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Section: Responses to the Holocaust

How did Great Britain respond?

Adolf Hitler greets Neville Chamberlain on his arrival in Munich, 29 September 1938
Adolf Hitler greets Neville Chamberlain on his arrival in Munich, 29 September 1938 © 2011 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

From the Nazi rise to power through to the outbreak of war, Great Britain had access to information and evidence about the Nazi’s actions and policies. However, there was very little protest from the British government. This political and diplomatic weakness encouraged Hitler to continue his brutal policies against the Jews and his political enemies. Hitler was also initially able to develop his policy of expansion across Europe, with little official reaction from Great Britain.

An extreme, but significant, minority within Great Britain actually supported the Nazis. With the outbreak of war their actions were banned and their organisation outlawed.

Not everyone in Great Britain stood by and watched. Some Jewish and non-Jewish individuals and groups took part in campaigns against the Nazi policies, whilst others sought to provide a refuge for victims of Nazi oppression. Many lives were saved as a result of their actions.

Pre-war British government responses

The brutality, horror and slaughter of the First World War meant governments were terrified of another war. Consequently, the British response to Nazism was mixed. Even though the British government and the public were well informed about the persecution of Jews and political opponents, there was very little protest.

The 1930s were a period of economic recession and unemployment. Resources were scarce and most politicians did not wish to spend money on armaments. This meant that Britain was not ready for war.

Communism was considered by many as a greater threat than Nazism. Many admired Hitler’s strong stand against the Soviet Union.

On 13 March 1938 German troops marched into Austria. Great Britain did nothing. That same year Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain abandoned Britain’s ally Czechoslovakia. Hitler was allowed to annex the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia without British intervention.

This weakness spurred Hitler on to occupy the whole of Czechoslovakia on 19 March 1939, with little official reaction from Great Britain.

The Evian Conference of July 1938 had shown the Nazis that the democracies would not interfere in Germany’s internal policies towards the Jews. The Nazis introduced antisemitic policies wherever they conquered and extended their reign of terror against the Jews.

Hitler’s conquests led some British government ministers to realise that appeasing the Nazis would not work, as Hitler would never be satisfied and would always want more.

On 23 August 1939, the western world was shocked by a pact between the two traditional enemies, Germany and the Soviet Union. A secret deal was concluded: the Germans would invade Poland from the West, the Soviets from the East. On 1 September 1939 the German army marched into Poland.

This time Britain stood firm with her ally Poland and declared war on Germany. Not long after having conquered Poland, Hitler turned westwards and took much of Europe.

Certain members of the British government still hoped for peace with Hitler. It was not until Winston Churchill became Prime Minister, in May 1940, that the government became determined to defeat the Nazis.

British Jewish responses

Jewish child refugees entering Britain as part of the Kindertransport.
Jewish child refugees entering Britain as part of the Kindertransport. © 2011 Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority.

British Jews were divided in their response to Nazism. Left-wing Jewish activists in the East End of London led demonstrations and asked for a boycott of German goods. The Jewish leadership in Britain rejected this request for an official boycott, however, because they thought it would increase antisemitic attacks in Germany.

Up until 1941 Hitler was prepared to force Jews out of Germany. But the economic recession of the 1920s and 1930s had led to strict controls on numbers of refugees being allowed into Britain. Consequently, it was difficult for Jews escaping Nazi persecution to enter Great Britain. From 1933 to 1938 there were calls within parliament to ease the restrictions on the immigration of German Jewish refugees. These were ultimately rejected.

Nevertheless, many Britons, both Jewish and non-Jewish, wanted to help solve the plight of the German Jews. In March 1933 the German-Jewish Refugee Council (JRC) was established. The JRC, along with the Board of Deputies and Anglo-Jewish Association, lobbied the government to ease restrictions. They pledged that none of the refugees would be a financial burden on the state. Accommodation would either be paid for or provided.

Other refugee relief and aid committees were set up throughout Britain. This support enabled about 75,000 Jewish refugees to enter Britain between 1933 and 1939, over 10,000 of whom were children.

The Kindertransport

Kristallnacht

In the wake of the Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933, the Nazis embarked on a range of antisemitic policies and actions. German Jews were persecuted in many ways, resulting in their lives being heavily restricted.

From 1933 a steady stream of Jewish families began to leave Germany for neighbouring countries, the UK and the United States. However, the 32 delegates present at the Evian conference, held during the summer of 1938, offered very little practical help.

Beginning in August 1938 the Nazis rounded up 60,000 Jews and expelled them over the Polish border. The son of one of the expelled families was studying in Paris. On 7 November 1938 he went to the German Embassy and shot a diplomat. On 9 November the diplomat died.

The Nazi leadership used this as an excuse to begin a national press campaign against the German Jews. Nazi thugs attacked Jews, smashed up Jewish-owned buildings and daubed the Star of David on them.

On the afternoon of 9 November 1938 Joseph Goebbels gave a speech attacking the Jews and calling for an organised attack against them. Across Germany and Austria the SA were used to mount further attacks against synagogues and Jewish owned shops and homes. Hundreds of Jews were injured and 91 were killed. The night became known as ‘Kristallnacht’ or ‘The night of the broken glass’.

Over the next months and weeks 30,000 Jewish males over the age of 14 were taken away to prisons and concentration camps. Germany and Austria were then extremely dangerous places for Jews to live and many sought to leave by any means possible.

The relief effort

Reacting to public opinion, some countries allowed limited immigration of Jews, but in the main a tight quota system was enforced. In Great Britain the Central British Fund for German Jewry and other relief organisations lobbied the British government to allow German and Austrian Jews into the country. The UK government agreed to allow an unspecified number of Jewish children between the ages of two and seventeen years to enter the country. However, it was on the condition that they should not be a burden on the state.

On 2 December 1938 the first 200 children assembled in Berlin to begin their journey. Over the following nine months 10,000 unaccompanied, mainly Jewish, children travelled to safety in the UK. We now know this rescue mission as the ‘kindertransport’.

The children had been allowed to pack a small suitcase containing clothes and their cherished possessions. Their journey saw the children travel by train across Germany, through Holland and on to the Hook of Holland. From there they travelled by boat across the English Channel to Harwich in England.

Arriving in Harwich the children had arrived in a strange new world. Most couldn’t speak the language and had no idea who was going to care for them. Many of the younger children travelled on to Liverpool Street Station in London. There they met their volunteer foster parents for the first time. The older children tended to be housed in hostels.

Ruth talks about the Kindertransport

Ruth was born in 1935 in Berlin, Germany to a Jewish father and a Christian mother. As a result, the Nazis classed Ruth as Jewish.

After Kristallnacht on 9 November 1938 the situation for Jewish families across Germany became increasingly dangerous. Ruth’s family decided that she and her brother, Martin, should be sent to Britain on the kindertransport.

In this video clip Ruth explains what happened on her way to the kindertransport.

Please note that the lead in may take a few moments to allow the video to begin.

Ruth on arriving in England

Ruth’s journey to England was a little different than most of the kindertransportees. Watch this video to find out why.

Please note that the lead in may take a few moments to allow the video to begin.

Ruth on being a German girl in England

In this video clip, Ruth talks about what it was like for a young German child arriving in England in 1939.

Please note that the lead in may take a few moments to allow the video to begin.

Ruth’s first foster family

In this video clip from her interview Ruth talks about what it was like for a young German child arriving at the home of her first foster family during 1939.

Please note that the lead in may take a few moments to allow the video to begin.

Ruth’s second foster family

Ruth’s first foster family placement was far from ideal. Watch this clip to find out what happened when she arrived at the home of her second foster family.

Please note that the lead in may take a few moments to allow the video to begin.

Animals have a special place in Ruth’s life

Ruth’s first foster family placement was far from ideal, her second one was a happy time, but didn’t last for long. In this short clip Ruth talks about the animals she looked after, and also the happiness she experienced, whilst she was living with her third foster family.

Please note that the lead in may take a few moments to allow the video to begin.

The British Union of Fascists

The British Union of Fascists (BUF) was created in October 1932 by Sir Oswald Mosley. He modelled the BUF on the National Fascist Party in Italy. His followers wore black uniforms and were called the Black Shirts.

The BUF was anti-communist and Anti-democratic. At its height it had 50,000 members. By 1935 the BUF was very friendly to the Nazi party.

The BUF’s racist policies often led to serious and violent conflicts within Great Britain. For example, the Battle of Cable Street which took place in October 1936, when over 2,000 anti-fascists prevented Mosley and his followers marching through London’s East End. Click here to view a newsreel account of the Battle of Cable Street. (The commentator of the film remarks that there were over 2,000 anti-fascists opposing the BUF. Estimates of the numbers present that day range from 50,000 to 250,000. The real number of people opposing the BUF may have filled Wembley Stadium three times over.)

In 1936 the Government passed the Public Order Act which banned the use of private uniforms and required police consent for political marches. In May 1940 the government banned the BUF. Mosley, along with his followers, was interned.

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British Jewish responses

British Jewish responses