The Times and “Englishness”
In May 1784, John Walter, a bankrupted Lloyds underwriter wrote to is patron, Benjamin Franklin, the American Minister in pre-revolutionary Paris, to inform him that he intended to publish a newspaper. On 1 January 1785, Walter’s project appeared as The Daily Universal Register. Three years later, the title was changed to The Times or, as it has become more affectionately known to journalists in Fleet Street and beyond, “The Thunderer.”
In its two hundred years of existence, the Times has been perceived as the quintessence of “Englishness” and well-connected to the ruling class a Britain by the world outside. The official history of the Times succinctly defined its role:
The Times, [diplomats in London] acknowledged, did not speak directly for the government; it spoke for itself, but its independent views, they noticed, generally corresponded with the thinking of influential groups in Westminster, Whitehall, the City and the older Universities. It therefore could be taken as the voice of the dominant minority in the country; sometimes in line with the government, sometimes in divergence; and where it was divergent, it was—these diplomats told themselves—especially worth noting, for then it showed what kind of pressures were likely very soon to be brought against the government from within the ruling circle in the attempt to bring about a change of policy) 1
The editors of the Times during the period 1933-1945 were Geoffrey Dawson (1912-1919 and again 1922-1941) and his close colleague, Robin Barrington-Ward (1941-1948). Dawson had been at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford. He was a Fellow of All Souls, had served as Lord Milner’s private secretary in South Africa and was “an Empire-oriented, conventional English scholar-squire.”2 Indeed, it was in South Africa at the turn of the century that Dawson first met Edward Wood, later Lord Halifax and Chamberlain’s Foreign Secretary. It was a close friendship that continued into and through the era of appeasement. Dawson was also a friend of Chamberlain and came to see himself in a quasi-ministerial capacity. R.M. Barrington-Ward similarly came from a privileged background. He was the son of a clergyman and was educated at Westminster and Balliol. Unlike the more conservative Dawson, Barrington-Ward was much more a Tory radical in the Disraeli mode.
In one sense, Dawson and Barrington-Ward were both products of their time and their class. Their approach to the election of Hitler in 1933 rid their understanding of Nazi anti-Semitism reflected the approach of wide sectors of the British establishment.
During the 1930s, the Times distanced itself from the openly anti-Nazi approach of other sections of the British press, in particular, that of the liberal Manchester Guardian. Yet this did not mean that its senior figures were uninformed about developments inside Germany. Barrington-Ward, who visited Berlin in June 1937, heard first hand about the persecution and suffering of the Jewish intelligentsia from Rudo Hahn, the brother of the headmaster of Gordonstoun, one of Britain’s famous private schools. Barrington-Ward believed that the printed word in the pages of the Times was avidly dissected by the Nazi hierarchy. He therefore felt that the influence of the Times in the ruling circles in Hitler’s Germany would be severely diminished if he spoke out passionately and loudly.3 In addition, the carnage during World War I had conditioned Barrington-Ward to exhibit a total hatred of war and he was thus loath to use his position to advocate too strong a policy against Germany for fear of antagonizing the Nazi leadership and thereby facilitating the movement towards war.4 The Nazis, however, did not reciprocate and there was a relative indifference to the Times‘ gentle approach. In one bizarre episode, a senior correspondent in Europe informed Barrington-Ward in May 1937 that according to the German press, Times read backwards offered “semit,” and this was clear evidence in Nazi eyes of the existence of a Jewish-Marxist conspiracy in the higher echelons of the British establishment.5
The Times editor, Geoffrey Dawson, reacted to this and other criticism with apologies:
It would interest me to know precisely what it is in the Times that has produced this antagonism in Germany. I do my utmost, night after night, to keep out of the paper anything that might hurt their sensibilities. I can think of nothing that has been printed now for many months past which they could possibly take exception to as unfair comment. . . . I have always been convinced that the peace of the world depends more than anything else on our getting into reasonable relations with Germany.6
Numerous colleagues of Dawson later distanced themselves from such an interpretation of policy towards Nazi Germany, protesting emphatically that there was no censorship at the Times.7 Even if Dawson projected an exaggerated version of reality, it did symbolize a more general policy of appeasement at the Times.
Although there had been division in the Times about the wisdom of following such a policy, it had been pursued with vigour by Dawson, Barrington-Ward and the foreign leader writer, Leo Kennedy. The infamous editorial which advocated the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia8 had been written by Kennedy and revised by Dawson. Yet for several weeks previously, Dawson had been primed by his old friend, Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, and even allowed to read sensitive Foreign Office memoranda. Over lunch on the same day as the piece appeared, Halifax indicated that despite the formal protestations of the Foreign Office, he was not displeased with the Times‘ editorial.
Even in private correspondence, Barrington-Ward was at pains to rationalize this policy as late as April 1939:
It was an endeavour to discover even at the eleventh hour whether the Nazis were, according to their professions, out for reasonable change or whether they were out for mere domination. Chamberlain was ready to wait for the proofs and Churchill was not. The Churchill case completely ignored the admitted blunder of the settlement of 1919 and above all the failure to give Germany a say in the Versailles settlement. A policy (Churchill’s) which could have been represented as one of mere frightened encirclement would have ranked every German behind the Fuhrer and left this country with an uneasy conscience and deeply divided.9
Yet if Barrington-Ward’s memories of World War I led him to embrace appeasement, he did not accept the claim that the obstacle to better British-German relations was the irritant of the Jews. In an exchange of private letters with a correspondent in Hastings, an intermediary for Wilhelm Stapel, a prominent Nazi in Hamburg, Barrington-Ward was forthright in sending the word back to Germany:
Nazism has done much for Germany. But the organised onslaught on the Jews last November [Kristallnacht] was a huge disservice—and the annexation of Bohemia-Moravia was another. Were we to sit by and say that these were good things—an enrichment of Western civilization? How does he explain the alarm which has been created all round Germany’s borders[?] Can he really believe that “Jewish agitation” is the cause?’ 10
Yet Kristallnacht outraged the British press and the Times as uncivilized conduct—and thus “un-English” conduct—but, as Barrington-Ward’s letter indicates, it also severely embarrassed the appeasement lobby as the pogrom took place so soon after Munich. It also indicated that the Jewish question was not one that could be buried in the cause of British-German friendship.
The Simpson Article
Up until 1938, reports of Nazi atrocities were, by and large, underplayed by the Times. Like other sections of the British press, the experience of the Times was not attuned to such bestialities. It was—even at the very beginning of Nazi rule—beyond their comprehension why Jews should be persecuted. Many newspaper correspondents in Germany toned down their articles because they knew that the full details would not be believed by their editors. When Norman Ebbutt, the senior Berlin correspondent of the Times discovered that his most detailed and critical material did not appear, he passed on “his more damning information” to the American CBS radio correspondent, William Shirer.11
From the very beginning, disbelief pervaded the Times’ approach to Nazi intentions—to the extent that it underplayed the importance of anti-Semitism in Hitler’s election manifesto in 1933.12
Although the Times had published an article on Oranienburg in September 1933,13 the newspaper was averse to publicizing conditions in the concentration camps. This was indicated clearly when the Times spiked a detailed story on Dachau in December 1933 from its Bavarian correspondent, Stanley Simpson. Dachau was the first concentration camp to be established for political prisoners in March 1933 and in fact Simpson’s piece hardly mentioned Jews. Simpson had spent months of careful research, checking and rechecking his sources. A letter to the foreign editor of the Times, Ralph Deakin, illustrated the uniqueness of Simpson’s piece when he pointed out that “the terrorism is so intense and such elaborate precautions taken to keep things secret that it is often weeks before news leaks out from the camp and weeks more before it can be tested and confirmed.”14
He concluded his article with an attempt to convey the Nazi mentality to the ordinary British reader
Although Herr Hitler once said that nothing could take place in the Nazi movement without his knowing it, one would like to think that the German government is ignorant of these infamies in Bavaria. It would be hard, however, to acquit them of moral responsibility for a course of conduct which follows logically from the Nazi glorification of brutality, and the doctrine preached by Nazi leaders, from Herr Hitler himself downwards, that the murder of a political opponent, no matter how revolting in its brutality, is no murder, but a deed of heroism.15
Originally, someone at the Times clearly wished to publish this pound-breaking piece since scribbled in the margin of the galley was Amp for leader writer.” Simpson had taken the trouble to write a five-page letter to Deakin in which he suggested that the publication of such a damning piece could be “the means of putting an end to or even mitigating the sufferings of these men and of saving lives—which if nothing is lone, will assuredly be sacrificed.” 16
Simpson’s personal involvement (“The fate of these wretched creatures in the camp oppresses me night and day and I would give a great deal to be able to help them.”)” cut no ice with Barrington-Ward who questioned Simpson’s ability to be objective and unemotional. In an internal memo to Deakin, he further questioned the testimonies of Simpson’s often terrified informants. “One knows that it is necessary without doubting for a moment that cruelties have been practiced in such places—to treat particular instances with caution in view of the sufferer’s (especially the German sufferer’s) capacity to believe that things have been even worse than actuality.”18
After conferring with the editor, Dawson, Barrington-Ward informed 3eakin19 that the article was no longer relevant since the New Statesman lad already published an article on the camp at Somlenburg.20 Simpson was paid the sum of £10.10.0 for his unused article.21
The Image of the Jew
Deakin had requested an outside opinion of Simpson’s article and sent the piece to William Teeling, a lawyer at Lincoln’s Inn and later a Conservative MP, for his comments. Teeling replied that it was a “one-sided document” and its publication would put the Times in “an awkward position since the paper is immensely respected in Germany.” Dachau, he argued, was not meant to be a sanatorium. Teeling recalled his recent visit to Munich and his impression that that “the [foreign newspaper] correspondents seem to hate the Nazi regime.” Teeling added that “our Consul-General in Cologne told me, he went into every Jew-case officially for atrocities and never found a real one. He believed `their oriental exaggeration has got the better of them.’ And some Jewish rabbis assured me these atrocities, if there were any, were now completely over.”22
The belief in the Jew’s ability to exaggerate and distort reality, to promote their own cause was widespread in the British establishment. As Philip Graves, a foreign correspondent with the Times since 1906 and exposer of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, exclaimed in a private letter to Barrington-Ward, “why must Jews be so prolix?”23 Later during World War II, the Times reflected the Foreign Office’s attitude that Jewish particularism should be submerged and that Jews exaggerated the reality of the situation.
In the mono-cultural world of the 1930s, Jews who did not assimilate and dissolve into the wider society were suspect. They manifested a distinct form of “un-Englishness” by their insistence on maintaining their difference. Yet the very notion of Nazi anti-Semitism was similarly un-English. It was an affront against the liberal conscience and struck at the roots of a civilized behaviour which characterized the English way of life. It was a competition between these two dislikes which confused and characterized British understanding and response in the 1930s. As Neville Chamberlain, himself, pointed out after Kristallnacht, “No doubt, Jews aren’t a lovable people: I don’t care about them myself, but that is not sufficient to explain the pogrom.”24
While the British establishment may gradually have been repelled by Nazi anti-Semitism, there also remained a profound reticence to identify with Jews—especially Jews who were also foreigners—and by extrapolation the suffering of such Jews simply because they were Jews.
The Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, was the architect of appeasement and therefore it was not in the interests of the British government to raise the Jewish issue with Nazi Germany for fear of derailing this policy. Halifax, “the Holy Fox,” even after the outbreak of war, was always keen to follow through any possibility of an agreed peace with Germany in 1939 and 1940—and even more so after the fall of France. Neither was Halifax above the social anti-Semitism of his class. At the last minute, Chamberlain bowed to Halifax’s request not to appoint Hore-Belisha as Minister of Information because he was a Jew since this—it was argued—would have an adverse effect on the neutral countries.
In addition, there was a profound inability to understand the ideological roots of Nazi anti-Semitism which was also prevalent amongst many British journalists. There must be, it was argued, more pragmatic, more rational, reasons for such a dire situation. It was easier psychologically to believe that the Jews had brought the persecution upon themselves because they were prominent in German society and that, although they carried German passports, they had remained a people apart. Similarly, it was more convenient to believe that Hitler did not know what his minions were doing in his name—especially after the Nuremberg decrees.25 The lack of consistency—and indeed confusion in most of the British press– was a result of the narrow cultural prism through which the British establishment projected its worldview.
It must also be asked to what extent leading figures at the limes still espoused a policy of appeasement during the “phony war” of 1939 and especially after the series of German victories and British defeats in 1940. Did they still sympathize with the peace lobby within the British establishment who wished to save the empire and permit the Nazis to destroy Soviet Communism for them? Would Dawson and Barrington-Ward have supported a peace treaty with Hitler in 1940 and a German-dominated Europe? Given the unfailing support which Dawson had always shown Halifax, the answer is likely to be in the affirmative. It would therefore always have been in Halifax’s interests that the obstacle of the Jewish question should not be given prominence in the Times. All this had profound consequences when news of the Shoah broke in the summer of 1942. As Tony Kushner has commented:
It is, however, essential to understand that the available information would be channelled through domestic ideological considerations that were (just as much as the quantity and quality of information received) to hinder understanding of the Jewish plight.26
The Role of the British Government
Yet there was another, perhaps much more important factor which limited British—and the Times’—understanding of Nazi anti-Semitism and ultimately the growing revelations of the Shoah. This was the lack of any political lead by successive British governments.
In 1937, Barrington-Ward had initiated a liaison between “a regular diplomatic correspondent” and the Foreign Office. Following a lunch at the Athenaeum Club with Rex Leeper, the head of the Foreign Office’s News Department, Barrington-Ward wrote in his personal diary that “Leeper wishes the Times would have a diplomatic correspondent to see him regularly on broad policy and get the mind of the Government as news.”27
In addition to the life-long friendship between the editor, Dawson, and the Foreign Secretary, Halifax, there was, of course, regular contact between senior figures in the Times and government Ministers. Requests were sometimes made by Ministers to the Times to achieve a particular political goal—a need which became more accentuated in wartime. For example, the new Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, wrote to Barrington-Ward in October 1941 suggesting that “an occasional leader in the Times would provide us and the Greek government with most valuable material for use in the broadcasts to Greece which are our own principal medium for maintaining the spirits of the Greeks.”28
Following the outbreak of war, journalists found themselves in the difficult position of being objective observers of the conflict yet at the same time being an integral part of the war effort. The contradiction of being both outside and inside, of marrying the call of their profession with their patriotic duty to ensure the downfall of Nazi Germany, confronted journalists on many occasions.
When the Zurich correspondent of the Times submitted an article on Germany’s coal production, Barrington-Ward sent it to the Ministry of Economic Warfare for their opinion. In his reply to the Zurich correspondent, Barrington-Ward commented that, following talks with Ministry officials, “we are not happy about it . . . and feel that it would be much better not published at all.”29 In a memorandum to Deakin, Barrington-Ward wrote that “we can hardly take a more optimistic view of the blockade than the Ministry is prepared to take. I think we shall have to do without the article.”30
The central point of contact for many journalists was the Foreign Office News Department. Sir William Ridsdale was head of this unit between 1941 and 1954. His department was an essential source of information for the press from occupied Europe. Its job—at least on the surface—was to assist journalists by transmitting all available information. A more subterranean task was to ensure that only the news which the British government deemed to be fit to appear in the press should be published. Moreover, in wartime, the transmission of selective information could be rationalised in terms of national security. The diplomatic correspondent of the Times believed that the Foreign Office passed on information factually without minimizing it—and especially “the terrible German atrocities in Russia.”31
The Foreign Office, moreover, had a vested interest in ensuring that reports in the Times in particular were aligned with government policy. The Foreign Office believed that regardless of the reality, reports in the Times were perceived differently from other sections of the British press by foreign powers. The possibility of erroneous signals—from the British Government’s viewpoint—transmitted to the enemy through the vehicle of independent reporting in the Times was too risky. A Foreign Office colleague sent a letter to Ridsdale which commented that
this sort of thing might not be quite so important if it appeared in some other paper. But the Times is in a special position—and it is surely most dangerous that it should at this juncture lend the weight of its authority to such perversions of essential facts. This sort of thing does not perhaps altogether convince, but it does introduce an element of doubt and hesitancy into people’s minds.32
After the outbreak of war in 1939, a certain subtlety of approach operated within the confines of the Foreign Office. There was a clear need to filter the news without the operation seeming too blatant, duplicitous and unjustifiable. As Richard Cockett has pointed out,
Just as the service ministries operated their own private censorship by rigidly controlling the flow of news, so the Foreign Office did likewise—but it also exercised those effective methods of personal contact both at the level of the News Department with the specialist correspondents and at ambassadorial or national level with newspaper proprietors and editors. Those ambassadors and officials operating this form of “silent censorship” could point to its success in order to appease the more repressive instincts of most of their colleagues. 33 “
Indeed, Sir William Ridsdale himself argued against any censorship because it was unnecessary since “there was a large measure of cooperation between the press and the Foreign Office News Department.”34
Information about the Shoah
Information reached London from occupied Europe from a variety of sources. Much of it—and especially that derived from domestic intelligence operations in Europe—passed through the filler of the British intelligence services (SIS, SOE, MI5, MI9, MI19). Moreover, US embassies remained open in Berlin, Budapest, Bucharest and Vichy until the end of 1941 and the beginning of 1942. In neutral countries, allied diplomats operated information gathering centres. The press in these countries further provided reports. There were also anti-Nazi Germans who tried to pass on vital information through neutral countries. Furthermore, fragments of information could be gleaned even from the highly controlled Soviet and German papers and broadcasts. Émigré groups domiciled in London also possessed their own networks in their home countries. Jewish and Zionist organizations operating out of neutral capitals, such as Geneva, Istanbul and Lisbon, transmitted information received.
After such information was clarified and vetted, it was cleared for transmission through a variety of channels. The Ministry of Information fed the BBC home services while British Intelligence and the Foreign Office catered for the European services. The Political Warfare Executive directed by Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart utilized material for propaganda purposes.
The Times had access to most of these sources. Indeed, the diplomatic correspondent of the Times first learned about extermination techniques using the exhaust fumes of trucks and vans through Polish intelligence and the “London” Poles. In 1943-4, he met “several Polish agents who were flown out of Poland to report and were then flown back again.” This included Josef Retinger, a political aide to Sikorski. They told him that Jews from Poland and Germany—as well as ethnic Poles—were being killed in Auschwitz. No differentiation seems to have been made between the incarceration of Poles in Auschwitz and the extermination of Jews there.35
From the outbreak of war until May 1942, the Times picked up periodic stories about the Nazi persecution of the Jews. For example, the British White Paper on “The Treatment of German Nationals in Germany” (October 1939),36 the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto (October and December 1939),37 the mass deportations of Jews (November 1941),38 the massacres perpetrated by the Einsatzgruppen (January 1942)39 and the gassing of Dutch Jews at Mauthausen (April 1942).40
As early as the summer of 1941, GCCS (Government Code and Cypher School) at Bletchley Park had decoded German police messages which spoke of “cleaning up operations” and “gas cleansing stations”. Such reports were sent to Churchill and a select group of intelligence officers. In September 1941, code breakers at Bletchley Park relayed the information to British intelligence that
The execution of “Jews” is so recurrent a feature of these reports that the figures have been omitted (from the daily transcripts) . . . whether all those executed as “Jews” are indeed such, is doubtful, but the figures are no less conclusive as evidence of a policy of savage intimidation, if not of ultimate extermination.
The codebreakers further concluded that the killing of Jews in such great numbers was acceptable to “the Higher Authorities.” They also reported that General Kurt Daluege, the head of the Ordnungspolizei, was concerned that his reports to Berlin were being intercepted such that he resorted to using the phrase “action according to the usage of war” to describe the mass killing of Jews. Clearly, the British felt that they could not formally reveal the extent of the Nazi war against the Jews without admitting they had broken the German codes. To have done so, they reasoned, would have returned to their enemy a huge strategic advantage.41
Even so, there were indeed reports in the Times that Jews were being singled out for special treatment. Yet official British policy was to subsume Jewish suffering within the general maelstrom of Nazi killings in Europe. For example, the Jews were not invited to a meeting under the chairmanship of General Sikorski in January 1942 of nine occupied European nations to discuss the first revelations of mass murder in the USSR as indicated in the first Molotov note. Sikorski explained their omission from the proceedings by suggesting that Jewish representation would pander to “the racial theories” of the Nazis. Thus the official declaration did not mention the Jews at all. The Foreign Office believed that Sikorski had behaved “correct1y2’42
When the Bund report which first revealed the totality of the extermination of Polish Jewry arrived in London at the end of May 1942, the Times did not pick it up directly. Instead, it reported Sikorski’s interpretation of it, in a broadcast on the BBC which emphasized instead Polish suffering.43 The Nazis, it was considered, had embarked on a series of periodic pogroms rather than the systematic extermination of the Jews. Both the Times and the BBC had missed the essential point that this was an organized program of extermination. The Polish Jew, Szmul Zygielbojm,” therefore looked for other outlets for the Bund report. He gave it to the Daily Telegraph which published the essential details on its main news page on 25 May under the heading “Germans murder 700,000 Jews in Poland” and “Traveling Gas Chambers,” almost a month after its arrival in London.45 The two column story describing “the greatest massacre in the world’s history” was bordered by other stories—”l00 Airfields in Three Months: Australia’s Feat” and “Ice Cream’s last Summer: Manufacture to end on September 3rd.” The BBC had simultaneously decided to promote the story and Zygielbojm broadcast in Yiddish to Poland the day after the appearance of the Daily Telegraph article.46 This was further followed by a plea from Chief Rabbi Hertz on the BBC European service. This burst of activity by the BBC was in part due to the loss of the story to the Telegraph and this was made explicit at a meeting at which a Foreign Office representative was present.47
At the end of June, the World Jewish Congress held a press conference at which the Bund report was promoted centrally and intensely. Although the Times headlined the fact that “Over One Million [Jews] Dead Since the War Began,”48 the newspaper covered the press conference hesitantly and was economical with the information provided. This contrasted with the Daily Telegraph which quoted Goebbels in Das Reich that “the Jews of Europe. . . will pay with the extermination of their race in the whole of Europe and elsewhere too.”49 The Guardian recorded that seven million were in concentration camps and it was now sufficiently clear that Eastern Europe had been turned into “a vast slaughter house of Jews.”5°
As further information seeped out—much of it appearing in the emigre Polish press in London—Jewish groups, the Polish and Czechoslovak National Councils and many others strongly promoted the need to publicize the fate of the Jews. This was not a course favoured by the Foreign Office which—amongst its other concerns—was also wary about upsetting the Arab nationalist cause in Mandatory Palestine.51
The problem for the Times was that influential circles in the British establishment were now speaking out on behalf of European Jews. Zygielbojm and Schwarzbart52 ensured that the Bund report reached all members of Parliament. Cardinal Hinsley, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster denounced the atrocities against Jews on the BBC European service—adding that it was “not British propaganda.”53 The Times again devoted relatively little space to it compared to the Telegraph. On 9 July, the Government responded by organizing a press conference with the London Poles under the chairmanship of Brendan Bracken, the Minister of Information. The report of the Times the following day was once more to merge Jews into the generality of Polish suffering despite the speeches of Zygielbojm and Schwarzbart.54 The Daily Telegraph and the Guardian carried more details about the persecution of the Jews in their reports, yet their editorials, which spoke so movingly about the victims of Nazi violence from Warsaw to Lidice, made no mention of the Jewish tragedy.
Between July and December 1942, there was a steady flow of reports—the round-ups in Paris, the mass deportations to Poland from all parts of Europe, eyewitnesses in Chelmno, the Riegner telegram, the Karski testimony—all of which constructed the general picture that European Jewry was gradually being exterminated in fulfilment of the ideological demands of Nazism. Whilst Foreign Office officials cast doubt on the truth of such reports and refused to recognize the Jews as a distinct nationality, the British press began to move to a position where—even in the absence of official confirmation—they at least began to entertain the possibility that terrible, unimaginable things were being carried out against the Jews of Europe.
A Move towards Publicity and Inactivity
In August and September 1942, the Times began to publish detailed reports from its correspondents in Switzerland and Portugal about the roundups of Jews in Britain’s closest neighbour and ally, France. The Times understood the interest of the churches in Britain and covered the protests of Catholic and Protestant clergymen against the deportations to the East. It reported the arrest of Jesuits in Lyon55 and the incarceration of priests in a camp at Sisteron.56 On 30 September, Hitler made a speech in Berlin to mark the almost certain German victory in Russia in which he openly spoke about the extermination of all Jews—and the limes published it in its edition the following day.57
Although this growing willingness to publicize the facts differentiated the Times from the Foreign Office, it was not willing to accept Jewish criticism of British government policy and the broad attitude of the press. At a rally on 29 October at the Royal Albert Hall, the Chief Rabbi forcefully attacked the reticence of the British press and suggested that it encouraged the Nazis “to go on perfecting their technique of extermination” and hid the truth from the British public. The Times, however, did not report the content of Chief Rabbi Hertz’s speech but gave more emphasis to the statement of the Archbishop of Canterbury.58
As the news of the mass extermination of Polish Jewry trickled out, the Foreign Office was still unable to confirm the facts to both BBC journalists and the Foreign Office News Department. Despite the deportations from the Warsaw and Lodz ghettos and the revelations of the Karski report, the Foreign Office did not alter its position. At the end of November 1942, the Foreign Office was still hesitant in giving any credence to the news from Poland to Sidney Silverman and Alex Easterman, representatives of the World Jewish Congress. A Foreign Office official briefed its News Department to soft-pedal the issue, but not abolish it altogether from the public domain.59 On 1 December, Silverman and Easterman held a press conference to publicize the policy of genocide. Silverman further proposed to raise the issue in the House of Commons.
The Times had already picked up the concern felt by British Jews and those who resided in other free countries. It reported four days of mourning for one million Jews, who had been killed by the Nazis, by an assembly of 400 rabbis in Jerusalem. It reported Chief Rabbi Herzog’s appeal to stop the carnage and save the children. On 4 December, the Times printed a lead story entitled “Nazi War on the Jews: Deliberate Plan for Extermination.”
The diplomatic correspondent for the Times, Iverach MacDonald, wrote that:
for some weeks London has recognized on the basis of independent evidence that the worst of Hitler’s threats was being literally applied and that, quite apart from the widespread murders, the Polish Jews had been condemned to subsist in conditions which must steadily lead to their extermination.60
Although this went further than any previous Times article, it still stopped short of mentioning the actuality of mass extermination by design. Through the Berlin correspondents of Swedish newspapers, the Times commented that the entire Polish General-Government would be declared judenrein by 1 December. The Polish Jews would be “liquidated which means either transported eastwards in cattle trucks to an unknown destination or killed where they stood?’
Now, why did the Times suddenly change course? One reason was that the accumulating news from Poland could neither be ignored nor denied. McDonald recalled in 1995 that
There was not a special policy to promote any single aspect [of the horrors of the German occupation of Europe]. News was news—that was the guiding principle [Running the series of reports in December 19421 was a news decision essentially, based on the sure belief that news about the German atrocities was an asset, a weapon in the allied war effort.61
This reflected the widespread belief in government and in the media that the Jews could only be saved by a swift and total Allied victory. Again, McDonald’s recollection:
A dominant British response to the question: How can we help the Jews and other occupied peoples?. . . The surest way to help and to save Jews and others from death and suffering is to do all we can to win the war and end the tyranny as soon as possible.. . . That thought was in almost everyone’s mind.62
Saving the Jews was then seen as a consequence of winning the war. The question—What happens if there are no more Jews left to save?—was addressed only marginally. The news from Poland became not the basis for action to save the remnant of those left alive, but an item of well- intentioned agit-prop in the war effort.
The Foreign Office, however, was not pleased63 at the diplomatic correspondent’s report on 4 December and a letter from the Archbishop of – Canterbury the following day in the Times.
There may have been another, more political reason, for the Times to seemingly embrace a relatively open-minded approach. The Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, himself, had changed course. The flood of reports from Poland plus pressure from the London Poles and Jewish organizations’ in” may have suggested to Eden that some response from government was called for. Moreover, the advantages of publicity about the Jewish tragedy might now outweigh its well-known disadvantages. Eden had been persuaded to take seriously Silverman’s proposal for a Great Power declaration on the fate of the Jews and had secured agreement from Washington and Moscow.
The first Times article on 4 December appeared two days after Eden had met the Soviet Ambassador in London, Ivan Maisky, to discuss the possibility of a declaration. It was not until 7 December that the Times reported a meeting between the American and Soviet ambassadors and Eden to discuss “the fearful plight of the Jews.” 64 Clearly the series of limes articles in December 1942 coincided with the sudden interest of the Foreign Secretary to emphasize the Jewish tragedy in Poland.65
In the following days, the Times published further material about the extermination of European Jewry—a letter from the President of the British Section of the World Jewish Congress,66 Cardinal Hinsley’s condemnation during a Roman Catholic Day of Prayer for Poland,67 and the details of a note from the Polish government to the Allied Powers.68
On 12 December, the Times published an editorial, “The New Barbarism” by J. H. Freeman, which recognized the uniqueness of the mass extermination of the Jews unequivocally for the first time. Yet it applied a subtle corrective to any moral outcry, by effectively reiterating British government policy:
Warning may conceivably curb the authors and actions of evil. So much the better if they do. It would be idle, however, not to recall that the moral reprobation of the outside world never restrained the Nazis in the excesses committed against the Jews and others from the first day that they seized power. Moral reprobation realistically considered is less likely to achieve in war what it failed so signally to achieve in peace. The prerequisite of real help is victory—and victory to be effective must be swift as well as complete.69
Similarly, the Times report of the Chief Rabbi’s speech at a Day of Intercession watered down his implicit criticism of the government and press.70 It allowed the Chief Rabbi’s remarks to remain within the realm or me spiritual and the moral. Yet some political points did slip through. Hertz told his audience that the decay of conscience had helped to build up a moral climate favourable to Nazism:
What atonements were the UN prepared to make for their share in building up that climate? Would they open their gates of their countries to refugees from the Nazi inferno and help the few neutral states to receive them? Would at least the children be saved from mass poisoning and burial alive by Hitler and his hell-hounds? 71
Such demands were all right for clergymen, but they were not regarded as in line with British interests. On 18 December, the Times reported Eden’s statement in the House of Commons, “the restrained expression of anger,” “the stern protest,” and “the [famous] minute of dignified silence,” but the Allied declaration said nothing about the prospect of rescue. The Times also reported Sidney Silverman’s question about what could be done by the British government to relieve the situation. Eden replied,
My honourable friend knows the immense difficulties in the way of what he suggests, but he may be sure that we shall do all we can to alleviate these horrors—though what we can do at this stage, I am afraid must be slight.72
This euphemism for inaction was followed by a letter in the Times from Major-General Neil Malcolm, the former High Commissioner for German Refugees, who wrote “so unlike Hitler, we cannot convert words into deeds and must be content with promises which will not save one single life.”73 Malcolm’s attack and plea to help Jewish children and refugees in Spain and Portugal severely embarrassed the Foreign Office who made stringent efforts to ensure that no other public figures followed Malcolm’s lead. Indeed, the Foreign Office were assured that the Times “would not open their correspondence columns for further discussion.”74
The Press as Innocent Bystanders
The Times’ restrained, often erratic, approach continued for the rest of the war. Even after Eden’s declaration in the House of Commons, journalists preferred to listen to the Foreign Office who were presumed to be in a better position to know than often well-informed Jewish organizations. The reports of the Jewish tragedy in the Times did not match the moral fervour of the Guardian or the detailed dispatches of the Telegraph.
The root of the problem was that the role of the Times in the 1940s was undefined. It was unsure whether it should be an unofficial organ of government, a faithful servant of a wider establishment or simply a quality newspaper of independent views and essential information. In reality, it was all of these with considerable blurring at the joins. In wartime, the added psychological constraint of patriotism mitigated against independent opinion and speaking out too vociferously.
Given the shortage of news-space, the limes concentrated its coverage on the war effort. The Shoah was a minor, marginalised, amorphous item underpinned by a modicum of genuine disbelief and selective indifference. Journalists often and easily dismissed the incredibility of Jewish claims because the enormity of this tragedy was quite unimaginable. Moreover, any semblance of exaggeration on the part of the British would hand the Germans an easy propaganda weapon. What could therefore not be touched was not perceived to be a priority in terms of news coverage. Articles were thus positioned in less than prominent places. The fate of the doomed Jews in Poland and elsewhere was seen at best to be an insoluble problem and therefore no criticism should reside at the door of government and press. Thus the full messages of the combatants of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising were not published in the Times. Those sections of the messages which did not appear criticized the community of nations for its inactivity, its irresponsibility, its apathy and its lack of threats of retribution against the Nazi leadership. Thus the last message from the Warsaw Ghetto on 11 May 1943 did not appear in the Times. It exclaimed that “the Free World, the World of Justice, remains silent and apathetic. It is amazing. Cable immediately what you have done. We expect help for the remnants who are saving themselves.”75
The revelations of several Anglo-Jewish historians, Sir Martin Gilbert, Bernard Wasserstein, Tony Kushner and others, about the lack of motivation, deficiency in perception and vested interest of the British government against making a concerted effort to save the Jews of Europe was unfortunately also reflected in the Times. The British agenda was not the Jewish agenda. The Jews were left to their fate amidst much studied political hand-wringing and the professional deafness of many sections of the British press. As Czeslaw Milosz pointed out: “There is no such thing as an innocent bystander. If you are a bystander, you are not innocent.”
Why Didn’t the Press Shout? American and International Journalism during the Holocaust, ed. Robert Moses Kalb (Yeshiva University Press 2003)