The Holocaust: why Auntie stayed mum

The BBC knew about the Nazi death camps two years before the first reports from Belsen, says Marion Milne

The Holocaust was the best-kept secret of the war. Then its horrors were revealed - apparently for the first time - by BBC war reporter Richard Dimbleby's now famous broadcast of 19 April 1945. So shocked was the BBC newsroom that it refused to transmit the recording until, on threat of resignation, Dimbleby persuaded them it was one of the most important news stories of the century.

What was not admitted at the time was that the Dimbleby dispatch from Belsen was by no means the earliest news the BBC had received of the destruction of the European Jews.

New material, from a five-page directive in the Public Record Office, reveals that by 1943 the BBC had evidence which conclusively proved Hitler's plan for the "total extermination of European Jewry". Entitled "Special annexe on Extermination of the Jews: Evidence of Nazi policy and practice", it was compiled by the Political Warfare Executive (PWE), the government body that guided the BBC's overseas broadcasting.

Surprisingly, the document says nothing about making public its harrowing contents. Indeed, government policy was the reverse. "Jewish sources are always doubtful," says one handwritten note in the margin of a Foreign Office memorandum on conditions in Poland. Another Foreign Office circular suggests: "The Jews tend to exaggerate German atrocities."

Other confidential internal memorandums show an unwillingness by the BBC to broadcast on behalf of the Jews. "Any direct action to counter anti-Semitism would do more harm than good," wrote Sir Richard Maconachie, controller of the home service, on 15 April 1943. May E Jenkin, Children's Hour assistant director, stated: "If you give Jewish broadcasters an inch, they come clamouring for a mile." Despite the evidence from the PWE, the BBC foreign and home news boards concluded: "It seems desirable to soft- pedal the whole thing".

Leonard Miall of the wartime overseas service says that the BBC was "very careful to avoid giving currency to rumours that might not be true. We didn't want to jeopardise our general credibility. In the process, we did undoubtedly play down the extent of the Holocaust." In wartime, government censors made sure that the BBC would never be able to say anything contrary to official policy.

The government line, echoed by the BBC, was to win the war, then save the Jews. "We wanted to keep the Middle East quiet," says Sir Frank Roberts, a Foreign Office mandarin in charge of monitoring German activities. "It was an important part of our war effort. We had to be careful we didn't give the Arabs the impression that we had suddenly turned over into a pro-Jewish, pro-Zionist organisation."

Lord Weidenfeld, a Jewish refugee publisher, adds: "There was nothing ideological or mythological about this. It wasn't deeply instinctive racial hatred. It was expediency."

Conclusive proof that the BBC avoided publicising the Holocaust until the war was virtually over comes from Paul Winterton, a wartime News Chronicle Moscow correspondent and BBC contributor. Eight months before Dimbleby walked into Belsen, he accompanied the Red Army into Majdanek, the first Nazi death camp to be liberated. His account survives in the BBC sound archive. Winterton speaks of "the most horrible story I will ever have to tell you" and describes in brutal detail this appalling extermination camp.

Winterton, now in his eighties, recalls the BBC's reaction to his broadcast. "I was given a kind of reprimand. They told me they didn't want this atrocity stuff. They seemed to think it was Russian propaganda."

Eventually, Winterton's dispatch went out in August 1944, but it was heavily edited and broadcast only on the overseas service.

There was an immediate outcry from the United States, demanding a war crimes commission, and Sir Archibald Clark Kerr, the British ambassador in Moscow, telegrammed London to seek clarification. The Foreign Office did its best to bury the story. "The Russians will manage this more effectively than we," one official was minuted as saying. "It may relieve us of unpleasant responsibilities in deciding what are and what are not war crimes," another noted.

The Foreign Office had not formulated its policy on war crimes; it had to keep the Middle East happy, and could not afford a loss of morale at a critical stage in the war. Ostensibly, Winterton's contract with News Chronicle did not allow his broadcast to go out. In reality, the BBC, in line with the Foreign Office, had the perfect excuse to maintain a very British silence on the Holocaust.

The writer is assistant producer on 'What Did You Do in the War, Auntie?'. The second part will be broadcast tonight at 9.30pm on BBC1.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
News
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

Ashdown Group: Analyst Programmer (Filemaker Pro/ SQL) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days, pension, private medical : Ashdown Group: A highly...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chessington

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Service Desk Analyst - Chessington, Surrey...

Charter Selection: Graphic Designer, Guildford

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Charter Selection: This renowned and well establish...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas