Why the BBC ignored the Holocaust: Anti-Semitism in the top ranks of broadcasting and Foreign Office staff led to the news being suppressed, says Stephen Ward

Stephen Ward
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:10

ANTI-SEMITISM in the higher ranks of the Foreign Office and the BBC during the Second World War led to a policy which suppressed news about Germany's attempt to exterminate European Jews, new research will show this week.

The attitude was reinforced by a belief that the British population was anti-Semitic and that anti-German propaganda about atrocities in the First World War, which was often fiction, had made the public sceptical of such stories. Early in the war the Government and the BBC agreed that this time, British propaganda would contrast Nazi 'lies' with British truthfulness and a 'good clean fight'.

The evidence is contained in documents from the BBC archives and Government papers at the Public Record Office, which have been uncovered during research for a new Radio 4 series, Document. The first programme will tell of the relationship between the Foreign Office and the BBC between 1939 and 1945.

The papers, together with interviews with some of the surviving figures, show that both Foreign Office and BBC officials held a low opinion of Jews, and believed this was shared by the public.

They deduced that saving millions of Jews would not be seen as a desirable war aim by the British. At other times they justified suppression of details of the atrocities by arguing that they would not be believed.

News reports could only be carried if, in the view of the BBC and the Foreign Office, they were well-sourced. If the sources were Jewish, they tended not to be believed.

The Foreign Office was, with hindsight, astonishingly sceptical about atrocities. As late as 27 August 1944, Victor Cavendish Bentinck, assistant under-secretary, was still doubting the existence of gas chambers. 'I think we weaken our case against the Germans by publicly giving credence to atrocity stories for which we have no evidence.

'These mass executions in gas chambers remind me of the story of the employment of human corpses during the last (1914-18) war for the manufacture of fat, which was a grotesque lie and led to the true stories of German enormities being brushed aside as being mere propaganda.'

Another Foreign Office official, Roger Allen, notes: 'It is true that there have been references to the use of gas chambers in other reports; but these references have usually, if not always, been equally vague, and since they have concerned the extermination of Jews, have usually emanated from Jewish sources.'

He goes on: 'Personally I have never really understood the advantage of the gas chamber over the simpler machine-gun, or the equally simple starvation method.'

The attitude at the top of the BBC at the start of the war is illustrated by a recollection in the Document programme from Harman Grisewood, assistant to the BBC's head of European broadcasting in 1939. He visited Germany just before the outbreak of war and saw the segregation and oppression of Jews. On his return he went to see the director-general of the BBC, Frederick Ogilvie (who died in 1942).

Mr Grisewood recalls: 'What he said was terrifying; I can still remember it word for word. He said: 'You know the Germans are very sentimental people.' I said, 'Yes it's often explained to one that this is so.' He then said: 'Well, what we're going to do is broadcast the nightingale to the Germans. The cellist Beatrice Harrison will go into the woods near Oxford and play her cello. The nightingale will sing and we'll broadcast that to the Germans.' I felt there was no point really in going on with the conversation.'

Some reports of a systematic policy to exterminate Jews were published in newspapers. On 25 June 1942 the Daily Telegraph reported that 700,000 Polish Jews had been killed, some by mobile gas chambers. Most newspapers by the end of June were writing of more than a million dead, and Hitler's plan to exterminate all Jews.

But most of Britain, as well large parts of Europe and the British Empire, regarded the BBC as their most reliable source of information. The war gave the corporation a platform which established the reputation it has enjoyed since.

The BBC did mention mass extermination of the Jews when it reported the Commons speech made by Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, on 17 December, 1942, in which he declared that Germany was 'now carrying into effect Hitler's oft-repeated intention to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe'.

But the BBC's policy did not change. The conversation between Grisewood and Ogilvie shows a touching innocence; other attitudes, revealed in minutes from the BBC archives at Caversham, look less benign. In April 1943, Trevor Blewitt of the BBC's talks department suggested that a Sunday night talk on 'the subject of the Jew' might be given by 'a Jew unconnected with the world of business, explaining that he has no particular brief for the Jews but is unashamed of being one'. He suggests the entertainer Ronald Frankau 'who is unknown to be connected with any racket . . . and who is a man of profound British sympathies, upbringing and education'. The suggestion was rejected. C V Salmon, assistant director of talks, wrote: 'We agreed to drop the suggestion of a talk by a Jew, but would still like to submit the proposal for a talk on race hatreds of which the German attitude to the Jews might be an example, to be undertaken from a fairly lofty standpoint.' He suggests Julian Huxley as the speaker and the whole matter is referred to the BBC board.

On 9 February 1943, the director of talks, G R Barnes, complained about an interview which strayed into forbidden territory by discussing anti- Semitism: 'Personally I don't want to touch the subject, except by implication in talks on other subjects,' he wrote.

At other times paternalism seems to lie behind the BBC attitude. In August 1942, Mr Barnes opposed the suggestion that Lord Vansittart, former diplomatic adviser to the Foreign Office, make a rare broadcast deploring the treatment of Jews in German occupied countries. Mr Barnes was furious at Vansittart's speech: 'Surely it is the negation of art to overload,' he wrote. 'What is the point in piling atrocity on atrocity? To me they cease to have any meaning, and I understood that the Ministry of Information had reported that atrocity stories were quite definitely not believed by the British public.'

At other times it was suggested that mention of the Jewish plight in Europe would only inflame anti-Jewish feeling in Britain, even though Eden had noted at the Cabinet committee on refugees in 1944 that the main effect of his Commons statement on Jewish massacres in December 1942 had been to stimulate complaints that the Government was not doing enough to help the victims of the Nazi regime.

The BBC accepted unquestioningly the Ministry of Information's advice that anti-Semitism was rife in Britain, and felt it was not its role to do anything. On 17 November 1943 the director-general, Robert Foot, issued a policy directive . . . 'that we should not promote ourselves or accept any propaganda in the way of talks, discussion, features with the object of trying to correct the undoubted anti-Semitic feeling which is held very largely throughout the country'.

The corporation should confine itself to reporting in news bulletins 'the facts as they are reported from time to time of Jewish persecutions as well as any notable achievements by Jews, particularly in connection with the war effort (e g recent case of Jewish soldier who won the VC).'

In June 1943 Mr Foot, rejecting another proposed pro-Jewish broadcast, makes a comment which reveals as much as anything about the place of Jews in the BBC's prevailing world view. He said the broadcast 'would be only likely to make matters worse, since the anti-Semites would demand the right to reply, which would be difficult to refuse.'

At the very end of the war, Richard Dimbleby made his historic broadcasts from the concentration camp at Belsen. In the light of the BBC's wartime policy, it comes as no surprise that these broadcasts mention only in passing the Jewish identity of victims, or that Belsen's gas chambers and the sheer numbers of its dead so shocked the BBC newsroom that they refused to use Dimbleby's reports until they had seen them confirmed in newspapers.

Document: 'The Unspeakable Atrocity' is on Radio 4 at 7.20pm on Thursday.

(Photographs omitted)

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