Churchill and the Holocaust

By Sir Martin Gilbert


Winston Churchill 

The Allied governments and their leaders have often been accused of failing to respond quickly enough to Nazi persecution of the Jews. In this article, Martin Gilbert focusses on the attempts made by Winston Churchill to respond to the crisis, both in private and as Britain's Prime Minister

Unspeakable evils

From the start of the persecution of the Jews in Germany, Churchill took the Jewish side of supporting a boycott of German goods, writing in 1937 of 'a perfectly legitimate use of their influence throughout the world to bring pressure, economic and financial, to bear upon the governments which persecute them'. After he became Prime Minister in 1940, Churchill opposed the prevention of Jewish refugees reaching Palestine, telling the Colonial office that the government had 'to be guided by sentiments of humanity towards those fleeing from the cruellest forms of persecution'. When his son Randolph drew his attention to the imminent deportation to Mauritius of 793 illegal refugees intercepted off Palestine, he immediately instructed his officials to allow them to remain there.

The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 was the start of the Holocaust as we know it. Messages reaching Churchill through his intelligence services told of the murder, in groups, of thousands of Jews. He made powerful reference to these killings when he broadcast on November 14 1941:

'None has suffered more cruelly than the Jew the unspeakable evils wrought upon the bodies and spirits of men by Hitler and his vile regime. The Jew bore the brunt of the Nazi's first onslaught upon the citadels of freedom and human dignity. He has borne and continued to bear a burden that might have seen beyond endurance. He has not allowed it to break his spirit; he has never lost the will to resist. Assuredly in the day of victory the Jew's suffering and his part in the struggle will not be forgotten.'

'... 4000 Jewish children had been deported.'

The deportations from France to Auschwitz began in the summer of 1942. Their destination was unknown at the time, but the fact that the deportations were taking place was reported from Paris, The Times reporting in September that 4000 Jewish children had been deported. On the next day Churchill, speaking about the Nazi regime in the House of Commons, castigated:

'... the most bestial, the most squalid and the most senseless of all their offences, namely, the mass deportation of Jews from France, with the pitiful horrors attendant upon the calculated and final scattering of families. This tragedy fills me with astonishment as well as with indignation, and it illustrates as nothing else can the utter degradation of the Nazi nature and theme, and degradation of all who lend themselves to its unnatural and perverted passions.'

The Moscow Declaration

Photograph showing US President Roosevelt sitting down

President Roosevelt

Churchill was vigilant in trying to help those Jews who could get out of Europe to be allowed a safe haven. Learning in December 1942 of the successful rescue of 4500 Jewish children and 50 accompanying adults from the Balkans, a plan which he himself had earlier approved, he wrote 'Bravo!' In February 1943, while he was in Algiers, Churchill discovered that the Vichy laws against Algerian Jews were still in force there. He insisted they be repealed. In April 1943 he opposed the Spanish closure of the French frontier to Jewish refugees, telling the Spanish ambassador that if his government:

'... went to the length of preventing these unfortunate people seeking safety from the horrors of Nazi domination, and if they went farther and committed the offence of actually handing them back to the German authorities, that was a thing which could never be forgotten and would poison the relations between the Spanish and British peoples'.

At the Bermuda Conference on Refugees in May 1943 it was proposed to allow all Jewish refugees who reached Spain to cross to Allied-controlled North Africa. When the Americans opposed this, Churchill told Roosevelt:

'Our immediate facilities for helping the victims of Hitler's anti-Jewish drive are so limited at present that the opening of the small camp proposed for the purpose of removing some of them to safety seems all the more incumbent on us.'

Churchill sought a means of halting German atrocities. It might, he told the War Cabinet, have a 'salutary effect' on the Germans if Britain, America and the Soviet Union announced, "that a number of German officers or members of the Nazi Party, equal to those put to death by the Germans in the various countries, would be returned to those countries after the war for judgement". All those responsible for, or having taken a consenting part 'in atrocities, massacres and executions' were to be sent back to the countries 'in which their abominable deeds were done in order that they might be judged and punished according to the laws of those liberated countries'.

'The Allies would pursue the ranks of the guilty to the uttermost ends of the earth.'

On November 1 1943 the Allies issued the Moscow Declaration, which followed almost exactly the wording of Churchill's proposal. The Allies would pursue 'the ranks of the guilty to the uttermost ends of the earth' and would deliver them to their accusers 'in order that justice may be done'.

To help refugees, in March 1944 Churchill by-passed the pre-war British government's restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine. The new rules made it possible for any Jewish refugee who reached Istanbul to be sent on by train to Palestine, irrespective of the quota. Thousands of Jews benefited by this agreement.

The biggest outcry

In March 1944 German troops occupied Hungary. Three quarters of a million Hungarian Jews were at risk. Churchill asked Marshall Tito to protect any Jews who escaped Hungary to partisan-held Yugoslavia. That July, Jewish leaders brought Churchill an horrific account of Auschwitz. It had been smuggled out by two escapees, and revealed for the first time the nature of the gas chambers there. Asked to bomb the railway lines to Auschwitz, Churchill instructed Eden: 'Get anything out of the Air Force you can, and invoke me if necessary.' A few days later, when it was learned that the deportations from Hungary had stopped, the Jewish request changed from bombing to protective documents. This too Churchill supported.

'... this is the most horrible crime ever committed ...'

With regard to how the British should react to a Jewish appeal for publicity of the atrocities, Churchill replied: 'I am entirely in accord with making the biggest outcry possible.' This too was done.

Reading in July 1944 the first detailed account of Auschwitz, Churchill wrote:

'There is no doubt this is the 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.'

In London, Churchill continued to press the War Office to agree to an all-Jewish military force to join the Allied armies, writing on July 26: 'I like the idea of the Jews trying to get the murderers of their fellow countrymen in Central Europe, and I think it would give a great deal of satisfaction to the United States.'

In October 1944, as further news about the killings at Auschwitz reached the West, the Polish government in exile asked for an official protest. The foreign Office was reluctant to respond, but Churchill was not. 'Surely,' he wrote, 'publicity given about this might have a chance of saving the multitudes concerned.'

Liberation of the camps

Photograph showing Dauchau prisoners greeting their liberators

Dachau prisoners cheer the liberating US Army

On April 18 1945 General Eisenhower telephoned Churchill about the entry of his troops into a number of concentration camps in Western and Central Germany. That afternoon Churchill told the House of Commons of the 'horror' felt by the government at "the proofs of these frightful crimes now coming into view", and he added:

'The matter is of urgency, as of course, it is not possible to arrest the processes of decay in many cases. In view of this urgency, I have come to the conclusion that eight members of this House and two members of the House of Lords should form a Parliamentary Delegation and should travel out at once to the Supreme Headquarters, where General Eisenhower will make all necessary arrangements for their inspection of the scenes, whether in American or British sectors.'

'People are profoundly shocked here,' Churchill telegraphed to Eisenhower that evening.

From the first to the last day of the war, the fate of the Jews was something on which Churchill took immediate and positive action whenever he was asked to do so. In addition, in 1940 he refused to contemplate making peace with Hitler, and for the next four years used every fibre of his being to devise means of defeating Hitler. Even when the Gestapo system was in the ascendant over much of Europe, at the very time when most Jews were being murdered, Churchill had faith that it would one day be possible to defeat Nazism altogether. This faith communicated itself to the ghettos and was itself a potent factor for morale behind German lines.