How did Britain respond to the persecution of European Jews and the Holocaust?

As the persecution of European Jews evolved under the Nazis and the Holocaust took affect, Britain’s response to the crisis took a number of different forms. But how significant was this response? And why did Britain’s policy on the Holocaust shift over time?

Key Word:
Policy = A set of actions a government wants to take in order to deal with something.

Some people believe that the British government were unaware of the persecution of European Jews in the 1930s and 1940s, or that Britain went to war with Nazi Germany in an effort to save European Jews. Neither of these are true. The British government and the press (newspapers) had a good understanding of the persecution and killing of Jews by the Nazis, but this was not the reason why Britain declared war on Nazi Germany.

Britain’s policy towards the persecution of Jews by Nazi Germany was complicated, and shifted over time as various events unfolded. This reading will help you to understand: (1) what Britain’s policy for Europe Jews was, and (2) how significant this was for bringing persecution to an end.

The British response to Jewish persecution before the Second World War

When Hitler came to power in 1933, the British government were concerned, but chose to negotiate with Hitler about any issues they had instead of challenging his rule. Britain did not want to enter another war, and considered this the best way to deal with Hitler. As Hitler began stripping away the rights of German Jews throughout the 1930s, British politicians frequently spoke of their sadness of the situation, but did not take any action against Hitler for it.

The first time Britain took any action to help the plight of European Jews followed Kristallnacht in November 1938. The British government were initially unwilling to help, but relief organisations put pressure on the government to change their policy.

Britain allowed almost 10,000 Jewish children to come to Britain from Germany and Austria as a response to Kristallnacht. This effort became known as Kindertransport, and was organised by refugee committees, and not the government. Parents were not allowed to travel with their children, and payment for the travel was needed upfront. When they arrived in Britain, these children were paired with foster families. The plan was to send these children back to their parents once the persecution ended. This provided substantial help to many, but only helped a fraction of those who needed assistance.

This video shows the experience of Ruth Schwiening, who came to England on the Kindertransport

Many Jews under Nazi control were desperate to move to safety. Many wished to move to Palestine. This was where Judaism began and was the holiest place for Jews. However Palestine was under British control, and the British government had tight restrictions on the number of Jews that could enter the country to ensure no unrest in the region occurred. These rules were not relaxed throughout the War, forcing many to remain under Nazi control.

The response following the outbreak of WWII

When the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, Britain demanded that the Nazis withdraw their troops. When the Nazis failed to respond to Britain’s demands, Britain declared war on Nazi Germany.

As the Holocaust began taking affect, the British government began to gather intelligence that confirmed Jews were being systematically killed by the Nazis. In the summer of 1941, British spies decoded German radio messages that confirmed that millions of Jews were being shot in the USSR by the Nazis. In August 1942, the British government received a report, known as the Reigner Telegram, that proved the Nazis had a plan to kill every European Jew.

[We have] received alarming report stating that… a plan has been discussed [by Hitler]… to which all Jews in countries occupied or controlled by Germany numbering 3 1/2 to 4 millions should… be at one blow exterminated. […]

Ways of execution are still being discussed including the use of prussic acid. […] Our informant is reported to have close connexions with the highest German authorities, and his reports are generally reliable.

An extract from the Reigner Telegram, that was shared with the British government.

After enormous pressure by many Jewish groups in America and Western Europe, officials from Britain and the USA met at what became known as the Bermuda Conference in 1943 to discuss a response to the ongoing Holocaust. The allies could not agree on a solution, noting that using the army to help Jews whilst the War was ongoing would waste time and money. Britain was also unwilling to allow more Jews into Palestine. The allies agreed that the best way to help Jews in Europe was to win WWII as quickly as possible. The Bermuda Conference did nothing to save Jews from extermination.

Leaders from the allied powers meet in Bermuda in 1943 to discuss the plight of Jews in Europe.

As the War came to a close in 1945, British troops began to liberate (free) Jews from concentration camps. The discovery of Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp in Northern Germany, shocked many British soldiers. Details of the conditions were shared with the British public via radio, film and newspaper reports.

A British soldier looks on at the memorial erected after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen

Following the War, hundreds of thousands of Jews were liberated from death camps and concentration camps. These people had no money or possessions, and could not return to their old lives. The British government refused to allow a mass immigration of Jewish survivors into Britain or its colonies. Some were able to enter if they were relatives of people living in Britain. All others were refused entry.

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