July 10, 2010
Nothing much ever changes in Blighty.
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
Sunday, 22 August 1993
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.'
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