Did Britain do enough to help the Jews?

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Eleanor Rathbone

Eleanor Rathbone spoke out against the antisemitic policies of the Nazis, and also against Britain’s policy of appeasement. 



  • Why did Britain attempt to appease Hitler?


  • How might Britain’s failure to respond to the Nazis have encouraged Hitler?


  • Why might the British government have believed that defeating the Nazis was the best way to save Jewish lives?


  • Campaigners like Eleanor Rathbone were extremely vocal in demanding for the rescue of Jews from Nazi controlled Europe. Why might the British government have refused to act?


  • Did Britain do enough to help the Jews?


  • What else could the British government have done to help the Jews of Europe?


Before World War Two, the British government did little to oppose the Nazis’ anti-Semitic policies.

In the late 1930s Britain was not ready for war. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain followed a policy of appeasement. Hitler realised that Britain and the other democracies would not interfere with Germany’s internal policies towards the Jews. Eventually, Hitler’s conquests led some British ministers to realise that appeasing the Nazis was not working.

However, once the German army had marched into Poland Britain finally stood firm and declared war on Germany. British troops did nothing to oppose the Nazis in Poland. It was not until Winston Churchill became Prime Minister, in May 1940, that the British people were determined to defeat the Nazis. Despite Churchill having knowledge of atrocities committed by the Nazis as early as 1941, the government’s main war effort was to Germany.

Enemy aliens

After the outbreak of war, the British government banned all immigration from Nazi-occupied territories. Even adult Jewish refugees, who had previously arrived from countries at war with Britain, were now considered enemy aliens. Those who had managed to get into the country were put into camps in places such as the Isle of Man and Sandwich, Kent. 

Until the outbreak of World War Two, the British press had full access to the events in Nazi Germany, which they reported. The American press had access until December 1941 when Germany declared war on America.

Pleas of help

By December 1942 the Allied governments had built up a dossier of evidence of Nazi atrocities. Yet, despite knowledge of the ‘Final Solution’ and pleas of help, there was no real effort by the allies to rescue the Jews of Europe. 

The allies argued that they did not have the capacity to conduct accurate air raids on Nazi camps. They felt that a speedy victory in the war was the best method to put a stop to the Nazi atrocities and to save the Jews.

Eleanor Rathbone

Feminist Eleanor Rathbone, elected to parliament as an independent MP in 1929, had long campaigned against injustice. During the 1930s she was one of very few MPs, along with Churchill, who spoke out against the antisemitic policies of the Nazis. She was also violently against appeasement. 

During the war, as news of the Holocaust was revealed, Rathbone demanded that the British government take action. During 1943, in answer to a lack of response from the British government she set up ‘The National Committee for the Rescue from Nazi Terror’. Despite the organisation’s campaigns the government refused to act to save the Jews of Europe.