Although the Government was well-informed about Hitler's world view and objectives when he came to power, it continued to regard disarmament and collective security as the most appropriate foreign policy. Therefore, to avoid alienating its new negotiating partner, it made no public protest against the early violence or acts of discrimination. Many politicians felt guilty about the harshness of the Treaty of Versailles, and others admired the way the Nazis tackled mass unemployment.
Former Prime Minister David Lloyd-George, meets Hitler at his home.
After a visit in September 1936, Lloyd-George called Hitler "a great man".
Source: National Library of Wales
Public opinion was disturbed by the conduct of the Nazis in 1933, but few understood the radical nature of Nazi antisemitism and it was believed it would blow over. A significant part of British society actively sympathised with Hitler's policies and envied the recovery of the German economy. It was quite common for British diplomats and journalists in Germany to blame the Jews for 'provoking' antisemitism by their 'undue prominence' in sectors of the economy and cultural life.
The English national football team lines-up alongside its German
opponents prior to the opening match of England's tour. May 1938, Berlin.
British fascists were the most enthusiastic pro-Nazis. In 1932 Sir Oswald Mosley founded the British Union of Fascists. Mosley won notable political backing, although this support ended in 1934 when the uglier side of Nazism became apparent. Mosley however remained popular on the streets. When he married in Berlin in 1936, Goebbels and Hitler attended a celebration afterwards. During 1936-37 his followers mounted a blatant antisemitic campaign in the East End of London, home of 100,000 British Jews.
Leaflet advertising a BUF rally and speech by Oswald Mosley
at the Royal Albert Hall, October 1934.
Source: The Wiener Library, WL7303.
In 1933, there were around 350,000 Jews in Britain - less than one percent of the total population. British Jewry was divided by class, wealth, and attitudes towards Zionism. News of the attacks on German Jews appalled British Jews, prompting unofficial boycotts of German goods and demonstrations. British Jews gave generously to refugee causes, although privately there were disputes about how the money should be used. Refugees received a mixture of benevolence and resentment, with offers of help accompanied by encouragements to become invisible. British Jews feared, with good reason, that the arrival of large numbers of refugees would aggravate antisemitism.
A leaflet calling for the boycott of German goods in response to the persecution
of Jews. Published by the United Jewish Protest Committee, 1933.
Source: The Wiener Library, WL3342.
In 1933 there were strict immigration controls in Britain. 'Aliens' could only enter under specific regulations. Unofficially politicians and bureaucrats viewed the Jewish refugee problem from the perspective of British interests; as in this document where it is noted .we have congratulated ourselves privately that we have taken the cream of refugees.. From 1933 to early 1938, only around 11,000 German Jews settled in Britain. After a change in government policy following the Anschluss and Kristallnacht this rose by 40,000 before the outbreak of war. Jewish immigration to British-controlled Palestine remained a contentious issue throughout the pre-war years and beyond.
An extract from a memorandum proposal on immigration policy, written in July
1935 by a civil servant for the then Home Secretary Sir John Simon.
Source: National Archives, HO 213/330
One of the Government's most dramatic gestures was to allow the admission of 10,000 unaccompanied children and teenagers. This was qualified – children were received on a temporary basis only and their parents were excluded because they might have competed on the job market. Between November 1938 and September 1939 children were evacuated to Britain by special trains, Kindertransports (children’s transports) and ferry to Harwich, before being housed across the country. Of these children 8,500 to 9,500 were Jews.
Jewish children arrive in Britain, December 1938.
Source: Yad Vashem Photo Archive
People all over Britain, of all denominations and from all walks of life, raised money to guarantee refugees, help those who arrived in their communities, or provided homes and employment for them. In Parliament MPs of all parties lobbied to relax restrictions on immigration. A few brave men and women took risks to protect Jews or help them escape from German controlled territory to England or Palestine. These individuals have since been recognised by the British Government.
Nicholas Winton was a British stockbroker who helped nearly 700 Jewish children escape Czechoslovakia
and find new homes in the UK. He was one of 27 Britons recognised by the British government in 2010 as
"Heroes of the Holocaust" for their actions during the war.
In wartime, the Government was apprehensive about the level of antisemitism in Britain fearing it could turn into anti-war and pro-fascist sentiment. So it did everything to avoid the impression that Britain was at war on behalf of the Jews. It ordered that Jewish suffering in Europe not be specified in propaganda or BBC broadcasts. Financial institutions were instructed to freeze the assets of Jews from enemy and non-belligerent countries which were held in Britain. Some assets were sold to finance the war effort.
A report on antisemitic feeling in London, January 1942. The report was compiled in response to a secret directive
issued to Home Intelligence officers requesting information on whether antisemitism was rising in their region.
Source: National Archives, HO 262/9
At the outbreak of war, all ‘aliens’ in the UK were classified by Aliens Tribunals to determine their fate in the event of an emergency. Most of the 78,000 refugees were categorised as no threat to the state. However, in the panic following the invasion of France the mass internment of all refugees was ordered. Around 27,000 ‘enemy aliens’ were put in camps or sent to Canada and Australia, of whom the vast majority were Jewish refugees. Jewish leaders did not raise their voices. Mass internment was only halted and slowly reversed in summer 1940.
A photograph of internees in Douglas, the Isle of Man, 1940.
Source: The Wiener Library, WL8139.
In wartime the amount of information that reached Britain about the treatment of Jews was plentiful and accurate. There was, however, a vast gap between knowing and believing. Government officials treated news of atrocities with scepticism, with some also prejudiced against the Jews. In early 1943, code breakers at Bletchley Park intercepted, decoded, and translated a report on the operation to annihilate the Jews of Poland. The intelligence analysts of the Höfle Telegram apparently missed the significance of this message, which provided statistical data of arrivals at the death camps in Lublin (L), Treblinka (T), Belzec (B) and Sobibor (S).
Telegram from Herman Höfle to Adolf Eichmann intercepted on 15 January 1943, relaying the number of
arrivals at different death camps up to the end of December. It was discovered by historians in 2000.
Source: National Archives, HW 16/23
After the German occupation of Hungary and deportations to Auschwitz between March and July 1944, the British Government rejected pleas to bomb the railway lines from Budapest to Auschwitz or the gas chambers themselves. In 1944 both the British and American bomber commands said that technical difficulties prevented them from bombing the camps. This was not true. Even though Churchill personally endorsed the call for bombing, the political will was not sufficient to outweigh the reservations of the military.
Note from Churchill to his private secretary, 18 September 1944, regarding bombing Auschwitz.
The note shows the Air Ministry's lack of enthusiasm and a failure to give them necessary information.
Source: National Archives, FO 371/42806
In June 1940 Germany occupied the Channel Islands. The people owed allegiance to the British crown, and the islands had a tiny indigenous Jewish population. Most had fled before the Germans arrived, but there were a few who had not escaped. Anti-Jewish decrees were rubber-stamped by local government and legal officials, and British police located and escorted Jews to ships for deportation to camps in mainland Europe. After the war, evidence of unforced collaboration was suppressed. The truth remained virtually unknown for 40 years.
German marching band proceeds through St. Peters' Port, Guernsey, 1940.
On April 15 1945, British troops entered Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. They found 60,000 inmates of whom 40,000 were so sick and racked by starvation that they were close to death. Around 100,000 corpses needed proper burial. Even after the arrival of emergency medical teams, nearly 14,000 died after liberation. The British relief effort, though not flawless, was excellent and saved thousands of lives.
A sign posted by the British army at the entrance to the Bergen-Belsen concentration
camp, May 1945. The sign does not make explicit reference to Jews.
Source: The US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Britain was involved in prosecuting perpetrators at trials in Nuremberg and Belsen. By 1948, the Government and public had become fed up with war crime trials, and no more were held under British auspices. Meanwhile thousands of collaborators entered the UK as 'volunteer workers'. It was not until 1988 that an inquiry revealed the presence of war criminals in Britain. In 1991 a law was passed to enable these people to be tried, but this had little actual effect. Only one person was successfully prosecuted.
In the 1980s there was public outrage at the presence of war criminals in Britain.
The story of this affair has been chronicled in Professor Cesarani's book,
In 1996, research by the HET revealed Britain's role in the failed restitution of gold stolen by Nazis during the war. A year later, it was shown that post-war governments had been slow and unhelpful when it came to returning to their rightful owners assets which had been seized during the war. Following an official investigation, the government acknowledged the matter had been mishandled, and established a scheme to compensate legitimate claimants in mid-1998.
Two of a series of documents published by the Trust in the mid-1990s highlighting
the failure to restore assets and monies to victims of the Holocaust.
These segments of text are adapted from the Trust’s publication, Britain and the Holocaust. Authored by the acclaimed historian Professor David Cesarani, Research Chair in History at Royal Holloway University of London.