- Churchill, Winston Spencer
- (1874–1965)When Winston Churchill became prime minister of Great Britain in May 1940, he delegated the responsibility for creating a rescue policy for the Jews to the Foreign Office. Early on in the war, the Foreign Office was guided by three policy principles in regard to the Jews trapped in Nazi-occupied Europe: no aid to the Jews that might involve breaking the economic blockade that Britain imposed on the European continent; no negotiations that would lead to a separate peace or to peace terms with the Nazis other than the unconditional surrender of Germany; and no large-scale movement of Jews out of Europe, either to Palestine or to Britain or to its colonies. In essence, the Foreign Office was determined not to single out the Jews of Europe for any special rescue measures. They justified their policy by contending that the best relief for the Jews of Europe was for the Allies to win the war as quickly as possible. Although aware of the genocidal intentions of the Nazis, the policy refused to single out the Jews from other groups suffering at the hands of the Nazis lest it give credence to Nazi propaganda and other anti-Semites that the war was being waged in behalf of the Jews. It was within these constraints that Churchill’s response to the Holocaust has to be understood. Within the prescribed limitations, however, there were occasions when Churchill opposed the policy preventing Jewish refugees from reaching Palestine when, at one point, he informed the Colonial office that the government had “to be guided by sentiments of humanity towards those fleeing from the cruelest forms of persecution.” On a separate occasion when Churchill was alerted to the imminent deportation to Mauritius of 793 illegal Jewish refugees intercepted off Palestine, he immediately instructed his officials to allow them to remain there. But his interventions were infrequent and were the exception to the policy, as Great Britain continued to rigorously enforce the White Paper of 1939.News of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, with the accompanied murder of thousands of Jews, reached Churchill through his intelligence services, and he responded with a strong reference to these killings in a radio broadcast to his countrymen on 14 November 1941. When the deportations from France to Auschwitz began in the summer of 1942 (their destination was unknown at the time), and reports reached Churchill that 4,000 Jewish children had been deported, he castigated the Nazi regime in the House of Commons as “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.”Thus, within the restraints of British policy, Churchill was determined to help those Jews who could get out of Europe to be allowed a safe haven. As Churchill biographer Martin Gilbert records, learning in December 1942 of the successful rescue of 4,500 Jewish children and 50 accompanying adults from the Balkans, a plan which he himself had earlier approved, Churchill 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.”In seeking a means of halting German atrocities, Churchill told his War Cabinet that issuing a warning to the Germans from Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union “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, and . . . 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 . . . would have a salutary effect on their further actions.” On 1 November 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 surviving Jewish refugees, in March 1944, Churchill bypassed the prewar 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. It was also in March 1944 that Churchill addressed the matter of German-occupied Hungary, where three quarters of a million Hungarian Jews were at risk. According to Gilbert, Churchill asked Marshall Tito to protect any Jews who escaped from Hungary to partisan-held Yugoslavia.That July, Jewish leaders brought Churchill a horrific account of Auschwitz. It had been smuggled out by two escapees and revealed for the first time the lethal use of the gas chambers. 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 issuing protective documents that would allow Jews safe passage to leave Hungary. Reading in July 1944 of 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 civilized 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.”The record indicates that from the first to the last day of the war, the fate of the Jews was something to which Churchill took immediate and positive action whenever he was asked to do so. However, the defeat of Nazi Germany was his top priority, and so despite his sympathy for the plight of European Jewry, Churchill rarely deviated from the policies that would have rescued large numbers of Jews, such as emphatically urging the revocation of the White Paper of 1939 that would have allowed hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees a permanent sanctuary.
Historical dictionary of the Holocaust. Jack R. Fischel. 2014.