List of Jewish populations by country used at the Wannsee Conference. On January 20, 1942, 15 high-ranking Nazi Party and German government officials gathered in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to discuss and coordinate the implementation of the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question." This was the code name for the systematic extermination of the European Jews. (Wikimedia Commons)

Could Britain have done more to help the Jews in the Second World War?

From the time Hitler came to power in 1933 until the end of the Second World War the plight of the Jews in Germany, and across much of Europe was to become at least one of pain and suffering and at most one ending in death. The event we know as the Holocaust was conducted within this time and can be well summed up by the definition provided by the Imperial War Museum in London:

 ‘Under the cover of the Second World War, for the sake of their “new order,” the Nazis sought to destroy all the Jews of Europe. For the first time in history, industrial methods were used for the mass extermination of a whole people. Six million were murdered, including 1,500,000 children.

This event is called the Holocaust

Nazis enslaved and murdered millions of others as well. Gypsies, people with physical and mental disabilities, Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, trade unionists, political opponents, prisoners of conscience, homosexuals, and others were killed in vast numbers.’

What caused the Holocaust?

Anti-Judaism had been a problem across all of Europe for centuries. This led to what became known as the ‘Jewish Question’ – how to live with a minority people who do not fully assimilate into society but maintain some of their customs?

By the nineteenth century, this anti-Judaism had evolved to become known as antisemitism, a term that was popularised in Germany. So-called ‘race scientists’ manipulated the work of Charles Darwin to surmise that humans had evolved into different races, with some more superior to others. This flawed science led to ideological suggestions that the Jews were a separate and inferior ‘race’ who would be used as a scapegoat for all sorts of undesirable events, from the rise of Communism to the Wall Street Crash and, in Germany, the loss of the First World War.

What was happening in Germany?

From the moment Hitler took control of Germany he began a process that would ultimately lead to the Holocaust. Initially this entailed the marginalisation of Jews in German society, forcing them out of public sector jobs, and stigmatising Jews in private business. This developed into a range of laws that removed German Jews from civic society, restricted their access to not only jobs, but municipal spaces such as parks and swimming pools. Jews were not allowed to enter relationships with non-Jews, or to employ non-Jews. The rights of German Jews were curtailed to the extent of even taking their citizenship from them, encouraging emigration out of the country. With the onset of the Second World War, the policy of enforced migration was replaced by a clearer territorial approach of moving Jews to huge reservations in the East. However, after the invasion of Russia, Nazi officials began to organise and implement a systematic programme to exterminate all the Jews in German-occupied Europe. The term ‘final solution’ was used by Nazi officials as a euphemism: a way of veiling the truth about their ‘answer’ to the ‘Jewish Question’. But from 1933 onwards the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany had become apparent in Britain and the rest of the world through news reports and the testimony of those who had fled the country.

Jews forced to walk with the Star of David during Kristallnacht. Often referred to as the ‘Night of Broken Glass’, this refers to the violent, coordinated attacks on Jews that took place throughout the Reich on November 9th and 10th, 1938. (Wikimedia Commons)

What was happening in Britain?

In the UK the Jewish question posed subtly different issues. Since Palestine was under British control following the First World War, the question was more related to the rights of Jews to settle in their ancestral homeland. As part of the solution to this, Britain (with strong US backing) had committed to give Jewish people an entitlement to migrate to Palestine through the 1917 Balfour Declaration (later incorporated into the Sevres Peace Treaty of 1920), stating ‘His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’.

Churchill had played a key part in the formation of British policy in this area and in 1939, as the Second World War was fast approaching, he maintained his commitment to ‘world Jewry’ and the Balfour declaration to enable their rights to be retained. Martin Gilbert, the historian and Churchill biographer, recounted from a close friend of Churchill that he was considered, by many of his contemporaries, to be ‘too fond of the Jews.’ This was regarded as a fault by some of his fellow cabinet members. Churchill’s support and understanding for the Jews was a key element in his position from the moment Hitler took power in Germany. Churchill was keen to speak publically about the racial aspect of Nazism and express his grave concern for the Jews of Germany and beyond. He remained in close personal contact with senior members within the Zionist movement in Britain and paid personal attention to the plight of the Jews of Europe throughout the war. Once war broke out and Churchill became Prime Minister, he received information and reports about the atrocities of the Holocaust. British Intelligence forces were also monitoring the Germans’ secret messages and uncovering the truth behind the ‘final solution’. There are complex issues to consider. Could more have been done to prevent the Holocaust? How could the Allies tackle the Holocaust within the context of the war? There are no simple answers to these questions.

Investigation page

The sources

Notes for teachers