Churchill and the Holocaust: The Possible and Impossible
Martin Gilbert, CBE
ICS 25th Anniversary International Conference
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum,Washington, 8 November 1993
FIRST of all I would like to say that I am sure, like everybody here who has been around the Museum today, I am still very much under its impact, and I, too, would like to pay my tribute to Yeshayahu Weinberg, whom I first knew when he was devising the marvelous Beit Hatefusot Museum in Tel Aviv, the museum of the history of the Jewish people in the diaspora. I think the work he has done here is truly extraordinary.
I would like in the next fifty minutes to look at an aspect of Churchill's life which has always concerned me, as a historian of Churchill, as a historian of the Holocaust, and as a Jew.
Every biographer tries to find the key to his subject's personality, and above all the flaws and weaknesses which are an indispensable part of any biographical presentation. I remember how pleased, actually thrilled, I was some twenty-five years ago, talking to one of those who had been close to Churchill in the Twenties, Thirties, Forties and Fifties. He said to me: "You have to understand, Gilbert, that Winston did have one serious fault." As a biographer, my ears pricked up and my pen was poised to record and then to follow this up. This gentleman continued, "He was too fond of Jews." Whether this was a serious fault for some of his contemporaries, for his biographer it was an extraordinary window into his life.
When in November 1932, shortly before Hitler came to power, and Churchill was in Munich doing some historical research about the First Duke of Marlborough, his ancestor, an intermediary tried to get him to meet Hitler, who was in Munich at the time and had high hopes of coming to power within months. Churchill agreed to meet Hitler, who was going to come to see him in his hotel in Munich, and said to the intermediary: "There are a few questions you might like to put to him, which can be the basis of our discussion when we meet." Among them was the following
question: "What is the sense of being against a man simply because of his birth? How can any man help how he is born?"
This may seem a simple sentiment to us now, but how many people, distinguished people from Britain, the United States and other countries, who met or might have met Hitler, raised that question with him? So surprised, and possibly angered, was Hitler by this question that he declined to come to the hotel and see Churchill.
FROM the moment that Hitler came to power, Churchill in his public speeches, and in his Parliamentary speeches, made it clear that the racial aspect of Nazism was a central concern. He always insisted on raising this issue, and pointing out the relevance to his listeners of the Nazi racial policies, and this he did again and again.
I also found in an article which he wrote in April 1933, some two months after Hitler came to power, an extraordinary forecast or foresight, the recognition, which I haven't seen elsewhere at the time: that it was not only the 500,000 Jews of Germany, but many other Jews, many millions of Jews elsewhere, who were now threatened. This is what he wrote:
"There is a danger of the odious conditions now ruling in Germany, being extended by conquest to Poland and another persecution and pogrom of Jews being begun in this new area."
Churchill saw the anti-Jewish policies of the Nazis as affecting every element, not only of German life, but of the relationship between Germany and the other powers. He spoke of them at a time when Jewish reaction was being debated strongly by Jews themselves: Should the Jews boycott? Should the Jews lobby? As you know from the American experience, the Jewish community was divided as to how it should, or if it should, represent its particular, desperate needs, or submerge its concerns into national concerns.
Churchill set out what he called "a perfectly legitimate use of Jewish influence throughout the world: to bring pressure, economic and financial, to bear upon the governments which persecute them." It is interesting, too, that he saw a direct parallel between the growing plight of Jewish refugees and British policy to Palestine, remarking in April 1937, "of the need not to close the doors against them."
In Palestine, some 320,000 Jews had availed themselves of Churchill's own legislation of 1922 to immigrate. Now, the British government was seeking means of going back on what was known as the Churchill White Paper for Palestine, and effectively giving veto power to the Arabs against any substantial further Jewish immigration. And so Churchill, in his discussions with Jewish leaders and with British leaders, stressed the need to maintain an open door in Palestine.
The British government, of which he was not a member, but whose Conservative-dominated Cabinet was made up very much of his colleagues, friends and contemporaries - people with whom he had worked very closely in the past - took a different view. I found it particularly compelling to see that, when one of the greatest British Conservative political figures of the time, Lord Halifax, wh~ was shortly to be made Foreign Secretary, went to see Hitler in December 1937, Churchill saw great danger in this. He saw it not only from the general policy of appeasement, which he opposed, but also specifically for the dangers that it would create for Jews and opponents of Nazism, who would find Hitler encouraged by this British visit and recognition. In the House of Commons - a very hostile House of Commons, which did not want to hear that Lord Halifax's visit to Hitler had been in any way a bad thing, it was all avenues of hope and good Anglo-German relations - Churchill said:
I would like to speak about the persecution of Jews in Germany. It is a horrible thing that arace of people should be attempted to be blotted out of the society in which they had been born. If it were thought by this visit that we were making terms for ourselves at the expenses either of small nations or of large conceptions, which are dear not only to many nations but to millions of people in every land, a knell of despair would resound through many parts of Europe.
It is interesting to note, sad in a way, that Churchill's constant "harping" on the Jewish issue - as his contemporaries sometimes described his concern - was more and more held against him in the general argument about his lack of reliability, balance, judgement and statesmanship. Foolish historians today exaggerate his drinking, but at the time, what was disliked was his championing of what we now call human rights, and specifically the rights of Jews.
When in May 1939 the British government put on the statute book the limitation of immigration to Palestine, Churchill led the opposition to it in the House of Commons and spoke very bitterly of the policy of closing the gates of refuge at the very moment when they were most needed. But just as his friend had said to me, "He was too fond of Jews," so I found a letter at the time of the Kristallnacht, the destruction of Jewish synagogues, property and lives, a letter in which Neville Chamberlain wrote privately to his sister: "Jews aren't lovable people, I don't care for them myself." Although this expression of opinion killed nobody and hurt nobody physically, it was symptomatic of a terrible malaise which, in enabling the gates of rescue to be closed, did incredible harm, in those few months leading up to the outbreak of war.
WHEN war came in September 1939, when Britain declared War on Germany, Churchill was asked by the Zionist leadership, having entered the Cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty, to give his own input to try and prevent the government policy - the 1939 Palestine White Paper policy
- from becoming law. And as much of what I am about to say concerning the period of Churchill's premiership relates to this issue of what was possible and what was not possible, I would like to say very briefly something about this subject.
Churchill was under the determination of the Conservative Government, of which he had become a part, not to alter any of the legislative acts which that government - which had an enormous parliamentary majority, the largest in our history -had passed before the outbreak of war, in particular with relation to Palestine, the Jewish refuge. It was pointed out to him, correctly from a constitutional point of view, that he was not the leader of the Conservative Party - this position was still held by Neville Chamberlain - and that he had not been brought to power by Conservative desire, but by the Labour Party's refusal to serve under Chamberlain. The Conservatives had their legislation, it had been voted, it was in place, and his duty was to conduct the war, not to carry out a retrospective, even a vindictive, attitude towards the policies he, as a maverick, as an outsider, had opposed.
I found this in the first of several discussions Churchill had with the Zionist leader Dr. Weizmann. Weizmann had access to Churchill. They had known each other since the First World War, and in the Weizmann archive I found very detailed transcripts of everything discussed by the two men.
In their first discussion, on the 17th of December 1939, Weizmann pressed Churchill on this matter of the future of Palestine after the war. I would like just to read the few lines that give the crux of the discussion.
Dr. Weizmann said to Mr. Churchill, "You stood at the cradle of this enterprise. I hope you will see it through." Mr. Churchill asked what Dr. Weizmann meant by "seeing it through." Dr. Weizmann replied that after the war, the Zionists would wish to have a State of some 3-4 million Jews in Palestine. Mr. Churchill said, "Yes, I quite agree with that."
Churchill did agree, but the government of which he was a member continued to seek to appease Arab opinion by giving assurances that Palestine would not be open to Jewish immigration during the War. Indeed, the Colonial Secretary, Malcolm MacDonald, had specifically refused to issue visas to some 25,000 Polish Jewish children on the grounds that this would be, among other things, though not actually technically a breach of the 1939 White Paper on immigration, be regarded by the Arabs as a breach.
Churchill challenged these attitudes. He did so to the increasing annoyance of his colleagues and, while he remained at the Admiralty, in vain. "It seems to me," he told the Cabinet on Christmas Day 1939, "that with the world in flux and the life of every European nation and of Britain hanging in the balance, we ought not to say that the sole fixed immutable fact in the world is that Jewish immigration into Palestine must cease."
Even when it came to the trickle of Jews who were managing to make their way to Palestine by what were illegal methods under British law, Churchill was not informed by the Foreign Office or Colonial Office that Admiralty ships, for which he was responsible, were being used to intercept refugee traffic. When he found it out he was incensed, and immediately brought an end to that practice. I found a private letter which he wrote to Malcolm MacDonald, the Colonial Secretary, at the beginning of 1940: "I was somewhat surprised to see that the telegram about intercepting was sent off without being shown to me. These orders cannot be carried out."
Britain was ruled, in war as in peace, by a vast bureaucratic apparatus, and following this complaint the civil servants met together and came, after long deliberations which survive in their archives, to the conclusion that the question of Jewish refugees was not a political, but an administrative one, since the political decision to exclude the Jews had already been taken. Therefore, all that remained to be done was to carry it out administratively. This meant that it need not be the subject of memoranda and reports to politicians. In that way they could get on with it on their own, and no one in the Cabinet need know about it.
The first person to alert Churchill to what was happening was not, therefore, a civil servant - they had ganged up in a curious way to keep this information administrative - but his own son, Randolph. It was Randolph who drew his father's attention to a ship which had been intercepted, and whose so-called illegal immigrants were to be deported from Palestine to the British Indian Ocean colony of Mauritius. As a result of Randolph's intervention, all those on board the ship were allowed to land and remain in Palestine.
Churchill's relationships with his colleagues had to be those of trust. Tremendous pressures and dangers accompanied the war each day, particularly in the first months and years. Yet his stance on the issue of Jewish refugees threatened in several important cases to undermine that trust.
I was quite surprised to find a note in the unpublished diary of one of his senior conservative colleagues, setting out the reasons why Churchill would be unsuitable as Prime Minister, written two days before he assumed that office. In this note, Churchill's support for certain Jewish land purchases in Palestine was regarded as one of the reasons why he would not make a suitable Prime Minister, or a suitable Conservative leader. When he did become Prime Minister, Churchill fought against this attitude. Each of his efforts, each of his fights with officials and with colleagues, had to take place - and he never shirked or shunned them - within the context of a desperately fought war: a war that was inflicting tremendous casualties, through German air bombardment, on the British people, and even greater casualties at sea with the continuing submarine sinkings.
Yet, somehow, Churchill always seems not only to have made the time, but to have put that extra energy behind the Jewish issues which were brought to him. On two occasions members of his inner staff, fearful that he would react in a positive way to the Jewish requests, deliberately withheld them from him altogether.
AS IT is so topical at the moment, and also relevant to my theme, I would like to just make a small comment on the debate as to whether Britain should have made peace with Hitler in the summer of 1940, a view that was first put forward by members of Churchill's Cabinet and Administration at the time, and has recently been echoed in a history book.
Churchill was never under any illusions as to the effect which any such peace-making would have: that it would not be a question of preserving the British Empire, for which Hitler always expressed great admiration; or a question of reaching some accommodation with Germany whereby Britain would be allowed some form of independence or autonomy, perhaps similar to that of Vichy France or Denmark. He always understood and stressed that it would mean the imposition of the whole racial policy, and the destruction of the civilised values which, as he saw it, was the objective of the Nazi regime.
Churchill did understand, in October-November 1940. that if the intense bombing of Britain continued to be as effective as it was then, the public might call for an administration which would demand peace with Hitler almost at the price of annihilation. It was always possible that th~ bombing would be too severe; that the way forward would not be clear; as he explained on one occasion to President Roosevelt, this could happen:
Although the present Government and I personally would never fail to send the Fleet across the Atlantic if resistance was beaten down here, a point may be reached in the struggle where the present Ministers no longer have control of affairs and when very easy terms could be obtained for the British Island by their becoming a vassal state of the Hitler Empire. A pro-German Government would certainly be called into being to make peace, and might present to a shattered or a starving nation an almost irresistible case for entire submission to the Nazi will.
The Jewish refugee problem entered at the height of this desperate period into Churchill's working life, when an attempt was made by the British Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East, General Wavell, to deport from Palestine a group of illegal refugees who had entered the country from a ship called the Patria. It is interesting that Churchill had begun to interfere not in the working of government, but in the movement of correspondence from department to department. He liked to have a look at what his ministers and their advisors were saying to each other, and he found a telegram from General Wavell to Anthony Eden in which the general said that, were Jewish immigrants allowed to remain in Palestine, as the local British administration were prepared to do, this would be a dangerous threat to Britain's position throughout the Middle East in view of the anger it would cause in the Arab countries of the region.
Churchill replied directly to General Wavell, pointing out that he had seen this warning from the General, and using a phrase that you do not often hear or see in wartime telegrams:
"Personally, I hold it would be an act of inhumanity to force these people to re-embark." And Churchill prevented that act of inhumanity.
There then began a struggle, which lasted until 1943, between Churchill and several government departments who were desperate to prevent any further Jewish refugees from leaving. When one ship went down in the Black Sea, a senior official in the Colonial Office wrote to his superior, "There could have been no more opportune disaster from the point of stopping any further influx of refugees." It was opportune for British policy that Jews should feel there was a danger in seeking refuge.
Churchill tried to set out guidelines for his War Cabinet, and they read as follows: "We have to be guided by general considerations of humanity towards those fleeing from the cruelest of persecutions." But the War Cabinet did not accept the Prime Minister's guideline. A substantial majority - as far as I can see all but one member - rejected this guideline. The senior official involved with refugee policy wrote, "We have to remember that our object has been and remains to keep the business as far as possible on the normal administrative plane and outside the realm of Cabinet policy and interference."
You are familiar in your American government documents with this type of argumentation. Churchill tried to see as much as he could. He constantly badgered his own staff to let him know what was happening; but I found file after file, bundle after bundle, of documents which specifically lingered in other offices and other departments. For example, a request on behalf of Luxembourg Jews to find them asylum somewhere in the British Empire, which the officials knew was a subject of interest and concern to the Prime Minister, was deliberately withheld from him. Even at the dangerous climacterics of the war in 1941, the inability of some of Churchill's Cabinet colleagues, and of the officials behind them, even to prioritize the halting of measures to help refugees, even to devote so much time to anti-refugee policy, is in our own retrospect and hindsight, incredible.
Dr. Weizmann went to see Churchill for a second time in March 1941, shortly before the German invasion of Russia and the beginning of the Holocaust. Weizmann, with his access, also had enormous responsibilities. As he saw it, his responsibility was above all to obtain assurances that after the war Palestine would become a Jewish state. This was the discussion, and Churchill gave the assurances, which he certainly intended to uphold.
IT LOOKS strange, reading today what was happening inside Europe at that time, particularly for those who have travelled around this Museum, to see that Palestine was the priority But at that time it was thought that the terrifying experiences through which the Jews of Europe were going would mean that after the War there would have to be somewhere for them to go. Millions would wish to go to Palestine, certainly to get out of Europe; and Dr. Weizmann felt that his prime responsibility was to that movement of the millions, two, three or even four million being mentioned. Churchill's assurances meant a great deal to him. Indeed it was in Churchill's mind that in recognition of how much those Jews had suffered, not only should they acquire Palestine after the war, but that Palestine itself should have some mandatory area into which the Jews, the victims, could have some recompense, a place to go. He even suggested Libya, or possibly Eritrea, as a place which might be given to the Jews as their own territory to control, as a Mandate for a Jewish Palestine.
Roosevelt, who was always suspicious of British imperial aspirations, was in dispute with Churchill over this very question of the Jewish national home and sovereign State. The evolution of the Atlantic Charter, with its basic principle of one man, one vote, would have created on the 8th of May 1945 an Arab state in Palestine. Churchill fought to exclude any of the provisions of the Atlantic Charter from Palestine, so as to enable the Jews not only to settle there, but in due course to become a majority
Of course this was distracting, if you like, from the conduct of the war, but it focused Churchill's mind on what the Jews were to have, and what they were to become, after the war.
IN JUNE 1941 the Germans invaded Russia and the horrifying events which are so vividly portrayed in this Museum began. British Intelligence authorities were able to read many dozens of the top-secret radio circuits, messages being sent from Germany to the front, and from the front to Berlin. Of some 120 circuits, probably eighty or ninety were broken into and read. Among them, in the summer of 1941, were top secret messages sent by the German police forces in the East to Berlin. It is they which first give an idea, not of the full scale of the slaughter in the East, but a clear intimation that it is taking place - and taking place on a systematic scale.
Between 18 July and 30 August 1941, at least seven such top-secret signals were read by British Intelligence. They referred to four categories of victims: Jews, Jewish plunderers, Jewish Bolsheviks and Russian soldiers. They reported, if one adds them up, more than 50,000 executions in an area where we now know that many hundreds of thousands of killings were taking place. Churchill was shown these. In a speech in September he referred to the killings in the East as being unprecedented and barbaric.
On 12 September 1941, which was shortly before the Babi Yar executions in Kiev, the chief of the Ordnungspolizei in Berlin gave an instruction that no more information was to be sent by top-secret radio messages. I suspect we will never know why he did this. The result was that all subsequent information was sent by telephone, which could not be listened to; or by letter, personal report, and by courier. This small and incomplete window on the Einsatzgruppen killings was closed almost as soon as it had been opened. Only sixteen days after the order not to transmit by radio, the Babi Yar executions took place, and 33,000 were murdered in three days.
Churchill was in dispute at this time with the British Broadcasting Corporation. He had a general view that publicity about the mass murders was essential. The Jewish groups who approached him strongly favoured and urged such publicity. But the BBC, in its internal memoranda and in its policy for many months, sought not to emphasise what it called the "racial aspects" of the killings: not to stress the Jewish aspect. Their internal argument was that this would give some negative impact to the propaganda value of showing that Nazis were carrying out mass murder. Yet Churchill persevered with his attempt to make publicity as wide as possible, and eventually, both the BBC and the newspapers began to publish quite substantial articles on the killings as they reached the West. The number of refugees who were fleeing by early 1942 was very small. Nevertheless, this trickle existed, and even against these few who were able to get out of the totalitarian vice, British policy continued to be one of great reluctance to admit refugees. Churchill now took a decisive initiative: to indicate to the Jewish leadership that any Jew fleeing from Nazi rule who could reach a place from which he could proceed to Palestine would be allowed to do so, irrespective of the quotas which existed according to the legislation.
Such was the centrality of this debate, and the bitterness in the bulk of the administration. against Churchill's attitude, that a special War Cabinet was called on 5 March 1942, which laid down an extraordinary basic principle of British policy: "All practical steps should be taken to discourage illegal immigration to Palestine." But Churchill, working with a new Colonial Secretary, Lord Cranborne, devised a system whereby Cranborne's letter to the Jewish Agency gave them the authority, in effect, both to undermine War Cabinet policy and also the prewar policy of the British government.
ONE of the most exhilarating moments in my own research career came as I was worked slowly with my wife Susie through the bundles of files in the Jewish Agency archive in Jerusalem. Suddenly we came across Lord Cranborne's letter: the actual letter which he had sent telling the Jewish leaders of the policy which he and Churchill sought to pursue. It seemed to me a letter almost as important as the original Balfour Declaration.
There was another area of Jewish desiderata which was particularly strong. It had been launched by Jabotinsky and Weizmann, acting together in 1940: the recruitment of Jews to fight in the allied forces under a Jewish flag ‘and the Jewish symbol: a Jewish military force. I have always felt that one of the simpler, and also rather frightening, tests of how Churchill's wartime powers were in reality limited is to watch how this Jewish army proposal, which eventually came to fruition, was continuously, year by year, sabotaged and undermined.
Churchill also supported the idea, both to show the Jews that they were part of the Allied war effort and to give them some outlet for their feelings, that several dozen young Jews, after joining the British forces in Palestine, would parachute behind German lines to link up with Allied and Jewish resistance in occupied Europe. As we see in the Museum, most of them perished. Churchill also continued to press his colleagues to enable the Jews to have a military force. So fierce was the opposition to this idea that Churchill was forced to write one of his Ministers: "I have come to the conclusion that it may be necessary to make an example of anti-Semitic officers in high places. If at least three or four of them were recalled and dismissed and the reasons given, it would have a salutary effect." But, as you may imagine, the resources of British officialdom, then struggling at one of the most dangerous moments of the Second World War, were mobilized to prevent any such action against any anti-Semitic officers.
ALTHOUGH the signals intelligence window into German mass murder activities in the summer of 1941 had closed, from the beginning of the deportations in June 1942, reports of the transportations, many by neutral journalists in Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam, reached the West immediately The newspapers for the summer and autumn of 1942 are filled with accounts of the deportation of adults and even children from Western Europe to some "unknown destination" in the East. Churchill referred to this in a speech in the House of Commons on 8 September 1942, describing the brutal persecutions in which the Germans had indulged in every land into which their armies had broken. "These," he said, "have recently been augmented by the most bestial, the most squalid and the most senseless of all their offenses: namely, the mass deportation of Jews from France with the pitiful horrors attendant upon it. When the hour of liberation comes, it will also be the hour of retribution." In that last pledge, Churchill was saying what the Jewish leadership had been urging the Allies to say for many months: the evil-doers would be brought to trial when Germany was defeated.
Believing that it would serve perhaps as a deterrent, but specifically as a pointer that Jews would not be denied justice after the war and that there would be war crimes trials, following Churchill's speech the process was begun which led to the Allied declaration on war crimes. All those who participated in the persecution of Jews were warned that after the war they would be hunted down and brought to trial and justice. In calling for this, Churchill and his Government, and the Jewish leaders, were in total agreement.
There was another element in the Jewish requests at this time, and a very pressing element. It was that Allied leaders should speak out about specific persecution of the Jews. Those who have studied this period know that most Allied declarations referred, for one reason or another, to the general persecution of those under Nazi rule - and there was persecution of every subject people. There was in London a Czech government-in-exile, so clearly the Lidice massacre, which is portrayed in this Museum, was the subject of such a declaration. There was a Polish government-in-exile, so the murder of as many as three million non-Jewish Poles was constantly the subject of declarations. The Jews did not have a government-in-exile, nor any form of government. They did have representatives, and my impression, having studied many hundreds of files, is that their representatives worked exceptionally hard, without respite, to bring the plight of the Jews to the attention of the political and military leadership, and of the public. Central to these efforts during 1942-43 was the desire for publicity, for noise, for senior people to say what was happening.
It is interesting that many senior British and American politicians were reluctant to introduce the specific question of Jewish suffering. One exception was the Polish government-in-exile in London, whose leader, Count Raczynski (who died recently at the age of more than one hundred) constantly referred to the Jewish plight in his newsfilm and radio presentations. The other exception was Churchill, who lost no opportunity at public gatherings to draw his audience's attention to this. I would just like to read one example, from October 1942:
The systematic cruelties to which the Jewish people, men, women and children, have been exposed under the Nazi regime are among the most terrible events of history. Free men and women denounce these vile crimes and when this world struggle ends with the enthronement of human rights, racial persecution will be ended.
Churchill's words served as a great rallying point for Jews in the West, and culminated in an event mentioned in the Museum itself: the public declaration of 17 December 1942 against Nazi crimes.
In the course of my researches, I found that many members of the British government and the United States administration sought to water down this declaration about the nature of the crimes being committed. Information, which was brought to the West by among others, Jan Karski, is mentioned in this Museum. Churchill was emphatic that this should not be a declaration of what was thought to be happening or what might be happening, which is what the State Department wanted to say, but what was actually happening -"this bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination" was the phrase used. And the declaration reiterated the request of the Jewish leadership that, when the war was over, all those committing these crimes would be hunted down and brought to trial.
Just to show you the difficulty of such declarations, which to us sound powerful, but self-evident, an attempt to enlist the support of the Pope in this declaration failed. The Cardinal Secretary of State at the Vatican replied to the British Government:
"While we deplore the cruelties that have come to our attention, we are unable to verify Allied reports." Thus they would not join the declaration.
THROUGHOUT 1943 Churchill sought to respond to the request from the Jewish leadership to continue the pressure on the Germans to realize that their responsibility would be held to account. Leaflets in which this was set out were prepared and dropped by the Royal Air Force over Germany. There were already some small film clips, some of which are in the Museum, of what had been happening in Germany in 1938-39. These were made into a film which, at Churchill's insistence, was shown to all United States servicemen beginning to gather in Britain during 1943 for the invasion of Europe in 1944.
On 24 July 1943, at Chequers, Churchill discussed the war with two of his guests, the air ace, Wing-Commander Guy Gibson and his wife Eve. Churchill wanted Gibson to go on a goodwill tour of Canada and the United States. Eve Gibson later recalled:
"We were shown a film, captured from the Germans, depicting the atrocities inflicted on the Jews and inhabitants of the occupied countries. It was quite ghastly and the Prime Minister was very, very moved. He told me that it was shown to every American serviceman arriving in this country"
During my Churchill researches, I found an account of a lunch which he had in April 1943 with the Spanish ambassador in London. During the lunch, Churchill brought up the recent closing by Spain of the Pyrenees frontier to Jews who were seeking to escape from France. "I must warn your government," Churchill told the ambassador, "that if you prevent these unfortunate people seeking safety from the horrors of Nazi domination, such a thing will never be forgotten and will poison the relations between the Spanish and the British people."
Churchill then enlisted Roosevelt's help to put pressure on Spain. At first Roosevelt was reluctant to participate, but in the end he agreed. Having to argue this case at a very difficult and dangerous moment of the war, with great military forces in violent contention both in Europe and the Far East, Churchill wrote to Roosevelt: "Our immediate facilities for helping the victims of Hitler's anti-Jewish drive are so limited that surely the ability of removing some of them to safety is all the more incumbent upon us."
IN MARCH 1944, the German government ordered the occupation of Hungary Germany was then under pressure, as you know, from the Red Army in the East, and was fearful that Hungary would defect from the Axis and become a "soft underbelly" for a Soviet thrust. With the German occupation of Hungary began the rapid rounding up of Jews into ghettos and the preparation for their even more rapid deportation to Auschwitz.
Five prisoners escaped from Auschwitz in order to bring news to the West of what was happening to the Jews there. Four were Jews. One was a Polish Catholic medical student. The moment their information reached the West, the moment the "unknown destination" was revealed as Auschwitz, and the truth of the gas chambers there made clear, there was a tremendous and understandable outcry. (The first thing that has always struck me is: what would have happened if these escapees had made their way West in 1943 or even at the end of 1942?)
The impact of their report on the Jewish and non-Jewish world was dramatic, and traumatic. Immediately an exceptional flurry of activity began in an attempt to do something to save those Hungarian Jews who had been, or were about to be, deported. The two most senior members of the Jewish Agency, Dr. Weizmann and foreign minister Moishe Shertok, apprised of this information, went personally to London. The Agency was the British-appointed liaison between the Jews in Palestine and the British government. On 6 July 1944, in a meeting with Anthony Eden, Weizmann and Shertok made five urgent and desperate suggestions. The first was that the allies should publish a declaration expressing their readiness to admit Jewish refugees (or as they called them, "fugitives") from any territory into the neutral countries (Sweden, Switzerland, Spain and Turkey) adjacent to Nazi-controlled Europe, persuading these countries to give what was called "temporary shelter" to those escaping the massacres. Eden and the British government responded immediately and with alacrity to this request.
The second suggestion was that those governments with diplomatic representation in Hungary should be asked to request their representatives in Budapest to issue protective documents for the Jews of Hungary And this, too, was done. As you know from 9 July, three days later, Raoul Wallenberg began issuing his protective documents in Budapest.
The third request, which was acceded to immediately, was that a "stern warning" be issued, published and broadcast to Hungarian officials, railwaymen and the Hungarian population in general: that anyone convicted of having taken part in the rounding up of Jews or their deportation would be considered a war criminal and treated accordingly Again, one sees the tremendous reliance on, and belief in, the war criminal path towards halting war crimes: that if people knew they were to be brought to trial as war criminals, they would cease their crimes. To this, too, the British government acceded immediately: broadcasts were made in Hungarian to Hungary: those participating in deportations will be treated as war criminals.
The fourth of the five proposals made with such urgency, on receipt of the facts about Auschwitz, was that Stalin, whose forces were in the Carpathians, should be asked to issue a similar warning on Hungary on behalf of the Soviet Union. Not only was this acceded to, but when Anthony Eden showed this request to Churchill, Churchill himself drafted a declaration for Stalin to issue in Moscow, in which it was stated among other things that the Red Army and retribution would enter Hungary together.
The fifth and final request of the Jewish Agency was, "that the railway line leading from Budapest to Birkenau, and the death camp at Birkenau and other places, should be bombed."
WHEN Churchill was shown this request by Eden, he did something I've not seen on any other document submitted to Churchill for his approval: He wrote on it what he wanted done.
Normally, he would have said, "Bring this up to War Cabinet on Wednesday," or, "Let us discuss this with the Air Ministry" Instead, he wrote to Eden on the morning of 7 July: "Is there any reason to raise this matter with the Cabinet? Get anything out of the Air Force you can, and invoke me if necessary." I have never seen a minute of Churchill's giving that sort of immediate authority to carry out a request.
Churchill's meeting of July 7th gave Eden the full authority of the Prime Minister to follow up the request to bomb the railway lines to Auschwitz. As you know from the exhibition upstairs, two days later the deportations on the railway lines from Hungary to Auschwitz ceased, and the priority of the surviving Jews of Hungary, and of all those concerned with them in the West, Jews and governments alike, was the issue of protective documents to enable them to find some place where they might have a safe haven. I suppose it is a great tragedy that all this had not taken place on 7 July 1943 or on 7 October 1942. For when all is said and done, by 7 July 1944 it was too late to save all but a final 100,000.
There is a vast subtext,of which I have written in my book, Auschwitz and the Allies. The British officials did not know on 9 July that the deportations had ceased, so they had to deal with the Prime Minister's request on the assumption that it still had some validity, and in the course of dealing with it, some of them revealed considerable distaste for carrying out any such instruction.
It is interesting, however, to note that when the request was put to the American Air Force Commander, General R. Eaker, when he visited the Air Ministry a few days later, he gave it his full support. He regarded it as something that the American daylight bombers could and should do. But as you also know, from the letter which is put up in the Museum, when the request reached Washington - indeed, on the five separate occasions when the request reached Washington - it was turned down. On the second occasion that it reached the Undersecretary for War, John J. McCloy, he told his assistant to kill it; and it was then effectively killed. The debate about bombing those particular lines continued for more than a month after the lines were no longer in use.
I SPOKE to a number of those who would have been involved in bombing the lines, as Churchill had wished, and even bombing the camp installations, had the deportations not stopped. One thing which greatly heartened me, from my perspective, from my window as a Jew, was that all the pilots and air crew I spoke to, who would have had to do the work, were emphatic that they would have done it, and were ashamed and angry that they had not been asked to do it.
I even found the young man who had taken that aerial photograph of the camp which is displayed in the Museum, a South African photo reconnaissance pilot. He was in extreme distress at the thought that, on the four separate occasions when he flew over the camp with his camera, he had no idea what it was he was flying over. He flew only an unarmed plane, but as he said to me very touchingly, "Had I known, I could at least have tipped my wing to show the people there that someone knew they were there."
Churchill had no doubt that a terrible crime had been committed. As he wrote to Anthony Eden on the day that the escapees' account of the truth about Auschwitz and the "unknown destination" reached him:
There is no doubt that this is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world, and it has been done by scientific machinery by nominally civilised men in the name of a great State and one of the leading races of Europe. It is quite clear that all concerned in this crime who may fall into our hands, including the people who only obeyed orders by carrying out the butcheries, should be put to death after their association with the murders has been proved. Declarations should be made in public, so that everyone connected with it will be hunted down and put to death.
© 1993 Martin Gilbert. Reprinted by permission.