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.