politicians of all political hues, the majority of the press, church leaders, luminaries and humanitarians joined the cacophony of condemnation. Vansittart was accused of desiring revenge, of wanting to enslave 80 million Germans, of advocating a policy of German extermination and of espousing a theory that was effectively ‘the Nazi heresy read backwards.’ As one commentator indignantly put it, ‘the Germans are to be for the British what the Jews are for Nazi Germany, a universal scapegoat.’ These accusations were wildly unrepresentative of Vansittart’s view. Driving the indignation were the notions that ordinary Germans shared so-called English traits, and that Germany was, traditionally and underneath the Nazi bluster, a bastion of liberalism. There was a predisposition to believe that the majority of Germans were innocent of supporting the Nazi government; that they were against the persecution of the Jews and were even ready to overthrow the Hitler regime, given the right kind of vocal support.
However misguided either side was, one other simple theme characterised the debate. Vansittart and his supporters wanted to highlight German atrocities, while his opponents wanted to play them down. Even prominent supporters of Europe’s Jews, such as the independent MP and social campaigner Eleanor Rathbone and publisher Victor Gollancz came out as ardent opponents of Vansittart. This placed them in an invidious position. How could they publicly emphasise the plight of European Jews and at the same time minimise talk of atrocities? They were in a double bind. Even that veteran advocate of many worthy causes Gilbert Murray could not resist getting involved. When news of the massacre at Babi Yar of over 33,000 Jews was reported in The Times, he wrote to the paper offering a strident defence of the Wehrmacht.
Both sides saw the debate as fundamentally connected to the question of why Britain was fighting the war at all. It was a moral cause connected to the memory of the Great War. The same mistakes could not be made again. Germany would not be demonised as many thought it had been before. Even when news of the systematic extermination of Jews was made public some wondered why nobody seemed to care. Even though Harold Nicolson wrote in The Spectator as early as 1942 about ‘the camps of execution at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka’, he reflected privately (in his diary) why ‘horrors like this Black Hole on a gigantic scale scarcely concerns us.’ Perhaps The Economist was right when it reported, during the war that ‘Sympathy for the Germans…still outweighed the chronicle of horror from the concentration camps.’ ■